The rise of brand journalism

The rise of native advertising, and what some are calling “brand journalism,” has triggered a wave of revulsion and horror in media circles. A feature-length piece in the Financial Times is just the latest in a series of such pieces bemoaning the fact that PR people outnumber journalists 4 to 1, and companies are publishing their own newspapers. There’s no question the web has allowed brands to become media entities — so what should traditional media do about it?

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The Tech Intellectuals

Technology intellectuals work in an attention economy. They succeed if they attract enough attention to themselves and their message that they can make a living from it. It’s not an easy thing to do: Most aspiring technology intellectuals fail, whether because of bad luck (academic research shows that the market for attention is highly chancy) or because the relevant audiences aren’t interested in hearing what they have to say.

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The Real Netflix Revolution Is Data

This profile of Ted Sarandos gently points out one of the extraordinary differences between Netflix and old TV.

Sarandos studied Netflix data to determine how many subscribers watched political dramas such as Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” or the BBC’s original 1990 “House of Cards.” He identified the die-hard fans of the director’s films and the series’ proposed star, Kevin Spacey.

On the strength of that projected audience, Beau Willimon’s script and Fincher’s track record, Sarandos walked into the director’s West Hollywood offices with a groundbreaking proposition: Netflix would commit to not one but two full seasons at a cost of $100 million.

Netflix has the most valuable insight into TV viewing behaviour of anyone in the industry. While broadcasters are chasing Nielsen ratings, online services know exactly what their viewers watch and and want to watch.

Ashton Kutcher’s Steve Jobs

The great failing of this film is the same failing as with Walter Isaacson’s book: something happened during Steve’s NeXT years (which occupy less than a 60 seconds of this 122 minute film) that turned Jobs from a brat into a leader, but they don’t bother to cover that. In his later years Steve still wasn’t an easy guy to know but he was an easier guy to know. His gut for product was still good but his positions were more considered and thought out. He inspired workers without trying so much to dominate or hypnotize them.

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Repudiating Scientism

Scientism is the idea that only science is the proper mode of human thought, and in particular, a blinkered, narrow notion that every human advance is the product of scientific, rational, empirical thinking. Much as I love science, and am personally a committed practitioner who also has a hard time shaking myself out of this path (I find scientific thinking very natural), I’ve got enough breadth in my education and current experience to recognize that there are other ways of progressing.

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Our Orgastic Future

In any human boy’s development, there comes a moment when he jokes with his friends about how weird it would be if instead of shaking hands, we just walked up to one another and handily rubbed each other’s crotches. Everybody laughs—that’s crazy. But that’s essentially what the bonobos do. Human society is replete with displays of near intimacy and suggestive touching. We have developed customs of opposite-sex and same-sex hugging and kissing, handshaking, and back patting. And all of them serve as tokens of affection, perhaps with some subtle intimation that the encounter might develop into something else. Bonobos essentially went there and then kept going. On the long arc of sexual development as primate culture, maybe we’re the missing link on the way to bonobos.

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Climate Science and the Scientific Method

What strikes me the most about these “big” sciences is the language and tone typically used to communicate the results to the public. Where scientists in mundane fields express their conclusions cautiously, emphasizing that results and conclusions are tentative and always subject to challenge and revision, climate scientists seem to view themselves as Brave Crusaders for Truth, striking down “Deniers” (who must be funded by the oil industry or some other evil group). They shout that we “know” this or that about climate change, what the planet will be like in 5,000 years, etc. You hardly ever hear other scientists talk like this, or act as if skeptics are necessarily prejudiced and irrational.

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Overly Honest Social Science?

Good social scientific practice should be about acknowledging the weaknesses of the methods used: not to reward sloppiness, but to highlight what really goes on; to reassure novice researchers that real world research often is messy; or to improve on current methods and find ways to do things better. Better in this case does not necessarily mean less subjective, but it does mean more transparent, and usually more rigorous. The publication of mistakes is a necessary part of this process. Too often in both natural and social science, researchers face pressure to use established procedures simply to ensure results that work and appear ‘clean’ and uncontroversial, rather than experimenting with approaches that might lead to better and more interesting data.

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Everybody’s Favourite Topic

[R]esults suggest that self-disclosure—revealing personal information to others—produces the highest level of activation in neural regions associated with motivation and reward, but that introspection—thinking or talking about the self, in the absence of an audience—also produces a noticeable surge of neural activity in these regions. Talking about the self is intrinsically rewarding, even if no one is listening.

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Isaiah Berlin’s Letters

Isaiah Berlin was one of the great public intellectuals of the 20th century, but he did his best to sabotage his legacy. While he delivered plenty of high-profile public lectures and found fame broadcasting on BBC radio, when it came to getting words down on paper he was a fanatical procrastinator. His friends were frustrated by the way he prioritised his hectic social calendar above real work. They blamed his appetite for gossip and intrigue for his failure to get books out.

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