Cutting out the Middleman

One of the side effects of the new web is greatly increased disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman.  It seems that everywhere you look, entire industries are being turned upside down because the web makes it so easy for people to completely bypass the traditional “middlemen” that we all used to rely on so heavily.  Musicians are bypassing record labels and releasing their music directly to their fans.  Authors are bypassing publishers and using services like to self publish. Homebuyers often know just as much about the real estate markets as the agents.  Ordinary people can buy and sell shares without the need to go though expensive stockbrokers.  In all of these processes (and many others like them) unless the middlemen add real value along the way, they face eventual extinction.  Why would you continue to pay someone to do something that you can just as easily do yourself?

This disintermediation seems to be obvious in three main areas… creation, distribution and promotion.

When it comes to creation, there are plenty of software tools now available that allow average people to create content in ways that were simply not even remotely possible 20, 10, even 5 years ago.  When I think back to some of the image manipulation processes that I had to master back in art school – I’m thinking of something like doing a four-colour separation of a photographic image – it was hugely expensive, time consuming and required highly specialised equipment.  Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop.

Same thing with making music.  Back in my younger years I played bass in a band, and to get studio time to even record a simple demo tape was horrendously expensive – hundreds of dollars an hour. The tape machines required to do multi track recording were huge beasts of things that cost many thousands of dollars to buy.  Today, I could get just as good quality using GarageBand, a program that comes free on every Macintosh computer.

Think about the changes involved in creating content for the web… not so long ago you needed a funny hat with a propeller on it just to make a website.  You needed to know about html coding, javascript, FTP servers, file types and naming conventions, plus a whole lot of other techno-geekery if you had any hope of putting a decent website online.  It was tricky, and the average person really struggled to do it.  But look what the new web, the read-write web, web 2.0 – call it what you will – has done to this process.  Blogs and wikis have changed things so dramatically that your 75 year old mum can now run a website using some free tool like Blogger or WordPress.  No need to hire an expensive web designer, or buy a lot of expensive gear.  Just sign up for a free account, click edit and start creating stuff. It’s a total turnaround.

The creation of nearly all media has undergone these same basic shifts.  Photographs, music, video, animations, text, page layout…  you name it, and the tools to produce it have gone digital and had their costs reduced so far as to be virtually zero.  Not all that many years ago, I can remember paying someone about $70 to use a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to design an A4 certificate… these days you wouldn’t even consider paying someone to do that. I wonder what that person is doing to make money these days?  I doubt he is still able to charge $70 to knock up a simple A4 document! Why?  Because most people can now do this sort of thing for themselves.  If you have the willingness to learn how to make something, the tools you need to create it are probably available at almost no cost.  Barrier one gone.

The second aspect is one of distribution.  Once you make something, you need to get it to people.  You only need to look at what peer-to-peer music distribution is doing to traditional models of distributing music to see that these are fundamental changes in how these things will work now and in the future. When people can consume music by downloading it, whether legally through services like iTunes or Amazon, or illegally using BitTorrenting or through sites like Pirate Bay or Kazaa, they are bypassing the old model of stamping the music onto disks, packing them in cardboard and shipping them on trucks to shops where people have to go to get them. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.  When music is digital, nothing more than a bunch of binary bits, the notion of committing them to a piece of plastic called a CD and then distributing it by trucking it all over the country is quite ludicrous.  Binary bits are digital… it makes far more sense to push them across the Internet. You don’t need to put a CDs in the mail just to give your friend a copy of a song you want them to hear, just transfer it directly to them over the web. Expand that idea out to be a band who distributes their music over the web to thousands of fans, and things take on a whole new slant. In the process of doing this of course, we potentially bypass a whole lot of middlemen – record labels, music publishers, CD producers, trucking companies, etc – unless they see the changes happening around them and respond to them quickly, these middlemen will be left high and dry, expertly servicing a market that no longer exists.  The Internet is totally reshaping whole industries, removing the friction from processes that were once held together by chains of middlemen. Barrier two gone.

The last aspect is promotion.  Telling people about stuff.  Getting the word out.  Marketing.  There was a time not so long ago that PR people wrote press releases about new information in the hope that journalists would pick up stories and help spread them. The flow of media was controlled by middlemen – journalists, newspapers, radio and TV. We heard what they wanted to tell us about. Our information was managed so that we paid attention to what the middlemen wanted us to know about, not necessarily what we were interested in. If your interests were out on the long tail, you were on your own.  Not any more.  Social media, social networks, they have allowed individuals to connect and share and converse and spread ideas far more efficiently and far faster than ever before. “Getting the word out” about something no longer requires a highly paid PR expert to write a finely honed press release just to get attention… a 15 year old kid with a webcam can be the next viral sensation on YouTube, generating millions of views at no cost with no middlemen.  Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, blogs… these tools of the new web – tools of ordinary people – are reshaping and redefining the way we move messages around and how we share and inform each other. In many cases you don’t need middlemen to do this, just the right tools and a bit of strategy. Barrier three gone.

I got thinking about this as I booked my own flights and accommodation for a trip to San Francisco this week.  After visiting the airline websites, shopping for the best deals and booking myself a seat, I then forwarded the confirmation email to a service called TripIt, which parsed the email and generated an online itinerary for me. I forwarded on the confirmation emails from the hotels and car rentals and TripIt easily worked it all into a well structured itinerary, complete with estimated travel times, links to confirm check-in times, even Google maps giving me directions from airports to hotels.  I’m not a travel agent, but I apparently don’t need to be… there’s an app for that, as they say.  If I WAS a travel agent I’d be extremely concerned for my future, and desperately looking for other ways to add extra value to my middleman role.

The real point though, is thinking about how all of this applies to education.  So many other fields have been affected by this massive shift away from needing middlemen – travel, music, publishing, public relations, product distribution, you name it.  But what about education?  Is there such a thing as educational middlemen?  If so, who are they? How will they add value in the future? How is the Internet likely to reshape the world of education?  Are educators really susceptible to the same shifts and changes that nearly every other industry is experiencing, or are we somehow different? Immune?  I doubt it.

Just like a travel agent who suddenly realises that she has hardly any clients booking flights through her, or the book publisher who finds that the last 10 bestsellers were all self published,  at what point will educators suddenly realise that the world has seriously shifted and the old rules that once worked so well no longer apply.

Who are the educational middlemen?

You are what you Tweet

Someone once said to me that if you do something once, it’s an accident. Do it twice and it’s a coincidence.  Do it three or more times and that’s just the way you’re living. The underlying message is that if you repeat something enough, then the patterns of use start to tell their own story. Your repeated activity starts to build up into a pattern of use and looking at those patterns can often give insights into the activity that are not apparent by looking at the individual instances of the activity.

This idea of allowing data to “rest where it lays” and deriving insights from it is essentially the idea behind tag clouds, whose patterns reflect repeated use of words, tags, keywords or ideas.  If you look at someone’s Delicious tag cloud and see the patterns emerging in the form of highlighted, emphasised words, then you see a clear indication of what interests that person.  The more they bookmark using tags, the more evident their interests.  The numbers don’t lie when there are enough of them.

if you aggregate enough tag clouds you start to get an insight into the “patterns of the patterns” – you see not just the interests of individuals emerging, but the interests of the group. This is the whole notion of a folksonomy, and it taps into the fascinating concept of the “wisdom of the crowds”.  Data, especially when you have enough of it to form reliable patterns, starts to become very interesting.

In the same spirit, I was a little intriugued by a twitter app I saw today, called TweetPsych.  TweetPsych looks at the contents of your last 1000 messages on Twitter, analyses the words you use and the way your sentences are constructed, and tries to draw conclusions about what you do, what interests you, and what sort of person you might be – psychologically speaking.  I’ve no idea how accurate it might be, but it’s an interesting idea. I’ll be honest and admit to you that I have absolutely no idea what they really mean, but here’s my results anyway…

Regardless of whether TweetPsych is accurate and up to scratch just yet or not, I think it signals an interesting development in what is sure to become a much bigger deal.  The notion that some level of machine intelligence can be derived from an analysis of massive amounts of our online footprints.  We are all leaving massive amounts of data behind us as we trawl around the Net, and somewhere in that trail of data there are machines piecing together an accurate picture of us… what we like, where we go on holidays, who we talk to, what our preferences are, and so on.  It’s not a new idea – Google’s entire advertising strategy is based on the concept of knowing more and more about you – but seeing TweetPsych’s attempt at psychoanalysing me from these 140 character snippets of my thoughts just threw it into a new light.

Let’s just hope that this data can be put to use in positive, creative ways that help enhance our lives.

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If you’re not blogging in this day and age, are you at a disadvantage?

I can see a day in the not too distant future (if it’s not already here) where your “digital footprint” will carry far more weight than anything you might include in a resume or CV.

It’s perhaps not so relevant (yet) in the public education sector where the criteria for employment is not always  based solely on a meritocracy, but in the independent sector there is a definite awareness of an individual’s digital footprint as a way to gauge their involvement, passion, engagement and understanding of their chosen field.

It may not yet be happening in the public sector because of unionisation and the existing promotional structures in place, but in the outside world where people are employed, promoted and recognised by their actual contributions and not just by the amount of time they have been in a given role, the notion of knowing about an individual because of the trail of ideas they leave behind them in their online networks will play a larger and larger role.

I’m certain that almost EVERY employer these days has Googled you before they call you for an interview. Many people in the private sector (and I’m not just talking about education) are being offered positions or getting headhunted because of the presence they have created in their online spaces.

Having a blog, a Twitter account, even a Facebook… these things are not just about giving you a place to talk about mundane and trivial stuff that no one else interested in… they are in fact building your “personal brand”, as the marketers would say.  You can say that’s pretentious and that you want no part of it, but the fact is that the online persona and online presence you develop by creating this digital footprint is playing an increasingly important role in defining who you are (or at least who you appear to be).

Unfortunately, NOT having an online presence says a lot about you too.  If I was staffing a school where a passion for education was valued, I would be very dubious about employing someone who could not show any evidence of an online presence.  If I couldn’t find any record of them being part of online communities, being involved in online projects, contributing to the global conversation about education, I’d be extremely doubtful about whether they were the right people for the kind of school I wanted to staff.

This is one of the reasons why we need to not block kids from accessing network resources… The question is not whether they will have a digital footprint…  they will.  The question is whether it will say positive things about them or whether it will portray them in a negative way.  We have a unique opportunity to provide our students with a digital footprint that says wonderful things about who they are, what they can do and where their passions lie, but unless we actively teach them how to make it positive it may not be the case.

And if we don’t actively understand and engage with that process ourselves, we will most likely do a pretty ordinary job of helping our students do it right.