Web Politics


You will remember that some time back I was musing about the exploration of models for earning income in the new media paradigm.

At that time I installed the Collection Plate, to the right there in the sidebar, just to see whether visitors could even be bothered to flick a virtual coin my way when they found something on The Cow that they liked. Well, it’s been a mixed response. As I might have guessed, the click count was proportionately high toward the beginning and has now tapered off. Even factoring in King Willy’s irritating clicking frenzy in the early days, I can see that there was interest when it was a fresh idea, but has now settled into a predictable low-level trickle. Not surprising really.

As of today the plate has collected 860 coins – if we assume that people might have dropped in 5c a hit, that’s a grand sum of 43 bucks in 3 months. It’s obvious that I’m not headed off to the Maldives anytime soon. Still, my readership is small (if entirely faithful) so those figures are obviously dependent upon traffic – it’s not bad for someone who’s busking in a back alley on a cloudy day.

When I installed the Collection Plate, you may recall that I mentioned, somewhere during the discussion, a concept called Flattr – a micropayment ‘sharing’ system being set up by Peter Sunde, one of the Creators of Pirate Bay. Well, I was recently invited to join the Flattr beta project and you will infer by the Flattr icon underneath the Collection Plate over to the side there, that I have accepted a role in the Flattr experiment.

This is how Flattr is supposed to work:

First of all, you need a Flattr account. Currently these are given by invitation only, but the idea is that when Flattr is launched, anyone can get an account just by signing up. When you have your account, you decide how much money per month you’d like to spend to ‘Flattr’ people who you visit on the web. This money goes into your Flattr account – you can’t get it back. Then, over the month, the amount of money you decide upon – say five dollars (or Euros, as it is at the moment) is divided up by the number of times you click on Flattr buttons you encounter while traipsing around the intertubes. That amount of money then goes into each Flattr account you clicked on. In other words, if you only click one Flattr button on one site, that site gets the whole five bucks. If you click on two Flattr buttons, each site gets $2.50. And so forth. If you don’t click on any Flattr buttons, all your monthly allowance goes to a charity.

I’m giving Flattr a try, but I have numerous reservations about its concept. Let me elaborate:

•Straight off the bat, when I activated my Flattr account I was asked to nominate an amount of money I wanted to spend to Flattr people each month. This is too damn tricky, I think. I simply don’t know what kind of a figure I think is reasonable to spend on my internet travels. Heck, mostly I get my stuff for free right now – why should I pay? I don’t think I’m the only one that will ask that question. This idea is too much like subscription models that have already shown to be less than effective on the internet. And a big difference is that with subscriptions you know in advance what you’re getting, and can make an assessment of whether it’s good value.1

•Right from the first time I heard the concept vaunted I could see a huge drawback: Flattr must break a critical user barrier before it’s got a hope in hell of working. If Flattr buttons were everywhere, and you saw them on YouTube and Wikis and Forums and so forth, then I think you’d be inclined to join up, if for no other reason than to get a chance at a slice of the pie for yourself. But for now, the very first thing you realise after you put some money in your Flattr distribution account is that there are not many people out there that you want to Flattr. Well, sure, for the novelty you’re likely to chuck a few coins in wherever you see a Flattr button, but the idea is that you reward people who are doing great stuff, not just exchange coins with everyone else in your club.

We can see the problem here of course – Flattr needs to be ubiquitous to get the system working, but the system has to be working for Flattr to be ubiquitous. It’s an unenviable conundrum. Can Flattr pull itself up by its own bootstraps? I’m doubtful.

•You can’t proportionately award good stuff more Flattr points the more you like it. Flattr will only let you click on one unique button once a month. I think this is a problem. I understand the egalitarian idea behind sharing revenue ‘fairly’ among places that I visit, but let’s face it, I want to be able to decide that if I like someone a lot, I can click on their button three or four times to reflect that. I’ve hit this stumbling block already – I’ve visited a few sites that are linked off Flattr and, well, they’re OK, but do I really want to give them my coin? If I plonk my click down on one site, then I am under pressure to find another site just so site #1 doesn’t get my whole month’s allowance. There’s something that I find instinctively wrong about that concept.

•You can’t see (as far as I can tell) who has Flattred you. This is probably not something that would be ultimately relevant, but while Flattr is new I think it’s quite important. If someone Flattrs you, you instinctively want to see what they do also. It’s like when someone leaves a comment on The Cow – mostly I will pay their link a courtesy visit to see exactly what it is they’re about, and if I like it, I might even stay. I believe this sense of community is vital in a scheme like Flattr, at least in the early stages. (It occurs to me that it’s also a very good way of finding out exactly who actually even has an account on Flattr, since the only people who can Flattr you are Flattr users). And related to that:

•To even get a leg-up, you need to have Flattr users come visit you. I don’t see how I’m going to get this to happen unless I actively solicit visitors to The Cow. Once again, this may not be as much of a problem if Flattr becomes widespread, but for the moment it is a stumbling block. You can see how many people have Flattred me by the count on the Flattr icon. Right now it’s zero and I expect it will remain that way for some time.

How do I get you guys to join up with Flattr, so that you can Flattr me? Why, according to the Flattr website, I tell them to! So – how many of you are heading across to Flattr right now to get an account? Right, I thought so.

So, there are my thoughts on the Flattr mattr. As I said in my original article, these things interest me so I’m all for some experimentation, but I really don’t hold high hopes for Flattr. I aim to stick with it for a few months – let’s see how we go.

ADDENDUM: I thought of another instability just now. Flattr exists as a kind of community contribution idea – I Flattr you, you Flattr Gilbert, he Flattrs me, what goes around comes around. But exploitation of the system would arise very fast. Let’s say I post something on my site that really gets people’s attention. They all Flattr me, and not only that, I get quite famous, with lots of readers and a nice Flattr income. There is no incentive for me to care about belonging to the Flattr community, as such, any longer. I can reduce my Flattr contribution to the minimum allowable and just let it go to charity every month. Meanwhile I’m doing very nicely out of a constant Flattr revenue stream. I’m not suggesting this would happen a lot, but there would definitely be Mega Flattr sites that are sucking it in rather than giving it up.

Another thing that occurs to me is that knowing how much people are being Flattred is likely to influence how much they get Flattred. If I see someone with lots of Flattrs I’m likely to think – oh well, they’re doing OK, I’ll save my click for someone else. I think this could be ameliorated slightly by having the number of Flattrs NOT displayed on your icon. It may well be that doing this might counteract the situation I mentioned above.

  1. I suppose that you can always treat your Flattr account as a hypothetical donation to charity from the get-go – which it kind of is. []



An unbiased poll at Tetherd Cow Ahead finds that Stephen Conroy is officially a dunce!

Senator Stephen Conroy


Spare me once more from the morons.

I’ve spoken before about senator Stephen Conroy[tippy title=”*”]Just testing to make sure you paid attention to the last post.[/tippy], the politician who somehow[tippy title=”†”]One can only speculate that he won the position on the hoop-la or the chocolate wheel.[/tippy] has ended up being Australia’s advisor on all things internet, and today the Cow’s attention turns toward him once more. This time, it’s because he has decided to offer up his advice on internet security.[tippy title=”‡”]After an ignominious (yet predictably sanctimonious) backdown on the imbecilic ‘Clean Feed’ proposal.[/tippy] And Spagmonster knows that a guy with his level of 1337 k3wl is going to have some pretty U$3PhUL words to say on the matter. Am I right?

Yes, Senator Conroy, wearing his white hat out in public for all the world to see, yesterday launched Australia’s National Change Your Password Day.

“No one wants to lose their bank details to criminals or fall victim to an online scam and that’s why it’s important that people understand simple steps, such as getting a better, stronger password, can help them stay smart online and protect their personal information.”

Password? Password? Are you reading what I’m reading here? Stephen Conroy seems to be under the impression that people use only ONE PASSWORD!

Further demonstrating his uncanny 1337 (r3D3|\|714L$, Conroy goes on to recommend that:

…passwords always include letters and numbers and warned people to be vigilant. “Stop and think before you click on links or attachments.”

Jesus H. Christ. You’d think this guy has only just discovered the internet. What really worries me is that maybe that’s true.

Australians, answer me this: of all the people we could have had appointed to look after the most exciting and powerful concept to come the way of human civilization since the invention of language, why have we been saddled with a cretin? Not just someone who isn’t quite up to date with the latest and the neatest (that would be understandable) but someone who hasn’t got the faintest clue what he’s talking about. Worse, he hasn’t got the faintest clue, but he doesn’t know how to sound like he does!

Excuse me. I have to go change my password.

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†One can only speculate that he won the position on the hoop-la or the chocolate wheel.

‡After an ignominious (yet predictably sanctimonious) backdown on the imbecilic ‘Clean Feed’ proposal.

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Along with the prestigious Cow Medals I hand out very sparingly here on The Cow, I think I’m going to have to invent some kind of trophy for the opposite end of the spectrum; an award for those who say the stupidest things on teh webs.

I’d kick off the ceremony with the CEO of Sony, Michael Lynton, who last week opined “I haven’t seen any good come out of the internet”. Translating that into something that makes sense to people who aren’t the buck-stops-here-guy for multinational companies: “I don’t get why this thing is bigger than television and getting bigger by the attosecond and we can’t figure out a way to make as much money out of it as we used to make out of all that old technology we have”.[tippy title=”*”]Or: “God in Heaven – just look at all that MONEY that we’re NOT making!”[/tippy]

Mr Lynton got a good old walloping immediately on the nets of course, and tried to backpedal in an article on the Huffington Post, managing only to dig himself an even deeper hole by revealing the real extent of his failure to grok the magnitude of the thing he’s trying to get his brain around.

I cannot subscribe to the views of those online critics who insist that I “just don’t get it,”

…he protests, and then goes on to comprehensively demonstrate his inability to get it.

His Huffington Post whinge is so clubfooted, and so embarrassingly naive, that it is staggering to believe that this guy has managed to get to be the guy in charge of one of the largest corporations in the world.

He laughingly attempts to equate the ‘Information Superhighway'[tippy title=”†”]Surely one of the daftest most empty-headed and inappropriate expressions ever uttered…[/tippy] with an actual ‘highway’…

In the 1950’s, the Eisenhower Administration undertook one of the most massive infrastructure projects in our nation’s history — the creation of the Interstate Highway System… Guard rails went along dangerous sections of the road. Speed and weight limits saved lives and maintenance costs. And officers of the law made sure that these rules were obeyed.

…and then suggests that unless we do something, our kids are going to grow up inside some kind of artistic vacuum, without anything at all decent to ‘enliven their culture’.

As I go into my sixth decade, I listen to people like Mr Lynton and realise that… I actually feel young again. While he stamps his foot and pouts and sulkingly packs up his marbles into his little string bag, folks all around the planet who do understand what’s going on in the 21st Century are just getting on with their business and doing very well thanks all the same.

Mr Lynton wants the world to be the way it was when his company was making packets of money and everything was nicely settled into a paradigm he could understand. By drawing stupid analogies and playing the Fear card he wants people to think the world will be a whole lot worse off without companies like Sony providing the entertainment they think we should see. The implication being, of course, that without them the alternatives couldn’t possibly be anything but inferior, and we would all be engulfed by some kind of cultural Dark Ages.

I’m getting to be an old guy now (relatively speaking, you understand), but never have I been as optimistic as I am now about the future of art. Would I be disappointed if mega budget movies like The Da Vinci Code and Spiderman disappeared off the face of the earth? Not one whit. Would I care if Mariah Carey or Avril Lavigne or Kings of Leon were taken up in the Rapture tomorrow? Not even remotely.

My Lynton – for all your wailings about the End Times, let me put this to you: an artist doesn’t need much these days to make something worth watching or listening to. And an audience doesn’t need much to experience that effort. To translate: We. Don’t. Need.You.

If you didn’t exist, music and painting and poetry and literature and film wouldn’t cease to exist. As much as you desperately might like to think you have some important part to play in the great cultural sweep of the human species, you are just an accessory. You are unimportant.

Do you get it?

No, I didn’t think so.

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*Or: “God in Heaven – just look at all that MONEY that we’re NOT making!”

†Surely one of the daftest most empty-headed and inappropriate expressions ever uttered…

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A Clean Feed

Australia is a country that is a long way from pretty much anywhere. For instance, if you had to walk to Australia from the US, it would take you nearly four months if you walked 24 hours per day and didn’t stop for lunch. And then you’d drown because most of the way it’s ocean.

Australia is also a country that lives under the illusion that it somehow has a credible presence on the world stage. I don’t exactly know how anyone here got that idea if they’ve traveled anywhere further than Bali, but that’s what our politicians keep telling us on the television.

Now for a very long time, Australia’s geographical disenchantment has been the source of hefty disadvantage when it comes to its interface with the rest of the globe. These difficulties affect political interaction, commerce, the arts and cultural discourse. This problem has come to be referred to as the Tyranny of Distance (from the title of a book and philosophies of a very famous Australian historian). For many decades, this looked like an insurmountable (or at the very least, hideously expensive) handicap for our isolated outpost.*

“If only,” people thought, “there was a way to communicate instantly with people in foreign lands! If only you could send them movies and music and pictures, collaborate on their projects, talk to them face to face and generally conduct business and social interactions as if you were just a couple of blocks away! If only they could pay you in their foreign money to do all those things via, oh, I dunno, some kind of secure money exchange that happened in real time! If only, instead of you having to sell your shiny gew-gaws to a sparse few customers in your neighbourhood, you could hawk them to a vast population of potential buyers from here to Timbuktu, all from the comfort of your own kangaroo populated home! Wouldn’t all that be just SUPER!??? Wouldn’t that almost instantly solve the difficulty of the Tyranny of Distance? Wouldn’t the democratically elected government of the Great Southern Land break open the bottles of locally-produced superior sparkling wines† and bend over backwards to see that such a magical solution was given every opportunity to work for the benefit of its citizens, its economy and its image as a forward-thinking and innovative political force of the 21st Century?”

Well, Acowlytes, that may very well have happened in some alternate reality where unicorns feast on sugar berries and rainbows grace every dew-frosted morning, but it’s not so, evidently, in the reality which we currently inhabit.

Some of you may have noticed that I’m sporting a new badge in the side bar over there to the right. This is because I’m really pissed-off that our government, notably their mouthpiece, the poorly informed Senator Stephen Conroy, is now trying to institute a level of censorship on the internet in Australia that is equalled in its draconian scope only by the restrictions on the personal freedoms imposed on the citizens of China and North Korea by their respective governments. And why? Solely because Senator Conroy (presumably goaded by a similarly unsophisticated lobby group) is apparently convinced that internet porn is going to flood into Australia and corrupt the minds of our youngsters, turning them into sex-obsessed Satan-worshipping crack-heads, and somehow usher in The End of Days. Or something.‡

I won’t explain the whole thing here – the proposal that has been advanced is so monumentally daft that a schoolkid can see the problems with it (and undoubtedly circumvent it faster than Senator Conroy can tie his shoelaces) – but if you are interested in further reading, the Electronic Frontiers Australia has a comprehensive and rational deconstruction of it on their ‘No Clean Feed’ site. (If you’re an Australian blogger, please go read it, and take some time to mount a protest in any of the manners suggested by EFA. This will affect you).

Briefly, the scheme that Conroy’s office has concocted, spearheaded by people who evidently think that the internet is some form of television, calls for censored content filtering to be imposed at ISP level on everything that comes into the country. It is entirely boggling to the mind that they believe this is even feasible, let alone that it will work. I can’t begin to imagine what kind of intellectual cripples are advising the government on the strategies they are suggesting should be implemented.** One thing is certain, any type of filtering on the scale called for by the so-called ‘Clean Feed’ proposal will bog down the net in Australia to a crawl and make standard commerce a chore beyond measure. Hear me Mr Conroy: these things are already becoming a problem, even before your dumb scheme kicks in.††

The image that leaps repeatedly to mind is that of a bunch of vigilantes from a medieval city deciding to burn all the bridges that lead into town in an attempt to keep out snakes.

For those of us who rely on the net as part of our business, particularly if we engage in significant international communication and data exchange on a regular basis, Senator Conroy’s idiotic concept is lunacy on an unparalleled scale. Our internet system is already over-priced and inadequate, a situation that our new Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd has pledged to rectify with extravagant overhauls of the current infrastructure. That was all looking like a promising move forward until Stephen Conroy’s torch-bearing villagers arrived on the scene.

And if Senator Conroy’s department being completely wrong isn’t bad enough, they don’t want to be told they’re wrong either. Mark Newton, a network engineer with an Australian ISP, Internode, who wrote an incisive and highly critical appraisal of the Clean Feed proposal (as is his right as an Australian citizen) has been the target of attempted bullying by Senator Conroy’s office in an effort to silence his dissent.

In his letter, Newton completely discredits Government assertions that trials have shown that a filtering scheme is viable. Confronted with Newton’s devastating demolition of their cunning plan, the Government’s response (in what can only be described as a typical last resort of desperate politics), was to promptly distance itself from the whole affair by laying the responsibility for the trials at the feet of the previous Government. So much for informed debate.

So, dear Potential Foreign Business Partner: if you’re thinking of taking your business to China or North Korea because they’re giving you a better deal, remember that, until global warming sets in, we still have better beaches. And Kangaroos. And the flights here are only going to get cheaper, right?

UPDATE: Even though opposition to the Clean Feed is growing (thank Spagmonster someone’s noticed…) Stephen Conroy continues to fail to understand the problem. In this morning’s Melbourne Age he is quoted as saying:

I will accept some debate around what should and should not be on the internet — I am not a wowser. I am not looking to blanket-ban some of the material that it is being claimed I want to blanket-ban, but some material online, such as child pornography, is illegal.

Senator Conroy, you really don’t get it, do you? We all agree that the internet allows some people to gain access to some material that is not desirable by our consensual moral standards. That’s not an argument that anyone has mounted. And there is a LOT of material online that is illegal. That’s not in dispute either. It is magnanimous of you to suggest that you will deign to ‘accept some debate’ about it, but that is entirely beside the point. What you think ‘should and should not be on the internet’ is as irrelevant as what you think should or should not be in people’s heads. You cannot do anything about that. And trying to make the internet into what you think it should be by using your silly filtering system is entirely impractical. It won’t work. It is a DUMB IDEA and it is not the way to tackle the problem.

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*Fortunately we had a lot of things we could dig out of the ground that other people were prepared to pay lots of money for us to send to them, so our fate as a permanent continent-sized penal colony was averted.

†Not Champagne, of course.

‡This certainly has to be along the lines of how these people think. You really have to wonder about the magnitude of their obsession. No-one’s going to argue that there is a level of undesirable material out there on the net, just like there is in the real world, but speaking as a person who spends a good portion of every day online, it’s not something that ever has an impact on my usual daily life. You can close your eyes and hide under the covers and pretend it’s not there Senator Conroy, but that don’t change a thing. Why not handle it productively and, oh, educate people better. Oops. Silly me. WAY too hard an option.

**One can only speculate that anyone with any expertise in such matters is cynically accepting Government money in the full knowledge that any system they may be attempting to set up will comprehensively fail. Either that or they’re idiots.

††And aside from that, do you have any idea how much this makes us look like utter inbred hillbillies to the rest of the world?

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Once again, the n00bs in the Australian Government’s technology departments (this time the Australian Communications and Media Authority) demonstrate their complete lack of acumen when it comes to the way the internet functions. This from Ars Technica:

Websites originating in Australia will soon be subject to a rating system that will tell users whether the content is appropriate for children of different ages.

Oh right. And exactly how is that going to work ACMA? What determines a website that ‘originates in Australia’? Tetherd Cow is written by an Australian, in an Australian city, on a computer connected to an Australian ISP. But, like HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS of other websites, the physical bits of TCA reside in a storage system in another country.

Please don’t embarrass us in the eyes of the world you stupid oafs. The internet is not, and will never be, confined to geographical borders. Let me ask you a question – if you think this scheme has even the remotest plausibility, why can’t you stop Russian spammers from filling up my Inbox?

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