Calling All Nations

Several weeks ago I noticed new graffiti on street signs in the Melbourne suburb Northcote from an unknown group: the Saracen Soldiers.  A block away from the most prominent graffiti two houses displayed nationalist flags in their front windows.  It could have been coincidence or maybe a signalling game to establish psychological turf.

At the time I thought of the ominous graffiti in Philip K. Dick‘s posthumously published novel Radio Free Albemuth (1985).  The grafiti also reminded me of the wanna-be teenage mercenaries in Leo Berkeley‘s film Holidays on the River Yarra (1990), who are recruited by a racialist organisation to engage in graffiti, brawls and other low-level politically motivated violence.

Two nights ago police fatally shot 15-year-old Tyler Cassidy during a confrontation in Northcote’s All Nations park.  Earlier that evening, Cassidy left home after a family argument then stole two knives from Northcote’s Kmart store.  Four police were called to arrest Cassidy and Victoria Police will now investigate what happened next.  As Rosie X observes, several media outlets speculated about Cassidys membership in the nationalist group Southern Cross Soldiers (SCS) and posed a ‘suicide by cop’ explanation for Cassidy’s death.

There are a couple of interesting things to note about blogosphere and media coverage.

Journalists described Cassidy’s online life as “subterreanean” – a mix of Sherry Turkle‘s theories about online identity fused with cyberterrorist fears – yet did not link to Cassidy’s MySpace page or mention the SCS sites above.  In contrast, Richard Metzger observed to me in 1998 that Disinformation had a different strategy: it would link to white supremacist groups such as Aryan Nations so that readers would understand their ideological worldview.  This got Metzger into trouble with several anti-racialist organisations who confused him with Tom Metzger of White Aryan Resistance.

Anarchist and anti-racialist bloggers knew SCS for months before Cassidy’s death as a white supremacist gang or youth network. The SCS band has copied Rahowa‘s white separatist music as a recruitment strategy.  The social network Bebo has pages for SCS recruitment and the SCS bandJacques Ellul would be proud: SCS (and perhaps Cassidy unwittingly) use a blend of Australian historical imagery for in-group identity and integration propaganda (“Aussie pride”, the Southern Cross flag, conflation of national identity with ethnicity) with agitation propaganda that is aimed at specific out-group enemies (Italians, Lebanese, anyone who does not meet SCS’s criteria for being Australian).

Several questions: How many other pages are there?  Who has been monitoring them?  What if any threat assessments were made?  Will anyone get an opportunity to conduct a sociometry analysis of SCS’s online social network before the pages are pulled (Marc Sageman established a benchmark with his study of Salafist cells that may have had weak ties to Al Qaeda).

Bloggers and journalists alike noted that police might have de-escalated the incident if they were armed with a Taser electroshock weapon.  The incident captures why there is a tactical role under specific circumstances for law enforcement personnel to use non-lethal or less-lethal weapons that could have saved Cassidy’s life.  The four police will likely receive critical incident debriefs and stress counselling.

A few days after Cassidy’s death Northcote remains largely subdued apart from occasional police sirens in the distance.  In contrast. Greece has faced a week of riots after the shooting of 15-year-old Alexandros Grigoropoulos which may spread to Europe.  As a ‘paired study’ – SCS’s street gang violence, the shootings of Grigoropoulos and Cassidy, and the divergent reactions – illustrate the late sociologist Charles Tilly‘s distinction between individual aggression (Cassidy), brawls (SCS) and scattered attacks (Greece) as different types of collective violence.

Tilly’s urban sociology in the 1960s foresaw how today’s social network sites may be used to coordinate street violence.  Perhaps police intelligence analysts would benefit from a few hours with Tilly’s masterful study The Politics of Collective Violence (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003) to pre-empt any SCS revenge attacks for Cassidy’s death.  SCS might then remain the purveyers of bad hip-hop/rock/metal hybrids (not exactly Australian), poorly designed web sites and street graffiti: the opportunist yet ineffectual extremists that Dick and Berkeley tried to warn us of . . . and that Greece and Europe may face again.

Chinese Democracy

Chinese Democracy looks set to be the most delayed and expensive album in history: a rumoured $US13 million recording budget, 5 guitarists, 14 studios and a horde of Pro Tools digital editors.  I’m not exactly a Guns n’ Roses fan but I bought the album anyway for the CD booklet: a list of production credits for the massively overrun project.  For the project’s background see Wikipedia’s CD history page and Jeff Leeds’ article “The Most Expensive Album Never Made” (New York Times, 6th March 2005).

Interesting that Axl Rose augmented the Best Buy-only release with a MySpace streaming strategy and that Amazon.com’s top search today for “Chinese Democracy” is Metallica‘s Death Magnetic (Elektra, 2008) . . . Rose’s CD is ninth on the search algorithm’s list.

I’m saving most of my thoughts on Chinese Democracy for a journal article. 

Former Gn’R co-founder Slash in his autobiography Slash (HarperEntertainment, New York, 2007), co-written with Anthony Bozza, has a prescient and interesting anecdote (p. 371) on Rose’s decision to use Pro Tools in the recording studio:

There were rows and rows
of Pro Tools servers and gear.  Which was a clear indication that Axl
and I had very different ideas of how to do this record.  I was open to
using Pro Tools, to trying new things–but everyone had to be on the
same page and in the same room to explore new ideas.  The band managed
to do a little bit of jamming and come up with some things.  A couple
of the ideas I had come up with Axl apparently liked and they were
recorded onto Pro Tools and stored for him to work on later.

We’d show up at different times every evening, but by eight p.m.
generally everyone in the band would be there.  Then we’d wait for Axl,
who, when he did come, arrived much, much later.  That was the norm; it
was a dark, miserable atmosphere that lacked direction of any kind.  I
hung out for a bit; but after a few days I chose to spend my evenings
at the strip bar around the corner, with orders for the engineers to
call me if Axl decided to arrive.

CPRF08 Paper: Disruptive Innovation, Radiohead & Nine Inch Nails

I recently blogged about a presentation the 2008 Communications Policy Research Forum in Sydney on disruptive innovation in the music industry.

You can now download an Adobe PDF version of the PowerPoint slides here.

The refereed paper has been published in the Proceedings of the Communications Policy Research Forum 2008 (pp. 155-175 or PDF file pp. 179-199).  You can also download a local copy of the paper here.

The paper’s case study examines why Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails released their new albums as digital downloads.  I suggest a major reason why, and one that was overlooked by Web 2.0 pundits, is that each artist was in the ‘label shopping phase’ of a new contract and defected after negotiation problems with their major labels.  This fits a pattern in mergers and acquisitions: the major labels lost artists due to integration problems in a merger or acquisition.  Terra Firma Capital Partners has since partially confirmed this hypothesis: the private equity firm endures more post-acquisition integration problems with EMI and is fighting against government regulation of Great Britain’s financial services sector.

The paper’s data appendices contrast the artists’ strategies with signficant events and innovations in music industry contracts, conglomerate mergers and deal structures.  Somehow I missed U2‘s March 2008 deal with Live Nation: I found out about it in an October 2008 announcementGuns n’ Roses also finally released Chinese Democracy (MySpace audio stream): a new album that has taken 15 years, a rumoured US$14 million budget and 14 recording studios in New York, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and London.  I may write a paper on it . . .

Duelling Web 2.0 Scenarios: Boom/Bust

Has Tim O’Reilly’s Web 2.0 meme become a high-tech bubble about to burst?

Origins of the Web 2.0 Boom

O’Reilly’s vision of a new Web platform originally fused two developments.

The first development: C, Smalltalk and object oriented programmers devised design patterns in the early 1990s to reuse software code and workaround solutions across projects.  A 1995 catalog catapulted its four authors to software engineering fame.  To capture the rapidly growing number of design patterns programmer Ward Cunningham created the first wiki: the Portland Patterns Repository.

The second development: a re-evaluation of dotcom era business models to encompass new technologies that enhanced the end-user experience including the site interface and information architecture.  Industry buzz around News Corporation’s acquisition of MySpace (18th July 2005), Yahoo!’s purchase of Flickr (21st March 2005) and del.ico.us (9th December 2005), and Google’s stock-for-stock deal for YouTube (9th October 2006) made O’Reilly’s vision the ‘default’ vision for Web pundits and investors.

The media’s buzz cycle soon went into warp speed as Facebook frenzy replaced MySpace mania.  In a move that exemplified the pivotal role of complementors O’Reilly & Associates morphed into the juggernaut O’Reilly Media.  Ajax and Ruby Rails soon replaced Java and C# as the languages for new programmers to learn.  For activists in community-based media, angel investors investing in scalable programming prototypes and international conglomerates seeking to control their industry white-spaces Web 2.0 provided an all-encompassing answer to venture capitalists on how they would change the world.

Two Scenarios: Web 2.0 Boom & Bust

For industry pundits Google’s decision in October 2008 not to acquire Digg may signal the Web 2.0 boom has become a bubble.  If true Google’s decision could be the mirror of News Corporation and Yahoo!’s acquisitions in 2005.  Slate‘s Chris Anderson points to several factors: no tech IPOs in the second quarter of 2008, the cyclical nature of the digital consumer market, the exit of Yahoo! as a potential buyer due to internal problems, market noise due to low barriers of entry for startups, and a smaller “window of opportunity in which startups can think of a new neat trick, generate buzz, and cash out.”  YouTube’s co-founder Jawed Karim adamently believes that Silicon Valley is in a bubble.

Twitter is the latest startup in the duelling scenarios of Web 2.0 boom versus bust. New York Times journalist Adam Lashinsky experiences a similar euphoria to Facebook and YouTube when he visits Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey.  Sceptics counter that Facebook and YouTube have not ‘monetised’ their business models into profitable revenues.  Portfolio‘s Sam Gustin raises the ‘monetisation’ problem with Twitter co-founder Biz Stone who believes that service reliability is a priority over the “distraction” of revenue pressures.  In support of Stone’s position Anderson observes that cloud computing and open source software are lowering the operational costs and slowing the burn rates of startups.

Yet monetisation remains a primary concern for Sand Hill Road entrepreneurs and other venture capitalists.  They differ in their decision-making criteria to Web 2.0 pundits and high-tech futurists: for angel investors and first round VC funding the entrepreneurs will demand a solid management team, the execution ability to control an industry whitespace, and viable sources of future revenue growth.  This is the realm of financial ratios and mark-to-market valuation rather than normative beliefs and ideals which probably influenced the acquiring firm’s decisions and valuation models in 2005-06.

Furthermore, if a Web 2.0 bust scenario is in play, the ‘contrarian’ sceptics will look to Charles Mackay, Charles P. Kindleberger, Joseph Stiglitz and other chroniclers of past bubbles, contagion and manias for guidance.  With different frames and time horizons the Web 2.0 pundits, high-tech futurists and venture capitalists will continue to talk past each other, creating still more Twitter microblogging, blog posts and media coverage.

Several preliminary conclusions can be drawn from the Web 2.0 boom/bust debate.  In a powerful case of futures thinking O’Reilly’s original Web 2.0 definition envisioned the conceptual frontier which enabled the social network or user-generated site of your choice to come into being.  The successful Web 2.0 startups in Silicon Valley have a distinctive strategy comparable to their dotcom era counterparts in Los Angeles and New York’s Silicon Alley.  Web 2.0 advocates who justify their stance with MySpace, YouTube and del.icio.us are still vulnerable to hindsight and survivorship biases. There’s a middle ground here to integrate the deep conceptual insights
of high-tech futurists with the quantitative precision of valuation
models.

It’s possible that the high-visibility Web 2.0 acquisitions in 2005-06 were due to a consolidation wave and strategic moves/counter-moves by their acquirers in a larger competitive game.  There are two precedents for this view.  Industry deregulation sparked a mergers and acquisitions boom in Europe’s telecommunications sector in the late 1990s comparable to the mid-1980s leveraged buyout wave in the United States.  Several factors including pension fund managers, day trading culture and the 1999 repeal of the US Glass-Steagall Act combined to accelerate the 1995-2000 dotcom bubble.  Thus, analysts who want to understand the boom/bust dynamics need to combine elements and factors from Web 2.0 pundits, high tech futurists and venture capitalists.

If the Web 2.0 boom has become a bubble then all is not lost.  Future entrepreneurs can take their cue from Newsweek journalist Daniel Gross and his book Pop! Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy (Collins, New York, 2007): the wreckage from near-future busts may become the foundation of future bubbles.  Web 3.0 debates are already in play and will soon be eclipsed by Ray Kurzweil‘s Transhumanist agenda for Web 23.0.