Postlight Newsletter for Thursday, February 11, 2016.
Note: We’re trying out Medium’s “Letters” product. Let’s see what happens!
There’s a big New Yorker piece out about TMZ, the gossip site created by Harvey Levin. The article, by Nicholas Schmidle, describes at length the perpetual sense of urgency that Levin instills in his employees. He wants the story now and wants to publish immediately.
TMZ publishes a lot of stuff, really quickly, and to a large audience. They had 21.4 million unique visitors last month from around the world (that’s a lot for regular media, tiny for social media). Those people viewed 81.7 million page-like entities between them.
Using the iPhone 5 as a reference reading platform, you can do some back-of-the-napkin math. TMZ content activates at least 59 trillion pixels per month on people’s screens (without any scrolling). If a quarter of that space is reserved for ads, then you’re looking at 14 trillion ad pixels. That works out to nearly 7,000 acres of banner ads per month. If that acreage yielded corn, it would produce 13,000 metric tons of corn/year — maybe $150,000 dollars a month at current maize rates. I’m sure TMZ is doing a lot better than that. Gossip is a better business than farming corn.
I think about TMZ.com a lot. It started in 2005 and after more than a decade it’s a very effective website. It doesn’t expect to be liked; it just offers relentless, constant stimulus. It pays for stories in order to go faster. It is a specially-crafted firehose optimized for constantly pumping out a certain kind of viscous fluid right into your eyeballs. Everything is accellerated and optimized. (The commenters are genuinely cruel, but what else could you expect?)
That speed of operations is impressive. Many large media companies — many — have serious troubles publishing web pages. I know of many media organizations that suffer under “cache” times of 10 or more minutes in order to update their home page; that is, someone hits the publish button at 9:00AM, and the page finally updates at 9:10AM. When urgency is key, this is a disaster.
It happens for the regular reasons: Someone went to fix a problem five years ago, kind-of-fixed it, and created a new problem that has now become so large and looming that it’s easier for everyone to quit and get new jobs than deal with it.
Remember them? Crowd Fusion was the CMS behind Rupert Murdoch’s iPad newspaper The Daily (sound of tumbleweeds); in 2012, the Crowd Fusion people announced that they would join with a company called Ceros and “eventually be focusing more on Ceros’ software-as-a-service product for brands, retailers and marketers.” Fun! Driving in the stake a little further, their CEO then said: “We are not abandoning existing publishing customers who have contracts with us at all, but we haven’t taken on any new publishing customers in a while…For now, we will be supporting both our open-ended Crowd Fusion enterprise CMS for publishers and our Ceros product for brands.”
And still going! There are a lot of these products out there in the world: Enterprise CMSes that are no longer the darlings of their parent organizations, but that generate revenue through ongoing support and development. Everyone has moved on to brand engagement. The world of CMSes has stratified around WordPress as the common denominator, Drupal above that, and then everything else (including rolling your own platform).
Which is not to say that legacy systems are bad; look at TMZ and you can see that it’s still publishing web pages, in great volume, effectively, and without obvious delay. But there are hundreds of ways to read an article, from Flipboard to instant audiobooks to Kindle. There are new mobile platforms all the time, as well as the fact that most people are publishing straight into Facebook, Apple News, or Google AMP. Platform-first media companies like BuzzFeed and Vox seem to have gained more control over their audience growth by controlling their software. Even TMZ’s own CMS vendor is more interested in selling you software that lets you create “Infographics, eBooks, Microsites, Magazines, Sales Assets, and Lookbooks & Banners.”
I wonder (and have no idea whether I’m right to wonder!) if TMZ is one of the last big websites. The thing it does feels anachronistic in the age of The Shade Room. I wonder how long you can plant the same crop before you wear out the soil.
Annals of privacy: How Gmail lets spammers grab your attention with emoji; how data companies gathers mobile IDs from your phones. Russianshacked the ruble; British kids hacked the CIA; we all hacked Stephen Fryuntil he quit Twitter. You can test to see if your computer is stable, but even if it is you are going to get hacked — even if your computer isn’t on a network. Worse, “the attack landscape for firmware is maturing.” Security is hard. On the bright side GNU Emacs gets a new website (people love Emacs) and you can host Python serverless.
Today’s GIF Battles
Today’s 1990s Screenshot
This is a screenshot from “All This Time,” a 1996 two-CD interactive experience totally dedicated to the musician Sting. Sting is shown twice, as a talking-head video, and as a religious icon. Below, Sting (in heavy gray sweater) discusses the influence of the composer Sergei Prokofiev (illuminated) on his music.
While 1.2 gigabytes of Sting in 1996 is a prodigious amount of Sting, this is actually a remarkably well put-together anthology of everything Sting has done, in a point-and-click interface that includes tarot cards and many castles. We’ll return to it in a future newsletter. If you casually like some Sting songs, as I do, this two-CD set will teach you to hate Sting.
Today’s Dumb Software that Runs on an Emulated Windows 3.1 Inside Your Browser
Tiny Elvis “sits at the bottom of your Windows desktop, pops to his feet to comment on your “huge” icons, cursors, etc. Fun! Plays waveform audio (WAV) voice. Requires: MS Windows 3.1 or higher, Sound card or other audio hardware. FREEWARE.”
Today’s Websafe Color
The Letters Section
I made the mistake of entering the SFO yoga room when my flight was delayed 8 hours. I was immediately scolded by a Bay Area archetype — middle aged woman, graying hair in every direction, perfect form on her mat — for not taking my shoes off immediately after walking in, despite the fact that doing so would have meant almost certainly knocking her over given how small the room actually is. She was actually on my flight later and tried to make a joke. Never again.