Net neutrality is more complicated than you think

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Net neutrality is a concept surrounded by much debate, with a storied past and murky future. On the heels of Comcast Corporation’s recent $45 billion bid to purchase Time Warner Cable—a move posing arguable threat to net neutrality as we know it—I was struck with a renewed drive to understand the debate surrounding open access to internet. This thing is huge, and far-reaching, and has much more complicated implications than many of us realize.

To help break down net neutrality and its complexities, I talked with three professors at the University of Michigan-Flint: Marcus Paroske, associate professor and director of Communication & Visual Arts; Sy Banerjee, assistant professor of marketing in the School of Management; and Adam Lutzker, associate professor of economics and director of the Master in Social Science program. Our conversations seemed to boil down to a few essential questions.

Does limiting the use of the internet stifle market competition or innovation?

Does a lack of open and neutral access to internet equate to or lead to censorship?

Is equal opportunity to content through an internet connection a basic human right?

What follows is a series of excerpts from each faculty member. These quotes are not taken from a single conversation, but have been curated to offer varied perspectives on each point.

Does limiting the use of the internet stifle marketing competition or innovation?

From the point of view of an economist, I think the [key] of thinking about the internet is to think of it as communications infrastructure and that it’s then similar to earlier transportation structure like railroads and highways, and also electricity. The key feature of building infrastructure is that they’re very expensive to build… and then very cheap to use. The consequence of that is that it’s very hard to have competitive markets in those things. You tend to have monopolies or oligopolies, so lots of different people build it, lots of different people are relatively small firms, but over time the big firms drive out the small firms and so you have concentration in the industry. And so competition tends not to work that well because of these monopoly tendencies. Historically the government has regulated these industries to ensure that consumers get access to products, to stop them from price gouging, and to keep the firms in the industry from doing unfair practices to potential competitors.
Adam Lutzker

What the carriers are suggesting is that they would like to charge content providers. So if Netflix is streaming movies for me as an end user, they would like to charge more to Netflix to be able to access and address all the maintenance issues required for the huge volume of business they are giving them. Because as of today, there is really no separate charge for access or toll on the infrastructure where the data is being transmitted. [T]his raises a concern about what happens if Netflix is made to pay extra for it because Netflix is, in that case, going to pass on the cost to the consumer.
Sy Banerjee

Firms will want to have right to make profits off what types of resources they have proprietary control over and so traditionally we’ve wanted there to be separate sectors. We’ve wanted the people providing the infrastructure to be different from the people providing the content so that customers get neutrality of access to the content. Over the last five years or so there’ve been mergers in the sector which have let … companies that are providing infrastructure be companies that are also providing content, and they want to give preferential access to their own content.
Adam Lutzker

This is not just about the U.S. Other countries are also going to follow suit and a lot of influence will be derived from the way the U.S. moves its market, as to what extent it gives freedom to the businesses versus freedom to the policy body and other players. …One of the things to think about is if you are small-time business owner, or a person who is doing some business out of home to generate some income, with the implication of net neutrality going away it could mean that your cost for access, your cost for providing services, data transmission will go up. And that could have some impact on grassroot-level innovation from a business perspective. At the same time, if net neutrality were to be imposed, one of the things that would happen because of the lack of ability to differentiate services according to customers, the industry would lose out on a lot of innovation. So that would become a cost to pay for all equal access.
Sy Banerjee

Does a lack of open and neutral access to internet equate to or lead to censorship?

I think the most important aspect of the net neutrality debate is for us as citizens, and our students in particular as the future leaders, to try and determine what kind of good or what kind of service the internet really is. If the internet is sort of the underpinning of democracy 2.0—and we see the movements of this in countries like the Ukraine or Egypt where people are using social media to do major social mobilization and execute social change—that if the internet is something fundamental to what it’s going to mean to be an American in the future to have access to that information, then a principle like net neutrality makes sense. In the same way that we don’t allow telephone companies to restrict who gets access to a phone line or radio stations to restrict who gets access to the radio—we oftentimes make analogies between communication and transportation. It’s the same thing. It’s things moving across, and whether you’re allowed to do that freely or not is one of the underpinnings of what makes a free society.
Marcus Paroske

What we teach the students is [that], for being a marketer, the very foundation of your conscience is to understand the consumers’ needs and it is to understand different needs for different people. So the very foundation of our principles [rely] on a certain extent of differentiation. When does that differentiation become discrimination? We can’t really say. …That’s the source of the controversy, because in order to best understand the needs of your customers and serve those needs, you will have to engage in differentiation. That differentiation is going to drive innovation. The problem is it means that certain sources can get choked. Certain lines can get clogged. Certain parties might be less satisfied than they are now. This is really a debate between regulation and the free market.
Sy Banerjee

Is equal opportunity to content through an internet connection a basic human right?

Is [the internet] something that everyone should have equal access to? Or is it a different kind of commodity? Is it like a book, where everyone has the right to own books but no one has the right to have every book for free? …Right now the United States government treats the internet not as an open access common carrier approach, but as a more commodified thing that companies are allowed to take profits from. That’s the debate we’re having legally, it’s the debate we’re having morally, and that’s the sort of thing that we as citizens, we as students, we as scholars should put some thought into as we move forward and make public policy moving forward.
Marcus Paroske

Essentially net neutrality is the extent of control internet stakeholders have over delivering traffic to their end users. There was a common carrier principle, which applied, which essentially all this stemmed from… [and] what the common carrier principle really talked about was If you were providing service in a certain area which was fundamental to a person’s existence—the definition of fundamental is up in the air there—and if you were using public infrastructure for providing that service, then you would have to provide equal access to everyone.
Sy Banerjee

There are a lot of things that we think about net neutrality or the absence thereof that [are] assumptions. For example, today if I cannot access the internet, do I lose my connection with the outside world? No. I have access to a landline telephone. I have access to a car. There are roads to drive the car on. And there is power to keep my phone running. These four assumptions are very basic for an average person in the U.S., so even if my internet connection goes off, it’s not like I lose my connection to the rest of the world. These assumptions don’t necessarily suffice for a lot of developing countries around the world, so for a lot of populations, the internet may be the only source of connectivity to the outside world. …In such situations—often it has happened in [countries] even like India—there have been special interest groups who are conservative or who benefit from suffocating marginalized communities’ voices of expression, and they have used the absence of net neutrality to kind of choke access, block traffic, from select geographical regions, from selected kinds of users. And they have even used the net selectively to promote ethnic hatred. In a situation like that, our decision making completely changes, and we realize that one of the [ways] that the free market, or the absence of Net Neutrality, can be sustained is if we have a very strong, sophisticated regulatory framework… one that has enough power not to be corrupt, and not subject to influence by special interest groups that could have political or social standings.
Sy Banerjee

As of this week, Comcast’s purchase of Time Warner has not been approved by the Justice Department, and is also being reviewed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and a group of state attorneys general. Meanwhile, the FCC is still working through net neutrality and open internet rules, data providers are claiming that ending net neutrality will lead to lower consumer costs, and companies like Netflix are being denied free access to internet providers’ networks. This debate is nowhere near resolution.

Net neutrality cannot be categorized as a tech, political, social, economic, or ethics problem. The debate is not merely two-sided, but has so, so many sides. There will never be a clear-cut solution, but what should be clear is this: Net neutrality impacts us all. Want to learn more? Even in the absence of interview-ready faculty, we all (at least for now) have access to an open and informative internet. What considerations would you add to the conversation?

“Who’s on first, What’s on second, I Don’t Know is on third…”

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Sometimes, despite what my ENTJ brain wants to believe, a problem doesn’t have a black-and-white, clear-cut solution. There is not always a single right answer.

If this statement causes you pain, you may be your office’s Alaina. Surely, you think to yourself. Surely, with enough thought, deliberation, list-making, research, debating, soul-searching, and question-asking, the best solution can always be identified. I, being my own office’s Alaina, hate to break it to you–sometimes there is more than one correct approach. These are the times that test our ability to truly think objectively (it’s hard, I know, because we are typically so sure we’re right).

And so here I am. Having successfully transitioned our campus to a new content management system, it’s time for my team to start working with departments on real-live content strategy. We’ve given them the tools, and we’ve promised to teach them how to use them.

Yes. Let’s do that. Who’s first?

No, really, I’m asking. Who is first?

For my team, it comes down to this: Do we start with the departments with the energy, staff, and ability to produce results quickly? Use these departments as examples of what is possible? Or do we start with departments in need of the most help, who will likely take the most amount of work and time? There is a case to be made for each.

These are the things I know:

  • We have a lot of departments to work with, roughly 100, and it could take years to make it through the list.
  • The more energy we devote to one department, the less we have to offer others during the same project period.
  • For internal purposes, working with departments who are best-equipped could mean getting through a portion of the list more quickly, affecting improvement across more of the overall university website.
  • Externally, visitors have no knowledge about or interest in staffing or ability of university departments.  They want the information they’re looking for.
  • The departments with staff and aptitude may be able to make great strides toward improved content on their own accord, with some guidance.
  • The departments requiring less individual attention may amount to a higher percentage of the university website, contributing to more of an overall positive user experience.
  • The departments requiring more individual attention, even if there are fewer, might just be the departments holding the information a visitor is looking for.
  • There’s no rule that says we can only work with one department at a time, but we want to be realistic about how much work we take on (especially at the beginning of this effort).

There are more pros and cons to spell out, lists to make, thoughts to think. The answer here isn’t obvious, and may not be one-or-the-other. Can we work with one of each of these departments simultaneously?

How would you proceed? What points would be on your pros-and-cons list?

Gaga V. Bey: A Strategy Comparison

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This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Alaina Wiens, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.

Hi Alaina! When I signed up, I didn’t know this Secret Santa activity was geared toward content strategists, now I’m feeling out of my league. So… Content strategy. What does that mean to me? Is there a way I can use my perspective as a musician and consumer to write something useful for my gift match?

While I listen to a wide range of music, I take an interest in pop culture because it shapes our youth, namely teens, who I spend my days teaching. Two of the current (and in my opinion, most talented) Divas have dropped new albums in the last two months with outcomes worth discussing. Each album had a very different strategy from vision to promotion to execution.

Lady Gaga’s Art Pop was released November 6. Its first single, “Applause” was released this summer to excite fans for her self-proclaimed work of Art. The concept of “what Gaga does is ART” was beaten over our heads as consumers before we had the chance to ponder or analyze anything. Upon the album’s release, we are greeted with the grotesque memory of R. Kelly’s indiscretions from the early part of the century, accompanied with a message of “Do What U Want”. My initial question is: what are we teaching young girls here? Isn’t Lady Gaga supposed to be a symbol of strength or something? The album was available simultaneously on Spotify, giving us all the chance to quickly preview and make our own conclusions. It was also released the same time as Katy Perry’s Prism and Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz, creating more competition with the teeny-bopper audience. The sales have been considered a flop.

In contrast, Beyonce dropped it big time last Friday (with this Instagram, to be precise). Her album was available only through iTunes for the first week, and includes 15 songs and 17 videos. Here’s an album preview. We’ve seen a fair amount of Beyonce this year, from the National Anthem at Obama’s second inauguration, to a sultry cover of Amy Winehouse on the Great Gatsby Soundtrack, to accompanying Jay-Z on a Vegan cleanse, so no one expected this. Concepts in this artistic video-album are wide and varied, and Beyonce’s perspective as a child performer, wife, and mother are explored. She doesn’t want her audience to experience it in terms of singles, as she thinks appreciation of the album as a unit is diminishing. For more on the album, check out this Roundtable Discussion of the new album on Rookie. Her new album is reaching 1 million in sales and doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, sparking big conversations on topics of motherhood, femini.

People don’t want something crammed down their throats. If you see something over and over, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll like it the 14th time. A good surprise, intrigue, that is good strategy to me, which is why I paid the $15.99 for Beyonce and zero for Gaga.

Beyonce spent time developing her content in secret, and consumers are more interested in her product while Gaga spent her summer and fall prepping fans for her album, giving play-by-plays on Twitter. As someone who had a pretty even opinion of them before, I’m much more intrigued by the surprise drop, especially because there is so much new music there.

In short, I’m not a content strategist, but I know which strategy worked for me in the case of these two albums, and it’s one worth considering as an artist and a writer: work hard and patient and quiet, and let your product speak for itself. Merry Christmas!

How do we train people to trust?

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A website is only as good as the content it supports, and that content is only as good as the system behind it. I’m not simply talking about a content management system (CMS), although that can certainly play a role in presenting good content. A successful system includes the processes and tools that support the people who need them, and the appropriate training for those people.

This year I helped implement a new CMS on my campus. The transition took place in tandem with a site redesign that was to be top-to-bottom responsive. The CMS, chosen to improve the back-end user experience, could certainly uphold the new responsive design. We knew from the beginning, though, that it would be the CMS users–our content contributors–who would make the project successful (or not). We needed our users to feel confident using the new system, confident in taking ownership of the web as a tool for their departments.

Whether you’re implementing a new CMS on your own campus, or training users to better use your existing system, you’ve likely heard the chorus of:

“I’m not a web person.”

This is how the training process often begins. Content contributors, regardless of (or maybe because of) past experience, are quick to doubt their role in the university website. They assume they don’t have the skills or expertise needed to create good web content. For so long, “web” work was something highly specialized that required programming knowledge or a technical degree.

The beautiful truth is that it can be and is so much more. With the right training and some time to get comfortable in a CMS environment, users will gain the confidence they need to tell their stories with the web. With the right education about best practices, principles, and tools, they’ll start to see how they can use the web to reach their goals.

But as it turns out, it’s not enough to train and educate our CMS users and content contributors. Armed with all the information and knowledge in the world, even the most confident content contributors can be derailed by the second verse of our too-familiar song:

“She’s not a web person.

If we’ve done our jobs well, content contributors campus-wide will gain new perspective and new skills; they’ll be a department’s best asset when it comes to guiding web communication. These people will understand how to use the CMS, what’s possible with and best for their websites, and have direct access to the subject matter experts within their departments. Sadly, this promising combination is wasted if administrators don’t trust it.

How do we train the people who need to learn to trust their own staff? How do we show them the necessity and power of building self-confidence? To be truly effective in their roles as content contributors, CMS users must be empowered to take the lead, offer advice, think creatively, and continue learning.

Some of our users will embrace their roles with the web once they’ve been trained, and will be outspoken advocates for using the web effectively. Some of these users’ supervisors will welcome this. In some cases, however, leadership is going to need our help to see what’s possible. We’ll have to encourage them to support and empower their people, and to trust them.

How do we do that?

On Being a Content Strategist

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I am a Content Strategist. Or so my new job title says. Through some series of bewildering events, I’ve managed to conglomerate all of the things I care most about into something I get paid to do. For the past year, I’ve been allowed to weasel my way into my university’s website redesign and CMS transition while I was supposed to be working on social media. I was encouraged, even! Yet, if you would have talked to me just a few days ago, I might have told you that I’m a complete fraud.

I mean, sure, I care an awful lot about strategy. I care an awful lot about a lot of things, actually. But that doesn’t make someone a content strategist, nor does reading every book or article within reach that contains the words “content” and “strategy” in the title.

Real content strategists help communicators connect in meaningful ways with their audiences—across multiple platforms and through various channels. They make sure that information, or content, is accessible to people where and when it’s needed. Technology affords communicators new opportunity and, yes, responsibility for reaching and connecting with other people. Content strategists help us do that. They help the rest of us see what’s possible when we use the tools in the right way.

And me? I work for the University of Michigan-Flint. In the heart of a city known for its struggles, I am so proud of what my university has meant to the people who live there. I’m proud of the work of our students and faculty. I take very seriously my role in serving potential and current students, doing what I can to facilitate a conversation. “This is what UM-Flint is about. This is what’s possible for you. This is the great work we’re doing. This is why Flint, Michigan is a place to be proud of.” The conversation takes place across many channels, and depends on strategic use of digital resources like the university website and social networks. It includes printed materials like brochures and postcards. Every point of contact is part of an ongoing conversation. I care an awful lot about that conversation.

I do care so very much about the people I want to reach, the stories I want to tell, and the calling I feel to do it all the right way. I decided many months ago that I want to be a content strategist when I grow up.

So I’ve been learning everything I can and applying it to my work. I may have a lot to learn when it comes to content strategy, but I can project-manage like nobody’s business. I can ask alllll the questions. In fact, these are “skills” (consider those air-quotes) that I’ve had since long before I’d first heard of content strategy. Even if I’m not a real content strategist, I can do my best to apply and share the principles of the field.

And then Confab Higher Ed.

I can’t recall a time in my professional life when I’ve so craved validation for my work, or a time when I’ve received more validation from people I respect. Confab Higher Ed was a perfect storm of inspiration, guidance, reinforcement, and—yes!—validation. In her opening keynote, Kristina Halvorson said two things that changed my entire view of my work. First, she said that the role of the content strategist is to negotiate and facilitate conversation with “all the people.” I do that! More than anything, I do that.

Then, the big one: “You’re not doing it wrong.”

You guys, I wanted to cry. Or laugh. Or emote in some way that expressed my relief and joy all at once. And then? Every single speaker I heard from afterward throughout the conference explained that they had come into content strategy much the way I have. Each of them had such a familiar story, with a similar set of goals and responsibilities. These people, these Content Strategists, do what I do! They have more experience and are so much more knowledgeable, but at the core… we are all working toward the same thing. Because we care. We all care.

Tomorrow I’ll go back to work. I’ll do much of what I’ve always done. I’ll check in with the web team and review our task lists. I’ll help train content contributors to use the campus’s new content management system. I’ll talk to departments about their stories, and how to tell them. I’ll do my best to make our social networks valuable to our community. I’ll do all of these things, but I’ll do them with a newfound confidence.

For the first time, I feel worthy of the title “content strategist.” I feel like I belong to a community of really smart people who are working to make the web, and the conversation, be what it should be. I have so much to learn, but an incredible community to learn from.

Where should higher ed web teams report? (Hint: It doesn’t matter.)

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What makes up a website? We know there is a back end, where code  makes everything work. There’s also a front end, where design and content come together. This simple divide is clear and provides a concrete separation of worker roles and responsibilities—or so we all thought once upon a time. As the web has evolved, however, it’s become clear that we cannot separate what happens on the front end from the work of the back end. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. Unfortunately, higher education is only just catching up.

Earlier this year, Aaron Rester conducted a survey to find out how web teams were structured and organized across higher ed. Among web team tasks, the majority of respondents listed: website development, information architecture, visual design, content strategy and/or production, social media management, and application development. This list certainly spans across traditional definitions of marketing and IT work, yet Aaron’s survey also found that 82% of web teams classify web work as “part of” marketing/communications/PR or IT.

For me, coming from a university with no formal web team and fairly traditional (by higher ed standards) division of web work, the idea of content strategy or social media being handled by an IT department was alarming. The idea of information architecture or website development falling under marketing was equally surprising. But if I’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that web work is not easily divided between marketing and IT, nor should it be. The best work happens when the lines are blurred and boundaries are crossed.

So where should the web team reside? In marketing or IT? My position: It doesn’t matter. Or, at least, this isn’t the most important decision to be made. Before we think about where a web team falls on an organizational chart, we have to reconsider our definition of a web team.

Less than a year ago, my university’s web team officially included one webmaster and two developers. These three were responsible for maintaining our nightmare of a content management system (CMS), writing web applications, and troubleshooting all things web on our campus. Meanwhile, some of us in marketing worked on top-level web content. We made decisions about navigation and wrote words, and then handed things over to IT for the “web” part. Sure, we knew how to make updates in the CMS and had plenty of ideas about how things should be organized on the university website, but we were the front end. They were the back end. As far as we knew, that was the appropriate workflow.

Not that this workflow was efficient. Quite the opposite, actually. Without a clear understanding of what the other side worked on or valued, there was a huge communication breakdown between the IT and marketing teams. Then, one day last winter, we rallied behind a common goal. As a group, we would work to transition our campus to a new CMS and implement a new, responsive design across the entire university website—in less than a year.

We realized very quickly that the old way of doing things wasn’t working. In the absence of a formal web department, a number of us agreed to form our own ad hoc web team. Regardless of our job title or department, we came together to get this very important work done. In all, today we have a webmaster, two developers, a very talented designer, and two content people. Between us we report to two directors, who are committed to the success of the project as much as we are. We meet as a group regularly. We’ve worked to understand each other. And the results have been so positive.

This week, I listened to an old The Web Ahead podcast with Karen McGrane on web strategy. As I listened to her talk about the importance of user-friendly interfaces for content contributors within a CMS, I realized I had been helping our developers work through this very thing just a few days prior. Had I, a marketing person, been thinking about usability? Did I actually have an impact on user experience? Meanwhile, in a meeting yesterday, I listened as my friend the webmaster and my marketing director talked about how to better focus on content in the new CMS training sessions. Things really are coming together, I thought.

The work toward a successful website in higher education cannot be segmented into buckets like marketing, IT, content strategy, usability, accessibility, social media, or even web. The ideas and work related to each of these is inextricably connected. We cannot be experts in every subject, but we can do our best to understand how they overlap and work together. We can care.

Where I work, we don’t have a formal web team. I’m sure there are benefits to having everyone in one office or working for one director, but I never feel at a disadvantage. For us, it all comes down to communication and, of course, working really hard.

Taking the #strategycar out for a spin.

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Once upon a time there was a  road trip. It was a fantastical road trip with two important stops between my home in Michigan and State College, Pennsylvania where the 2013 Web Conference at Penn State was to be held. First I picked up Nick DeNardis in Detroit. From there we made our way to Oberlin, Ohio to collect Ma’ayan Plaut. Good times and great conversations were had. I counted myself lucky to have time to get to know these incredibly smart people.

But the trip home was even better.

With 8 hours of driving ahead of us, my passengers insisted I take a break from driving. I found myself in the backseat of my own car. With hours and hours ahead of me, I had a brand new vantage point from which to do absolutely nothing but talk. And think. And ask. And learn. From Tumblr to Twitter strategy, crisis communication to cooking, the three of us talked through our challenges, hopes, and dreams. Am I making this sound lofty and important? It was!

As we neared Oberlin and the inevitable separation from Ma’ayan, I tweeted:

Ron Bronson, ever the wordsmith responded:

And #strategycar was born. Inside of said #strategycar, I outlined my future web series in which I would drive around the country, kidnap higher ed smart people, and make them talk to me in my car for hours so I could learn all the things. I would be the Rainn Wilson of higher ed and my Saturn Vue would be the Soul Pancake Metaphysical Milkshake van. Or something.

Of course, I have no budget and there’s this pesky full-time job that keeps me busy.

But. BUT. Twitter.

Today I will take my #strategycar out for a spin, hashtag and all, and talk to you fine people about some things I want to learn. If it goes well, I do it again. And then maybe regularly.

#strategycar is coming to a Twitter near you. Maiden voyage: July 12,2013 at 3pm EST.