Teacher, feminist, krautrock connoisseur, anime enthusiast, player of video games, occasional modder, intermittent blogger

'Bild' and the Intention Economy

Yesterday morning, I went to collect my post and discovered a copy of Bild sticking out of my letterbox. So I threw it in the trash with all the other unsolicited junk mail.

Bild, for those who don't know, is a German tabloid which is not even allowed to call itself a newspaper. Although that's an urban legend, the very fact that so many people believe it tells you how the German public feel about Bild. Since 1998, its circulation has fallen from 4.56 million to 2.84 million (in 2011). And in March this year, it decided to remove the daily nude from the front cover (my incredulous emphasis). But my point today is not (only) to criticise Bild, but to discuss how it ended up in my letterbox.

Today, 24 June, is the 60th anniversary of the newspaper's launch, and in order to celebrate Bild sent itself to 41 million households in Germany (the Sunday edition of Bild is a separate publication and a couple of years younger, so that's why we received the anniversary issue a day earlier). In doing so it apparently set a world record for "the largest circulation for the free special edition of a newspaper." Except, of course, nobody asked for a free Bild to be shoved into their letterbox, which makes this achievement sound rather hollow. And let's not forget that the sheer expense of the event: the printing, logistics and waste generated could hardly be anything other than significant.

Unsurprisingly, when Bild announced its plan to effectively spam every household in the country, many people were upset—upset enough to launch a counter campaign which resulted in a legally-binding right to refuse. In the first twelve days of the campaign, some 200,000 people completed an application to not receive a copy of Bild. Naturally enough, Bild is claiming some kind of victory here as well, since only 0.6% of German households did not want to receive the free issue—surely, the reasoning goes, 99.4% were happy to join Bild in celebrating its 60th birthday.

No. The reason that only 200,000 dissented was because the whole approach was opt-out rather than opt-in. After reading about the plan months ago, my girlfriend and I considered joining the counter campaign, but decided against it since opting-out actually entailed sending our personal information to Bild. And opting out would still not stop Bild from feeding our letterbox with rubbish: instead, we'd receive an envelope containing a letter which said, more-or-less, 'Thank you for not taking part in Bild's 60th anniversary celebrations...' Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

So after that I forgot about the whole thing, and only remembered yesterday when I was confronted by the offending article in my mail. And my response was the same as with any other junk: remove from letterbox and fling in the large cardboard box which stands behind the front door, specifically designed for collecting such trash. I probably didn't even break my step as I continued on the way to collect bread rolls from the bakery.

Actually going through the opt-out process seems to have met with mixed results: some people still received Bild (perhaps because they didn't click on the confirmation email they were sent), and some people received both a red envelope and Bild (perhaps because the postman/woman were not sufficiently instructed about what they were supposed to do). The counter campaign is now collecting evidence before deciding how to proceed.

Bild decided that the German public would all take part. Sure, we were able to refuse, but doing so required considerably more effort than just forgetting and using the trash when the day came. We were, without solicitation, opted into a campaign, with the choice to opt out if we could be bothered. Most people couldn't, and didn't. But what if the choice had been the other way around, if we'd had to ask to receive a free copy of Bild, rather than getting it automatically? Obviously, the entire event would have been a massive failure.

* * *

Serendipitously, a short while later the post delivered my copy of The Intention Economy, by Doc Searls. Now, I'm a slow(ish) reader, so I have barely started the book, but what I have read (and seen in his interview with Leo Laporte on this week's Triangulation) got me thinking about the Bild I'd thrown away.

In essence, the Intention Economy stands in sharp contrast to the Attention Economy, which Searls argues "has shaped marketing and sales since the dawn of advertising." In the Attention Economy, companies seek to deal with an over-abundance of information (or competition) by winning the attention of a customer. All traditional advertising is attention-seeking: even the modern, supposedly individualised online advertisements still do this by hoping to appear relevant. The first step of the AIDA principle of marketing (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action), attention is a crucial part in achieving "a customer who is ready to buy," in Peter Drucker's words:

The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service fits him and sells itself. Ideally, marketing should result in a customer who is ready to buy.

The problem with this is that it treats the customer as a subject to be studied, or a source of data to be collected. What it fails to do, and what modern technology could and should enable, is actually listen to the wishes of the customer. Instead of desperately collecting as much information about their customers as possible, in order to find the best way of attracting their attention, companies would be better off—in the long run—asking customers what they want, and finding effective ways of listening to them. Marketing typically places the customer at the centre of the operations of a company; but what it has not done is ascribe the customer agency or intention. Marketing has researched the customer rather than communicated with them.

This, I take it, is what The Intention Economy and Searls' ProjectVRM is attempting to address. And now, back to Bild.

* * *

The 60th anniversary 'celebration' of Bild is clear example of attention-seeking. Having seen its circulation fall by roughly a third over the last decade, the newspaper decided to force its way into the German consciousness like a petulant child shrieking 'Look at me! Look at me! Pay attention, damn you!' Bild did not in the slightest care what we wanted, and made it more difficult for us to object than to just let it have its little public tantrum.

Perhaps I exaggerate after the fact. But then again, perhaps we should not underestimate Bild's aggressive, cynical, opt-out-only attempt to increase its circulation. It is a particularly visible example of the Attention Economy at its worst. Bear in mind that the whole of modern advertising is based on similar principles; as are, necessarily, the advertising-supported internet and social networks. Do not forget that Facebook, with nearly a billion users, derives its (disappointing) market value from advertising and that it very much operates on a 'choose to opt-out rather than choose to opt-in' basis. Bild is far from being alone.

Yet neither are we. At the risk of sounding too inflammatory, I'll end by saying this: if we do not tell companies what we want, and what we do not want, they will never listen to us. Bild, Facebook and others like them are based on a model which, on the one hand, encourages consumer passivity, and on the other rewards whoever can make themselves heard over the attention-seeking masses, either by sheer volume, or by being the most intrusive and obnoxious. If that is not what we want, we need to find a way to gain their attention, and inform them of our intention.

Journalism in Der Spiegel #2: The apocalypse in anime and manga

The second of two articles lambasting journalism in Der Spiegel.
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While we're on the subject of poor journalism from Der Spiegel, I'd like to point to this recent article, published in the wake of the March 11 earthquake Japan. The basic idea here is that things like anime and manga, for all their weirdness to Western audiences, have now proven themselves to be a prediction of the future.

Let's take a look at what the article has to say about this picture, which it gives (my translation) the title Tsunami-Victim in Natori: As if lifted from a manga:

There is a photograph that a photographer took after the earthquake in the town of Natori. Before the earthquake some 70,000 people lived there; today the town has been reduced to rubble. In the picture, a girl cowers at the side of a road. She's perhaps 20 years old; hair dyed red, wearing a black jacket and hugging her naked legs, it looks as if the girl is freezing and she herself is the only thing she has left to hold on to. Next to her are a pair of wine-red Wellington boots, behind her the remains of civilization. As if Godzilla had trampled through the town.

To me, this is dreadful in several ways.

First of all, in an article which claims to be about the artificially of culture, the only way it seems able to view the suffering of this girl is through the lens of popular entertainment. Saying that it looks like something out of a comic book does not suggest much empathy.

Secondly, I'm quite sure that the photo looks the way it does because of that. The photographer, or editor, wanted to create an image which made you think of manga / anime. In that sense, the fault is not entirely with Der Spiegel, although they should have noticed the implicit manipulation.

But more importantly, the argument that Japanese popular culture is a prediction of such disasters is, to put it midly, completely arse-about-face. Yes, the geographical situation of Japan leaves it particularly susceptible to natural disasters, and the Japanese have always been aware of the fragility of their existence. But those recurring images of destruction in anime and manga? They're about something far more specific that has already happened.

Yes, you've guessed it: the two atom bombs dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima by the USA at the end of the Second World War. Such manga, anime, and movies like Godzilla are not haunted by destruction because of an apocalypse that might happen, but because of the apocalypse that already has. I find it completely unfathomable that the author of the Spiegel article does not feel it necessary to mention this: the bombs are mentioned in passing, almost like inconvenient details which to not fit into the argument of the article. To be sure, some (recent) manga and anime do specifically predict what might happen in the event of an big earthquake in Japan, such as Tokyo Magnitude 8.0 or 51 Ways to Save Her. But these are really the exceptions; works like Akira , Nausicaä of the Valley of Wind, and Neon Genesis Evangelion are far more representative, and in all of those the apocalypse has already happened. Talk about a hint.

This should be so obvious that it doesn't need pointing out. Yet despite discussing Nausicaä, it still doesn't occur to the author of the Spiegel article. But perhaps it explains why they find Japanese culture quite so weird.

Journalism in Der Spiegel #1: The school teacher in Penthouse

The first of two articles complaining about journalistic standards in Der Spiegel.
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This week, the German weekly Der Spiegel published an article entitled 'Not fit for school: Why a teacher is fighting for her right to undress' (my translation). Unfortunately, it isn't available on the Spiegel website, so I can't provide a link; the week before did contain a summary of the news, without commentary.

The story is this: Rachel Whitwell, a New Zealand school teacher, and girlfriend of one of the country's biggest porn kings, decided to pose nude in the Australian edition of Penthouse. The New Zealand educational authority found out, decided to investigate, and ultimately revoked her license to teach. The original photos caused a minor scandal two years ago; then she posed again a year later; and the educational authority's recent verdict is now causing a much bigger scandal. As the title of the Spiegel article indicates, it isn't really about a teacher who strips before the camera, it's about one woman's fight for freedom.

Or not. Der Spiegel goes out of its way to tell us a story about a young woman who wants to be a good mother and spend more time with her daughter, so decides to supplement her teaching job with better-paying nude modelling. Which is such a shame, as she's clearly an exemplary teacher:

She taught five and six year-old children from socially disadvantaged families. She taught them reading, writing and arithmetic, and tried to encourage them. She says she wanted to bring them up to be free thinkers.
As a teacher myself, I'm not convinced that's such a big deal. She taught the kids The Three R's. She did her job. Incredible.

Worse, Spiegel seems to have got its facts wrong concerning the original motivation for her to strip. Just to prove how lame Der Spiegel's research is in this article, here's how I found out.

The summary article I linked to above refers to a publication called the 'Sunday Times', in which the Ms Whitwell said she saw no reason why posing nude should affect her job as a teacher. Curious about what such an august publication as that had to say about this topic, I googled 'Sunday Times Rachel Whitwell'. In fact, the publication is actually called the Sunday Star Times and refers to itself as 'Sunday News' (article here). Excellent use of sources, Spiegel. Anyway, right above the google link to that article is another from the New Zealand Daily Telegraph in 2009 which contains a little more information from around the time of the original photo shoot. And it turns out that she originally posed nude, not spend time with her daughter, but to get back at her pornographer boyfriend. Half his age, she had decided to test him by anonymously flirting with him on facebook; he organised a rendezvous; she confronted him and sent the photos to Penthouse in revenge.

See any mention of the caring mother in there? Nor me. Sounds more like a retcon.

The latest Spiegel article also fails to mention, as the summary one admittedly does, that Ms Whitwell had previously had erotic stories published in adult magazines, and has her own table-dance studio. I suppose such omissions are understandable when you're trying to make the case for a struggling single mother who accidentally becomes embroiled in a fight for truth. Oh wait, that was Erin Brockovich.

Indeed, the Spiegel article reads as if its attempting to answer the call of another article by the Sunday Star Times which bemoans that, with regard to this case, no feminists are coming forward to demand that a woman's body is her own. Let's think for a moment why that might be.

First of all, no one has said that she isn't allowed to strip before the camera if she wants. She's not being prohibited from posing in Penthouse. The NZ education authority has just decided that she's not allowed to do that and teach children. That may or may not have to do with the conservatism of the authority; but given the erotic stories, the table-dancing, the pornographer boyfriend, and then the photos and subsequent interviews, you can't exactly say that she's making it easy for them to be open-minded. Challenging them at every opportunity, more like.

Secondly, Ms Whitwell hardly went out of her way to be anonymous. Claiming, as she does here, that she had no idea that anyone in New Zealand would see the original photos is naive beyond belief. There's this thing called the internet, see? And Australia? It happens to be this huge mass of land not far (relatively speaking) from New Zealand. Penthouse? That's hardly an obscure magazine. And actually posing as a teacher in the photos and on the cover of the magazine? Very tasteful.

Thirdly, this isn't about women's rights, because a male teacher would be treated no differently, and probably worse. Indeed, that fact that Ms Whitwell is a woman probably made the whole posing in Penthouse thing more acceptable, despite the authority's verdict. I'm quite sure they would have come down on a male teacher posing in Penthouse like a tonne of bricks, and I can easily imagine suspicions of paedophilia flying around too.

Finally, the key question, and one which Spiegel conspicuously fails to ask, is whether you would want such a woman (or man) teaching your children. For most people, the answer is surely, 'No'. Spiegel almost suggests that this is hypocrisy, since no-one bats an eyelid about a fireman posing in a nude calendar. But firemen and women aren't responsible for children in the same way that a teacher is. And as I said before, Ms Whitwell hasn't exactly been discreet about this whole issue.

What I'm really getting at, though, is Spiegel's botched attempt to make this about freedom and women's rights. It isn't at all: it's about responsibility. If Ms Whitwell wants to pose nude, let her. But she should take responsibility for the consequences. If she taught at a university, she would have to deal with students and teachers who are capable of googling her name; if she worked in an office, she'd have to deal with colleagues and customers who do so; as a primary school teacher, she has to deal with parents. That's part and parcel of the choice she made by posing nude in the first place.

The women's rights movement was always about choice and equality: the right to choose the same things as men. It was never about freedom to do anything you want without concern for the consequences. That's a form of anarchy. The fact that Spiegel, which is supposed to be 'good' journalism, can't tell the difference, is disappointing.

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