The rebirth of RSS?

This is a column written for the BBC World Service (here’s the show.). Views are my own, and do not represent those of my employer, Thomson Reuters. 

I’ve been wrong about a lot of things, but I’ve been particularly wrong about something called RSS. RSS is a simple standard, dreamed up during the halcyon days of the social web when there were enough interesting people writing blogs for it to become somewhat onerous to drop in, as it were, to see whether their website had been updated. In other words, there was a critical mass of bloggers to take blogging into the mainstream, but there was no easy way for the medium to scale from the point of view of readers. It was like everyone printing their own newsletter but asking interested readers to drop by their office every so often on the off-chance that a new edition had been published. 

So RSS, short for really simple syndication, was born. Essentially it wrapped up all the blog posts into a feed, a bit like a wire service, and pumped it out to anyone who wanted to subscribe. It worked brilliantly, but contained within in the seeds of its own — and, I would argue, social media’s — demise. 

The problem was this: As RSS became more popular more blogs used it. And websites. Reuters has a dozen or so; the BBC too. Soon every website was expected to have at least one RSS feed. Software called Readers became the main way to digest and manage all these feeds, and they worked well. So well  that Google got into the game, and soon dominated it. But adding feeds was still a tad awkward, but really RSS’ demise was, in my view, because of something else. 

As social media grew — I’m talking the early years here, when blogging was the preferred medium of expression, and when a certain civility held sway — it contained essential contradictions. Not everyone could be a creator, because then no one would have time to read what everyone else had written. A few kings and queens of social media emerged, and while a long thin tail remained, for the most part blogging simply grew to become like what old media was. Lots of “Talent”, lots of unrecognised talent.

In its place grew a different kind of content that could be more easily commercialised — the breadcrumbs of daily life, the links we share — which we now think of as Facebook, Twitter, Kakaotalk and WhatsApp. Content has become shorter,  and while some of those tools initially used the RSS standard to deliver it, for the most part each became a walled garden, largely fenced off from each other and driven by the value in the data that we shared, wittingly or unwittingly. 

So back to RSS. RSS is still with us, though Google is canning their service soon (eds: July 1). I am a tad upset, having predicted RSS would sweep the world. I was wrong in that, failing to take into account that content, like everything else, will tend to cater to shorter attention spans and the economics of the marketplace. But I do have hope that RSS won’t die off entirely. There are glitzy tablet apps for those who like their reading to come with big pictures and swooshy noises when you turn the digital page. A host of companies, including, ironically the once undisputed kings of the walled garden, AOL, are launching readers for Google refugees. 

I for one still need to fix some problems with my own RSS habits — the tendency to acquire new ones, the failure to read the ones I do subscribe to — but at least some people somewhere thinks there’s life in a daily diet of serious, lengthy reading without lots of eye candy. 

In Malaysia, online election battles take a nasty turn

2013 05 03 15 49 30

Jahabar Sadiq of The Malaysian Insider

Here’s a piece I did from KL on Saturday ahead of Sunday’s election. It was pushed out ahead of the poll for obvious reasons but it might have a broader interest in how the battle for influence over online media has evolved in Malaysia, with relevance elsewhere. 

May 4 (Reuters) – Ahead of Malaysia’s elections on Sunday, independent online media say they are being targeted in Internet attacks which filter content and throttle access to websites, threatening to deprive voters of their main source of independent reporting.

Independent online news sites have emerged in recent years to challenge the dominance of mostly government-linked traditional media. The government denies any attempts to hobble access to the Internet in the run-up to a close-fought election.

“During the 2008 election we were wiped off the Internet,” said Premesh Chandran, CEO of independent online news provider Malaysiakini.

“Our concern is that we’ll see a repeat of that on May 5. Can we really live without independent media on election night, given that both sides might not accept the result?”

More here: In Malaysia, online election battles take a nasty turn

The Blogging Revolution is Over, But That’s Not the Point

I was digging through some of my old columns the other day, trying to see if I had predicted anything right. Here’s what I had to say 10 years ago this month, about a new and still obscure habit called blogging:

I’d like to think that blogs do what the much vaunted portal of the dotcom boom failed to do: collate, filter and present information from other sources, alongside comment. Bloggers — those that blog — will be respected as folk who aren’t journalists, or experts in their field, but have sufficient knowledge and experience to serve as informal guides to the rest of us hunting for stuff on the World Wide Web.

There’s not much money in this, though doubtless they’re likely to upset the media barons who realize that their carefully presented, graphics-strewn home pages are being bypassed by blog-surfers stopping by only long enough to grab one article. But that may be the future: The editor that determines the content of our daily read may not be a salaried Webmaster or a war-weathered newspaper editor, but a bleary-eyed blogger in his undershirt willing to put in the surfing time on our behalf.

I called it, to the bemusement of my friends and media colleagues, the blogging revolution. I was, it turns out, both right and wrong.

Blogging was huge: so big, in fact, it led to the publisher I was then working for being bought by another, and me looking for another job. Blogging, it turned out, was the spearhead of a much bigger assault on the citadel of the media barons and we all know the results of that. But blogs themselves have themelves been superseded: Those companies that got rich realised that, like the people selling shovels and buckets to gold diggers, it was better to make money from the process of generating content than to actually produce the content itself. Facebook, Amazon and Google, of course, don’t actually produce any of their own content, but they seem to be doing well monetizing the distribution of it.

But that doesn’t mean blogging is dead. Although no one got into trouble for suggesting it: A survey by the University of Massachusetts shows that for the first time since it started looking five years ago, fewer of the fastest growing companies of the Fortune 500 are blogging—in 2010 half were, and now only 37% are.  Pew found something similar among younger people.

Of course, blogs were never about quantity. Indeed, the more blogs there were, the harder it was to follow them. In that sense, microblogging—twitter, Google+, etc, where the emphasis is on a limited number of words—and presence sharing tools such as Facebook, where you’re encouraged not to write at length but simply to share brief thoughts, commentary or media, are an indirect reaction to the explosion of blogs.

Frederic Filloux, a French newspaper man, looked at mainstream media’s use of blogs and calculated recently that "too many blogs hosted by large media brands seem loose or rarely updated."

But I was also wrong about another thing: I thought blogs would serve as guides to the web. And many do: They highlight interesting stuff that others are saying. They curate, in the argot of the web. But actually the really good ones—the ones that keep traditional media on their toes—are those which actually dig up new stuff. They actually break news: Florian Mueller, a German patent consultant and campaigner, runs a blog about the ongoing patent wars between mobile phone manufacturers like Apple and Samsung that is based on original reporting from the court rooms and documents. It’s considered the place to go to learn about and understand what is going on. His twitter feed has 10,000 followers.

Then there’s the anonymous blogger who has doggedly pursued the financial problems of Glasgow Rangers football club for a year, laying out in detail the decline of the club—details the mainstream press seemed reluctant to carry themselves. The blog gets 100,000 page views a day, and the most recent post has more than 3,000 comments.  In a recent piece he wrote for the Guardian the author of the blog wrote:

In a world of free information, where most blogs die alone and ignored shortly after birth, the very popularity of rangerstaxcase.com carries a message about modern Scotland. It is a story of the unmet need for the straight story, uncorrupted by the sinister Triangle of Trade that renders most of what passes as news in Scotland’s media outlets as worthless.

There are not many of these examples, but that, perhaps, is the point. These people are amateurs in the sense that they don’t make money from their work, usually. But they’re professional in that they rise or fall on their words—the research they put in, the clarity they bring to the subject—and while the blogging revolution may be over, but if all we’re left with are these blogs, I reckon it was more than worth it.

The Toolbar Community

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I’m really intrigued by the return of the toolbar. Only now it’s not a toolbar. It’s more of a ribbon that appears in your browser on certain sites. Facebook started it but have oddly put it at the bottom of the screen:

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Facebook Connect, which I was so rude about yesterday, extends this idea.

NYT has just launched its own TimesPeople (above) which allows you to see what friends who are also registered with the service are recommending.

The whole idea, of course, is to keep eyeballs on the site in question by building a community around it. If I get suggestions from people I like/trust then I’m more likely to read them than if the NYT recommends them.

Facebook Connect takes this a stage further. Instead of the community being within the site itself, it’s an external community—on Facebook—that moves with the user. In essence it leverages the Facebook community you already have so third party sites can profit from that: If I like something on a Facebook Connect site, then my Facebook buddies will all trot along and read it.

All this is a good idea if you are a website. Media sites like NYT are fighting the mobility of information—the fact that it’s just as likely I’ll read a NYT piece off their website as on it. (Either through an RSS reader, or because someone has cross-posted it or part of it.) What all websites want to do is to keep their readers within the site, and building a community is a good way to do that.

The toolbar is a useful way to do this, since the technology now is available to do this pretty well (TimesPeople’s bugginess aside) without the user having to install anything. If you don’t want the toolbar you can get rid of it easily.

Facebook’s own toolbar is also pretty unobtrusive. Facebook Connect is more intrusive, at least in its introduction, but has received mostly positive reviews. Once signed in you’ll be able to see your friends who are on the same site, and their friends, and hook up with other Facebook users who are on the site. Privacy is an issue here: Do you want your boss to see you pop up on a celebrity site in the middle of the workday?

That aside, a pattern for the future emerges pretty clearly: media companies believe they’ve found a way to differentiate themselves from smaller outfits—blogs, basically—and to build on their volume of content by encouraging communities within their walled gardens. NYT may be big enough to do this: If I visit the NYT site to read a story, I would consider it a useful service to see a list of stories recommended by my NYT buddies.

But it’s still a pain to have to build yet another community around you for each site that offers the service. This is where Facebook Connect comes in. Don’t build a new community; just bring your Facebook community with you.

Community companies lke Facebook are happy to help them build that because they are not creating content themselves, and they have found there’s not enough within their sites to monetise sufficiently. So they have something media companies want to buy—readymade communities of shared interest who can act as recommendation engines to make their websites more sticky.

Facebook etc are so much more powerful and monetisable, in short, if they’re not wedded to the website. That for now means other websites, but of course down the road it could mean physical space too. Think Facebook on your location-aware iPhone able to find books in a shop recommended by your friends, perhaps?

Whether my Facebook community is quite as transferable as it may seem is the question. I have a lot of good friends on Facebook, but I’m not sure our interests overlap that much. In fact, I’d say I’ve got several overlapping online communities of friends and acquaintances, some better suited to others for this kind of thing. My twitter community is little different to my plurk community, to my LinkedIn community and my Facebook community.

Still, TimesPeople is an interesting start.

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Beyond Information Delivery

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Newspaper delivery guy, Jakarta 2007

Over at Loose Wire sister site ten minutes I just wrote a review of ShifD, a new Web 2.0 clippings service that works, in theory, between desktop and mobile. More interesting, I reckoned (quoting myself; sorry), is that

it’s developed by two guys from within The New York Times’ R&D Lab, so you can’t help wondering where something like this might fit into the world of newspapers.

I’d love to see, for example, a five-digit code at the end of each news story in my newspaper/magazine that I could key into my phone and which would then store a copy of that story on my desktop. Would save me carrying a  magic marker around and then forgetting to clip it when I got home. Forget reading the NYT on my handheld: That ain’t going to happen to an old fogey like me; but I’d love a way to store what I liked somewhere useful so that I wouldn’t forget it.

Maybe this is how newspapers need to think of themselves. The medium is not really the problem: I want my newspaper in traditional form, because it’s tried and tested and works for me. But it doesn’t me I don’t want it in other forms too: For when I’m crushed on a subway, where flipping back the pages of the IHT might not be welcomed by my fellow sardines, or when I’m stuck without reading matter waiting for a friend (hi, Mark!)

And of course other people have their requirements too. The medium is going to always be different, depending on the individual. So it’s the content that is the constant, the one element you want to ensure your readers/users are able to access whenever and wherever they want.

And that doesn’t mean just reading it once. Nowadays, as information bombards us, we are more selective about what we read. Two points here: We get a lot of stuff thrown at us, so our ability to recall stuff is weaker. And, because our time is precious, when we do allocate it to something, we don’t want to feel that time is wasted or lost.

Ergo, the value comes in being able to help us users store information we’ve already decided to commit some of our scarce resources to so we can maximise our benefit from it. Whatever article or piece of information it is, chances are that if we bothered to read it, or read most of it, we’ll hope that we retain some of it for future usage.

That, I reckon is where something like ShifD comes into its own. But not if it’s a standalone service. Then it will merely fight with all other services out there that offer something similar. Its power will come if it can be harnessed with NYT so that however, whenever and wherever I dedicate some of my time to reading that august rag, I can be sure of a simple way, via my phone or desktop, of storing anything I read that I consider to be valuable and worth keeping.

In this sense, if you want to get all grand about it, the future of media lies not so much in the format and medium of delivery to the consumer but in the format and delivery of retention by the consumer. I as a consumer want the media provider to provide a way for me to maximise my utility from reading it, by recognising that reading something is not the end of the relationship with that article.

For me, the consumer, it’s the beginning: I’m hoping the piece will change my life sufficiently, from advice on buying new shoes to understanding the threat to my future from a Second Cold War. That, I suspect, is the challenge of today’s media.

User Determined Computing

I’m not sure it’s a new phenomenon, but Accenture reckons it is: employees are more tech savvy than the companies they work for and are demanding their workplace catches up.

A new study by Accenture to be released next week (no link available yet; based on a PR pitch that mentions no embargo) will say that until recently all the most advancted networks and communication devices were at the office. Now they’re at home. The company calls it “user-determined computing”:

Today, home technology has outpaced enterprise technology, leaving employees frustrated by the inadequacy of the technology they use at work.  As a result, employees are demanding more because of their ever-increasing familiarity and comfort level with technology. It’s an emerging phenomenon Accenture has called “user-determined computing.”

The global study of more than 300 Chief Information Officers (CIOs) will argue that “executive and technology leaders are undertaking superficial improvements in their information technology systems rather than making fundamental changes to meet the growing demands of users.” The research will show that the high performing companies are those that are deploying the new technologies.

So far so good (and until we see the report that’s all we’ve got for detail.) I’d argue that this disconnect has existed for years and only been exacerbated by the rise of Web 2.0. But I’m a little less sure of Accenture’s argument when it says that it has launched an internal initiative of its own — what it’s rather lamely calling “Collaboration 2.0”, which involves

rolling out enhanced search capabilities, high-definition and desktop video conferencing solutions, unified messaging, and people pages (similar to personal pages on social networking sites).

A good enough start, I guess, but hardly an office revolution. And I think the term “user-determined” is misleading; it sounds as if users actually have a say in what computers, communications and software they use. Even Accenture’s own Collaboration 2.0 doesn’t sound as if that’s the case. “User-influenced”, maybe.

What do I think? I believe that most companies’ internal software systems need a major more radical overhaul — of five media companies I have had dealings with recently, one still uses the same editing software it had in place more than 10 years ago, another uses a system that has no major changes to its interface since the early 1990s, and another uses DOS WordStar.

I believe that companies need to be more flexible about how/where/when their workers work. The when and where is being addressed with telecommuting and flexible hours. But I also think that workers should be free to use everything that Web 2.0 has to offer — collaboration tools like stuff from 37Signals, Google Apps, Skype, their own hardware, whatever it takes. I know there are security and legal issues involved, but, let’s face it, what worker doesn’t use their own instant messaging program, log into Gmail on their office computer and other “illegal” moves inside the enterprise?

It’s time to let the worker work as s/he wants. If Accenture has spotted anything, it’s probably that the most productive workers are independent workers — those who set up their own systems so they’re not dependent on and held back by their employer. If that’s true, then the logical conclusion is that those employees are probably not employees anymore, but have struck out on their own either as consultants, freelancers or hitched their wagons to smaller, leaner and more flexible startups.

PS I wasn’t hugely impressed with Accenture’s own website, which didn’t comply with the most basic standards of Web 2.0. For one thing, it’s Flash-based, with no options for a quicker loading, HTML version. And the Flash doesn’t load quickly:

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Secondly, a pop-up window greets you on your immediate arrival requesting your participation in a survey:

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Not a good start.

The Economics of Journalism

Daniel Harrison at the The Global Perspective takes issue with my post about media companies no longer being about content and all about the medium. He makes a fair point, and it’s a good thoughtful post (I’ll forgive him getting my name wrong), concluding that “it is misleading to get side-tracked into a debate on medium, when content is what it’s about”:

The medium is changing, but this is nothing new. One hundred years ago most newspapers did not have pictures; now they do. So what? The act of news reporting and delivery is what the economics of journalism is about.

I don’t think, sadly, this is true.The economics of journalism is to make money through advertising, and to a lesser extent, through subscription. The content — how many reporters can be hired, how far they can travel — is largely determined by this. Some publications manage to ignore this with the help of wealthy patrons, but eventually they all fall into the same equation. Newspapers have been economic for so long because they represented a viable logistical operation for delivering content (and advertising). But if the technology of logistics changed, so would be the business model. That is what is happening now. The delivery mechanism has changed so radically that it’s also changing the content mechanism. If bloggers on the streets of Bangkok can get pictures and news of a coup before the wires and TV crews, why not make that part of your content?

His commentary is in the context of the broader tug of war between bloggers and journalists — one he is right to say has a tendency to get too personal, too vitriolic. This is one of those weird artefacts of this period of change, and we’re going to look back and wonder what all the fuss was  about. There will always  be room for professional journalists — reporters, editors, commentators and columnists — and Daniel is right to say that content, in that sense, is still going to be a priority for many media companies. But it will be in a much changed environment, where the walls between creator and consumer are broken down, where delivery, creation and sharing are part of the logistical machinery, and where a well-known, respected blogger is as credible as a well-known, respected journalist.

The Media Paradox

Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine hits the nail on the head again when he says, not for the first time: “The successful media companies of the new age will be the ones that enable media wherever it wants to be.” But in that phrase lurks an interesting paradox: Media companies (itself shorthand for mass media) are no longer about content, and all about the medium. For the past 80 years the mass media has been about leveraging the technologies available to deliver standardized content over as large an area/population as possible. Now it’s about using the technologies available to enable as large a population as possible to swap their own content.

Has PR Taken Over The Conversation?

Here’s the hot news for a Monday: PR firm Edelman has teamed up with Technorati to develop localized versions of their offering in German, Korean, Italian, French and Chinese. Edelman’s PR teams worldwide will retain exclusive use of these sites as they are being developed, beginning with French this summer. These localized versions – which will include keyword/tag search and more – will evolve into more robust public-facing sites that everyone will be able to access beginning in the first quarter of next year.

Interesting. And, I have to say, puzzling. What is a PR firm doing developing content for what is basically a blog search engine? (I’m sure both companies consider themselves more than that, but strip it away and that’s what you’re left with.) Here’s to me what is the kicker, from Steve Rubel’s blog (Steve now works at Edelman):

This is the first in what we hope will be a series of collaborations with the Technorati team. It is designed to help our clients participate in global conversations. In addition to working with Technorati, we also plan to align ourselves with other companies that are developing outstanding technologies that will help us further this important goal. We look forward to hearing your reaction and ideas.

Now, I’m trying to think this through. Edelman’s interest is in promoting its clients. Fair enough. Technorati would be a great place to do that through advertising. But are there not conflicts of interest, and if so, where and when do they arise? What happens if blogs critical of Edelman’s clients start appearing on Technorati? How do readers know that the rankings are not being tweaked to hide such blogs lower down the search results? How do we know that faux blogs or PR-sponsored material is not finding its way up the rankings, or that the material being translated on these non-English Technorati sites is being developed in-house, so to speak?

I guess I worry too much. Perhaps this is all good stuff, a merging of minds intent on the same transparent goal: better information for all. But some of this new blogosphere world is starting to sometimes sound like a parody of itself; of a court full of people spouting all the right buzzwords, but lacking a lot of their original meaning or sincerity. Or maybe I misunderstood it all in the first place. Technorati man Peter Hirshberg, for example, writes about the Edelman/Technorati deal thus:

With the incredible growth of the blogosphere, brands and media companies worldwide realize that their communications environment is also in for big changes. The clout that bloggers have developed the U.S. is going global. The lessons that marketers have begun to learn here— get a clue, listen, participate, engage— will soon apply everywhere.

Yes, it’s true that the blogosphere is big and going global. Well, it already has gone global. And it’s true that a lot of marketers still need to get a clue. But does it mean that a PR firm takes what sounds to me like a board-like, potentially gate-keeping position in one of the key starting points for anyone looking for information in the blogosphere?

I’m no staunch fan of traditional media. But it spent decades, centuries even, building Chinese walls between the marketing and the editorial departments (and, in some cases, between the opinion pages and the news gathering pages.) This was so that what you read wasn’t influenced (or unduly influenced) by the guy paying the bills, whether it was the proprietor or the advertisers. It didn’t always work. At some places it never worked. But you kind of knew where, as a reader, you stood. For sure, we’re all struggling to find this new balance in the blogosphere, and there’s no reason it needs to look anything like the old model. But we should be talking about it, not just gushing about it, just because everyone is using the same satchel of buzzwords.

Perhaps the key to all this lies in Richard Edelman’s blog. He goes into greater detail about the deal, and it’s clear he’s focusing on the analytics side of Technorati — it’s phenomenal ability to track the blogosphere, not merely in terms of users, but in terms of what they’re talking about. This is a goldmine for marketing folk, of course, and having a global presence Edelman is going to love to get its hands on the analytics of Korean and Chinese blogs — a relatively unknown territory to anyone who doesn’t read those languages. There’s lots in there for them, as there is in the idea that “every company can be a media company”, although I think this one, too, needs a bit more analysis.

But the key is in the last two goals Richard mentions: “make PR people valued contributors to the discussion, not the often-reviled spinmeister or hype artist lampooned in the media.” This means, at best, PR becoming more honest and factual in their presentation of information, rather than spin. At worst, it means that the average user will increasingly find it hard to sift between what is PR and what is objective, impartial commentary. For every independent blog there will be a spin blog, or a blog that might be independent on 99 subjects but one. After a while, you’ll forget which one, and that’s when the message finds its way through.

The fourth goal Richard mentions is this: “we are certain that this tool will be useful to brand marketers and corporate reputation experts alike. Look at the corporate reputation benefits for Microsoft, GM and Boeing, all three getting praised for new openness as they initiate blogs such as Scobelizer or Randy’s Journal.” What I think this means is that companies are getting praise for setting up blogs  — although one should distinguish between Scoble and Boeing, I fear; one was a guy and a laptop, carving something out of nothing; the other was a major initiative using hired help. Richard concludes: “For brands, the blogosphere will be a unique way to solicit expert opinion, to mobilize the base of enthusiasts and to monitor worldwide trends (avian flu if you are KFC). A globalized world needs global tools and analysis.” Several different issues at play here, not all of them compatible. “Solicit expert opinion”. Does that mean listen to the bloggers who know what they’re talking about, before it becomes a big mess, a la Kryptonite? Or is “mobilize the base of enthusiasts” put out the word to people who understand its importance, or mobilize as in pass around freebies to key bloggers in the hope they’ll say nice things about your product?

Many bloggers, I believe, do a great job, even a better job than journalists in their transparency and sourcing. But that doesn’t mean the genre is settled and invulnerable to manipulation. Perhaps we’ve already hit the intersection where these potentially conflicting interests collide and merge into something new. If so, what is it? PR was invited to the conversation; they may well be the smartest people in the room, and, while old media was wringing its hands, they may have already taken the conversation over. If so, what was the topic again?

“There will be podcasts for an audience of one and podcasts for an audience of one billion”

To accompany my column this week on podcasting (which will appear here when it’s out; subscription only I’m afraid), here’s a snippet from an IM interview with Cameron Reilly of The Podcast Network on podcasting:

Jeremy: How about the big picture: What might people be using podcasts for in the future? And why has such a simple idea only come to pass now?

 

Cameron: let me take the second first cuz its easier. People tried to do internet radio for years and it failed because the delivery technology wasn’t ready. It’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve finally seen the convergence of three key technologies:
1. tens of millions of low-cost mp3 players
2. low-cost ubiquitous broadband internet access
3. low-latency VOIP services such as Skype

 

As for where it’s going to go, I think we’ll see podcasts cropping up in all areas of our lives. How long before the first true global superstars of podcasting appear? There will be podcasts for an audience of one and podcasts for an audience of one billion (when will Pius start the true Pope-cast?).

 

As media companies and regulators around the world try to censor our lives and prevent us from listening to the content we want, when we want, many people will turn to creating their own content. Welcome to Generation C.

Thanks, Cameron.