Content as moat (1/2)

Speaking of moats and of Twitter threads, this one:

The broad point is that the Internet made physical-world distribution moats irrelevant. And paid markets on search/social levelled the playing field online, which meant that prices have gone up, yields have gone down; leaving companies with the largest budgets to dominate the space (but, as we have seen earlier this month, capital as a moat is less and less a defensible strategy).

Which means that companies need to find other means to build engagement and loyalty – other moats. And, the writer says, this is where we will see diversity as companies approach the problem in their own unique ways and biases. And it seems that they’ll variations on content.

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Twitter threads as blog posts

Twitter threads are mini blog posts on specific topics. It’s interesting because they often start as responses or re-tweets of other tweets, a sort of branching-out in an organic way not possible on blogs.

Since the Twitter in-app view of threads intersperses tweets from the writer and replies to it, services like Threader combine the writer’s tweets into a single chronological thread which do resemble blog posts, even featuring popular threads on their home page – what a great way of surfacing high-quality discussions.

Steven Sinofsky takes this to another level, annotating his Twitter threads on his blog Learning by Shipping – take this post on the last decade of Windows as an example (the annotations are in italics).

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Colour TV comes to India

From this fascinating article from February 1982:

Television has spread slowly in India. Thirteen years lapsed between the opening of the first station in Delhi in 1959 and the second in Bombay, India’s commercial capital. Ten cities now have their own television stations, and others are linked by microwave relays. But less than 20 per cent of India’s 684 million people — and only six percent of its land mass — are within television range.

One factor limiting television’s spread is the high cost of locally made sets — about $300 for black and white. The inexpensive sets available overseas are not an option, as Indians who bring them into the country face customs duties of more than 300 percent. Indian television manufacturers, eager to leap into the color TV void, say they can offer 20-inch screen color sets for $990, a sum which includes heavy government duties on imported parts and excise taxes.

For the high purchase price, Indian TV viewers get only a few hours’ reception a day. Delhi viewers can watch television for 61/2 hours, including two hours of children’s programming in the morning. Bangalore, India’s fifth largest and fastest growing city, gets 141/2 hours of TV a week by relay from Bombay and Madras.

Nearly everything about this has changed in the last nearly forty years. Technology has moved from terrestrial broadcasting to satellite broadcasting, which was introduced in 1992 (with six channels from overseas). The population has doubled from 684 million to over 1.3 billion people (but the growth rate has fallen sharply and continues to). Import duties of 300% on TVs have reduced to 36%, but the point itself is moot given the widespread manufacture and assembly of TV sets in the country. Even more importantly, the Internet, mobile phones and streaming services – none of which existed in any meaningful way in 1982 – coupled with the lowest data rates in the world – has changed what television means.

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Work as an end in itself

My bet is that any move towards a four day work week especially in the white collar sectors, is going to be stymied by employees themselves, because of this

“We value work more than any other culture in the history of the world,” he said. “We value work as an end in itself.”

What if you had a four-day work week? Why don’t you?

Chances are high that a plurality of people in your circles of friends view work and their title/role in the company as a large part of their identity.

Add to that the fact that in countries like India, the urban outdoors are oppressive and public spaces nonexistent. For many, their offices are the cleanest, most orderly, most comfortable spaces in their lives apart from their homes. In large domaine is it’s also where they’d find their community. It’s likely they’d – by default – want to spend time there.

I’m all for a shorter work week and support any well thought out policy to make it the norm. In the long run it’ll make for a much more rounded, calmer and less divided society. It’s that even though we’re probably in the best time ever to experiment with it broadly, there are too many cultural factors militating against it – from workers themselves.

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Import substitution and India’s fountain pen industry

This article in the Mint newspaper describes how wave after wave of regulation designed to protect domestic industry ended up mostly unmaking it, particularly for fountain pens – an instrument dear to me. Makes for interesting, unfortunate reading:

Fountain pens were, curiously, in a list of 8 ‘prohibited items’ in 1954, meaning they could not be imported freely – until 2001.

Then fountain pens were brought under Small Scale Industry restrictions in the 1960s, which meant no new ‘large enterprises’ could manufacture them – but existing large ones could continue to: “… even today, if price of a fountain pen is less than  ₹100, it is still reserved for production by the SSI sector”.

And in the 1970, rigid labour laws made life difficult for manufacturing operations across sectors, but also for the remaining large manufacturers of pens, leaving the market to small cottage industries, which neither had access to changing pen technology nor to economies of scale, effectively making it uncompetitive.

Wilson Pens in Andheri and Mhatre Pens in Dadar are both defunct. Airmail in Vile Parle is still operational. Deccan Pen Store is a charming store in Abids in Hyderabad with excellent and patient service, as is Ratnam in Rajahmundry. But they’re all cottage businesses. Camlin and Flair are larger, but they’re not going to compete with Hero any time soon.

And while I love using my Deccan Advocate, Camlin Trinity, Flair Inky and ancient Oliver and Ratnam, they’re sadly not in the same league as my Lamy Safari (leave alone Al-Star), Pilot Metropolitan and even my twenty-five year old Hero hooded nib pens. The Indian companies just don’t have models that compete in build and finish.

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Long tail of search

This comment on Hacker News

I would add new ways of searching in Internet. If I searched for food recipes in the 2000s I would find independent blogs with some real local/family taste. Now I have a hundreds of results from click bait sites with the same commoditized recipes and the ugly blog with a good recipe deep in the long tail. We can say that we need improvements in the long tail when the tail deserves to move up (or to the left in a xy chart).

Internet search is a driver for the world economy, a tiny improvement would improve the life of entrepreneurs and their ecosystem beyond elite circles.

Discoverability is going to become an increasingly large problem. Leaving aside content locks inside social media services, over and above what the commenter says, Google optimises for recency, page performance, mobile-friendliness. You can no longer filter search results by date range. Organic results are also pushed down the page by structured search results: top stories, news carousels, related search results, travel cards and more, all of which are dominated by publishers that support AMP.

Taken together, this ends up being biased against independent, casual, non-optimised but potentially interesting publishing, not to mention the loss of increasing amounts of old content that exists on the web but with no way to discover them any more.

I find DuckDuckGo better at surfacing non-mainstream results, but my subjective assessment is it’s not as diverse as even Google used to be say ten years ago.

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On luxury

We value luxury goods not just because of the sensory experience or because of their use in value signalling, but also because we value their histories.

When The Supper at Emmaus was thought to have been painted by Vermeer, it was priceless; when it was discovered to be the work of forger Han van Meegeren, it became a relatively worthless curiosity. Its appearance didn’t change, just its history, but people no longer wanted to look at it. If you were to discover that your Rolex is an inexpensive duplicate, you would experience the same effect.

In other words

It is clear, though, that we can be influenced by the history of an object even when it has nothing to do with communicating status or with differences in quality… think about your wedding ring or your child’s baby shoes. Such objects serve no practical purpose, they need not be beautiful in any sensory way, and they are useless as signals.

Great read overall. It helps describe why the original iPhone, the original iPad are such highly valued items today. They’re no longer useful. They’re not the most beautifully-designed iPhone/iPad. They’re not even a limited edition. But they’re the first.

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Invidious Comparison

For pre-industrial predatory barbarians, it was pretty clear who stood where: you just counted slaves and acres. For industrial society, though, there is no obvious way to rate predatory barbarians except to see where they shop and what they buy. Since you can’t count the slaves or acres of the stranger on Madison Avenue, the only way to know where he stands is to see how much he pays for his cappuccino.

– “Display Cases”, Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker, April 1999.


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Time span perspective

From Wait But Why:

As for you, if you’re 60 or older, you were born closer to the 1800s than today.

Today’s 35-year-olds were born closer to the 1940s than to today.

But also

… the world wars were pretty close together. If World War 2 were starting today, World War 1 would feel about as far back to us as 9/11.

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Paper and digital book libraries

An article on reading electronically from ten years ago, when the iPad was mere months old and the Kindle three years old.

I understand the e-book’s imperfections and limits, and monitor the arguments that it will end publishing or save it, and potentially kill bookstores, which would kill something in me, if it were to happen. But I also believe that the book as we know it was only a delivery system, and that much of what I love about books, and about the novel in particular, exists no matter the format.

– “I, Reader”, Alexander Chee

In these ten years I’ve read books in all forms: paper, scanned PDFs, eupubs on the iPad, on the Kindle device, and via audiobooks. I’ve read a couple of books while switching between the Kindle version and the audiobook (not recommended). To me, the format doesn’t matter. Maybe it’s a generational thing, maybe it’s personal.

What matters to me though is the sense of having a library. I feel the same way about my book cupboard and bookshelves around the house as I do about my Calibre library of e-books. I add book cover images where they are misusing, and add & sort the book genre just as I arrange my paper books.

What is missing with a digital library is the serendipity of physicality. I’ll scan my paper books and pick one from a genre or author I haven’t read for a while. Calibre syncs books with the Kindle but doesn’t yet sync Last Read. Also, sorting by genre of author in a list, while infinitely more flexible, doesn’t have the same feel as casting an eye over your books. The answer’s probably not simply changing the layout from a list to a panel view a la iBooks/Apple Books. We’re fundamentally limited digitally by the viewport, and that breaks something essential. I hold out hope that we’ll come up with something else that’ll outdo the physical world, but until then the joy of taking in one’s library’s books is limited to paper.

Endnote: there is joy in building your own library of highlights – passages, quotes – across books digitally that has no physical equivalent, or at least not unless transcribed, which requires great effort. Since nearly all my e-book reading is on my Kindle device, this is what I’ve used for years:

Look in the documents folder of your E-ink Kindle and you’ll see a file named myclippings.txt. This is a text file of all of the notes and highlights made on your Kindle (but not on the other Kindles or Kindle apps on your account). You can copy this folder to your PC and open it.

And add those highlights to the Quotes & Notes folders of my notes system.

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