Marc Weisblott's blog

'The Netflix Canada Effect': Consumer Rebellion Against Territorial Rights

Backyard satellite dishes used to be the biggest symbol of sedition in Canada. Sticking it to The Man, by receiving HBO and MTV signals blocked at the border, was a pricey proposition. But also a status symbol.

Since that time, the dishes got smaller, to the point of being disposable. Canadian companies eventually caught up to offering their own and the grey market ones smuggled across the border became illegal.

The fact that both copyright ownership and Canadian Content regulations stand in the way of program options being mirrored on both sides of the border, though, continues to grate on the same level that led someone who owned a parabolic antenna to be seen as a freedom fighter.

Subscription packages in Canada might now include brand names like HBO and MTV, but the offerings aren't identical, and the regulations that require popular channels to be offered in packages with less popular ones have contributed to a consumer backlash.

Netflix Canada drew immediate criticism upon its launch last year, because its menu was largely tantamount to a dusty VHS bargain bin, rather than the dream of having unlimited access to every motion picture ever made for a couple bucks a week.

The launch of short-term virtual movie rentals on YouTube throughout Canada might allow for broader choice, but they are priced at the same level as videos from the bankrupt Blockbuster, albeit with a viewing time limit rather than a late charge. And asking $4.99 for an online look isn't going to lead to much spontaneous selection. Reports of the death of the video store ritual are probably exaggerated.

Just like the underground market that emerged for dishes, though, all these geo-targeted tactics has created more incentive to find an IP address-spoofing plug-in.

High-Tech Grilled Cheese Raises the Stakes for Tim Hortons Journalism

No matter how much Apple, Facebook or Google are credited for transforming the planet, their recognition factor is still dwarfed by the fast-food brands that have managed to infiltrate every neighbourhood.

Jonathan Kaplan, the founder of the Flip Video camcorder, raised his share of eyebrows when he announced plans for a chain of grilled cheese restaurants whose orders could be placed via smartphone. But a determined attempt has been made to explain the parallels between the two ventures.

The marketing of The Melt has involved making a case for the nostalgic power of simple meals that mom used to make — or at least the preparation process that she could teach her latchkey kids.

Kaplan opened his first location in San Francisco with pronouncements of how Americans have craved an eatery that does one thing well, not unlike the Flip. Plus, backing from Sequoia Capital was used to get Swedish company Electrolux to create a machine that ensured a consistent grilled constitution.

Curiosity over the concept will have to stretch beyond gadget bloggers, though. And, it will happen, if only because quick-service restaurants represent the final frontier of the monoculture. You don't need to eat in them to know that they are there.

Canadians have seen this phenomenon take shape over the past decade, as everything related to Tim Hortons has become worthy of attention — like the recent trial coffee cup sizing change in two smaller markets. The story proved more tantalizing for media outlets because it wasn't formally announced.

Four out of Five Social Media Surveys Say Whatever You Want To Say

When it has come to the adoption of online platforms, and the adjustment to the current information age, there is presumably no worse sin than not "getting it."

Most companies are still presumed by default to be out of touch. And mainstream media outlets continue to be similarly pilloried.

Yet, no one is going to sacrifice profit for the illusion of progress, just because a critic heckled them.

A safer tactic, then, has involved trumpeting a survey that doesn't name any names. SAS Canada, the analytics company seeking new customers for its software and services, has all but perfected this game.

The latest online survey of 1,000 "senior level business decision makers," conducted by Leger Marketing back in January, asserted that less than a fifth of companies are "getting it" when it comes to social media. Statistics showed that some of those executives have sloughed the job off to communications and marketing departments. And some just don't care.

Of course, it didn't take seven months to count up the multiple-choice clicks, given how SAS released numbers from the same survey in mid-May. The press release back then was "Information overload still dragging Canadian execs down."

Without fail, these numbers were promptly spun into a feature report for the Financial Post, then syndicated to local Postmedia Network affiliates across the country.

Last summer, though, the picture was different. SAS boasted that 90 per cent of organizations in the country were using the new tools — just sluggish about applying them.

Still, the statistics actually budged in a positive direction, since 10 per cent of respondents asserted social media was a waste of time in 2010, compared to 5 per cent this year.

Sarah Thomson: Toronto's Queen of All Vanity Media

No matter how many citizen journalism startups, free blogging tools and social media platforms are out there, the internet still lacks the power of a printing press.

Sarah Thomson, publisher of Women's Post, certainly understands the clout of her little-known magazine over online outlet. Why would she leverage its cover for her second annual election bid? Because the tactic worked when she used the forum to proclaim herself "Toronto's next mayor."

Running for the provincial Liberals in the NDP stronghold of Trinity-Spadina, where she has a slightly greater chance of winning — which may not be saying much — the distribution of her latest issue to homes around the riding has led bigger outlets to speculate whether the tactic is ethical.

None of this attention would've emerged if Thomson's alleged dream diary, about the choice between "Stability or Risk" at the helm of Ontario, been a blog post or Facebook note. The perception that comes with the front page of something (it's "The Post!") is still more valuable for the voters she wants to reach.

The Toronto Star has concurrently backed a community blogger project for the provincial election, Speak Your Mind, on the premise that every one of 107 ridings could use a volunteer correspondent to herd the online discussion. But the website commissioned to coordinate the contributions, The Mark News, has struggled to establish influence by providing a wider forum for professional pontification. Websites built on telling people what they should think simply aren't worth very much on their own.

Canadian Recording Industry Wants To Turn Its Frown Upside Down

Can the music business lobby shift from being a purveyor of doom and gloom to one with hope and change?

Music Canada must think so, as its long-beleaguered president Graham Henderson looks eager to return to the media spotlight this fall, as a hero behind brokering deals between song-based startups and the major record labels.

The shift in attitude has been accompanied by a rebranding, too. After all, it was all over but the pouting for what was drearily known as Canadian Recording Industry Association.

So, when Galaxie Mobile was announced last week as the first homegrown streaming service in the country, the CRIA acronym was nowhere to be found. And, with the likes of Last.fm, Pandora and Spotify similarly expected to overcome their geo-blocked status, the future is considered to be as bright as possible under the circumstances.

Previously, high licensing rates inhibited such services in Canada, due to a regulatory process that created an adversarial relationship between music startups and record companies. Of course, both sides wanted the Copyright Board to set licensing rates in their favour.

The optimism has forced Henderson to stop lamenting the economic hardship created by dead or dying business models. A few short years ago, the message from CRIA was that legalized digital music was a total failure compared to the U.S., which necessitated a federal crackdown on file-swappers.

Today, the recently reincarnated Music Canada is gloating about good news: a mobile social music networking platform launched by Research In Motion.

Professional Sports and Subversion-Free Social Media

The search to make a few bucks in hyperlocal online journalism has turned out fruitless for most would-be contenders.

When it comes to sports coverage, though, seizing control of the message across all possible platforms has been paying huge dividends — one market at a time.

A recent feature from The New York Times highlighted just how much money is being made from media rights, to the point where they are now worth more than the teams.

The squad formerly known as the Expos, in fact, may have never gotten official assent to leave Montreal to become the Washington Nationals if not for the creation of a regional network that allowed the neighbouring Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to reap the majority of the TV-related rewards.

When it came to the acquisition of the Toronto Blue Jays in 2000, the late Ted Rogers was motivated by the emerging realization that sporting events were predicted to be the last type of long-form programming that was always watched live, rather than on-demand. The regional Rogers Sportsnet channels have prospered ever since.

We Built This City by Blocking Trolls

Calgary.ca earned some attention this week for being transformed into what a press release deigned to claim is the "first search-based website in Canada."

The venture is powered by Google Search Appliance, even though the home page looks more like rival engine Bing, with the search bar augmented with large photos of the resurgent city.

Indeed, the effort combined Microsoft Share Point software with other Google tools, and was highlighted on the promotional blog for the Search Appliance. Predictably, the new format was motivated by complaints that would be familiar to anyone who ever wrestled with a government website.

While the launch fit into the outreach narrative threaded by Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi, his Toronto counterpart was exposed for being trigger-happy on Facebook — even if Rob Ford has delegated social media management to others in his office.

Questioning the fact that Ford showed up to dance in his dress pants at the Caribbean Carnival, while steering clear of anything to do with Pride week, was not welcome on the wall. Asking for answers about his behaviour is apparently enough to have your "like" undone.

Amidst the other communication-related shenanigans surrounding Toronto City Hall, though — including a Ford administration support group on Facebook where the administrator, city councillor Giorgio Mammoliti, promised to block the input of any communist he could smell — the idea that the elected leader of the city would stifle discussion from citizens couldn't stir up any new outrage.

McLuhan 100 Recap: So You Think You Can Be a Gadget

The format of the Monday Night Seminar series at the Toronto Reference Library, moderated by Jesse Hirsh, has demanded nothing more of all attendees than to sit on chairs arranged in a large circle.

Nonetheless, the set-up is different from the conferences in which issues related to media and technology are typically mediated these days, with putative experts lined up at a table. The audiences are beholden to the ego aggregation in front of the room — whether or not they have anything to say.

By contrast, the second of three installments inspired by Marshall McLuhan's 100th birthday, "Our City as Classroom," was almost entirely steered by those with a viewpoint they wanted to express.

And the urge was often motivated by a paradoxical principle: the more time that we spend with our devices, the more we want to talk about their effects — and, ultimately, the degree to which we need to scale back, or tune out.

For many adults, being online lots of the time is still generally seen as the stuff of sloth — even more so by those who feel guilty for forsaking offline interaction. Meanwhile, when it comes to the younger digital natives, educators wonder if there will be any point in trying to pierce through distracted conditioning.

When it comes to finding a community of others suffering from a certain ailment or passionate about a particular topic, though, it's not like any better channels were ever built to bring people together. Going outside for fresh air doesn't satisfy that craving for information and understanding.

So, maybe it's just human nature to take tools that seemed like a miracle 20 years ago for granted.

McLuhan 100 Recap: Our City as Classroom — 'Annie Hall' to City Hall

"You know nothing of my work," Marshall McLuhan's second-most-legendary quote, was invoked on Monday night by a participant at the second of three Monday Night Seminars, hosted by Jesse Hirsh, at the Toronto Reference Library.

And it wasn't a reference to Annie Hall as much as a commentary on the tone of the event itself.

The series theme, "Our City as Classroom," became especially pertinent in the past few weeks. Public libraries became the most prominent subject of debate as Toronto City Hall is on the verge of being run over by Mayor Rob Ford's elusive gravy train.

Naturally, the role of the newest forms of electronic media in municipal protest was worth highlighting. But did that really correlate with the theories developed by McLuhan?

Well, the idea that local government could provide a steady stream of ludicrous entertainment has been realized through social media. Yet those acerbic observations provide a gateway for highlighting issues that genuinely impact everyday life.

The most intriguing counterculture event in Toronto this summer was the 22-hour marathon series of deputations regarding the role of government in providing services to the city. Participation in such an event — the stuff of bland bureaucracy in a past administration — was electrified through digital devices.

McLuhan had this kind of thing in mind, even if he was more likely to align himself with the tax-fighting types, based on how he wasn't too fond of protesters at the University of Toronto of the 1960s.

With the nostalgic overload of McLuhan's 100th birthday behind us, it was arguably more important to consider his laws of media in motion rather than the ever-distant past, even if a few seminar attendees urged for a more direct correlation.

Network Effects of the British Riots

The role of BlackBerry Messenger as a supersonic texting method amidst the recent English riots cancelled out the potential to blame social media for stoking the damage.

Rather, public online communication helped with the identification of perpetrators — and has provided ways for Brits to ponder positive steps in the aftermath of the week-long conflagration.

Critical commentary on the circumstances surrounding the riots nonetheless achieved a network effect. And, with these viral pieces of content, a few momentary web celebs were made over the past week based on what they had to say.

"Panic on the streets of London" by Laurie Penny — This 24-year-old writer for The Guardian used her Blogspot to express her sympathetic leanings toward the rioters, on the grounds that the U.K. media stopped paying attention to social conditions in a town like Tottenham, referencing similar clashes that erupted there even before she was born. The self-published piece from Penny, who has spun her online writing off into two books, was shared over 56,000 times on Facebook and over 9,000 times on Twitter in its original form, and another wave of attention via a reposting on the feminist blog Jezebel.

Can Hyperlocal News Patch Up AOL's Sinking Reputation?

The knives pointed at AOL are getting sharper, now that its share price has declined 50 per cent since getting in bed with Arianna Huffington, in the effort to shift its revenue stream from disappearing dial-up customers to web content.

Tim Armstrong, the CEO recruited from Google, is now going to have to expend even more energy to explain what he has in mind for the pricey hyperlocal journalism project, Patch.

Neighbourhood news has scaled into a sinkhole for anyone who has tried to get rich from it. The efforts to meld folksy tales from Smalltown, U.S.A. with the SEO-baiting fun house of the Huffington Post doesn't make a lot of sense to media pundits.

Does the AOL association, and the fact that Patch has paid its content providers, give its $50 million infrastructure investment any more weight than what social media platforms can offer? Armstrong has bet the house on the theory that a packaged article, alongside other packaged articles from the same community, is perceived as more authoritative than scattershot sources.

And even if there aren't enough hits for items about local soccer tournaments and restaurant openings, Patch has promised to capitalize on the U.S. elections next year, with its potential to leverage the Huffington Post to turn minor political anecdotes into major scandals. Lucrative eyeballs would presumably follow.

Patch is predicated on the idea that news consumers are easily starstruck, too. CNN may not send someone to cover your bake sale. AOL not only will, but the write-up is presented in a slick context — without the noise of newspaper or broadcast websites still approached as a secondary medium.

Armstrong has exploited the curiosity that comes with focusing exclusively on the digital. Canadian editorial startups The Mark and Open File have lured investors with similar promises, despite failing to generate buzz outside of attention from the corporate media, which they claimed to be providing a counterpoint to.

Public Libraries and the Expectation of the 'Third Place'

Margaret Atwood has accepted an invitation to visit the newly renovated central library in Hamilton, whose mayor has capitalized on her vocal opposition to prospective branch closures at the Toronto Public Library — even if most Toronto city councillors aren't fond of the idea, either.

Still, the bookshelves that continue to dominate each library branch, at a time when the consumption of words has gone increasingly electronic, have provided a symbolic argument for systematic inefficiencies.

Whatever the preferred format for reading, though, the debate should really be drawing attention to the increasingly essential expectations we have for the "third place."

Starbucks has built its reputation around the concept of being a benevolent business whose locations could serve an entirely separate function from either home or work. And, last summer, totally free unlimited Wi-Fi was switched on in all its stores.

A year later, some locations started covering up power outlets, to discourage laptop hobos. Starbucks was forced to confirm the decision was deliberate, based on response from customers who couldn't find a place to sit for the sake of consuming the latte and pastry, which they paid for.

So, the desire of business to provide that "third place" can be fickle, no matter what it currently claims.

Indigo and Chapters locations have re-installed some of the seating that disappeared after the superstores merged a decade ago. Encouraging customers to look through books they don't pay for — even if the aisles now contain fewer of them — was presumably never bad business to begin with.

Besides, the retail chain was quick to capitalize on Atwood's fight by offering her books at a 30 per cent discount to anyone with a library card. Which is still 70 per cent more than they cost at the library.

Meslin For Mayor

"I am concerned that we have lost a decade," writes Liberal MP Carolyn Bennett on the Huffington Post, at the end of a lengthy blog post in the aftermath of the annual summer conference held by the Couchiching Institute on Public Affairs.

"We need leaders with the open minds of Calgary Mayor Nenshi and citizens like Dave Meslin who are prepared to show us the way."

Toronto now has a mayor who takes pride in not opening his mind. So, the implication is that Meslin is the natural choice to take his place.

Besides, since when do mere "citizens" get mentioned in the same breath as an elected official? Calgary's new face was also seen as a mere citizen leading up to his election nine months ago.

And the new social media politics played by Naheed Nenshi includes sharing regular evidence of the celebrity perks that come with leading a city.

A photo tweeted of Nenshi with Meslin, as the pair embarked on a canoe journey around Lake Couchiching at the YMCA Geneva Park, showed two friendly fellas eager to paddle into the future together. For them, the past decade hasn't been "lost" at all — they spent it building up their bases.

Without a full-time gig, Meslin has continued to play the perennial outsider, at the forefront of raising issues related to public space and the accessibility of civic leaders.

When he got a turn to speak, towards the end of the "citizen filibuster" at Toronto City Hall, his issue wasn't the budget cuts under consideration. Rather, he lectured Mayor Rob Ford about how the overnight meeting excluded participants whose responsibilities prevented them from hanging around past dawn.

The Future of Snooping Journalism Takes Flight

When Rupert Murdoch launched the first news publication designed for the iPad earlier this year, expectations were high, on the grounds that it would reboot the value of journalism.

The Daily didn't click with as many information addicts as anticipated, however. Soon enough, News Corp. was too distracted by revelations of phone hacking at News of the World in the U.K.

So, without much fanfare, the tablet newspaper has been engaging in a different kind of surveillance to generate material. And it's come under some new suspicious scrutiny.

Multimedia coverage of natural disasters by The Daily has incorporated footage shot with a drone. However, the videos appear to violate policies set by the Federal Aviation Administration, which allow hobbyists to fly unmanned aircraft under 400 feet, for non-commercial purposes. News Corp. could seek an exemption certificate — but has yet to receive one.

Concern has been raised by media pundits, because they're well aware of Murdoch's game, which has nothing to with public service. Celebrity stalking would seem like an ideal application for the drones.

While a company under so much fire might be unlikely to cross that line, fears of snooping from the sky have certainly grown, as delegates at a cybersecurity convention in Las Vegas learned this week.

A model plane built for $6,190, using components that anyone can buy, can get the personal information of everyone on a Wi-Fi network, intercept cellphone conversations and reroute calls to another number, or trace locations of people and follow them home.

The flying device plenty of potential dirt for any enterprising journalist to sift through — even if no one leaves voicemail messages anymore.

'Fan Night' Gets BlackBerry Users Drunk on Research In Motion

Apple got to the point of having more cash on hand than the U.S. government thanks to a fetish for the physical.

Android operating system devices have posed a formidable challenge thanks to Google's obsession with the purely virtual.

So, what's Research In Motion to do, now that its customers can't tune out reports that the company is now going nowhere?

BlackBerry Fan Night, held in Toronto on Wednesday, seemed to do its job of intoxicating a few loyal users. Tequila was poured, local World Series hero Joe Carter shook hands, and new models were shown off.

Supposedly, no one got too drunk that they couldn't tell the difference between a Bold 9930 and a Torch 9860, even if the majority of the marketplace seems confounded by the options.

Rather than seek new converts, though, the event played to the cult of CrackBerry. Based on their tweets from the party, attendees were craving a night on the town, as a reward for their years of dedication.

After all, there are no birthday dinners or anniversary bashes to commemorate intimacy with a digital device. Perhaps because these relationships never expected to last very long.

Such events could now be part of the price of keeping BlackBerry users from abandoning the product.

The efforts won't stop Research In Motion from being written off in the media. Particularly in the days after the Waterloo company announced it would be laying off 2,000 employees.

Still, the stunt gave a few people the feeling that BlackBerry would hit a three-run home run in the bottom of the ninth, as if such things can be planned in advance.