Emerging Technology

BEST OF THE WEB: How a little-known Australian helped fuel the rise of the Huffington Post

Patrick Stafford /

The incredible rise of Huffington Post was capped this week when the site won a Pulitzer Prize for its news reporting. The accolade is impressive, but not as impressive as the site’s incredible numbers: according to an exposé at the Columbia Journalism Review it boasts “68 sections, three international editions (with more to come), 1.2 billion monthly page views and 54 million comments in the past year alone”.

The site, led by Arianna Huffington, knows how to aggregate content, and knows how to make it searchable, building an incredibly dominant position in the online media.

“It was possible to draw all sorts of conclusions from data about ‘HuffPo’, both flattering and not.”

“Yet two numbers in particular stood out for what they suggested about the nature of the enterprise that Huffington, Jonah Peretti, and the host of that first lunch, Ken Lerer, had built: 40 million and 19,000. The former is the number of unique visitors who came to the site in January. The latter is the number of names in Arianna Huffington’s contact list.”

Both numbers are impressive, and suggest that not only does the Huffington Post have a massive stamp on web content, but it’s becoming just as big a web publisher as other mastheads, such as the New York Times or Wall Street Journal.

The Huffington Post is transforming into something bigger, something more important. And as Huffington herself points out, the company is succeeding by “thinking deterministically”.

“If you think about the major religions, they’re deterministic – creator, plan, faith, destiny, causality. Journalists are prone to this. They tell stories. And stories are confining. There is a tendency to kind of tell a story that makes it seem as if everything had to happen the way it did.”

But the Huffington Post’s rise – and the way it has managed to connect communities – might not have happened without a young Australian writer named Duncan Watts.

Watts is the author of a book called Six Degrees, which according to the CJR “examines the nature of what Watts called ‘small worlds'”. The concept – later to be adopted by fans of Kevin Bacon and playwright John Guare – had come from a 1967 experiment by the social psychologist Stanley Milgram, in which he tracked the number of connections it would take for a letter to reach a certain recipient unknown to the original sender.

The answer: six. That conclusion suggested that it was possible for any one person to reach any other person in the world by establishing a network of diminishing familiarity – start with a friend, then a friend of a friend, and so on – until the connection was complete.”

Huffington Post co-founder Ken Lerer was so taken with the idea that he took Watts to lunch to discuss his plan to campaign against the National Rifle Association.
That campaign may have ultimately been unsuccessful, but what Lerer learnt about the power of networks to rally around a cause and share information was crucial in the growth of Huffington Post.

The long road to BlackBerry success

Research In Motion is in a lot of trouble – that much is a given. The company’s shed executives, including its two co-chief executives, and its shares are plummeting. Former employees are writing long diatribes about how the company is failing. And the PlayBook didn’t sell well at all.

And just last month, Canada said it wouldn’t even be opposed to a foreign takeover – just after Apple beat RIM in domestic smartphone shipments for the very first time.

The new chief executive, Thorston Heins, is attempting to save this smartphone maker from the brink of destruction. He’s entering an environment where it seems there is no way out.

But he’s trying. Over at BusinessWeek, Heins attempts to draw a picture of how RIM can succeed. It has a good foundation, he argues, with no debt, and $US2 billion in cash. It has 77 million subscribers.

He also says that far from RIM’s market shrinking, the number of people accessing wireless technology continues to grow.

“Would you ever expect four or five German car companies to all be successful?” says Heins. “Porsche, Mercedes, BMW, Volkswagen, Audi. You would say, ‘What? Five car companies in one country and they all make good money and they all survive? How can that work?’ It works because they all have their unique position.”

RIM has a long way to go – but Heins is determined he can get there.

Does Microsoft Word need to die?

Microsoft Word is without a doubt the norm for word processors, having been at that position for nearly two decades. But now, a movement is growing that would see the software done away with altogether.

Over at Slate, Tom Scocca has written an essay on why exactly Word needs to be done away with. Among his reasons include the fact Microsoft just builds so many features on top of each other, it’s impossible to know what to do with them all, that stylistic preferences remain “irritating”.

Scocca proposes we should be using software that is built around publishing content online.

“Desktop publishing has given way to laptop or smartphone publishing. And Microsoft Word is an atrocious tool for web writing. Its document-formatting mission means that every piece of text it creates is thickly wrapped in metadata, layer on layer of invisible, unnecessary instructions about how the words should look on paper.”

Hulu comes into its own

If you’ve travelled to the United States or keep up with web technology, you’ll know that American television streaming site Hulu is only continuing to grow.

The company, which recently concluded a sale process without a potential buyer, has not only been growing from strength to strength – it’s been producing its own original content.

This year the company will show off its original programming to advertisers in a schedule that is usually reserved for the traditional television networks. It’s a sign that web programmers, including Netflix, are now being taken more seriously as “networks” of their own right.

Such a change has drastic ramifications for how people consume content, and how advertisers respond to that. Television viewers no longer have to watch a program at a set time – they watch it whenever, and however, they like.

This piece in the New York Times chronicles the site’s growth, although it hasn’t been easy.

“The executives who were the greatest champions of Hulu at its inception – Jeff Zucker, the former chief executive of NBCUniversal, and Peter Chernin, formerly the chief operating officer at News Corporation – have moved on.”

“Their successors are less enamoured with the service, which they view as a potential threat to traditional revenue streams. Hulu’s owners are the Walt Disney Company, the News Corporation’s Fox Broadcasting unit, Comcast’s NBCUniversal unit and Providence Equity Partners.”

The situation becomes even more complicated as some television shows have become more popular on Hulu, rather than on traditional television. Hulu comes into that with its own statistics, which provide some pretty detailed information on viewers.

“Stoking envy among traditional television executives, the Web site collects a trove of data on its users’ preferences in programming and ads. Through its “Ad Select” feature, viewers can choose which ads they see.”

“If a user selects a Diet Coke ad, for example “in the future, I know you’re more of a diet-conscious person and can send you more ads for diet drinks,” said Jean-Paul Colaco, Hulu’s senior vice president for advertising.”

Combined with its original content, and advertising techniques such as these, Hulu may be issuing in a new age of television – when viewers have more power than ever.

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Patrick Stafford

Patrick Stafford is a freelance journalist and a former deputy editor of SmartCompany.

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