Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Chartbeat Says the Rise of the Machines Won't Be So Bad if You're a Cyborg

Tony Haile has a vision of the future, and it involves turning people like me into cyborgs.

And Haile thinks this is a good thing! It’s part of his pitch for Chartbeat, a Web analytics start-up: He says that very soon “content producers” like yours truly are going to be faced with the choice of becoming robots–that is, replaced with algorithms and machines–or sticking around and injecting ourselves with big helpings of technology and data.

Chartbeat is supposed to help people like me with the cyborg route, by providing real-time information about the way the stuff I make performs on the Web: How many people are looking at a given story, where they’re coming from, how long they’re staying, etc.

Until now, most of Chartbeat’s 3,000 customers have handed that information over to managers and editors. But now Haile is rolling out Newsbeat, a tweaked version of the service that’s supposed to be delivered directly to rank-and-file stuff-makers like me. He’s been working with Web publishers like Gawker Media, Fast Company and Time Warner’s Time Inc. to get the rollout ready.

I’m not entirely opposed to my coming transformation, by the way: Unlike some of my peers–and these tend to be older peers–I like the idea of knowing more about the way people consume the stuff I make.

And it’s inevitable, anyway. On the Web, it’s impossible not to be exposed to performance data. The only question is what kind of data, and how much.

But still. I don’t know exactly what I’m supposed to do with all of this data. The version of Chartbeat that All Things D already uses gives me plenty of personalized information about my stories, and it’s narcotizing to sit around and watch my numbers flick up and down all day.

And if I were running a very big Web site, like, say, the Wall Street Journal, which also uses Chartbeat (and, like this site, is owned by News Corp.), I could put some of that data to work. I could figure out which stories I might want to highlight on the homepage, and try to analyze why others aren’t performing as well as they could, etc.

But from my worm’s-eye view, I don’t know what I’m really supposed to make of my Chartbeat report. Chartbeat tells me that my scooplet this morning on Rock Band is doing well, which is gratifying. But I could also get that information, with a longer delay, via services like Adobe’s Omniture or Google Analytics.

And in any case, then what? That information can’t help me make more scoops, or more interesting stories. And in the end, I’m pretty sure that’s the only way I can I do a better job.

Haile disagrees, of course. So let’s let him make his own case in this interview, which we conducted in the semi-busy hallway outside his office yesterday.


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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work