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Online Content Is Not Worth Very Much

"The Answer Factory: Fast, Disposable, and Profitable as Hell," Wired magazine's recent profile of online content machine Demand Media, dovetails nicely with my last post.

Bob Garfield analyzes online ad valuation from an inventory supply-side economics perspective. Demand pursues their business model from a content supply-side perspective. Both arrive at the same inevitable conclusion: cheap, fast, good enough, and at volume is the only way to earn money from the Internet—and perhaps all digital communication networks.

Demand Media crunches multiple streams of search data through several algorithms that eventually churn out search engine optimized titles that they predict will attract hits—a combination of high traffic but little competition. The result is thousands of mostly how-to articles, listed content, and informational videos that aren't high on style or even valuable content, but fill a voids that their data says the public is increasingly searching for.

Their process is getting so refined that they are ramping up to produce 1 million pieces of content per month, which the article's author Daniel Roth notes is "the equivalent of four English-language Wikipedias a year." Roth later writes:

To appreciate the impact Demand is poised to have on the Web, imagine a classroom where one kid raises his hand after every question and screams out the answer. He may not be smart or even right, but he makes it difficult to hear anybody else.

The result is a factory stamping out moneymaking content.
For the privilege of stamping out the actual content, writers, editors, videographers, and other creatives are paid on a scale to rival minimum wage. The videographer Roth features to begin his article, for example, gets paid $200 total for 10 videos he shoots in one day.

The moral here is that content is, once again, not king. It's barely even a serf. And we see this medium and all it transmits for what it is: cheap and fast. But is it really good enough?


The Advertising Glut

Last Thursday, I listened to a fascinating episode of the NPR program On Point with Tom Ashbrook titled "What's Next for Advertising?" You can listen to it yourself here.

During the program, Bob Garfield made a truly insightful point that I've yet to hear anywhere else. He thinks that online advertising is unsustainable. The Web is a limitless platform, offering limitless advertising space. However, There is not limitless advertising demand or inventory. There will always be a glut of advertising space or supply, which according to simple economics means prices will always be driven downward.

Therefore, the advertising business model as it currently exists cannot support the cost of creation of even small amounts of premium content, because the Web's open content creation and distribution ecology is also a leveler of content quality—the cream will always rise to the top, but it is all still there to see and fulfill niche tastes and tendencies.

This is bad news for Internet advertisers of all stripes—both the content creators and those who'd try to sell ads against their content. The only way, in this scenario, to make money is through monopoly. Which would explain Google's profits and push to grow their market share.


Please Justify Your Existence, Hollywood

Why do we need cameras and producers and CGI, when one person can set a story to music and make people cry using nothing but sand?

Addendum: To preempt the inevitable comment: yes, I do recognize the irony in using a performance for a highly produced television franchise that I found on the Web's largest video repository as evidence that we don't need technology to be entertained.


World Enough and Time

My friend Albert's recent blog post about Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress" has me ruminating on that poem a lot lately. Albert focuses his explication on the enigmatically beautiful phrase "vegetable love." Yet it's that poem's first line, "Had we but world enough, and time," that still gets me.

Has there ever been a more concise, universal statement of longing?

Marvell specifically addresses a longing erotic in nature, but his hypothetical construction could be a prelude to any human passion. It is why we chase youth and money, technology and entertainment, fame and status—all things that represent control over some inexorable force.

Youth stalls time's yardstick, age. Fame enables our names to live, thus cheating time's ultimate arbiter, death. Money, status, and entertainment offer us "world enough," whether that means consumption or leisure. And, of course, technology buys us the illusion of both time and world. After all, technology saves us time and allows us to be virtually in multiple places at once.

Of course, such pursuits ultimately prove fruitless. We know this objectively, yet we pursue anyway. But we can't be blamed for this drive. It's something we struggle with today. It's something Marvell recognized 400 years ago.

However, I can't help think that the world would be somehow better if we could just recognize that world enough might be the ground we can cover with our own legs. And time enough might be living each moment in a manner meaningful to us yet mindful of others. And both could be achieved in those instants when we give over some gift of ourselves, to either a lover or a stranger, in whatever capacity we have to give, with no expectation of reciprocation yet complete surprise and delight when that gift is returned.


The World Actually IS Flat

The Internet has an end point. Who knew?


TV Fills the Void

I've always wondered why the television show Friends was so popular. It had an improbable concept (young people with no visible means of support living in gorgeous New York City apartments), formulaic sitcom banter, and some consistently annoying characters and story lines. Yet people, myself included, watched it with a devoutness that would be the envy of any church. The show was, in fact, an anchor for years of Must See TV.

Could Friends' popularity be due simply to its title? Perhaps, if one stretches the argument Jonah Lehrer reports about in his latest post on The Frontal Cortex: "the benefits of watching television when lonely . . . provide the same sort of emotional relief as spending time with real people."

Media ecologists have been observing these effects of television for decades. Marshall McLuhan identified television as the most significant electric media of his day, because it enabled the viewer to transport beyond time and space and engaged multiple senses, thus stimulating our evolutionary proclivities toward a fragmented, tribal society. Neil Postman then took up the yolk, exploring the darker implications of this feature of electric media.

But even television itself is limited, primarily by schedule, distribution, and level of interactivity. We still must watch our shows either according to a network's schedule or must wait for the DVD release, and we can't enter the narrative played out before us.

Which leads me to wonder where the Internet, which breaks through those barriers by being always already available and completely interactive, will take us. Lonelygirl15 aside, how much less lonely will we be online, even if it forces our attention away from our physical environment and into our own isolated head-space focused on a device?


Sex or Conan O'Brien?

India's Health and Family Welfare Minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, has a solution for exploding birth rates: give poor villagers electricity so they can watch late-night TV and stop fucking.

According to Rhys Blakely of the London Times, the minister said,

Don’t think that I am saying this in a lighter vein. I am serious. TV will have a great impact. It’s a great medium to tackle the problem... 80 per cent of population growth can be reduced through TV.
Why stop at TVs? Give them laptops and smartphones, and they'll never even want to touch another human.


Sustainable Work, Sustainable Life

I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately, not out of dissatisfaction or a sense of crisis. Rather, I’ve been pondering a question I’ve long put off: where do I see myself in five or ten years? Having avoided this question for so long has led me down some interesting paths, but it also means that I’ve had more jobs in the last twelve years than my father had his entire life, which is not something I think is sustainable as I get older.

I’ve been approaching this question through the lens of media ecology, which I think of less as a social science and more of as a mode of thought, and I’ve shocked myself with some of the conclusions I’ve reached. I work in the Internet industry, so I’ve had a front-seat view of the changing workplace. I love my job, but the following seven dictums suggest it’s not the right path for me.

Work has its place and should be kept in its place.
Work is a part of life, not life itself. It can be meaningful and enjoyable and offer fulfillment. However, it is still only an aspect of what makes a person whole. Work should not require my attention beyond work hours, at home, on vacation, or during the weekend. Sure, there are some people who successfully and healthfully integrate their work and personal lives thoroughly. They are rare and lucky and we should admire them. But we should not emulate them. Those who do—which is the vast majority of us who put in too many hours at a job that wouldn’t be our first choice of life’s pursuit, if given the absolute freedom to choose—shouldn’t be labeled “passionate.” We should be called by our true names: “obsessive,” “scared,” or “misguided.”

Work with people who are smarter or more skilled than you.
This will challenge you hourly, ensure you learn something daily, and lead to a deeper and more sustainable fulfillment.

Work should be described accurately as “craft.”
Not all jobs are equal here. Some, perfectly good and noble pursuits, do not qualify. I would never describe even the best retail salesperson as a “craftsman.”

Work should not involve multi-tasking.
I want to focus on one task, do it the best I can, complete it, and move on to the next task (see #3: craft). The compulsory attention deficit disorder commonly enforced in most workplaces is neither healthy nor fulfilling. I find more satisfaction in rolling one ball down a straight and narrow lane to knock down ten pins than I do in keeping those same ten pins juggled in the air. This, I know, is unavoidably changing, as more people who grew up natively in a digitally mediated world enter the workplace. But there is still value in those of us who think more linearly and methodically.

Work should involve in-person interaction or complete solitude.
I understand we live in a global, digital society. I get it. But work should limit mediated communication. This means no more phones, email, IM, teleconferencing, videoconferencing, or far-flung teams. They are an excuse to schedule meetings at all hours to accommodate all parties in all parts of the world, yet avoid the tasks at hand (see #4: attention deficit disorder). If I can’t conduct work interactions face-to-face, where I can build a relationship based on handshakes and eye contact and the subtle modulations in vocal tone and facial expressions, then just leave me alone to do my work as I see fit.

Work should not move at the speed of electricity.
Again, I know the revolution has come, but for me a work environment that is “always” and “instant” is neither sustainable nor fulfilling. I prefer to prepare rather than anticipate, to act rather than react, to consider and craft rather than iterate. A thing worth doing is a thing worth doing once and well.

Work should make others’ lives better. Period.
This is a direct call-out to Web and tech companies, who are changing our language in many of the same ways George Carlin once skewered the military and government for doing. For example, please stop talking about “evangelizing” and “designing meaningful interactions” in relation to your products, when what it is you’re really trying to do is capture a large portion of the public’s attention and sell them something. The only time Internet-speak is being truly honest is when it refers to their customers as “users,” which is also the term for drug addicts.

I’m not sure what all of this means. I’m not sure if what I seek exists. I’m not sure if I’d even know it if I found it. I’d love your take on it.


Reuters Pwns the Associated Press

Want an easy and legal way to post Reuters content in its entirety on your site with 11 clicks of your mouse—and with the choice of paying for it or allowing them to post their ads to your site with their content? You got it. I'm glad someone in journalism is paying attention.


Smartphones and Skinner Boxes

Based on the rising sales of smartphones in a down economy, it would appear as though a critical mass of Americans are now psychologically and socially prepared to immerse into the age of persistent connectivity.

According to David E. Meyer, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, who was interviewed by Steve Lohr for an article in last Tuesday's New York Times,

The social norm is that you should respond within a couple of hours, if not immediately. If you don’t, it is assumed you are out to lunch mentally, out of it socially, or don’t like the person who sent the e-mail.
Meyer goes on to liken the effect of the smartphone to that of a Skinner box.

Three's no doubt that information is a form of food to humans. We're wired to process large amounts of stimuli simultaneously from our five senses, find patterns in it, and form a coherent narrative from the patterns we perceive. By stimulating three of those senses—the eye, the ear, the touch—smartphones offer some tasty morsels. It's up to us what degree we gorge ourselves on them.


The Wheel Keeps Turning

As this article rightly notes:

Once upon a time (at the zenith of 20th century analog media), maintaining an on-site, in-house library crammed full of archived periodicals and rows and rows of hefty, solemn reference books, was all the rage at large media organizations.
However, as the article goes on to state, the now-old-and-dying-media are closing down their internal libraries as a cost-saving measure.

Just as television and radio news outlets built a news infrastructure around the old media, print, Internet companies are now building a content infrastructure around what they are overtaking: media refugees. How long before this infrastructure becomes outmoded and gets dismantled?


Huxley vs Orwell, West vs East

In his fascinating comic Amusing Ourselves to Death, Stuart McMillen captures the seemingly competing predictive fears of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell.

McMillen's choice of title, taken from a book by Neil Postman, suggests he too favors Huxley's vision of a future in which people willingly allow their critical ability to rot in the face of comfort and convenience. From an American perspective, that conclusion seems reasonable enough. Our attention is constantly vied for by Twitter and Facebook and Google and HBO—and they all hold out the promise in some way to make our lives better. Heck even Disney and Pixar ironically agree with Huxley.

But America and the American perspective, it increasingly appears, are no longer the center of the universe. Orwell's vision of a future in which our freedom is controlled by Big Brother is still alive and well—and, significantly, the Orwellian Nightmare accommodates the same technologies that seem to prove the prescience of the Huxleyan Warning.


Rock Hard

Does this site make geology or the 1970s seem cooler? At least it's not another Tumblr walk of shame.


I Hate [Heart] Google

They already own the search market, host waaaay too much of our data on their networks, and track our online behavior in ways too creepy to think about. But, damn it, they keep making products that I want to play with.


Learn Languages. Online. For Free.

As a follow-up to my prior call to tell Mike Bloomberg where to stick his budget cuts, I thought it worthwhile to highlight a new service—one of thousands of services—that NYPL offers its cardholders: free language lessons. The best part? It's all delivered online using an audio- and slide-based method designed by Mango Languages, so you can learn at your own pace from the comfort of anywhere you can find an Internet connection.

NYPL's subscription covers nine of world languages, from French to Greek to Spanish to Chinese, and offers recent immigrants from Spain, Brazil, or Poland ESL lessons in their native tongues. Each language is covered by 100 lessons and each lesson has about 120 slides. That's a fairly comprehensive introduction that should give anyone the foundation to travel or build some fluency.

By the way, you need not be a NYC resident to get an NYPL card. If you live anywhere in the state or work out of an office in the city, you can apply for one, too. Could someone please tell me why Bloomberg has targeted them for cuts?


How to Tell Mike Bloomberg He's Wrong

As Norman Oder of Library Journal reports, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has proposed a 22% budget cut across New York City's three library systems.

This makes sense. What better way to save a few municipal dollars in a down economy than to cut access to a major provider of job-search advice and tools to an out-of-work public? And if spiking usage numbers are any indication, even those still lucky enough to be employed but looking to tighten their collective belts in hard times are taking advantage of public library services.

I think every library that subscribes to the Bloomberg information service should withhold payment in solidarity with the New York systems until Bloomberg retracts his proposal.

I know, I know. He hasn't run the company since he became hizzoner. But he did found the company, and he won elective office on the back of the wealth and fame he gained from it. What better way to tell him that he is terribly, terribly mistaken than to put a small dent into the coffers of the company that still prominently bears his name?


I Have Seen Big Brother, and He Is Us

Via Singularity Hub, I learned of a new site, Ugolog, which promises to turn any Webcam into a motion detection camera. Now you—or anyone, for that matter—can monitor remotely any area on which you choose to train a digital camera. The service will store and make searchable the video data, which will undoubtedly be tagged with date, time, and geographic data.

I guess if anyone is keeping track of our comings and goings, it's better that it is each other, rather than Google or the government. Or is it?


Google Will Read Your Mind

Thanks to a nudge from Ian Holsman, today I read this article by Sharon Waxman about Google's plan to automatically deliver news relevant to each user's interests based on the user's online behavior.

Under this latest iteration of advanced search, users will be automatically served the kind of news that interests them just by calling up Google’s page. The latest algorithms apply ever more sophisticated filtering – based on search words, user choices, purchases, a whole host of cues – to determine what the reader is looking for without knowing they’re looking for it.
I do wonder how the public will react to this in terms of privacy. I know Google has always captured and used our online behavioral data, but they've never applied these metrics in a manner so overt and personal to the general user as this product. Targeted one-line ads that creepily match your email is one thing, but presenting you automatically with a page that sums up all of your interests is another.

Of course, convenience is a great drug, so even if Google loses a few users who think of them as the all-seeing flaming eye of Sauron, most people might just go along because they get exactly what they want without having to search for or even think about it.


About Take Your Child to Work Day...

Instead of indoctrinating our children into cubicle culture, shouldn't we instead celebrate Stay Home and Play with Your Child Day?


Change the Model, Change the Game

My friend Josh posted last Friday a blog entry regarding content-producers' rights in the digital space. I'm late to the party because most things Josh writes demand a great deal of contemplation. Furthermore, as a former professional writer and editor, I find myself nodding my head vertically at his several of his arguments. However, after much consideration, I think Josh's post is misguided.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me state that I work for the Relegence Corporation, a wholly-owned subsidiary of AOL. We are a content aggregator. We made our nut aggregating real-time news for financial concerns, where business intelligence is held at a premium. AOL bought us to use our technology, which crawls and automatically indexes documents on nearly 40,000 sites, to serve relevant, real-time, and topic-specific news on any of our millions of sites. We do not repost content, but link out to its source. Think of us as a news or stock ticker.

Our latest initiative is the Network. The Network delivers a scrolling page of relevant news about any topic you might "love" as a subdomain of In corporate-speak, we call them "passion points". If, for example, you are a big fan of the artist once-and-now-again-known-as Prince, you might follow

And before I continue, I also have to note that, though my opinions are clearly informed by my current work, none of the opinions stated here represent the opinions of the Relegence Corp. or AOL.

Primary among Josh's grievances is attribution. AllThingsDigital, to use his example, did not to his and several other people's minds indicate prominently enough which was their original content and which was their abstracted content. I have no idea whether AllThingsDigital is operating in good faith, nor am I an apologist for them. However, I do know that whether or not attribution is prominent enough is a huge intellectual property gray area and usually a design issue. Most often, it's subsumed by cost-saving decisions to use the same style sheets for both original and abstracted content. Again, I'm not arguing that this is necessarily acceptable, but it is a fact.

In a perfect world attribution would be impossible to ignore, but as long as it's attached to the title and excerpt with an appropriate link out, then I don't think there's much to carp about. Isn't this the model and Digg built their businesses on? And are footnotes and citation lists in books, which are either printed in smaller type at the bottom of a page or buried in the back, appropriate? Aren't they often hard to find, and don't people often ignore them? And at least links brings the reader immediately to the source, rather than forcing her to find the citation, go to the library or bookstore and find and checkout the material.

Another point of Josh's that I take greater exception to is his characterization of "big sites" that "skirt around copyright issues by only 'excerpting' posts." The legal principle, which covers excerpting, is fair use. It has long been held that the benefits of fair use to the public dissemination of knowledge—and, thus, the common good—far outstrip the individual's right to restrict the use of a small—very small—part of her work. And, at least in part, fair use is meant to counteract what Josh terms as the producers' right to "decide who uses their work, and how," which could be wielded as a tyranny of the minority. After all, what novelist would want passages of her novel used by a critic to show just how incompetent a writer she is in a review (a review that likely has ads sold against it, incidentally)?

Again, it's a gray area, but generally two or three sentences is fine as an excerpt (which is what most RSS feeds willingly serve up) and is all that most above-board aggregators use. In fact, the only ones really making a stink about the unfairness of fair use, excerpting, and appropriation right now are the AP and Time magazine, both big businesses. Just see the paces Time is putting Shepard Fairey through.

Finally, if you're going to publish in the digital environment and be a capable steward to your content, it is absolutely your responsibility to know and understand the rules, consequences, and tools of that environment. Just as print publishers once had to know some of the technicalities of paper and ink, digital publishers (a term that encompasses bloggers) must know what it means to publish on the Web. There are several ways digital publishers can prevent their sites from being crawled. Most blogging platforms will let writers restrict who can read their blogs (which Merlin Mann, whom Josh quotes, should know). And two lines of easy-to-find code can even hide your site from search engines.

The fact is, most publishers don't want to hide their content in this way because they want to publicize their ideas. And—this might sound crass and cynical—the Web is an ad-driven economy. It's has to be because the public is unwilling to pay an entry fee to the Web to anyone except their ISP. So even if you and your site don't advertise, often the price of publicizing and broadly disseminating your ideas is to allow someone else to advertise against a link to and abstract from them.

So, it's not just a matter of simply changing copyright laws, which won't work anyway because legislation is at least a decade behind technology and will be outstripped as soon the laws are passed. If anything, the change would have to come in the business model. Change the business model—or better yet, change the technology—and you change the game.

Correction: In the eighth paragraph I conflated the AP's fight against bloggers excerpting their stories and Time's suit against Shepard Fairey's artistic appropriation of their cover photo of Barack Obama. I fixed my mistake.

Update: Josh's level-headed response to my rebuttal. Gray areas abound, but it's in the debate that we discover what we can all live with.


Is Tumblr the New Medieval Stockade?

Public humiliation as punishment has a long history. What has changed are the tools we use to inflict it. The Web now provides us with a far more public and potentially humiliating vehicle than ever before. Until, that is, we become inured to its effects.

Blogs have often been used as a post on which to publicly whip those who've offended us. I certainly have taken a few shots at others in this space. People Who Sit In The Disability Seats When I’m Standing On My Crutches is a perfect example of a more sustained campaign.

However, Tumblr, which promotes itself as "the easiest way to express yourself," seems to have become the weapon of choice among the eternally aggrieved. You need only look to This Is Why You're Fat, Look at this Fucking Hipster, and Asleep on the Subway for evidence. I'm sure there are other examples, which I'd love to know about.

I'm sure some of those pictured are jerks who deserve ridicule, while others are actually lovely people who are guilty of nothing more than getting silly during a night out or being too tired to stay awake on a train. That's not the point.

Even film crews and photographers working on a public street with the intent of publishing and distributing their work must get signed or recorded waivers from all passersby whose images they capture. If they don't get a waiver, they must obscure the individual's image so they're not identifiable. There's a reason for this: even in a public spaces, we all have a right to our privacy and to the published images of ourselves.


OMG! They're Totally Nailing Him to teh Cross!

The Passion of Christ, courtesy of Trinity Church and Twitter.


This Is What the Death of the Book Looks Like

Consistent with my abiding obsession with The Guardian's culture blogs, I direct you to Peter Robins' recent post about the sense of retro-chic pervading current book design.

His conclusion about the death of the book is a bit hysterical. The book is a durable medium that's not going anywhere anytime soon. But it has ceded it's place as a dominant medium—much less the dominant medium. And Robins' spot-on observations about book design prove this point. For when a medium is usurped, it becomes in the minds of the public an objet d'art infused with emotion and nostalgia. It becomes the symbol of a kinder, gentler time.

By Combining Technology and Poetry We Find Our Humanity


Is an Hour Enough to Save Everyone's World?

Just got back from a lunchtime walk during which I was approached by three college-age people, each asking for two minutes of my time to solicit my support and funding for, respectively, Save the Children, gay and lesbian marriage rights, and Greenpeace. Along the way I was also asked by two homeless people for money.

All five encounters physically reinforce the relentless images of crisis and desperation confronting us in our mediated society. In the face of such need and the natural fear it engenders of being in need, it's a wonder more of us aren't either hardened or crippled into inaction.


Stephen Fry, Ubergeek

Two weeks ago, the actor and author Stephen Fry was part of a wide-ranging interview on BBC Radio 4's Analysis: The transcription of excerpts are entertaining and full of the wit and common sense that a non-techie but avid digital user often provides. It's also worth your time to listen to the whole podcast, which is linked to among the excerpts.

Among his best observations, Fry tells us why the Web is like a city (it has libraries and theatres and museums—and a red light district), how Facebook is becoming low rent and MySpace is already there, how texting resembles 17th and 18th century letters but with fewer abbreviations, and why email is a literary form unto itself.


Lexia to Perplexia, and Back Again

According to the scholar N. Katherine Hayles, "Electronic literature, generally considered to exclude print literature that has been digitized, is by contrast 'digital born,' a first-generation digital object created on a computer and (usually) meant to be read on a computer."

As you can imagine, the genre has existed for decades as a near-monastic pursuit. It has a small but devout following and has attracted the attentions of such powerful thinkers as Hayles, Jay David Bolter, George Landow, and Stuart Molthrop.

However, the mainstream hasn't been ready for it. Electronic literature, which encompasses several forms including hypertext fiction and interactive fiction, rarely provides an easy read. Furthermore, the genre has been technologically hamstrung. In its early days, not many potential readers had ready access to computers. And throughout its history, its chief authors have had to be as facile at coding as they are at creating narrative, despite the development of a rather clunky and expensive program dedicated to creating hypertext narratives.

Now, I think, is electronic literature's time to breakout. The technology has improved and opened and the public's behaviors have been conditioned enough that the vehicles and tastes for such narratives are converging.

As Japan proves, mobile devices are getting good enough to consume—and compose—narratives. And the potential such open and free technologies as Twitter and Facebook to develop an audience around short, connected (even cryptic) hypertext narratives that can spin off in multiple multimedia directions is ripe for the plucking.

Now is the time for the next wave of authors of electronic literature to take the art to its next level.


"Fuck New Media"

This time Technorati can't blame me entirely for the salty headline.

No, the above phrase was uttered by Columbia Journalism School professor Ari Goldman to his "Reporting and Writing 1" students. "Goldman, a former Times reporter and sixteen-year veteran RW1 professor," New York Magazine reports, "described new-media training as 'playing with toys,' according to another student, and characterized the digital movement as 'an experimentation in gadgetry.'"

You might rethink those "gadgets," Ari, because if you actually read the news, you'd know those "toys" were rapidly replacing newsprint. That sound you hear, Ari? It's the shutters closing on two of the oldest newspapers formerly published in major media markets.

Both, by the way, are being reborn in some fashion as online-only publications. I guess boys will be boys when it comes to their toys.

Now, I know, Ari, you claim not to be against new media. You just want your students to master the fundamentals, which you claim they can practice in any medium. But you're wrong there, too. True, we need good, honest, in-depth reporting now more than ever. But online is no place for the long form. And your students will need to learn how to deliver their good, honest, in-depth reportage in a manner appropriate to their digitally savvy readers and the medium that will carry it.

Size matters, Ari, if you want to "fuck new media." And smaller is better in our online and increasingly mobile world.


Amazon Cries Uncle

Another tip from Albert: Amazon has released an app that allows all Kindle books to be read on the iPhone and iPod Touch.

Wait. Wasn't the point of the Kindle's electronic ink that it produced a reading experience that is supposedly better than traditional media screens, and more akin to an actual page? Guess that wasn't enough for all those people who already own a handheld that plays music and movies, delivers the Internet, and provides phone service to buy one more device just for reading.

This move may save Amazon's e-book business, though I doubt it. Have you ever tried to read Gravity's Rainbow eight sentences at a time? But it certainly marks the Kindle as a failed experiment that was about 10 years behind its time.


Intelligent Design

My friend Albert, the most pious and devout atheist I know, alerted me to this image he found on Flickr.

Was Jesus really almost as big as a tyrannosaurus rex? Did his sandals have a place to attach spurs? Does Crayola make a color called Flesh of Christ?


Trying Something New

No, really, I still love you, Blog. Very much. This is just something I'm, well, playing with. To see what it's like. I still love you, Blog. Really.


Slow Listener

Miles Raymer has an excellent article in the Chicago Reader about the Slow Listening Movement, a music-listening regimen that former Reader contributor Michaelangelo Matos is trying to counteract the audio ADHD induced by the iPod.

Though Matos' plan is intriguing, two other aspects of the article really caught my eye. First was the opening anecdote, which I hadn't heard before, about a man who won a songwriting contest, the award for which was exclusive rights to a previously unreleased Sufjan Stevens song. Rather than posting it for profit on iTunes or releasing it in any digital form, the winner decided to host in-person parties in which people could come hear the song for free—a gesture toward the roots of music before any recording technology.

I think that's touching and a lovely, respectful nod toward the song's actual creator. Apparently, that was not the reaction among Stevens fans: "This decision provoked startling anger—Duffy and Malloy were called hoarders, elitists, and worse for what one commenter at the Sufjan fan site All Good Naysayers dismissed as their 'little asshat teaparties.'" So digital technology has rendered an open invite to a music-listening party not populist enough. How dare you make me actually go somewhere to hear a song and not charge me for it.

Usually, such strong reactions are exhibited by those who resist technology and feel persecuted for it. In this case, it's Stevens' fans, clearly used to the freedom and convenience of digital music technology, who feel persecuted.

This brings me to this article's second intriguing sub-story, in which Raymer reports on a new MP3 device designed by an Italian design collective who have a similar view toward music listening as Matos. Though digital, their player replicates the look of a cassette. Furthermore, there is no skip or browse function—to fast forward or rewind, you actually have to twist your fingers or a pencil in the faux tape holes, like an old-timey cassette.

New technologies mimicking old ones is nothing new. However, in this case the designers are going for more than just retro chic. They are actually trying to limit your listening experience to make a point about how digital formats have changed our habits. Not really the stuff of profit, but it makes for good press.

Raymer's article highlights how central music is as a medium to our human experience—how viscerally we feel it. As such, music will continue to play a central role in our struggles surrounding new technologies, particularly as those technologies are developed as contexts for the delivery, distribution, and enjoyment of music. Napster was only the beginning.


The Multicolored, Polyphonic Tides of Revolution

This past February 20 was the centenary of the publication on the front page of Le Figaro of The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism, written by Filippo Tommaso Marinetti and credited with starting the Futurist movement. F.T. Marinetti's document had a profound influence, for very different reasons, on early-20th century Fascism and, later, on Marshall McLuhan.

It is difficult to know how serious or sane Marinetti was. He was an outsized figure given to outsized pronouncements and self-contradictory behavior. He was a supporter of Mussolini, so he held at least some convictions toward Fascism. He denounced pasta. He fought a duel with a critic who dealt with his work harshly yet on at least one occasion heckled his own play. He wrote an anti-Catholic novel but later reconciled with the Church and stated that Jesus was a Futurist. He protested against fascistic Antisemitism.

Of course, we librarians can never forgive him for the 10th point of his manifesto, which begins, "We will destroy the museums, libraries, academies of every kind...." But who couldn't love a guy so innately opposed to order (despite the whole Fascism thing, that is) that he included 11 points in his manifesto, which we all know are supposed to be some multiple of 10? Is that where Nigel Tufnel got his idea?

In honor of F.T. Marinetti, I offer The Manifesto of Manifestos:

  1. We affirm exclamation points!
  2. We will destroy our own movement before it starts by issuing a manifesto.
  3. We will act contradictorily to everything we say we stand for and call it art.
  4. In the absence of exclamation points, we will question everything cryptically.
  5. We will wear hats and pins.
  6. We will put up inscrutable posters and stickers in public places and wait for the curious or impressionable to rally around them.
  7. We will wait for the New York Times to report on our movement, then sell hats, pins, posters, and stickers.

Since this is, you know, a movement, I invite you to to add your own declarations in the comments or even re-post The Manifesto of Manifestos on your site. There are hats to be sold, and I need a new winter coat. If there aren't hoards of 20-somethings wandering around Brooklyn or the Lower East Side wearing merch within the month, then the movement has failed!


Teach a Man to Fish...

FINRA Investor Education Foundation and the American Library Association Announce Nearly $882,000 in Grants to Public Libraries to Support Grassroots Financial Literacy.

At last, public libraries are learning to hit people where they live. If public libraries become the go-to place for people to learn how to manage and research their personal finances, taxes, job search, and health care, they will never have to worry about receiving public funding ever again.


Do As I Say, Say As I Do

The word or the act—which came first? To do something and then speak of it later is to describe. To utter a statement and make it so is to create.

And God said, "Let there be light": and there was light.... And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air; and brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them: and whatsoever Adam called every living creature, that was the name thereof.
God created and Adam added the tags. Myths and parables, but highly descriptive of the human condition. Even that phrase, descriptive of the human condition, which is further evidence that the Bible was composed by human and not divine hand, presents a quandary: If god had to say it before it was so, didn't he already in effect name light as the prelude to its creation? It would follow that he did the same for the fowl and beasts he created but supposedly left for Adam to name, no?

It's in that dichotomy, between description and creation, that the fundamental basis of the notion I espouse—the fusion of librarianship and design practices—might be fatally flawed, because the act of design is the act of creation. It is the act of stretching the bounds of people's expectations to provide them things they never thought of before, but once given, could never again imagine living without. (Or, to paraphrase Henry Ford, if he'd asked people what they wanted, they'd have said a faster horse.)

The role of the librarian, on the other hand, is to describe. Much like the journalist, the lexicographer, or the historian, the librarian is an archivist, a recorder and guardian of some segment of our collective knowledge. The librarian is by definition a describer after the act.

However, this rabbit hole doesn't end there, because if we consider the nature of language and the fact that its structures—its grammar and punctuation, its diction and word order, even its alphabet—help to form, refine, and limit our behaviors and thought patterns, then it would follow that even in our descriptions, we're predefining the things that we have created and have yet to create.

So, do the principles of design still apply to librarianship?


The Derivative of Beauty Is...

Sunday's Boston Globe has an interesting article about a new exhibit at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, "Splendor and Elegance," and the owner of the pieces exhibited, the applied economist Horace Brock. Brock is an avid collector of European decorative arts and, apparently, has fine taste. He also has tried to quantify his taste by applying mathematical principles to forms that are traditionally and commonly thought of as beautiful.

Brock contributed an essay to the exhibit catalog that outlines his argument, which Globe staffer Sebastian Smee describes:

Designed objects, Brock writes, can be broken down into "themes" and "transformations." A theme is a motif, such as an S-curve; a transformation might see that curve appear elsewhere in the design, but stretched, rotated 90 degrees, mirrored, or otherwise reworked.

Aesthetic satisfaction comes from an apprehension of how those themes and transformations relate to each other, or of what Brock calls their "relative complexity." Basically—and this is the nub of it—"if the theme is simple, then we are most satisfied when its echoes are complex . . . and vice versa."
There are two key points about design that Brock’s theory seems to completely miss. First, the overworn but still valid maxim: “Form follows function.” If a chair isn’t comfortable, people won’t use it no matter how empirically beautiful. If a breathtakingly stunning concert hall has awful acoustics, music lovers will grow to hate it.

Second, designed objects are, well, designed. They are intended to fulfill a purpose (see point #1 above). As such they exert a certain influence over us and how we work, play, and behave. In other words, designed objects condition us. The designed objects of today prepare us for the design breakthroughs of tomorrow. And I can’t help but think that this conditioning subverts any supposedly universal and mathematically proven sense of beauty, at least just a little.


Thinking Outside of the Blocks

One of the 2009 TED conference presentations that is making a splash was delivered by MIT grad student David Merrill, who demoed Siftables, a new form of interactive device developed by Taco Lab. They're a little difficult to describe, so you should watch the seven-minute presentation yourself. I dare you not to be amazed.

Of course, the first thing that struck me about this design was the level of play that is baked into it. They beg to be fondled, and their simplicity means never needing to read a user manual. After all, who hasn't played with blocks at some point in her life? Then again, my blocks never did the kinds of things Siftables are capable of.

The more I thought about it, though, the more of a sense of déjà vu I felt. It seemed both so new yet so familiar. Then I remembered something I'd posted here back in the blog's infancy. What's so wonderful about Taco Lab's design is how much simpler, elegant, and childlike it is. Yet like all thing so seemingly simple and obvious, it conceals great power.

Imagine what could happen if/once app developers get their hands on the kernel to program something like these blocks or whatever other devices spawn from their development. The future of digital devices is hidden somewhere in Siftables.


Sexy People

My friend Peter made me so happy this morning by pointing me to this site. Nothing else to say, because words would just ruin it.

Update: More pictures worth a thousand words—or a hundred thousand.


It's Like a Short Story Idea Generator

Anonymity is simultaneously one of the banes and blessings of the Internet. Some, such as political dissidents, use it to denounce tyranny while protecting themselves and their families from reprisals. Some cowards hide behind it to take pot shots at others that they are too weak to own up to. Whether you consider the anonymous cowards or dissidents depends on their context and your perspective.

One way Web anonymity is sometimes used is as an outlet for our demons and dirty laundry. SecretTweet enables anyone to anonymously post to Twitter. Reading through the posts, it's easy to understand why they already have around 12,000 followers on Twitter. The topic tag cloud is a catalog of raw human angst and emotion: politics, friendship, friend, debt, weight, work, church, parents, abuse, depression, affair, virgin, Love, job, pain, loss, wife, dating, loneliness, Friends, lonely, money, ex, life, health.

Posts are occasionally funny: "I think little richard is creepy as hell." Some are sexy: "We had sex on your sofa." Most rip the heart right out of you: "Your early dementia is killing me faster than it is killing you." Yet all of them are compelling because we, like the posters, are vulnerable and voyeuristic and exhibitionistic. In other words, all too human.

Hollywood Gets Better at Predicting Future

Less than a week after a Continental Airlines plane crashed into an Upstate New York home in a manner prefigured by the cult classic Donnie Darko, we learn from The Silicon Alley Insider that until recently IBM had a patent for a suit of armor that enabled the wearer to dodge bullets Neo-style.

I guess IBM pulled the patent once they realized that being thrashed around by a robotic suit trying to dodge bullets would break your neck and just as surely kill you as the bullets themselves.

Why Not Just Go to the Library?

The Andrew Vanacore of the AP reports that America's sour economy might provide an opportunity for otherwise dying dial-up Internet providers. Vanacore states:

Pew [Internet & American Life Project] estimates the average monthly bill for broadband users came to $34.50 in 2008. That means for the year, a NetZero subscriber [who pays $9.95 a month] would save nearly $300.
What Vanacore misses, though, is that we've gotten used to the higher connection speeds of broadband and all of the multimedia benefits they bring. Many people cannot imagine living without music or video downloads or the ability to send large attachments with email—all of which effectively cease as options with dial-up. More importantly, people have gotten use to such options being available to them at home whenever they want.

I grant that to some frugality—or even a more fundamental need to eat and pay rent—might trump the need for instant-entertainment access. But then why not just get rid of Internet access altogether, use your local library's computers and high-speed access, and save the additional $120 a year? With library attendances across the nation hitting record numbers and still on the rise, I suspect that's precisely what the public is doing.


Books Are the Reason I Am Poor

Alastair Harper gives the lie to the current popular consensus that somehow books are better for us and the children than newer media, such as video games.

Although he wrongly asserts in the Guardian's Books Blog that a "book is as neutral as any container"—all media contain inherent biases that force us to think and view the world in a certain manner—he rightly observes that no lifelong bookworm he's ever known spends "weekends rolling in little pits of money in penthouses."

And as for the supposed moral superiority of books:

[B]efore I started reading, I was a rather subservient, slow little boy who never really did anything wrong, but never did much right either. Books inspired me to be very naughty indeed; and, with the simple moral logic of youth, I perceived them to be on my side, not authority's, which was what made me want to read them.


High School Library, the Game

My friend Albert brought this to my attention: High School Library.

There's not too much say about this, except I find it fascinating that a new medium, such as the Flash video game, promotes such an outdated image of librarianship.


Bart Simpson, Scientologist

Now here is an interesting question: Can the voice of a character be trademarked? If so, who owns the rights to it, the voice actor or the show on which that voice became famous?

This question might be answered in the coming months, because Nancy Cartwright, the voice of one of the most famous cartoon voices in television history, used her distinctive vocal rendition of Bart Simpson in a robocall promoting Scientology, which she apparently has been a slave to follower of for many years.

In case the Village Voice's post on the subject is stolen by Thetans mysteriously disappears, or you're too lazy to link through, I offer the YouTube clip:

A Masterclass in the Art of the Complaint Letter

I have a friend who works customer relations for a major airline. This friend has shown me some crazy things over the years. Of course there have been the standard letters of complaint written by people with, at best, a tenuous hold of written English language, and others written by some poor souls with a tenuous hold on reality. This friend has seen letters written in crayon, on toilet paper, and even some sent with handmade props.

This, however, is how you write a proper complaint letter. Disgruntled flyer Oliver Beale's letter to Virgin head Sir Richard Branson is entertaining, witheringly funny, includes photographic evidence to support its vivid language—and it elicited a personal response from Sir Richard himself.


Touchy Feely

The central idea of Media Ecology is that the tools and media we surround ourselves with and use to extend our natural abilities deeply affect how we think about and interact with our environment. Marshall McLuhan framed this concept as, "We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us." A folksier way of thinking of it is, "When you're a hammer, the world looks like a nail."

Researchers from Ohio State University and Illinois State University have added evidence to support McLuhan's observation. In their study, they held an auction for a simple coffee mug. The bidders were divided into two groups: one was allowed to examine the mug for 10 seconds, the other for 30 seconds. The results of bidding suggest that those who held the mug longer formed a stronger attachment to the object. According to ScienceDaily:

The average bid in the open auctions was $2.44 for people who touched the mug for 10 seconds and $3.91 for those in the 30 second experiments. This finding was also consistent for those in silent auctions, with people in the 10 and 30 second experiments bidding $2.24 and $3.07, respectively.
On two occasions, bidding among those who held the mug for 30 seconds reached $10, even though the mug's retail price was less than half that.

So, it turns out humans are tactilely oriented creatures, and we're ruled by emotional attachment at least as much as reason, which Wes Anderson Spike Jonze brilliantly satirizes in his 2002 Ikea commercial.

Apple certainly understands this human tendency—all of their newest products not only beg to be fondled but have to be in order to work. It's also why the book has dominated as a medium for centuries and will continue to survive (albeit on a much smaller scale) amidst digital technologies. What book lover, after all, doesn't speak warmly of a book's heft and feel and smell?

How is this understanding of human nature and our interaction with objects something that we, as librarians, can use to benefit our libraries and provide better services in all media to our communities?


Katha Pollitt Reads The Playful Librarian

No she doesn't. Well, maybe she does, but I have no way of knowing it. However, it's clear that she and I think alike. And I don't know what to think of that.


Gratis versus Libre

The Guardian's Hermione Hoby makes an interesting comparison between Ann Patchett's recent praise of American libraries in the Wall Street Journal and then-Senator Obama's keynote to the 2005 ALA Annual Conference.

Are we a model of free public services or free expression? Both, really, though anyone who knows how most libraries are managed might disagree with the former. Let's face it, library service models are far from perfect and often get outstripped by a constantly shifting information environment.

Yet even as we continue to struggle to provide better, faster, more efficient information services, we must remain intensely focused on why we continue the struggle: free thought, free expression, and the individual's right to privacy as he or she explores them.


Library Bailout Package

History repeats itself, as libraries across the country see record circulation increases in the midst of a rapid economic downturn.

It is well established that public libraries have a significant positive impact on their local and regional economies [links to a PDF]. So in a time when everyone is tightening their belts and governments from local to state to federal must decide where to make the tough cuts—even as the architects of our current financial crisis get billions of taxpayer dollars to right their ships—isn't it about time that libraries are at least spared, if not reinvested in, as they so richly deserve?


Public Image Ltd

As more and more people get caught playing hooky through Facebook—and, undoubtedly, will continue to get caught—it's clear that digital communications technology is having an impact on our sense of privacy and public image.

Perhaps we think we are immune to getting caught. Perhaps we think such public displays don't really matter. Perhaps we don't think anything at all when we hit SEND or PUBLISH. Regardless, potential consequences are obviously the furthest thing from many people's minds as they post images of themselves passed out drunk or doing foolish things, or write distasteful things about their acquaintances or bosses. And it has something to do with the perception of insulation we feel when sitting behind a screen.

Take, for instance, the example of Jamie Peck. She is a staff writer—make that former staff writer—at H. W. Wilson. I also worked there, though not contemporaneously with her, and I imagine we could trade similar stories. She wrote this piece about our former employer.

Jamie is right: Wilson hasn't changed much over time. But did she think Wilson was stuck in the actual—as in, not metaphorical—nineteen fifties and, thus, did not have the Internet and could not find out she had written the article (which, incidentally, she signed with her own name)? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe she was frustrated by her job and just wanted to let off steam, as we all do.

The problem with letting off steam on the Web is that it's public, and it tends to stick around for the police, adoption agents, small business lenders, and current and future employers to find. The very real—as in, not metaphorical—consequences of Jamie's actions, no matter what she thought as she pressed PUBLISH, is that she's out of a job at a bad time to have to be looking for work.


Fear and Loathing in 2009

December is the Playfullest month. But for bloggers it's the cruelest month, what with end-of-year deadlines and seasonal festivities keeping us away from the warm glow of our monitors.

Thus, it seems appropriate to recover from too much eggnog by facing the uncertainties that the coming year brings. And don't these uncertainties—a faltering economy, the continued shadow of terrorism, political instability in the Middle East, and a new president who is at least physically unlike any other prior resident of the White House—seem a little scarier than any of the other uncertainties the still-living generations have faced? Somehow the Cold War, a nuclear threat, and the graffiti-filled subways of 1970s New York City just don't stack up to the present, right?

The novelist Douglas Coupland explores this phenomenon in an op-ed for yesterday's Globe and Mail and concludes that the real difference between then and now is digital media:

Marshall McLuhan tells us that "terror is the normal state of any oral society, for in it, everything affects everything all the time." What he perhaps didn't foresee was that terror didn't turn out to be Winston Smith's Nineteen Eighty-Four. Terror turned out to be a friend's grandmother bingeing on conspiracy websites during a late-night browsing jag, triggering days of pension freak-out e-mails with her daughter, Sarah, down in Human Resources, who then installs a real-time Dow Jones ticker widget in the top right-hand corner of her work screen, and when Sarah goes home, she and her husband browse online real-estate listings wondering when the bottom's going to hit.
In other words: information overload.

We have all the information we could ever want—and certainly more than we could ever need or handle—at our finger tips all the time every time. Yet this seeming wealth is also the cause of a deficit: in perspective, in certainty.

And even as digital communication creates this wealth with its brutally efficient ability to disseminate information, it is rendering whole species of cultural and informational curators—writers and editors and librarians—less relevant in the collective public mind just when the public needs them most.