January 2006 Archives

When a union issues a code of conduct to cover citizen journalists, it is easy to predict the blogosphere's reaction. It does not take long for allegations of protectionism to surface, even when the code asks for citizen journalists to get paid, not offer up legal indemnification and have their material treated properly. That is not to say that the National Union of Journalists code of conduct for what the union calls "witness contributors" does not have its flaws. The term "witness contributors" is just one of them.

For our first off-the-cuff reaction, let's cut to citizen-media advocate Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine. Jarvis's knee-jerk reactions to these things are so common that it's a wonder he hasn't knocked a hole through the desk in front of him by now. His reaction is true to form: it's all about them versus us.

SearchEngineWatch dug out a bunch of documents to do with the attempt by the US Justice Department to obtain a million random URLs generated during the course of a day to try to demonstrate the constitutionality of the Children's Online Protection Act. In the post, Gary Price quotes a sentence from Google's declaration in which the search engine company's counsel argues why Google should not co-operate: "It is against Google's competitive interest to be viewed as completely reflecting the world-wide web."

Think about that sentence for a minute. Not only does Google not reflect the state of the web, it's not even in the company's competitive interest, according to one of its lawyers. It's an interesting position for a search engine with a massive catalogue of websites and which was, until recently, working through a process to digitise and index every book on the planet. Or maybe Google is just concentrating on reflecting the world.

There is plenty more to read over there and the documents show that the "Google backs privacy" meme that is clogging up the blogosphere has less to do with this case than trade-secret protection.

After my last post on bloggers' misuse of the word 'conversation', Sean Coon - who wanted AdAge to put comments in with journalists' columns - responded with his reasons for wanting comments to be aired in public and a question of his own:

Why do you think the majority of the mainstream media have dragged their feet in opening their online columns to allow commenting? Simon [Dumenco]'s point about antiquated publishing systems might have something to do with it, but *i feel* that editorial departments, and possibly traditional 'writers' want no part of it.

There are lots of answers to this one. One point I'd like to make first though is that sections of the mainstream media or old media, whatever you want to call them, were quite quick to put discussion forums on their sites to allow people to comment and talk about stories and columns. They were not hugely successful for the most part, which came as a bit of a surprise to a lot of people in the industry.

It was inevitable that a column that described blogging as nothing special in the world of writing should open up a further bout of collective self-delusion by much of the blogging community. With a smattering of exceptions, such as Adrants, bloggers ganged up on AdAge columnist Simon Dumenco: giving him the same message many times over, that blogging is different.

How is blogging different? Why it's the conversation, they argue; it's all about the dialogue (I put the links in at the bottom to make the post easier to read). The blogging = conversation assertion stands alone as the greatest of the lies of blogging. I fail to understand why the word has stuck like a leech to this particular invention of the late 20th Century. It has reached the level where people complain about having to email and then post a blog entry because a particular site does not have comments on the same page as the article. Ask yourself, are those people after a conversation - something that can be carried out using email as well as any other two-way medium - or something else? And if it is something else, why do bloggers persist in the use of the word "conversation", other than the word gets top billing in the Cluetrain Manifesto?

In fact, blogging offers a way of avoiding conversation without offence; a method for forming apparent social connections without actually engaging with people directly. People only occasionally get worked up about bloggers not responding to comments or making corrections based on comments. If someone ignores emails, the other party is likely to get a lot more annoyed than if a comment goes unremarked on a blog. That's the thing about conversations - they demand the active participation of at least two parties. A lot of blog conservations are pretty much one-way affairs. The blogger posts something, people comment - often pointing out errors - and the blogger has disappeared, having moved onto the next post. How does this function as conversation? It does not. But it does function as debate. Why are commenters so insistent on having their opinions published if they do not believe they are engaged in a public debate or forum? Why is a private email or phone conversation not good enough? Because those people are trying to convince an audience of their position: that is surely the characteristic of a debate, not a conversation.

The distinction might seem to be pedantic. You could argue that conversation as a word is close enough to what is going on in blogging. Other words have been given bigger twists than this. But it ill serves a community to lecture commentators who are not part of the club on what blogging is or isn't when that community cannot be honest or analytical enough to understand the process in which it is engaged.

As to Dumenco's headline about blogger being a cooler name: just wait until the fashion cycle rolls round and the name is as chic as parachute pants, I guess we'll be seeing a lot more 'writers' online.

The conversationalists:

Brain of the Blogger

Ad Age Says There Is No Such Things as Blogging..But The Name Is Cool

Blogging Isn't Just Writing, It's a Dialogue

Bloggers Should Explain Blogging Technology

Blogs are (public) conversations, almost like a giant party - This post at least emphasises the public nature of commenting versus emailing.

PR Steve Rubel has accused hacks of sleeping on the job, especially at weekends. Well, they probably were, but the stories he points to are not things to get you out of bed and on the horn to the senior flacks at Dell and Google over your Saturday bacon and eggs.

So, what did they not do? Just what is the collective laziness of the MSM keeping from you? Well, at the end of last week, apparently, Dell started shipping PCs with a slightly modified browser setup. The change was that Dell decided to make the default home page for browsers installed on its home PCs an iGoogle page designed for Dell customers. At the same time, Dell had installed Google Desktop. Now, there are a number of things that have happened recently that make me wonder whether we have fallen through a hole in time and we are re-running the mid-1990s. This is one of them.

To get the price of ebook readers so that they will fly off the shelves of shops and supermarkets, a cellphone or games console-like subsidy model might help. The subsidy approach is something that Irex Technologies will concentrate on - albeit not for the mass market. Irex is aiming at specialist publishers who sell subscriptions worth hundreds or thousands of dollars a year to drive initial sales. Patent services, scientific publishers and financial specialists would seem to be good candidates. Maybe technical manuals for maintenance staff will make more sense on such an ebook than on paper or a laptop.

However, it will not take long for a company such as Irex to run out of potential customers. A long-term viable market means breaking away from any form of subsidy model. For the mass market, such a model will rely on digital rights management (DRM) and it's hard to see any DRM working for the printed word where there is so much resistance to it already in audio and video. If you can see it or hear it, you can rip it despite the intense efforts of content suppliers to make hardware makers slap intrusive electronic controls on their devices.

Bye bye print

6 January 2006

As a primarily print journalist, one question I often get asked is how long do newspapers and magazines have left? I have given the same answer for the last ten years: as long as it takes to get an electronic reader with the visual quality of paper, that weighs no more than a thin paperback, with the battery life of an alarm clock and costs tens of dollars to buy. Actually, the battery life can come down a bit: a couple of weeks is just dandy, thank you. When all those things come together, you have the effective death of mass-produced print. It's difficult to think of any reason why you would not use an electronic reader over paper with those features other than stubbornness or vanity. However, vanity is powerful motivator, so I give books - some of them at least - a much longer lifespan.

Printed paper is no more than a distribution mechanism. As Mark Cuban pointed out, it is a distribution mechanism that is becoming prohibitively expensive compared with the alternative: electronic distribution. I disagree: print has always been expensive. It just happened to be cheaper than hiring town criers or minstrels to spread your words. Oddly, printing and distributing paper media has never been cheaper (well, barring some rises in paper costs recently). Go into a bookstore like Borders and just look at the racks and racks of mags. Many of them come from small independent operations, not just big publishers with deep pockets.

My favourite comment from Gizmodo's coverage of Sony's e-book reader, launched this week at CES, was Tom of MusicThing's "Yay EBooks! Party like it's 1999!". And 1989, for that matter - anybody remember VC Hermann Hauser's Active Book? The design mutated into the EO tablet computer before the whole project disappeared along with Microsoft's first tablet efforts and as Apple's more famous Newton PDA flamed out. But the e-book reader is one of those concepts that just won't lie down and die.

It is not so much that the ebook reader has suddenly, and once again, become an attractive proposition in and of itself: the story is all in the display and what that means for what could be one of the highest volume niches in portable computing. Companies have been striving to find a killer appplication for handheld computers and keep coming up short. It's not just because a lot of the software sucks. They have lacked the two major requirements in any device that seeks to replace paper: the ability to run off a couple of AAA cells or maybe even coin cells not just for hours but for weeks; and a display that does not make your eyes water after a couple of hours.

Google pollution

3 January 2006

Om Malik reckons that the geeks are taking over Google. To soak up that quiet time before 2006 really gets going - it looks as though the working 2006 has been postponed to the 4th if out of office replies from the UK are anything to go by - he recommends googling on common first names.

Try Paul, and soon after Paul McCartney you get Paul Graham. The number three entry under Robert is, naturally, Robert Scoble. I tried Chris and Chris Pirillo came out top. Check out the backlinks and soon the reason becomes pretty clear. All of the people cited by Malik are bloggers. Graham's site does not use a conventional blog structure but it's close enough for jazz. It's not so much that geeks are inheriting Google but that famous - that is, heavily linked - bloggers geeks are encroaching on the top pages. Try Jeff and Jeff Jarvis appears at number two.

What do bloggers do? They link to stuff, and mostly other bloggers. I think I packed five such links into the last two paragraphs, so I've done my bit for their already inflated pagerank. Malik's post is only a bit of fun but it does some problems with the Google's results and the disproportionate visibility of blogs.

One is the common belief that Google is some sort of guide to the zeitgeist. Google's creators made a sensible decision to use pagerank to order search results. Citation is, for the most part, a good way of showing how important a piece of information is. It is, also, highly vulnerable to gaming, which is why splogs have been so successful at polluting Google's results. Successive tweaks to the pagerank algorithms deal with the worst abuses as they appear. But there will always be some pollution with a system that depends largely on people "playing by the rules".

The bloggers themselves have unwittingly - and on occasions deliberately - gamed the system by being so profligate with links and made it look as though bloggers are the only community with a voice on the Internet. That is a situation that cries out for a major tweak to the result-ordering algorithms before everyone starts believing that bloggers are genuinely representative of the world population. However, Google has to weigh up whether demoting blogs works for its interests: who else is going to carry Adsense content for the company?