Monthly Archives: October 2007

Marketing: the Internet Age’s ‘special’ little brother

In the late 1970s as a young child, I was often given free reign if the sun was shining and left to roam about on my own. Mom wanted me to keep to the neighborhood we lived in, so she told me to stay off of the main roads and traffic thoroughfares, but still gave me a bike to ride. Thanks to the woods and trails behind my house, I was able to criss-cross a pretty extensive region of the town of Hyde Park without ever doing more than crossing over one side street or another where it was crossed by a trail. I was frequently joined by not just the other kids in my neighborhood, but by the kids from lots of other neighborhoods all along the same set of trails and cul-de-sac housing developments that dotted the Hyde Park countryside at that time.

This meant, invariably, that I would be hanging out with a mix of known friends and vaguely known strangers (all kids we sometimes saw in the schoolyards or with their folks in church). Typically, in every neighborhood that the trailway touched, there was always someone with a younger brother who was… well, nowadays we’d call them ‘special’, but then-adays we just called them ‘dumb’. Not the mentally handicapped… we knew the difference between children who were developmentally challenged and the kids who were dumber than a box of rocks: the mentally handicapped rode the short bus to school in my district, while the dumb just hung around with their older brothers and got picked on mercilessly by the other kids. Well, we were kids then, and social cruelty is hard wired in children.

Marketing Professionals are to the Internet Age authors what those dumb little brothers were to my childhood romps through the back woods of Hyde Park. There’s nothing physically or mentally wrong with them, they’re just apparently quite slow on the uptake. And they get teased. Mercilessly. I’m not convinced that it’s because of any inherent cruelty on the part of the authors, though. If you take a closer look at what you should be looking to Marketing to provide, perhaps the ‘di-di-di’ little brother title belongs in the hands of Senior Management, not Marketing. But heck, this is Marketing we’re talking about, not a trampoline. No need to remove your shoes before jumping on ’em.

A little harsh, don’t you think?

Okay, I admit it… the folks in Marketing that I’ve been privileged to work with have all been quite sane, intelligent people in their real lives. It just seems that they’ve bought into a myopic professional vision which has continued to paint them as being one step behind the times with regard to the changing social landscape of business in the internet age. As our assigned reading for this week we were exposed to Scoble & Israel’s Naked Conversations (2006), a series of glimpses into discussions with various bloggers and professional anecdotes about the changes that were wrought through the advent of the Blogosphere. I rather like the writing style of Scoble & Israel. I enjoyed reading through the assignment — although I am not fooled, Mr. Gates, no matter what Scoble & Israel say. It will take more than a new PR rep and the meagre breadcrumbs of ‘blogging’ privileges that you so graciously ‘allow’ your employees to engage in to convince me that the Evil Empire has changed, really and truly changed. You’ve duped the foolish, but you’re still a force of living evil in the technosphere that needs to be erradicated through open source platforms, intuitive user-centered design, market competition and collaborative efforts of startup visionaries who ignore Microsoft and build tools that work well without security risks.

Ahem. I digress.

The one thing that makes me kind of scratch my head with most of the writing that we’ve been reading in ICM501 this semester has been the horrible picture nearly all of these writings have painted of the Marketing profession in the late 20th and early 21st century. Really and truly, the scapegoats of the internet age seem to be Marketing professionals. While managers have constantly been the butt of many jokes throughout the ages, Marketing seems to have taken the fall especially hard for failing to anticipate the way in which the market would move in response to the internet.

Common Sense? Only in Hindsight

What amazes me is that we point to the Marketing execs and blame them for the business models of the past.

What did they do?

They advertised at me!

Really?

Yes, it made me feel icky and unwanted. I did not choose to see their ad, I was visually assaulted with advertising when all I wanted to do was buy a cookie.

Sounds like marketing violation to me.

Indeed. I think I’ll go complain about it on mySpace.

Okay, so it’s hyperbole and overly simplified, but really, what has Marketing done wrong? It’s pretty common to hear little snippets of “insight” being bandied about now which makes it seem like we, the consumers, have been up in arms about things all along, and only now, now that the internet is acutally here, are we finally being shown as the visionary right-thinking educated elite that we really and truly are. About damned time someone patted us on the back.

The slippers were there all along, Dorothy

The harsh thing about all this is that we treat the very concept that we, the consumers, have some kind of a choice, as though it were something that’s new. As though in the neoDark Ages prior to the Web we consumers were chained to a wall and fed only a choice between slop or gruel, with or without flies in it? Consumers have always been the ones who were in charge of the marketplace. Okay, perhaps ‘in charge’ is a strong word, but we’ve always been the target of marketing efforts. Why spend all those millions and billions of dollars over the past hundred or so years to influence us in making a choice if there wasn’t a choice in our hands already?

The only thing that’s shifted is that we, the dimwitted consumers, have finally heard the alarm clock blaring and chosen to rouse ourselves into a moment of confused wakefulness. We’ve looked at the choices we made during the party the night before, lying in bed next to us, and some of us have actually started gnawing on our arms to get away. Others have fallen in love. Others have shrugged and passed back out again, more happy not to have to make difficult decisions even if it means sleeping with a toad.

But don’t blame the marketers. Let’s face it, after one business meeting with someone from Marketing in the room, you sort of start to realize that Marketing has been one long game of catch-up with a couple of hit-or-miss successes, a few actual home runs, and the rest nothing more than the original kings and queens of ‘spin’ using their tricks on their own employers and clients. Expecting Marketing to be anticipatory is an exercise in futility. Not because they don’t -want- to anticipate the next trend, but because usually the folks who follow marketing as a profession tend to use the training and tools of that trade. And those tools require research first be done to analyze a phenomenon which has already been spotted in the business community. Once the research is done, then the analytics takes hold, and six months and millions of pixels worth of powerpoint decks and hours upon hours of meetings and pitches finally produces something that looks suspiciously like a plan of action.

You say ‘vision’, they hear ‘risk’

Nowadays nothing gets done in the business communities which isn’t preceded by consulting the modern day Delphic Oracle, the force which rules the world of business so guardedly that they’ve even chosen an acronym for it which translates in French to ‘king’. I’m talking, of course, about the ROI, or ‘Return On Investment’. Typically communicated within the pages of a ‘white paper’, the ROI is full of stories that the salespeople put together so that you can see that someone else has already tried this risky little maneuver and made money at it. The inference is that it’s now safe to enter the marketplace, gold and glory are here indeed.

These are the tools of modern business. These are the talismans to ward off Senior Management audits, negative P&L statements, the amulets to drive away poverty, the gris-gris to work mojo upon the marketplace to turn PowerPoint Decks into Net Profits. They are also inherently reactive. They follow the leaders of the marketplace, they don’t blaze the trail. Marketing leads this second charge, moving into the battlefield to plunder the fallen already downed by the Early Adopters, the true visionaries, and ultimately the ones who risk failure and often find it, but every so often find market success in boatloads.

Rearview Drivers

You don’t expect your drivers to focus on the rear view mirror to the exclusion of what’s on the road. And yet we read article after article, like Scoble & Israel’s work, which at least gently ridicules the failure of Marketing professionals to have anticipated things that in retrospect seem common sense. Like the fact that we hate intrusive marketing efforts. Junk mail, pop up banner ads, radio and television commercials, etc. All so pesky and distracting that We the Market are flocking to new technology in droves to shut it out and turn it off.

But no one in their right minds lets Marketing drive a corporate organization. Marketing is in the business of spin, not advancement. They measure success in tenths-of-a-percent and failure in whether the client smiled before they hung up or not, and they are helpless to advise on any kind of business model that is actually new or innovative. At least until the market shows whether or not the new gambit is successful or not.

The Blogosphere cropped up and has become a force which has made business take notice. The cultural implications of the changes that blogging has brought about are quite noticeable now, so of course the marketing folks know all about them. Scoble & Israel are actually trying to get the word out in printed format so that the marketing folks will have a reference to put into their PowerPoint documents for their next client pitches. It’s not the only thrust of what they’re doing, but it will certainly help the folks in Marketing to look like they’re forward thinking in front of their bosses and their clients.

References

  • Scoble, R. & Israel, S. (2006). Naked Conversations. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, pp. 1-62

More thoughts on play

This is a response to Tim’s post over at Tim’s Blog. He offers anecdotal response to the cultural shift of playing as a child & adolescent outside with friends and then slowly losing his playmates to online games and interactive entertainments. As part of the class assignment we’re supposed to head over to Second Life and play around a bit, and Tim recounted his experiences and wove it into his anecdotal analysis of the weekly reading subject of Play experience.

Responding to Tim 

What if Second Life is gaining appeal because it allows us to mask ourselves instead of having to be the person we were born?  What if all of this obsession with avatars and programmable appearance choices is just humanity’s way of fighting off culture-wide insecurities?  Maybe the reason that you’re not as drawn into the virtual communities is because you’re more or less happy with your ‘real world avatar’?

When life is full and we’re satisfied with who we are and where we are and what we’re doing, why seek further? Or maybe we’re being drawn into virtual play because as adults we are culturally frowned upon when we play, and the virtual world allows us to commune with our inner play impulse in the privacy of our own home.

Cultural Shift

We could also make the argument that our culture has removed any kind of ritualized passage into adulthood. I know that when growing up and ‘playing’ all the time I was warned of a time in life called ‘growing up’ when I would no longer be able to play any more, I would have to work. I resented that, since play was the only thing worth doing to my childlike view of the world.  In teenaged years and later on into undergrad studies and the splash into the real world, I kept waiting for that magical point at which play had to end.

It never came. If anything, as I grew older and older, games got more and more involved and complex (and I’m not using ‘games’ as a euphemism, I mean literal ‘games’ that everyone knew were games when they began, not head games and political games of office intrigue). They got better and better. My teenaged days of D&D turned into adult weekend get-togethers with D&D used as an excuse to get together around a table once every other month or so. My computer games got more intense, and moved to online MMORPG format (What does MMORPG stand for? Many Men Online Role-Playing Girls is one punchline).

This ties in with what Pine & Gillmore (The Experience Economy, 1999) pointed out.  We moved into an economy where what was valued was the Experience being provided.  The technology changed the experience and made it more complex and more substantive than early EGA video days of moving blips of light. My web browsers can run more intricate video games than my Atari 5600 could.  But even then, back in the day, you either had an Atari 2600 yourself, or else you knew someone who did and you went over to their house to play those games.  Even back in the 1970s we were already looking for the Experience of the game.

Guess we’re just going to have to hold on and see what the future brings. I will say this… all of this time with my partner at home without cable TV or internet has actually increased our communication and enriched our relationship. Maybe at the end of the day it’s all just a question of learning how to set personal limits and finding our own balance in our relationship with technology.

The WoWTrons: A modern cosmology of World of Warcraft

I’ve read the articles for class this week. But I have something to share which dovetails nicely with the subject matter. Especially Huizinga’s consideration of “playing” as fulfilling some kind of spiritual need, or applying equally well to childhood romping as it does to organized priestcraft and established religions.

I’ve developed my own philosophy concerning games online, and it has to do with crossing the premise of Tron with the mechanics of WarCraft. Settle in and enjoy the ride, this one is a little bit out there even for me. It developed as I played Warcraft from a newbie to a ‘capped at level 70’ Troll mage named Runika. Yes, there’s some odd questions I get about gender bending, but I didn’t exactly plan for Runika to be my “main” for so long. However, I like the mage, so here I am still, playing a female ‘toon.

Tron Meets World of Warcraft

In the movie Tron, cyberspace was given human form and human societal equivalences to corporate practices which were going on at the time of the movie. In Tron, you play a video game and nanite-sized cyber-people who live in your computer went and actually played in a kind of gladiatorial death-match against each other. When you ‘died’ in the video game, your program person assigned to your login also faced death or destruction.

I don’t keep the death part, but as I faced long hours of grinding through different levels and quests on WarCraft, I found myself thinking again and again about Tron. Over time, I developed a complex spiritual understanding which borrows on animism/totemism and complex social hierarchies. Here it is for laughter and enjoyment.  For clarity’s sake, when I talk about a ‘mob’ it’s a (typically hostile) computer enemy which it is your Warcraft character’s job to defeat.  When I say ‘grinding’, I mean that you go to an area where the mobs are you need to kill based on the quest story arc you’ve chosen to complete, and you pit yourself against them one at a time until you either kill the required number or are given the required quest reward.  Every time you kill a mob, you earn experience points, and when you earn enough experience, you raise in level, power, and prestige within the game world. Levelling is the first part of the game, but there’s a whole other set of game content which is called ‘Endgame’ because you can’t get to it until you’ve reached the highest level available.

The life and times of a WoWTron

Inside the computer are little electronic people I call WoWTrons. When you play World of Warcraft (WoW for short), you have a player avatar or ‘toon’ assigned to represent you. That ‘toon’ is actually a little electronic person that gets assigned to you when you generate the character.  You can only play one character at a time, but you may have up to 8 per server, I believe. The toon WoWTrons represent the highest level of prestige that a WoWTron can accomplish, but not every toon gets played all the way to endgame. Like harem wives in the Ottoman Empire, the toons all vie for your attention when you first log in and select which character you’re going to play that day.  Sometimes a new character just isn’t working out for you, so you trash it and make another. Toon WoWTrons take a bit of a risk, because although they can end up the kings and queens of the gaming world of WarCraft, it takes so long to level one to the high levels that you will tend to only have one ‘main’ character, all the rest will be classified as ‘alternates’ or ‘alts’.   A WoWToon Main is one of the movers and shakers of the cyberworld behind the scenes of the Warcraft Stage. A WoWToon Alt often lingers and languishes, unloved and unattended for far too long, a mere shadow of their potential in WarCraft cybersociety.

Now, there are more than just Toon WoWTrons. There’s a second class of computer denizens who have chosen to follow a different track of advancement. They are the bits of computer programming which run the mobs themselves. When they go to work, they put on a costume and are assigned an area to go stand in, or go wander in. When a player Toon interacts with them (kills them) they receive a fraction of the experience points the player earned against their own separate account.  When they earn enough, they get to move to a different location, rising in ‘level’ the same way that the player Toons do. When a WoWTron actually succeeds in killing the player Toon (it happens all too often for -my- taste), they get the full Experience Point value of that player’s level.  Therefore, the Mob WoWTrons all desperately want to kill your PC Toon WoWTron, because the death of the Toon gives great experience and helps them climb the cyberspace social ladder.

The WoWTron Rat Race

What this means is that eventually a WoWTron will earn higher and higher/stronger and stronger level assignments, wearing the ‘skin’ of many different mobs as time goes on. Eventually, they might become eligible to wear the costume of a Raid Boss, one of the highest powered enemies run by the computer on the server. The Boss fights give the best loot, and they are the reason that everyone enters certain areas, vying for a chance to get some ‘phat loot’.  The risk that WoWTron Mobs run is that when level caps are raised, the previous “endgame” content becomes just another dungeon on the way up the ladder of advancement, so the King of the Hill in Raid Bosses has a limited lifecycle before they get stuck with no one coming to fight them, and none of their glory, and none of the experience to be earned by killing not just single PC Toons, but entire 40-man (or 20-man) raids of PC Toons.

Because the cyberpeople are formless and shapeless in their native cyber environment, they get given form when they are assigned a role to play within the great stage that is the WarCraft servers. Just like in totemic traditions of animistic beliefs, there is a though that there are no individual ‘animals’ or ‘monsters’ within the game, but that each WoWTron occupies an intersection between the cybersoul and the ‘instance of graphical manifestation’ within the cyberworld of WoW.  What that means is that when you are tasked with going out and killing a certain number of mobs looking for rare loot that they drop, it is best to adopt an attitude of appeasement for the cyberspirits which populate these ‘otherworldly’ realms.

Propitiation of the Totemic WoWTron Spirits 

For instance, one well-known quest in the Hillsbrad region has folks out hunting Grizzly Bears, looking for a certain number of Bear Tongues. My my, but Darwin would be perplexed at all of the Grizzly Bears who, upon examining their bodies after death, are shown to have no tongue at all.  This means that it can be hours before you complete this quest.

Whenever humans are faced with an extra-personal power which seems capricious and definitely in control over some aspect of our experience, we tend to start trying to appease it. Therefore, even though the WoWTrons are motivating the animal graphics, I’ve found it very helpful to adopt an almost shamanic attitude. Every time I kill one of the electronic Grizzly Bears and I find that it is one of the rare ones that has a tongue, I mark an expression of gratitude within the game by bowing over the corpse (you can make your avatar do certain actions or emotes, and bowing or kneeling is one of  them).  Does it do anything to speed the occurrence of random drops of Bear Tongue? Well, I’m not sure, because I’m not about to tempt the Cybergods by refusing to show respect to their cybertotem animals.

What Would Huizinga Do?

While I’m not exactly the most ‘normal’ person to begin with, I’m fairly certain that Huizinga would love to study me because I’m not kidding about the little mental subtext that goes on in my mind when I play WarCraft. It’s a repetitive exercise in many cases, so it helps to alleviate the boredom by giving my imagination something to do, some way of convincing myself that I can actually tip the random number generators in the code. I imagine the WoWTrons lining up to pass by a time clock and waiting for breaks and chatting with their neighbors about the kinds of adventures they had that day fighting such-and-so, or congratulating each other on the promotions of their friends from, say, ‘Grizzly Bear’ to ‘Cave Yeti’. “Only three million more exp and I get to leave Hillsbrad for the Outlands!”

I bring all of this up because it’s real, first of all, though few who don’t know me would believe it. However, my imagination is terminally engaged, so this is just the tip of the iceberg in my own personal episodes of Ally McBeal. (Weird by birth, annoying by choice. Gotta make that a bumper sticker.)

All three of the readings touched upon the idea of how play is an experience, or how experiences are the new source of value. I don’t know necessarily about what kind of ‘value’ I add to my experience of playing WarCraft by spiritualizing the little Tronpeople, but I do know that WarCraft has definitely added value to my experience, and my day, by allowing me to have a little delusion of a system that makes sense and provides rewards at regular intervals.

Maybe that’s what gaming is all about. Since the world refuses to give us the graded steps toward accomplishment and certainly doesn’t break up positive rewards according to a statistical curve for maximum enjoyment, maybe that’s why we play. We play because we can conceive of a time and space where what we do is not only natural and good, it is a part of the greater system as a whole.

Even if that ‘greater system’ is only WoWTrons and their ancestral totemic spirits.

References

First Semester’s Progress Report

In May of this year, I lost my job when my boss found out I was looking for employment elsewhere. She was my old freelance agent, and due to her encouragement I had taken a try at being a Creative Recruiter. Boy, what a mismatch of skills and personality requirements for me. I held on as long as I could, but try as I might I’m not Recruiter material. The writing was on the wall, and it looked like my resume to me and a pink slip to her.

C’est la vie.

Early summer saw me continuing the ‘hire me!’ dance, to no avail. No fish in the graphic design world were biting. None. A rich and vibrant freelance career which had served me well previously was no longer there to live off of. Well, not true. I did pick up gigs here and there, but nothing like when I first moved to Connecticut a decade ago. The jobs that were to be found were asking me as a freelancer to assume the same level of responsibilities and staying late, ownership of the jobs and projects, that I had been asked to handle as a full-timer. With a pay rate that has actually moved -down- over the past ten years (from $35/hr to $30/hr for the same work and a decade’s more experience), with the knowledge of how much my services were being billed by the agencies to their clients (generally speaking, agencies bill out production services at a rate of about $125/hr with most projects requiring 2-3 hours of work), and with the knowledge of how much money the companies were saving by not hiring me full time, I decided that it was time to move on. Graphic design was a dead-end career path for me. It had been a good ride, now it was time to turn in  the towel for good.

Has Been goes All In

With no money, no job, and no prospects I used my last $1000 to pay up my back student loans to the point that I could get new ones for grad school. Spending that money in that manner meant that I was sacrificing cable, phone, and internet services at home, and committing to books and tuition and twice the total amount I had borrowed over 5 years in my undergrad for a single year’s worth of grad school.  Has Been designer looked at the bottom line and said, “All in.”

I haven’t been disappointed.

Starting with Halavais’ class, I began to really feel my mind opening up again in grad school. I went to college 13 years ago, before ‘wifi’ existed, and I considered myself lucky to be able to go down to the two, count them, two computers in the dorm lounge, where I could get on the internet. I used a black and green 80-character screen terminal, slate blue with monitor and keyboard in one model. I was one of ten students in my dorm building who bothered with the internet, which at that time meant sending text chat back and forth to “rly@cornellc”, or ‘relay at cornell.’   I was accounted back then to be a mystical guru of nerdiness, even though a friend of mine set up my VAX account to allow me to use shortcut notations instead of typing out the full “to:rly@cornellc.edu <text>” by just typing “tor <text>”.

My how things have changed.

Mid Semester Progress Report

The internet has taken hold of our very society. I started going down this path originally so that I could establish a grad school GPA and then apply to Law School (probably not Quinnipiac’s law, but just because UCONN seemed cheaper). Instead, I found a program that’s already setting me up quite nicely.  Let’s take a look at the classes I’m in and post a midterm check in.

ICM501: Intro to Interactive Communications (Halavais)
Intro is quite fun. I was (rightly) concerned at the beginning that a graduate level seminar class with over 20 students would be hard to coordinate. As it is there are still students in the class that I rarely hear speak in class, despite the professor’s grading system that requires participation in class to a greater extent. The theory materials are tough in spots, but in a fun kind of way. And the breadth of knowledge has already helped me to speak like a ‘net professional. (Of course, with the death of professionalism, that might turn out to be a handicap yet).  This is the class that has gotten me thinking again, and has been expanding my mind to new possibilities. The rush of new information and the ideas stemming from them has slowed to a halt mid-semester though. My one main complaint is that we are forced to generate white sheet-level reports as part of a team. I’m a Gen X guy. I prefer to work alone. Collaboration on small projects is suicide to efficiency and interest, but I don’t get to make the rules, I just have to schlep along with the project. As it is my team is already getting antsy with me because I still have no computer nor internet connection at home due to the ‘all in’ for Grad school.

ICM504: Information Animation (Maccarella)
The title of the course is a little misleading. I was wondering how they would fill a whole semester of work on animating information. It’s pretty simple… we’re learning how to code in ActionScript for Flash. I’m still plodding along, but the cool thing about this class is that it uses all of the old skills I gained by coding in BASIC on the Commodore 64 after school and on the weekends. Sprites, conditionals, subroutines, all of that is slowly coming back to me from those sunless days on a computer that nowadays couldn’t match my DVR.  We’ve just finished the survey of the different component parts of ActionScript 2.0, and now the real effort comes in from starting to put them all together.

ICM508: Media Imaging & Sound Design (Tanski)
This class has just started to get really cool. We’ve learned how to mess with  audio mixing and production techniques, and now we’ve just completed our first project for mixing audio and video using Final Cut Pro.  The only real drawback to this class has to be the resource room.  Quinnipiac offers high-end equipment for student use, checked out for a period of 2 days from their on-location resource room. It’s up in Hamden, CT. For folks like me who work in Stamford, it becomes almost impossible to get to the resource room before its 7pm closing time during the week.  NOTE to future ICM508 Students: Before taking this class, realize that this class will bind you very closely to the campus, unless you happen to be wealthy and in possession of video and audio equipment of your own.  I have had to leave work early just to be able to complete my homework… a major pain in the butt. It can be worked around, but this class adds stress to a full schedule because even if you have the cameras and recorders, chances are you’re still going to need to go on campus to use Quinnipiac’s editing equipment.  But Tanski is fun, and the course subject matter is wonderful.

 ICM512: Online Development for Strategic Communications (Maccarella)
This is an online class, and my very first purely online class. I feel disconnected from my fellow students in class, and I really miss the interpersonal interaction with classmates from a physical classroom. I’m falling behind, I think. I’m not sure what week we’re actually on, because while I’ve got the syllabus and I’ve been working along as we’ve gone on, the class doesn’t make an impression with me. It doesn’t feel like a real class, so I only ever get to the assignments as an afterthought when I’m wondering why I’ve finished my homework so early. Unfortunately, I’ve got at least five more online classes I’ll have to take before graduation, so I’d better get used to them. The subject material for the course is fine… it covers usability testing and Information Architecture for planning and developing an online site. It’s part of what I’m doing for real now, so much so that I didn’t get a chance to do wireframes on my class project, so instead I submitted a copy of the wireframes I was working on for a client pitch at work. Did I mention yet that I really don’t feel any sort of ‘connection’ to this class *as* a class? Something I’ve obviously got to get over, because I am lagging behind apparently. Or maybe not. I still don’t know which week I’m supposed to be on, so I’m just going to try and use this weekend to do work a few weeks ahead just to be safe.

So them’s the classes.

ICM999: Personal Sanity  (Pacio)
This is an independent study class of mine. Basically, it’s my life this semester. I feel like I’ve bit off more than I can chew, but in a good way that stretches the realm of possibility, not in the way of getting swamped. I’m having the most difficulty with the online class, but then again, I don’t have access to the internet at home. How ironic is that? I’m studying Interactive Communications in grad school, and I can’t even access the net from my home. I’m just waiting for my refund to come in so I can reup my cable and internet subscriptions, and maybe get a laptop computer with the programs on it that I need.  Overall, it’s a good thing, but as we round the midsemester point I have to admit I’m beginning to get very tired. I just took a week “off” from worrying about school and just squeaking by, but with co-authors on the white paper I have no choice but to kick it back up into high gear. Writing a white paper would be bad enough, but writing a white paper while collaborating with other authors… that sucks. Not to malign my classmates who are working with me… I couldn’t ask for smarter or better spoken companions on this assignment. But collaboration in the arts of writing and research requires an astronomically disproportionate amount of effort to generate a passable result.  I begin to think Halavais set us up this way on purpose. Maybe some weak-minded Gen Y student complained last time that they had to do the white papers alone, and now my Gen X ‘does not play well with others’ independent stubborn streak is paying the price.  Bitching about it doesn’t make it go away, but sometimes the only thing you can do with the crap that the world throws at you is just pick it up and throw it back.

Wish I had learned how to throw.

Agenda

The esteemed research team we have assembled is Pacio, Sirch & Millner. We’ll be taking a look into the world of Electronic Civil Disobedience (ECD) and the Environmental Groups use of cyberprotest tactics in an attempt to create a white sheet.

Our team is still working to nail down the meeting place and time and might opt for a virtual solution.  Our agenda and working plan is as follows:

  1.  Each team member has been tasked with coming up with a narrow and deep topic within the ECD/Environmental activism online. Our first item of business will be for us to share our individual research and topic of interest within the broader field. Our goal at this stage is to “find the loser” and narrow down our whitesheet topic, ideally by looking at all three of the ideas we bring to the table and  finding the common point between them. However, if necessary we will choose one topic point at that  time out of the three options we present.
  2. Pre-meeting we’ve been assembling tags and links on del.icio.us (as I’ve outlined in previous blog posts). These will form the basis of our ‘starting point’ in assembling the bibliography. This activity has actually been helping us to move slowly closer and closer together topic-wise as we’ve been exploring. After we narrow the topic down we will take a look through our assembled sources and begin to generate a more comprehensive list. Our strategy at that point will be to look at any relevant sources which informed our topic selection, and then use those sources’ bibliographies to generate a list of further reading on the topic, and we will continue to trace backward along those lines.
  3. Also at the meeting we will begin the process of setting out the overall plan for the shape of the paper. This will be used to generate a rough outline of how we plan to attack the topic over the course of our writing, and will be used to focus our further research into the new sources.
  4. Armed with our narrowed topic, a starting point for the bibliography, and a rough outline of the shape of the white sheet, we will then close the meeting by planning out a division of labor between the three co-authors which will include a discussion on the tools and methods of collaboration we will be using. While final decisions about the division of the project labor have yet to be made, we’re expecting to have to assign different sections of the research and different ‘draft authors’ for each of the segments of the final paper. As the name implies, we may most likely be coming up with an initial draft of our assigned segments which is then shared with the rest of the team via Google documents or Microsoft Word’s “track changes”/”compare documents”. However, this isn’t set in stone and we will be deciding on initial collaboration strategies at the close of the meeting.
  5. Once initial collaboration strategies have been determined, we will generate a timeline and expectations for “next steps”, verify that everyone understands what we’ll be doing, and then we’ll head out to do it.

It’s not all that detailed, but it does give us the right kind of structure to plan around. The hardest part about any collaborative authoring is just keeping things moving forward and not getting bogged down in overplanning or aimless wandering. It’s a law of physics and management that the energy needed to redirect objects or employees which are already in motion is much less than the energy expenditure needed to motivate them/us in the first place. It’s always easier to edit than to create.

I’m looking forward to working with this team. Willow Sirch is an accomplished author with six books already to her name. I have written two novels myself under the tutelage of Rosemary Edghill, multi-genre professional author/editor and former mentor and literary agent. Between Willow and I our writing experience and familiarity with multiple-rounds of drafts and revisions necessary to produced polished writing should work out well. Into that mix of experience we add Ryan Millner’s fresh perspective and unique creative energies, as well as a much stronger theoretical communications background due to his undergraduate studies than either Willow or myself are familiar with.

Now here’s hoping that we can find a topic that is sufficiently interesting, narrow, and deep enough without getting ourselves in trouble with the FBI because we’re actively researching topics like Cyberterrorism, Hacktivism, and Environmental activism, which deals properly more with the technological aspects and less with the ‘social justice’ aspects. It’ll be a challenging topic, but I think we’re up for the challenge with our particular skillset mix.

Cyberterrorism or Cybertruth?

A friend of mine told me that Ann Coulter’s website had been hacked, and he was kind enough (and thoughtful enough) to grab a screenshot of it for distribution among friends, since the sysadmins most likely will have taken it down by now. A second friend heard about the hack and tried to load the site, but her site seems to be getting swamped with tons of hits.

As part of a public service, and because I just happen to be researching Electronic Civil Disobedience and Cyberterrorism/Hacktivism, I do believe this is a very relevant post. I’m sure that her supporters will be trying to label this as Cyberterrorism, or some kind of vicious attack and disruption of service and threatening of livelihood. They were pretty happy when the Patriot Act went into effect, because it’s a legal workaround to bypass the little annoyances that crept into the US Constitution… you know, like the first 10 amendments. Now all you have to be guilty of is causing the “appearance of” intent to harm or intimidate. Basically, freedom of expression now lies in how your audience chooses to interpret what you say, not in what actual or real harm or damages were caused, nor the intent of posting. I believe it’s Section 802 of the USA PATRIOT act which establishes this. I’ll have to hunt down the link.

Anyway, I’m considering using that argument to press charges against the Religious Right and the neoConservative political agenda. Their websites are inflammatory and filled with hate speech that denigrates liberals. As a liberal, I feel that their speech patterns have the appearance of intimidation, which means that they are guilty of Domestic Terrorism by the definitions under the USA PATRIOT act.

So, here’s the screenshot. Let’s watch the fallout as the neoconservatives have a field day with this, taking all sorts of umbrage and once again feeling like they’re the only ones entitled to rights under the Constitution and the Bible itself.

An Open Letter to Readers

No Gnus is Good Gnus (with Gary Gnu)

I’ve about had it with the news industry.  I’m ready to participate in a new social news experiment: try like hell to avoid “keeping up” with the news industry and see just how much better my life can be.

Lemme Splain… no, Lemme Sum Up

Before I go off on the news industry all together, though, let me sum up this week’s reading assignment in very broad strokes to demonstrate that I read them.  We have Bender (2002) and his “Daily Me” recounting how everyone at MIT is ‘oh-so-much-cooler’ than everyone else because while we’ve been playing with etch-a-sketch, they’ve been able to select their own news sources. I grudgingly admit I’m jealous and wondering why more of MIT’s thought leadership hasn’t made it out of the ivory tower into popular use without falling victim to crass commercialism, but then I remembered that we have MIT to thank for Microsoft, so I shouldn’t be surprised at the ‘many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip’ that have come vomiting forth from the ivory circuitboard.

Then we have Sunstein (2004) and his article about Filtering. Sunstein seems to spend much of the article showing that the internet actually allows filtering, and very little of the article building a strong argument for how that actually could damage ‘Democracy’.  He just seems to assume that by pointing out the fact that by filtering our news we’re closing ourselves off from opposing viewpoints and therefore damaging Democracy.  I challenge Sunstein to show me a filtering system that actually works to the level he’s assuming for filtering out diversity under the mistaken guise of ‘undesirability’. Personally I think that the reason we’re filtering in  the first place is because there’s just so many visual voices crying for our attention, and lately, our outrage, that we’re shutting down the influx as a sane act of self-defense.  More on that below.

Bruns (2006) picked up the Wiki aspect of news today and sounded off on the inherent limitations of that method of newsgathering. While informative, Bruns’ Wikinews article didn’t exactly trigger much in the way of new thoughts on this subject for me.

Jankowski & van Selm (2001) seemed incredibly outdated to me and honestly, irrelevant. I know, I know, that’s a -very- loaded word, and I don’t mean that they’re irrelevant to the development of the historical understanding of the internet’s impact on the news industry, but I’m already anti-news to begin with, so the article felt rather irrelevant to the current state of affairs to me. Outdated in the extreme, it’s amazing how quickly ‘state of the art’ research becomes ‘historical curiosity’. What I walked away from Jankowski & van Selm with was a better understanding of how the internet is now critical as a scholarly medium, simply because the pace of change has ramped up and traditional media culture can no longer keep up.

In my anthropology studies I was warned not to use any sources published prior to 1980 because of the tremendous methodology shift that occurred after the GI Bill allowed middle classes access to universities and changed the way that anthropology was studied. I thought that was excessive. In studying ICM, if something is not printed within the last year, I approach it as an historical piece, not as a current document. Some articles older than last year certainly still retain validity, but not as many as we might hope.

I’ve started reading Matheson (2004), but I have to confess that I’m not exactly grabbed by it. With it being an optional assignment, I confess I haven’t made it all the way through yet. What I do like is that Matheson has chosen to address the epistemology of journalism. Quick checking in the Wikipedia entry shows that ‘epistemology’ refers to a ‘theory of knowledge’, a philosophy of knowledge that includes methodolgy and addresses both knowledge and belief.  I like Matheson’s premise in working from this angle because a lot of my own personal diatribe against the news industry comes from an inherent disagreement with the epistemology of journalism to begin with.

On With the Show

I hate the news industry. I really do.

The old adage from the days of print-based primacy goes, “Never piss off a man who buys ink by the ton.” It’s an extension of the aphorism that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” In plain English, character assassination trumps physical assassination (for everyone else except the guy who got killed, I suppose).

But really, let’s examine just what the news industry does. First of all, they don’t make their money by writing news. That’s why for any print newspaper there’s the concept of the ‘newshole’ to begin with. (Jankowski & van Selm mention it in their article) I’ve worked at a newspaper (the Poughkeepsie Journal, 1996-7) creating the galley dummy for the next day’s edition as part of my daily tasks. The first thing I did was find out how many sections the press was going to run, and that determined the total ‘column inches’ of space that the paper had to work with. I then worked from the advertising book for the day and put in all of the ads (or all of the placeholders for the ads).  We had a computer program that assisted us in doing this by the time I came along, but the old timers still in the department showed me how to tabulate the space by hand, too.

Only once the ads were all firmly in place in the paper did we call down to the press room with the galleys. The Pressmaster would approve the galley (looking for technical problems), and at that point we would make the phone call up to Editorial to tell them how many column inches they had in which sections of the paper. Once the column inches were determined, the editors figured out what articles they were going to run.

Newspapers are in the advertising business. Make no mistake about it. The fees charged for each copy of the newspaper doesn’t generate the revenue that keeps the papers in business, but the ads sure as hell do. One weekend the Poughkeepsie Journal had to run a special advertising section by IBM. IBM had negotiated with Ad Services and was paying for an 8 page special advertising section to run in Section A of the paper with one strict requirement… the middle spread of the ad section HAD to fall on the Broadsheet Fold of the section… the middle of the section where you open the two pages up to full size and it’s a single sheet of paper with no pages in between.  PoJo had a running style sheet which hadn’t been messed with for years which dictated where the Op/Ed page ran in Section A. Unfortunately, the IBM section ran right through the PoJo stylesheet, based on where the broadsheet fold happened that particular day. The Powers that Be were invoked by the weekend editor because -she- felt that Editorial styles were going to -have- to win out.

I’m happy to say that the IBM piece ran as scheduled, and for the first time in years the Op/Ed page shifted to accomodate it. Even more happily for me, that editor never once challenged Ad Services again since she had been verbally ‘educated’ that the ads pay her salary, and I believe the phrase used by the Editor-in-Chief was “What, you think that we make our money because people actually want to *read* what we write? We’re just the excuse the paper uses to sell ad space. Be happy with what you get if you value your paycheck because this week it’s courtesy of IBM.”

Nothing Gnu About It

There’s really nothing new about the way that online news has changed the basic business structure of news. They still make $0 off of their circulation fees, and 100% of the income comes from ads. It has *always* been this way with the news, and it always will be.

What seriously annoys me about the field of journalism in the first place is that presumption of driving value. Almost a priestly caste of information gatherers whose bias shapes the news and limits or colors what it is we’re exposed to. While I admire Sunstein’s premise in a theoretical ‘extension to extreme cases’, I hold that the dangers to Democracy from news filtering were actually more pronounced in the past when geographical distribution determined which media channels were available to any given person.

Think about it. Unless we’ve lived in metropolitan areas, there hasn’t exactly been much in the way of choices for the local newspaper. If you live near a newspaper outside of the metropolitan centers, then you only lived near one newspaper, usually speaking.  If you didn’t like the opinions of the editor, you could write and complain, but you couldn’t actually get a better newspaper unless you paid for special delivery from one of the metropolitan centers.

This in the past put print journalists into a position of actual power over the information flow of their circulation readers. Part of the reason that journalism developed is because we the People can’t be in every spot at once, paying attention to everything at once. And so a profession developed around the need to provide the service of reporting and distribution.

Sacrifices To Expediency

Why is there a journalistic style of writing as separate from “general” writing in the first place? Why do we have to confine ourselves to the whole concept of writing in terse style, employing a hook, front loading the articles in certain ways to convey opinion without communicating anything but facts? Because of the newshole, that’s why.

When you only have a certain amount of space to deal with, you write to fit. You write to incorporate the limitations of the medium in which you are working. Just as a painter who wishes to produce oil paintings must learn the rules of working fat media over lean media so that the paint doesn’t crack and peel, a journalist had to learn how to adapt the pattern of communication to fit within the limitations of the newshole.

As the night went on in the newspaper, there were often last minute ad insertions which, of course, shrank the newshole. Last minute revisions were frequent and reporters often had to cut material off of their articles to make way for more ads because the newshole was a continually shrinking measure. The editors were the ones in charge of allocation of space within their Section, with the Editor-In-Chief controlling the overall arrangement of sections and topics to begin with.

Because of these needs, and the layout of the medium of newspapers itself, print journalists had to learn how to write in a terse, condensed style to communicate the most amount of information (fact AND opinion) in as short a space as was physically possible, without being ‘dense’. The fact that this style of writing continues to be taught as a professional skillset today means that there must be some perceived value in this kind of writing, but at the same time, we’re breaking beyond the restrictions that caused the need for the style in the first place.

Anti-news for me

I personally resist the news. It wasn’t always this way; at one time I was a news consumer just like everyone else. But then I began working in advertising. When you work in advertising, you start paying more attention to the ads. My partner frequently grumbles about my habits of deconstructing advertisements as I see them broadcast or encounter them in print. It makes watching TV with me slightly disconcerting because I pay attention to the commercials … and then want to discuss them.

That personality tweak aside, I also began to develop an appreciation for the fine art of the subtle sale. Sales pitches began to jump out at me all over the place, and not just in ads or commercials, either. I began to process things with synesthesia. Synesthesia is deliberately mixing or substituting one sensory input or output for another. On a hallucinogenic trip, synesthesia is chemically induced, but it can be used cognitively and on purpose without the chemicals in order to understand how we process data. To understand what I mean, think about what color you associate with ‘Monday’. The concept of days of the week have no color attached to them, but yet I bet that your mind supplied you with an answer to that question.

In my synesthetic processing of external stimuli, I began to imagine every sales pitch as a voice calling out “Look at me! Look at me!” When you look, the voice then says “Obey me! Obey me!” Luckily, I can turn off synesthetic processing at will when it’s self-induced (without chemical cause; I tend to avoid those because reality is strange enough for me to begin with). But literally, I began to notice that the same patterns of advertisements calling out for attention on the page began to trigger for news stories. Watch the nightly news on TV and you can see them using the good ol’ Bait & Switch with news stories, putting the one with the most interesting headline last and continuing to tease you with it and then switch to other news bites.  Look at CNN.com’s layout and you can almost see the news links jostling each other in line for attention.

The Real Value of Online News is Me

With the realization that the news stories have always been a vehicle meant to attract the viewers so that ad space can be charged for, followed by the realization that the internet hasn’t changed that at all, I’ve come to realize that the value in online news lies in me. And you, and you, and you too in the back, there.

The news industry is scrambling because traffic patterns are changing and the newspapers are no longer commanding the bottleneck of attention spans. With so many online sources and options bombarding us from all over the world, all of which are calling for their own form of attention and action, the role of the newspaper is changing. The traffic pattern has shifted, and they are no longer the ones who can charge the multitude for a guaranteed pool of exposure.

The value for online news is in me, and how I choose to find it. And while I will occasionally look at the online news forums, I tend to stick with CNN.com and maybe Salon.com if I want to watch conservative-baiting online. Other than that, I refuse to get all up and into newsgathering online. While I’m participating in the blogosphere, I don’t rely on blogs for my “news” because “news” to me is a commercialized invention imposed on writing in general, and its an imposition I reject. I reject it as a writer (see how long and rambling this post is?) and I reject it as a reader. I’d rather just buy Time magazine and read it on the toilet than worry about subscribing to news feeds beyond a select few topics of personal interest.

I actually like the idea that there’s an entire industry out there scrambling to figure out where the hell *I* disappeared to with my habits online. I like the fact that the bait and switch power is in *my* hands now. And *I* choose not to look anymore. I’ll research what I need to know. I’ll skim Time magazine on the throne to see what I missed that week in terms of general news. But even when the cable is turned back on at home, news will *not* be on the agenda.

References