Posts about interactivity


In the Wall Street Journal, Lee Gomes — who’s supposed to be writing about the wonders of the web and whose columns I usually like — writes your basic bar-the-door-against-the -future screed arguing that getting “users” to create “content” isn’t always a good thing because some of what they create is bad. There must be some Latin name for this flawed logic – reductio ad snottism: Because someone uses the tool badly, the tool is bad; because some content of a type is worthless, the type is worthless. Well, surprise, but lots of newspaper reporting is bad, though certainly not all. Lots of books are bad, though not all. Ditto movies, TV, music. Quark yielded lots of really ugly zines and pamphlets, though it also produces Conde Nast’s magazines. And so on, and so on. This argument is wearing. After going through the futurist absurdity of people supposedly wanting to remix movies with new endings — and I agree with him there; I don’t want to work at the movies — Gomes says of remixing:

This is most clearly occurring in books. Most of us were taught that reading books is synonymous with being civilized. But in certain tech circles, books have come to be regarded as akin to radios with vacuum tubes, a technology soon to make an unlamented journey into history’s dustbin.

The New York Times Magazine recently had a long essay on the future of books that gleefully predicted that bookshelves and libraries will cease to exist, to be supplanted by snippets of text linked to other snippets of text on computer hard drives. Comments from friends and others would be just as important as the original material being commented on; Keats, say.

Imagine a long email message with responses and earlier messages included. We’ll have those in lieu of “Middlemarch” or “The Corrections.”

Well, I’d say that The Corrections could be improved by links to fellow readers calling Franzen on his literary self-indulgence, or not. But you wouldn’t have to click on them.

Picking up on the theme, another writer suggested that traditional books “are where words go to die.”

That’s me.

It is an odd state of affairs when books or movies need defending, especially when the replacement proffered by certain Web-oriented companies and their apologists is so dismally inferior: chunks and links and other bits of evidence of epidemic ADD.

I, for one, am not suggesting that all books should be replaced by digital forms. I’m saying they should be augmented, improved, updated, corrected, linked, searched, found online and that then the whole would not be inferior to either half. Don’t want that? Fine, buy the paper versions…. as long as they exist, as long as the economics of publishing supports paper books after it kills paper newspapers. But why not add to the ability of people to find, recommend, understand, and correct information?

Reading some stray person’s comment on the text I happen to be reading is about as appealing as hearing what the people in the row behind me are saying about the movie I’m watching.

Stray person? What if that stray person is you? Or a critic you trust? Or your Mom? And the beauty of the link is that you don’t have to click on it. You don’t have to shush it, as much as you might want to.

In high school, we were required for social studies to take the lyrics of Pete Seeger’s “Turn Turn (Turn),” the one with “a time for love, a time for hate,” and illustrate it with pictures clipped out of Time magazine.

It was a pre-Internet mash-up, and we got busy with our scissors and glue and had lots of fun. I’m not sure what we learned, though. Today’s mash-ups remind me of those Time magazine collages: all cutting and pasting, signifying nothing.

There’s the reductio ad sophomoric again: If a mashup he did was bad, all mashups are bad.

Another way that people describe mash-ups is “user-generated content,” referred to by the smart set as “UGC.”

Well, actually, must of this “content” that is “generated” by “users” is actually brand new, not a mashup.

Most of the time, when companies talk about user-generated content, they mean nothing grander than the pictures you store on Web sites or the pages that MySpace members spend hours fussing over.

That’s not what the “users” mean when they say it.

But for those preaching the glories of the new mash-up culture, UGC is bringing about a new golden age, with the Internet giving a platform to everyone, not just elite writers or filmmakers.

And who decides who the elite are? What happens if you lose this gig at the Journal? Are you no longer elite? Should someone take away your keyboard, your tools? And so on, and so on.

These aren’t all twee costume dramas. No. 1 is “Fawlty Towers.” No. 2 is “Cathy Come Home,” a Ken Loach drama about the homeless that first aired in 1966 but is still vividly remembered. The rest of the list includes dramas and sci-fi and talk shows and sitcoms, all of them, in their own way, weighty meals for the mind. You can watch them decade after decade, and never feel guilty at all.

: LATER: Michael Katcher sends a letter to Gomes, trying to set him straight:

Let’s assume 50 years from now, the book – as in printed pages bound between hard/soft cover – is gone. That doesn’t mean the only way to consume Shakespeare is to read every single comment made my every single idiot who has an opinion. There will still exist the discrete text of Hamlet, untouched by other’s words. Now while it is ridiculous to contend that the only copies that will exist on the Internet will be hyper-linked, tagged, and commented, even if that were true, you’re still free to ignore the links, tags, and comments. Links merely turn words blue and underline them. Comments and tags always appear after a text, not in the middle of it. Nothing will stop you from just reading Shakespeare and tuning out every other opinion on the planet…..

…the function of the Internet to provide options.

Yes, I’ve had trouble getting people to understand that, which means that I’ve had trouble expressing it.

Underline the last line: The internet provides options.

I’m not saying that you have to read linked comments or even see them. But if they do add to the value of a discourse, why not have the ability?

I’m not saying that I prefer to read everything on some newfangled e-bookish thing. But I do get frustrated that I don’t have the functionality I want on paper.

I’m not saying that books should die. But I do wonder how long the economic model of publishing will sustain printing most books.

The new role of authors and publishers

Ben Vershbow from the amazing Institute for the Future of the Book responds to some of my recent posts on the future of the tome and suggests I look at the experience they’ve had with GAM3R 7H30RY, an online book where the people are part of the process.

Since the site launched, discussion here at the Institute keeps gravitating back to the shifting role of the author. Integrating the text with the discussion as we’ve done, we’ve orchestrated a new relationship between author and reader, merging their activities within a single organ (like the systole-diastole action of a heart). Both activities are altered. The text, previously undisturbed except by the author’s hand, is suddenly clamorous with other voices, and McKenzie finds himself thrust into the role of moderator, collaborating with the reader on the development of the book….

Eventually, if selections from the comments are integrated in a subsequent version — either directly in the text or in some sort of appending critical section — Ken could find himself performing the role of editor, or curator. A curator of discussion…

Or perhaps that will be our job, the Institute. The shifting role of the editor/publisher.

See also this post quoting the head of Gruner + Jahr on the notion of the journalist becoming a moderator.

Whose space?

In the UK, a MySpace competitor called Bebo has been challenging the king for the top spot in traffic, says The Guardian. Scott Karp has been asking with good analysis whether the MySpace fizzle has begun. I don’t know, but I still say that the issue for MySpace is that it isn’t really my space; it’s their space. And that’s weak glue.

Talking the talk

Warning: Guardian worship to follow. I know that I keep quoting those folks, but that’s because they keep saying good things. (Full disclosure: I write for them.)

At the Hay Festival in the UK, Georgina Henry, editor of Comment is Free, talked with Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger about their interactive future. Henry said she has learned a lot after diving into the realm of community:

“When I started this, I did look on it as a newspaper journalist; these were things that we were putting up that you had to read. I didn’t really get the measure of the conversation that goes on.

“Two months on, I’m kind of humbled by it. You have to think in a different way about what exactly does divide your professional columnists and the people that I recruited to blog from the readers, who are sometimes extremely erudite.”

She also wrote about the experience in the paper:

Setting up CiF as a collective, group blog was, to my un-web-educated eye, more a practical solution than a philosophical one. We wanted to recruit hundreds of people – academics, politicians, scientists, environmentalists, writers, etc – and encourage them to blog as and when they wanted. We wanted to foster all shades of opinion. We had a tiny budget – a fraction of that spent on the paper comment pages – so we needed to offer freedom and space to write instead of big fees.

We also wanted to get our professional columnists to engage with readers by allowing people to comment instantly on their articles, but I admit I thought only in passing about reader reaction and the kind of conversation the site might provoke online. What I did not foresee was that two months on I would find myself in the middle of a raging argument about professionalism versus amateurism – with sub-headings covering language, anonymity, accountability, democracy, censorship and the art of conversation….

On good days I think this is the most exciting new frontier for journalism – the immediacy of the debate, the excitement at watching readers engage with the big (and occasionally trivial) issues of the day with wit, verve and insight make print seem sluggish, out of date, even a bit dull.

Other days, when I have spent hours removing the anti-semitism and Islamophobia that dances round any piece about Israel/Palestine, and the incoherent abuse, the swearing, the false statements, the ill-disguised misogyny, the intimidation and the downright nastiness that fuels so many comments, I wonder whether Guardian values – free comment, but fair comment too – are in danger of being drowned out in an anarchic, unmoderated medium populated, it seems, by weird men. I look with fondness at the rigorously edited paper, and the polite discourse on the letters page….

Stung by one particularly brutal comment on a piece by a young Muslim woman we had recruited to blog, I did what Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Unlimited, advised and entered the fray myself. Why, I asked in an end-of-the- week post, was it necessary for commenters to personally abuse those with whom they disagreed? Why did so many resort to swearing to make their point? Would they behave like this if they weren’t hiding behind the anonymity of their screen names?

Some of the response was predictable (you can read it at [here]) – but I was struck by how thoughtful others were. And funny. Commenters whose names struck fear in me when I saw them popping up on our bloggers threads turned out to be unexpectedly reasonable. While they fiercely defended their right to take on the professionals, there were many useful bits of advice about the rules of engagement.

Last week Jackie Ashley and Polly Toynbee joined in. Ashley robustly defended professional columnists – in her case, with 25 years of experience of political reporting. She wasn’t claiming that she always knew more than her readers, but the least they could do was tell her so without insulting her. Toynbee attacked the anonymity of commenters and the aggression of their discourse – and revealed the contents of a particularly obnoxious email she had received that morning. (She got quite a lot of sympathy in return.) Both got plaudits from some of their fiercest critics for getting down and dirty and joining the discussion.

Is Bell right that the way to raise the standard of debate on the site is to engage properly with readers? …

Guardian columnnists have taken to heart that blogging is about more than just writing your piece and disappearing once the conversation starts. They have started, as a matter of course, going back into the debates they have generated to talk to their readers….

At Hay, Henry and Rusbridger talked about the nominal fees they give to bloggers whose pieces are commissioned or picked as featured posts. Rusbridger said:

“What we’re doing, which no newspaper has ever done before, is to take your elite stable of columnists, who are paid, and pitch them into the same space as people who aren’t paid,” he said.

“What is professional journalism and what isn’t, and how do they share the same space? We’re making this up as we go along.”

And then we have the paper’s media commentator, a journalism veteran at high levels, blogging — mainly aggregating media news (though I’d like a big more commentary on it) — and telling the paper’s readers:

It allows everyone to have a voice. To many journalists, especially editors, this is anathema. How dare the great unwashed usurp the customary right of the professional journalist to decide what should, and should not, be reported?

We are on our way to the demise of top-down journalism in favour of bottom-up journalism, and the journey is proving rather uncomfortable.

And you wonder why I like these people?

Blogger Idol

The Guardian’s Comment is Free launched a contest to name the best commenter, who will be elevated to official CiF blogger. (Yes, I know, it’s a class system. But that’s OK. It’s Britain). I do hope this works because — probably among others — I suggested it to CiF editor Georgina Henry as a way to stop focusing on the few assholes who soil comments and start recognizing all the witty folks who bring their wit, knowledge, and — this being Britain — irony to the discussion. Here is the announcement of the blogoff. Here is the list of nominees (names I recognized from my reading of CiF; it’s a good list). The nominations thread had more than 850 posts and, from what I could see, a notable lack of vile bile. So far, it seems to be working, which proves that commenters, like columnists and bloggers, like attention.

Herding cats, domesticating rats

Georgina Henry, editor of The Guardian’s Comment is Free, has a good followup post about the debate she began about the civility of comment and conversation online. (Her original post here; my excerpting of the debate here.) Georgina writes:

…[W]e are trying, in response to a point made by many of you, to encourage more of our bloggers to come back on to their threads and join the debate they’ve provoked. I hope that will increasingly happen over the weeks and months.

Finally, we’re planning to launch a competition next week – provisionally called Big Blogger – in response to suggestions on my piece last week that we should involve readers more by getting you to recommend posts and / or comments. Several of you pointed out that there were many quality commenters that turn up frequently on posts, who write well, wittily, and have an interesting point of view. Why not turn some of the ams pro? So that will be the aim of the competition: details next week.

And Emily Bell, editor of Guardian Unlimited, chimed in:

…This prompted an avalanche of responses, some of them thoughtful, others rather juvenile, many positively foul-mouthed and, I’m afraid, quite funny. Some posters dissolved into hysterical protestation that we should not be censoring posts because of bad language, but these I think had not actually quite taken in Georgina’s thrust.

It is not so much the heated swearing that develops on a blog when people are passionately moved about a subject that is vexing but the swearing at individuals. I doubt whether even in the most heightened moments of pavement rage, annoyance in the pub or conflict in the workplace that some of our posters would ever actually call someone one of the many F and C variants they throw at each other and writers online….

One of the sharpest and wittiest bloggers, Daniel Davies, weighed in with a very handy four-point guide entitled Abuse: A strategy for coping. With apologies for the rather cackhanded precis, Daniel suggests that, first, as long as you are right then much of the personal abuse can be borne with lofty detachment. If, however, your views ship water, prepare an elegant climbdown. Second, never remain silent, it only encourages the shouters. This is the most valuable point – again, if one imagines the atmosphere on the football terraces or House of Commons, or even at the British Press Awards, where, as part of a mob, it is fine to shout the most disgusting things under a cloak of rowdy anonymity, once the object of your abuse turns up in person, the impulse to abuse and deride turns to a certain social embarrassment and might even resolve itself in an awkward handshake. Third, “operate a graduated response”, says Daniel, a bit more polite than your critic up to a certain point but a bit ruder thereafter. And fourthly, make a mental note of those who have wronged you in the anticipation that you will have a chance to catch them out later. All of this is achievable without resorting to swearing.

While at the end of the week I had some sympathy for the poster who wrote: “This blog shouldn’t be called Comment is Free, it should be called Comment is Comment is Comment”, so navel-gazing had become the nature of the discourse.

But there is a lurking important point about how we conduct discourse, not just on blogs, but everywhere: in politics, in the street, in our homes and in the media. Condescension, bullying, lecturing and abuse are all bad things, and discussion is a good thing. Sometimes, however, we have all spent so much time indulging in the former that we forget how to do the latter.

Here is Davies’ very good post.

Mind your manners

An entertaining debate about bad language and other social skills has broken out at Comment is Free. In the same post I linked below, editor Georgina Henry wonders why some people feel compelled to use the convenient cloak of anonymity to sputter and spew.

Everyone I know who enters this new world from the old shudders similarly. They have reason to shudder; some people certainly can be assholes and it’s unnerving to find them suddenly hanging out around your kitchen table. But I also usually advise that the rest of the people in the room don’t need editors to tell us who the asses are; we know that. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t kill comments that are badly abusive and personal or off-topic or spam; it’s your kitchen. But I also say that some of these people have spent so long shouting up at a wall and not being heard, they just can resist bringing out the spray-paint cans. Then again, there are always a few who simply need their meds. And sometimes, two such people find each other and so take over a thread no one else could possibly want to enter in. Except for those demented souls, usually the best answer is to face people directly; bullies back off under the glare of eye contact or to put it more positively, anyone appreciates the respect of conversation. Doesn’t mean you won’t piss off people — often just because you don’t have the time to converse with everyone at the level they all expect. But conversation is generally rewarding; comment is good. (Full disclosure: Georgina and I talked about just this over coffee when I was at The Guardian a week ago.) At CiF, Georgina writes:

Why is it necessary for small number commenters to personally abuse those with whom they disagree, sometimes in the most unpleasant way? …

Also a problem is the number of commenters who are unable to argue their point without resorting to bad language. I’ve lost count of the number of fucks, fuckings, fuckwits, fucking twats, shitbags and cunts we’ve taken down in recent weeks. What’s that about? Is it the anonymity of the email ID that emboldens some commenters who might not behave like that if we all knew who you really were (and knew your email address)? It discourages people from getting involved in debates and is a pain to endlessly police.

One of the objects of some of the nastyisms at CiF, Jackie Ashley, wrote a defense of columnists:

When it comes to blurring the lines between amateurs and professionals, I’m beginning to feel like one of a dying generation. When I grew up, eminent columnists like Bernard Levin or T.E. Utley would hand down their views on tablets of stone before heading off to their club for lunch. They rarely, I imagine, had to defend those views to scores or even hundreds of correspondents. Inevitably, that journalistic elite, like other elites, has crumbled, and a good thing too. It’s a huge advance that, thanks to the internet, columnists can now engaged immediately with a large community of correspondents.

What I will say in defence of professional columnists is that most of us have years of experience covering say politics, social policy or international affairs. We listen to the speeches, we attend the seminars, we read the paperwork and we talk the experts…at length. There will always be those who know much more about a subject than a columnist. And equally there will always be those who think they know much more. I’m delighted to hear from both: just so long as you make proper arguments and don’t call me a fucking stupid cow.

And, of course, the commenters have comments. Among them (from various posters):

* Is the bad language really so err, bad? Yes, there’s been some nasty commenting and fights between two posters, but that’s par for the course for blogs. The odd fucking often just shows how passionate some believe in their point of view. Is that such a bad thing? …

* It’s not that bad. Why delete all swearwords when half the columnists use them anyway? How silly. The Guardian allows comment but then gets upset that rude words are used. If anything people are far more eloquent when they’re typing on the net than they would be in real life.

There aren’t enough interested columnists in this blog. Dave Hill’s great – he writes good articles and then he actually turns up to join the debate in the comments. But some of the others just post their rubbish and meander off to cash their paycheck….

* This is the internet and you’re upset about a few naughty words? Utterly fupping pathetic….

* Marx has famously said that ignorance doesn’t prosper and this goes for the multifarious comments that abound on cyberspace discourse. The use of wretched language and assumption of condescending attitude in the text only undermines the commentator’s credibility, whether in virtuality or in flesh and blood. I trust that the readers, with sufficiently critical acumen, will be able to decipher through the muck and mire of such comments….

* Swearing is indicative of enfeebled intellect….

* “Swearing is indicative of enfeebled intellect.” Or the right word deployed at exactly the right moment, in the right context. Don’t confuse vulgarity with a lack of vocabulary….

* “Swearing is indicative of enfeebled intellect.” so is prissiness…

* The use of swearing certainly indicates an ignorance of or an incapacity to choose an appropriate register for public discourse. When swear words no longer have the power to shock and their use has become commonplace their semantic content is spent, consequently they have no value in communicating meaning….

* Dylanwolf, can you see no difference between me telling you to depart forthwith since I am markedly discomfited by your errant nonsense, and me telling you to fuck off?…

* carlweathers said ‘Dylanwolf, can you see no difference between me telling you to depart forthwith since I am markedly discomfited by your errant nonsense, and me telling you to fuck off?’

Of course there are differences. With the latter, you save about 50 keystrokes but sound angry and upset. With the former, you’d sound like a prat….

* “his use of the Anglo-Saxon…” If I may digress for a moment. There is considerable uncertainty as to the etymology of the word “fuck”, but Anglo-Saxon it most definitely isn’t. Most linguistic authorities these days suggest it comes from Dutch….

* I think CiF is truely thought producing. I never exchange barbs with people, I was called a posturing ignoramus by one chap but we ended up joking about things in the end. I like the exchange of opinion. There are contributors with detailed knowledge of history, politics, international relations etc…and I actually learn quite alot from their threads, which is the aim of the game I think. Then there are the bullies who use this as a soapbox. They don’t come here to learn from others. They assert their views and insult others….

You see, the people get it.

(And, yes, I’m afraid that this post will get me blocked by nannyware.)

: And then there was this amusing moment. What’s any discussion without its anti-American, paranoid conspiracy moment?

It must be difficult for the Guardian because allowing free comment (which is an excellent idea) also gives lots of people an excuse to swear and be abusive. It may be that enemies of the Guardian (from the USA?) are coming on the site purposely to swear etc. with the intention of causing trouble? I suppose one of the challenges of the internet is that it’s not possible to avoid that sort of deliberate sabotage.

The 1% rule

A common misconception about interactivity is that everyone has to do it for it to be successful. But, in fact, if a small proportion of a community chooses to contribute, they can create great value for all. That is the essence of the internet media economy. That is how value is driven on, Flickr, Yahoo Groups, YouTube, and so on. The Church of Customer blog has a good roundup I’m just catching up to with numbers from Wikipedia and elsewhere on the proportion of contributors to beneficiaries.

For instance, in June 2005 Wikipedia had a total of 68,682 total contributors. Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales is reported to have told a library group that month:

* 50% of all Wikipedia edits are done by 0.7% of users
* 1.8% of users have written more than 72% of all articles

If we also add evidence from Bradley Horowitz that roughly 1% of Yahoo’s user population starts a Yahoo Group, we seem to have The 1% Rule: Roughly 1% of your site visitors will create content within a democratized community. (Horowitz also says that some 10% of the total audience “synthesizes” the content, or interacts with it.)

In an email, Erik from ProductWiki says the 1% Rule applies to ProductWiki as well; he has about 350 total contributors, more than Wikipedia had in its first year of operation.