We just finished writing a large treatise about online accessibility and how access features could be reused online. We also put forth a more catholic definition of the term. Allow us to beat a vegan dead-horse substitute here and give an example of how accessibility can be fun!
We recall reading, for the first and only time in over 20 years, a believable explanation for the value of captions (or, in this case, same-language subtitles, though they are one and the same) for hearing people. In the 2000.02.14 New Yorker, Anthony Lane writes of the phenomenon of Sing-a-Long-a-Sound of Music, where an entire theatreful of people dresses up as nuns (or Girls in White Dresses with Blue Satin Sashes, as you will) and heads to screenings of The Sound of Music where all the songs are open-captioned.
The idea is simple. You watch the film – uncut, as nature intended, in a scuzzy print, with alarming colour shifts as the reels change. The only difference is the added subtitles, which come alive, like the hills, during every song. These enable viewers to join in, which they do with undisguised lustiness. The titling of The Sound of Music was prepared by Martin Wagner, for London’s National Film Theatre, and it struck me as the one work of unquestionable genius that I encountered last year. I tend to be embarrassed by subtitles;
– here comes the standard pompous hearing person’s attitude: ignore subtitles except to act superior to them –
their audacious efforts to snatch at foreign vernaculars end up stressing, rather than allaying, the alien qualities of the setting. With The Sound of Music, however, they bring home just how tightly, even soothingly, we are wrapped in this unignorable film. In a sense, Wagner had a head start; what was required was not translation from another tongue but the simple transcription, for karaoke purposes, of words that most of us know pretty well. (I was appalled to discover that, after a thirty-year break, I was close to word perfect.) This, however, is where Wagner shows his hand; who else would have thought to include the Latin chant that rises from the abbey as we pan down from Julie Andrews on a hillside and get ready for "(How Do You Solve a Problem Like) Maria"? I had never noticed it before – no audience is meant to notice filler, the blah that keeps a soundtrack ticking along – but suddenly there it was at the bottom of the screen ("In saecula saeculorum"). Things get even better halfway through the picture, as the children gather at the foot of the stairs to bid the party guests good night. Friedrich sings, and the titles follow him closely:So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, adieu,That was it for me. For thirty years, I have wondered about this torturing little rhyme. It should have been easy to avoid; if you want "Adieu" to rhyme with "you," you don’t pronounce it in French – simply opt for the Anglicized version, "Adyoo," and take it from there. But no: The Sound of Music made a tragic move to sound classy, and it paid the price. As for the yodelling in the puppet scene, it inspires Wagner to his finest work – a cluster bomb of meaningless vowels. For anyone who believes that The Sound of Music shows Hollywood at its most hopelessly square, what could be more bracing than to see it reborn as a Dadaist art happening?
Adieu, adieu, to yieu and yieu and yieu.
The Sound of Mucus is finally available on DVD; Sing-a-Long-a-Sound of Music will tour America. Some kind of online presence is assured, eventually. We imagine downloadable QuickTime videos with open subtitles – searchable, of course. [Frisson] This could be the next big Internet meme, as gormless AOLers and ASP programmers delete their dancing babies and "I kiss you!" files in favour of gathering friends and colleagues ’round the monitor to exclaim that "Mi!" is "A name I call myself!"
Bit slow on the content front this week. However, the new snow-white remix of NUblog is brought to you by Mihir Joshi, who actually skinned the blog. We’ll need another skin before we have a rotation to show you.
We’ve updated MogulWatch: Can even AOL get convergence right? And when they flub it, how will puny Canadians do better?
We stumbled across an odd claim in an aforementioned Economist article:
Given that AOL, the world’s biggest Internet company, bought Time Warner, the world’s biggest entertainment company, in January, that seems a surprising thing to say. But AOL, according to Mr Leonsis, bought Time Warner principally because they are two consumer companies that can cross-promote goods, not to sell Time Warner’s content over the Internet.
We don’t know about you, but we’ve never heard that one before. You buy a content company to cross-promote? That’s what marketing agreements are for. As if.
Slate is getting a lot of press, largely because milquetoast standard-bearer Michael Kinsley is doing a lot of yapping.
And the press is yet again, interminably, forever, repeating the meme that Content is Dead. Well, big-budget content may be bleeding a bit, but you don’t need a big budget to do good stuff online. Why is it invariably the small sites that end up explaining why small sites are the soul o’ the net? (Zeldman did a hell of a job for Photo District News, actually. But we need Larry King saying this.)
Kathleen Quinn prophesies that Bill Gates will "pull the plug at the least personally embarrassing (and least contractually painful) moment." Online news is pretty much a losing proposition, she says.
[T]he job of being journalism’s flame keeper still falls to print newspapers, with their solid foundation of local advertising, and to those few remaining national news outlets that are subsidized. Original, quality journalism on the Web simply falls between the cracks: It’s too general in content and its audience too dispersed to attract the local or niche advertiser, yet it’s too elitist and too complicated for users to access to attract the national advertiser. [...] Web journalism is racing to become exactly what it ran away from: televised infotainment. If the infrastructure is put in place to deliver broadcast-quality imagery instantaneously over the Internet, the road ahead for journalists will turn out to be a circular driveway, taking us back to where we started.
At that point, television and Internet will be one and the same thing. Not that we haven’t hacked that subject to death already (alpha, beta). Print news online, and even audio news online, are cheap.
And anyway, Soundbitten pretty much wipes the floor with Quinn:
Quinn relies upon flawed generalizations (i.e., Salon and Slate are sufficiently representative of Web journalism, or even "quality Web journalism") and bad analogies (while Slate and Salon cover some of the same subjects as [uppercrust print mags], they are much different in terms of execution, functionality, and tone.) Also, she cites absolutely no statistics to lend her theories quantitative credence, which we imagine is why Interactive Week has labeled her piece a "Special Report" rather than, say, "Quality Web Journalism." Ultimately, however, there is some truth in what Quinn says. To attract a big audience on the Web, you generally need a big staff. And then once you have that big staff, you absolutely have to attract a big audience to support it. Alas, while the Internet is a powerful new medium, it has not yet proven hat it is so powerful it can radically increase the general public’s appetite for "quality journalism." But the fact that some people have finally begun to understand this basic premise doesn’t spell the death of "quality Web journalism," just the death of the hype surrounding it.
Meanwhile, Slate’s nominal competitor, Salon, declares simply that "[t]he key to making money from online content is getting yourself bought by Microsoft (or an equally deep-pocketed competitor like America Online)."
Aren’t we forgetting something? Like the fact that Slate is boring, insular, and twee? We caught a fit of pique and wrote it up for Medianews. A bit tartly, at that.
In our second instalment in a series on user-contributed content (read the first), we examine how attitude and starting small can lead to sparkling, lucrative Web content. As long as you have a slush fund backing it up.
We refer to the triumvirate of sites owned and operated by Tara Ariano ("Wing Chun") and David T. Cole ("Glark"), namely Hissyfit, MightyBigTV, and Fametracker.
Back in the day – and we’re talking four or five years ago here – we read Hissyfit constantly. The site, based on the now-ubiquitious Ultimate Bulletin Board, nominally centred itself around a feature rant or hissyfit, which would then be discussed in the site’s message boards. Quickly, though, the balance of power was reversed, and the message boards, home to discussions of movies, music, TV, relationships, and suchlike, came to host the real action.
You’ve never met a smarter, snarkier group of malcontents in your life. Many worked in the grand Internet industry, but had better taste than your typical geek (and you know how gormless they are at times); many more had real lives. A heavily pink-tinged site, you’d be hard-pressed to stumble across an heterosexualist male, Glark excepted. You surfed to Hissyfit and you knew you’d run across someone who was at least as dissatisfied yet energized, literate yet obsessed with pop culture as you were yourself.
Wing Chun staked out an almost entirely new discursive form with a sibling site, Dawson’s Wrap, a fan site dedicated to Dawson’s Creek. Emulating what girls of all genders do while watching TV at home – talking back at the screen, taking nothing seriously, mocking the program from a basis of love – Dawson’s Wrap detailed each episode of the show minute by minute, with slings and arrows in abundance. (We say the discursive form is almost new because it amounts to a highly non-objective and opinionated form of continuous audio description. In fact, describers could learn a few things from dawsonswrapesque manners of observation.) The resulting "recap" could occupy a dozen screens of text, which you avidly devoured, putative difficulty of reading onscreen be damned.
Impressively dense, nuanced, and so singular in ethos, tone, and worldview that it could do nothing but attract attention, Wing Chun and Glark’s sites gained more and more renown through word-of-mouth. We recall reading, some years ago, Wing Chun’s diary posting on Hissyfit detailing a San Francisco meeting with a doyenne of ChickClick, the regroupement, as the French say, of zine-like grrrl sites larded over heavily with attitude. Suddenly the flow of banner ads in the bottom frame increased: Hissyfit had become a ChickClick "sister site."
Wing Chun had a day job for quite a while – as assistant to the editor of Saturday Night, a perpetually-troubled Canadian monthly whose final editor of note, Paul Tough, now runs an Internet content minisite we will discuss some other day. It rapidly became clear that banner-ad revenues were rapidly overtaking her OL salary, so she quit.
Ah, but no resting on laurels for these kids. Wing Chun and Glark franchised the Dawson’s Wrap concept to an entire coven of television programs under the umbrella site MightyBigTV. The duo hired on a whippersnapper inexplicably codenamed the Man from F.U.N.K.L.E. (Adam Sternbergh, met during the Saturday Night days).
The banner-ad slush fund is eyebrow-raisingly lucrative for the Hissyfit kids. While she refused to disclose her income in a key Maclean’s miniprofile, Wing Chun outed herself in the June 2000 Toronto Life:
Tara Ariano, writer, editor and producer of the snarky pop-culture Web sites Hissyfit, Fametracker and MightyBigTV, is slowly learning where the dot-com dollars lie. Now brokered by ChickClick, her sites are bringing in enough advertising that she could just quit her day job and finally pay her contributors. Ariano’s personal revenue for February (in U.S. dollars): Fametracker, $2,229.61; Hissyfit, $3,886.23; MightyBigTV (soon to be franchised into movie, book and music sites), $5,349.50.
Annualized, the peddling of sarcasm is netting the couple something like US$137,000. Not bad for repackaging other people’s work.
We’re not knocking Wing Chun and Glark, not at all. While the archives don’t go back quite so far as to prove it, we’ve contributed to Hissyfit on many an occasion – happily. A modified network effect is at work here: Being around lots of similarly sarcastic, intelligent, articulate people prompts you to contribute, further attracting sarcastic, intelligent, articulate people.
The duo’s sites are the antithesis of the much-despised, self-incriminatingly bland, entirely discredited portal strategy: Presenting a definable point of view not shared by some amorphous assumed mass majority succeeds brilliantly in cultivating a miniature community.
Currently, we worry about the sites’ future, given that wymmynz Web sites are in notorious flux. ChickClick’s founders no longer work there; ChickClick itself is one arm of a budding conglomerate. Wing Chun and Glark’s sites now bear at best a tenuous link to "chicks," apart from being co-owned by one. (A letter to Salon confirms as much.)
If ChickClick disappeared, or simply pulled the plug – well, goodbye, yellow brick road.
Seemingly every wymmynz site on the net peddles middle-class fluff. We interviewed for a content-editor job at a Canadian wymmynz portal where subject-matter would be limited to the following: parenting, health and fitness, money and finance, astrology (inevitably), food and nutrition, shopping, and fashion and beauty. In short, a Web portal for secretaries who can name five distinct shades of off-pink lipstick. How do the dynamic duo’s sites fit into this nebulous, debris-strewn cosmos, if we imagine the absence of ChickClick’s patronage?
And nearly everything presented on the sites in question is written by contributors, not Wing Chun, Glark, or the Man from F.U.N.K.L.E. True, some contributors are now paid. We understand that pay rates hover around $50 per item. And in fact, the MightyBigTV FAQ states:
Why aren’t you recapping JAG? Family Law? Providence? Law and Order?
Money. We pay our recappers, and the more shows we have on the site, the more money we have to pay out. We’d love to recap every show on TV, but at the moment we can’t afford it.
The FAQ also warns that "All the recaps that appear on the site are the property of Mighty Big TV. Posting our content without permission is legally actionable, and we will protect our intellectual property to the fullest extent of the law."
We applaud Wing Chun and Glark for their audacious midwifery of a rampagingly successful, smart, even groundbreaking network of content sites. In future instalments, we’ll explain how this kind of tight focus, this willingness to offend, this elitism, have worked wonders for community-building in other miniature content sites. The couple’s approach is worth studying, if not poaching outright. (But watch out for lawsuits.) In this case, user-contributed content is the heart of the sites, and its greatest strength.
But the sites’ proprietors are rolling in dough, and these former wage slaves appear to emulate the worst habits of publishing cartels in asserting full ownership of other people’s intellectual property for a payment of peanuts. (Recapping The West Wing for fifty bucks meets no defintion of work-for-hire, kids.) And then, when other would-be community members suggest expanding the stable, the duo declare poverty, while also permitting a magazine to publish the duo’s plans for expensive new sites.
We wonder if Wing Chun and Glark are morphing into minimoguls. We’d love to find out for sure, but Wing Chun replied to a polite request for an interview with a nominally polite but frosty, dismissive "No, thank you."
She didn’t call it Hissyfit for nothing.
Rod Johnson writes in with a further elucidation of the origin of content:
Aristotle, of course. Aristotle, for better or for worse, is the source of so many of our ideas about metaphysics, meaning and communication that it just isn’t funny (I’m reminded of Baudelaire, who on being asked "Who is France’s greatest poet?" replied "Victor Hugo... hélas"). But never mind.
Aristotle laid out a doctrine which is sometimes called "hylomorphism" in which things are composites of morphe, form and hyle, matter. This comes down through Aquinas and Erasmus, plays a major role in Renaissance thought, is picked up by Descartes and becomes part of the substrate of nineteenth-century psychology. But probably the biggest exponents of it in the 20th century were Ferdinand de Saussure, who deeply influenced everyone who subsequently thought about language, communication and the mishmash of metaphysics and psychology Saussure called "semiology," and Edmund Husserl, who laid down a vast expanse of post-neo-quasi-Aristotelian thought in Logical Investigations (1900) which had an enormous influence on European esthetics and social science before and after World War I. I agree, Modernism, especially in the form of the Bauhaus, did a lot to popularize (and ideologize) the form/content distinction, but the idea was "in the air" around the turn of the century and had been an explicit thread in several disciplines much, much earlier.
And there’s undoubtedly a lot more to say than that. I think that this is one of those fundamental distinctions in Western culture that pops up again and again in various forms that any attempt to find "the first" is doomed. I bet it would turn up in early Christian thought too.
We’re still interested in hearing of content/delivery distinctions predating the online world. (Read the previous discussion.)
One of the many losing battles fought in the trenches of the Web is accessibility. Usually the word refers to making Web sites usable and understandable to people with disabilities, which mostly means the blind and visually-impaired. Even that limited definition of access has netted next to no tangible accessibility work on the part of Web developers, many of whom still can’t be bothered to include meaningful
ALT tags for images. Still. In the year 2000. Despite being required in HTML 4.0.
Accessibility is actually a broader concept. Media access encompasses not only those with sensory disabilities (blindness and deafness), but, to a limited extent, people with certain cognitive disabilities (like learning disabilities or autism). In fact, a more catholic understanding of online access boils down to maximizing your audience. Some examples:
LONGDESC; previous discussion)
Word to the wise: Don’t think for a second that any of these techniques, apart from certain HTML attributes, is remotely simple or straightforward. Captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing are spectacularly difficult and nuanced arts that, by and large, are mishandled. (We go back 20 years in media access. We know what we’re talking about.) Even with currently rampant quality problems, those Big Four access techniques should be left to qualified experts. In general, you shouldn’t try this at home, kids.
We are not big fans of video on the Web (first discussion; the Convergence Myth). Welcome to reality: It’s happening anyway.
The National Center for Accessible Media at WGBH, Microsoft, and the World Wide Web Consortium have put in a great deal of well-meaning effort in accessibility for Web multimedia.
It ain’t going nowhere. Despite the existence of free caption- and description-creating tools like MAGpie (Windows only), nobody’s in a rush to bother adding captions and descriptions to multimedia clips. It’s too complicated, intrinsically (nuanced arts, remember?), technically, and conceptually. And any approach that requires a special version of player software on the viewer’s end (e.g., QuickTime Pro per se) is doomed.
The goal all along has been to produce a system similar to closed access on television – you activate display of captions decoded by a chip or external set-top device, or you turn on the Second Audio Program channel to hear audio descriptions. The goal in multimedia access, then, is to cybercast one video stream. You could then activate captions or descriptions, or both, or neither, as you liked. Sounds a lot like a TV signal, doesn’t it?
And on how many occasions has TV translated well to the Web?
This approach rests on premises that, while valid in the world of television, were misapplied to the online milieu or have been superseded.
OK. Everything we’ve done so far hasn’t worked. Here’s what will.
Everybody’s happy. No special player, no special authoring software.
This way, we serve the same goals as closed access – sensitive nondisabled English-speakers never have to be bothered by extra words onscreen or in audio – while opening up access to new markets using existing multimedia players.
What’s not to like?
You’re already wondering how to pay for this sort of thing. People always do. You’ll drop any amount of money on a launch party (or a schmooze party for the film festival, or a news helicopter), and you’d never imagine attempting to charge for main audio or video. But the minute anyone suggests accessibility, all of a sudden everybody’s poor.
So here’s how you pay for it. You save the verbatim transcription of the program. You also save the script produced for the audio description of your program. If you’re smart, you buy two sets of descriptions: continuous, where the descriptions proceed through the entire program with few, if any, pauses, and interlude, the normal kind, with descriptions mostly limited to pauses in dialogue.
Combine those scripts in a way that is entirely understandable and flows well if read continuously, rather like a film script, and voilà, you’ve just produced a searchable, indexable text-only analogue of your audiovisual program. You can suddenly do the following:
You don’t think you can earn back a few grand in accessibility costs this way?
We think this All Access™ approach (another of our trademarks) is a smart way to proceed with, say, the digitization of television and film archives. And in any event, our approach is absolutely the only one that’s going to work in a world of online film distribution. It’s widely accepted that DVD will be the last hardware distribution medium for films. Online connections, eventually, sometime, at long last, will provide video-on-demand. And English-language Hollywood films with no access features are a lousy investment, because only a few hundred million viewers can actually understand the content, compared to many more hundreds of millions for variants of that content with access features.
Inevitably, some selection mechanism will be developed to enable users to pick and choose their desired access provisions. There are ample precedents, including closed captioning and description on TV and the menus encoded into typical DVD movies.
Moreover, a byproduct of captioning, audio description, subtitling, and dubbing is the creation of a network of text, audio, and video variations that themselves have value and can command a price.
Accessibility is firmly rooted in a moral and indeed social responsibility, a concept very much out of favour today. But frankly, it also makes business sense.
We reiterate: What’s not to like?
Earlier, we declared that new media gave us the distinction between content and presentation. Peter Quinn begs to differ, and, in our second E-mail conversationette, writes:
Quinn – The online world did not give us the word content. Modernism did. Up until then there was no distinction between methodology and subject matter. Subject matter was all that mattered, usually driven by the patronage system, which was either the church or the state. At the height of Modernism, form became acknowledged as content, which seems to linearly progress into the virtual arena. But we must be critical. Just because it exists on the Web, and moves when you move your mouse over it, it doesn’t instantly become content.
contenu.nu – Ah, but we never said it had to be interesting to be content.
Quinn – It isn’t automatically interesting content regardless of how fashionable the style is. And it isn’t content for the sole reason that it can stand on its own as a conversation piece. If that were the case, my morning coffee would be content in and of itself.
contenu.nu – You have a point. However, there are some topic areas with which one is not familiar. For example, ambient music, an oddball genre. To the uninitiated, ambient music is undifferentiated white noise. But habitués can tell you all about it in detail. [One person’s irrelevance is another person’s content.]
Quinn – Futurism, Constructivism, Bauhaus, Dada, all these were movements that were built on design because of a certain direction of content. Oh, yeah, and one more thing. Barbara Kruger is a hack. Jenny Holzer is a poet utilizing the medium for her content.
contenu.nu – We have considerable mixed feelings about Babs, based in part on having met her. But see this review, and, we suppose, the piece of crap we wrote.
Quinn – I am a painter/musician turned Web something or other, and although I find the energy of this new media very exciting, acknowledging that there is a paradigm shift, and that the way we are perceiving things is definitely being altered, but there is a lot of crap out there. Stuff, although virtual, that is still taking up a lot space. Stuff (graphics), that because of a lack of some kind of conceptual support, exists merely for the sake of itself. Which I find interesting, but not really that revolutionary considering Elsworth Kelly’s grey paintings or Robert Reinman’s white paintings – art for art’s sake. But at least in these pieces there exists a dialogue about some kind of transcendentalism. About getting to something.
Maybe that’s the point. I don’t know. Maybe the point of all this graphical styling is to just exist and to deny the search for answers. A friend of mine who was a skateboard/fashion photographer asked me quite bluntly, probably after not really commenting on his stuff, if I thought fashion photography was art. I think I answered that I thought there was art to it, but it definitely is not art in my mind. And I think it is because of this content issue. I think without the content, method is random, probably run by fashion and style, which is only the byproduct of marketing.
Quinn – I just had a smoke and realized that content implies meaning. You could say that meaning can be drawn from anything in support of itself, but I guess I need more of a substantiation than that. What that is I don’t know. I usually use the term soul. If it’s got it, it has it. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. It’s a moral stance.
contenu.nu – You’re still discussing a separate question: good art vs. bad.
So, everybody, what do you think? Who gave us the concept of content as separate from medium of distribution? Can you think of content/delivery distinctions predating the online world? We’re genuinely interested. Let us know.
Some stories you might’ve missed:
ClickZ, an online news site notably fond of the colour green (which, like orange, survives well online) and the typeface Rotis (which we’ve had quite enough of for one lifetime), explains how they make money and Salon doesn’t: Low overhead.
"Low" is relative, but a loss is a loss. Milquetoast standard-bearer and one-time journalist Michael Kinsley of Slate.com co-opts the lingo nonetheless: " ’Frugality, more than Microsoft’s deep pockets, has brought us to the threshold of financial success,’ Kinsley said, noting Slate’s relatively modest staffing. Yet Slate is still in the red, with losses of ’less than $10 million a year,’ with profitability yet to be projected." Truly frugal Web sites could survive for ten years on Slate’s FedEx bill alone.
En tout cas, while the ClickZ article hints at ClickZ’s many sponsorship methods (steal these ideas, kids!), we keep wondering why the low-overhead philosophy isn’t obvious and actually needs to be stated. Is it true, however, that spendthrift content sites deserve to die merely because of their managers’ overspending?
We regret to say that the answer is a clear yes. Hubris invites retribution. Ask Shakespeare.
Similarly, the Economist almost misses the point. An article carries the title "The Internet Disappoints Big Media," as if Big Media were the only media around. The article engages in Orwellianism by deploying the term "general entertainment" to refer to moving pictures. "The Internet is pretty good at delivering music and text to customers, but not video, which makes up the biggest slice of the entertainment industry’s output." Then give us more licensed music and text, fools. (And not E-books. Not yet. Shortly.)
Why can’t hubristic new-media executives face reality? Convergence is a myth.
Frankly, we are quite happy to watch NBC and Disney lose millions of dollars, if only to stoke our retributive passions. What we would have preferred to see, however, is even a tenth of that sum invested in a range of small-scale niche sites.
But that horse has pretty much bolted from the stable.
Another Economist howler: "But there is also, says Cynthia Brumfield, publisher of Broadband Intelligence, ’a chicken-and-egg problem.’ Because the content isn’t there, people are not rushing to get the connection; but without the connection, there is no market for the content. That, she reckons, is one reason why only 6% of those to whom a broadband cable connection is available have taken up the offer, and fewer than 1% of those who could get a telephone broadband connection have one." In reality, not everyone is all that wild about sitting in front of a computer and navigating Web sites. Not everyone has a computer, for any of a range of reasons. While this would seem to amount to an argument for TV-based Internet, that is even worse.
It is farfetched to claim that a lack of content deters would-be Internet subscribers. How would they know there isn’t any content if they are not subscribers in the first place?
"The good news for the incumbents in the entertainment business... is that they are not under siege from the expected rush of Web-savvy competition. The bad news is that their Internet businesses do not, by and large, look much healthier than the upstarts’." Small is beautiful, baby. Big becomes beautiful only when you can actually pay the freight.
Yawn. Another is-content-dead? article, this time from that content powerhouse, USA Today ("Let me glance at you!"). (To be fair: It’s an Associated Press story.) " ’No doubt about it, it’s hard to be independent these days,’’ said [some analyst or other]." Well, how the hell can you call APBNews.com independent? You’re not independent if venture capitalists are funnelling tens of millions of dollars down your gullet. In fact, usually you become a slave. The analyst concludes: "The pioneering days of the Net are all but over. I’m bullish on the content business, but only when people have a reasonable scope in mind." Well, duh. Spend millions without millions coming in and you threaten to kill off an entire genre – at least in the minds of shallow journalists.
Meanwhile, the incendiary Diane Francis – we like to think we’re almost as incendiary, though we respect the truth more – sullies her unmentionables in a profile of Keith Kocho, majordomo of the most self-impressed of the Toronto nouveaux-médias shops, Extend. (Just try using their site without an "approved" browser.)
Keith Kocho is central casting’s version of the e-entrepreneur: Bearded, blue-jeaned and interviewed in a boardroom beside man’s best friend, his faithful dog Scout.
Wow. We were under the impression that gushing over the physical characteristics of a subject in a business story was a tad outré. And anyway, what Francis knows about "our interactive multimedia future" seems to derive more from publicists’ telephone pitches than from actual Internet usage. She name-drops some ridiculous pretense for a cooking show as harbinger of a digital future. (We watch cooking shows a lot, and snap to attention when we hear the phrase "Fukui-san!" This cooking show stank.) Run in fear from any nouveaux-médias executive who says the following with a straight face: "Why should McDonald’s buy advertising on television when it can create its own wonderful kids’ program that everyone will watch?" Run screaming in fear if this pundit also unironically opens paragraphs with "in five years’ time." In five years’ time, we’ll be flying robot cars to the moon.
Go ahead. Prove us wrong.
The Mom Test: Writing in BusinessWeek, Heather Green blows the alleged effectiveness of banner advertising out of the water with the Mom Test: "Ask your mother, as I have asked mine, if seeing a banner ad blinking at the top of the screen gives her the same emotional reaction she gets from one of those quirky, fun Volkswagen TV ads. My mom says, no way." More interestingly, Green mentions a Procter & Gamble site that – gasp! – verifying how custom-written content is necessary online. "[The much-feared advertiser and consumer-product colossus] says the most effective forms of online marketing it has tried include providing content for a site. One example: an article on hair care on a Web site for women sponsored by P&G’s Physique hair-care products. The difficulty, of course, is that this kind of marketing takes a lot more work." Well, what are your marketing departments for? Rubber-stamping banner-ad buys, or creating actual campaigns? "A lot more work." Please.
Previously, we described Weblogs as a "format." We even perpetuated the meme that Tim Berners-Lee’s original links pages were the first Weblogs.
This romantic idea seems to have captured people’s imaginations, because a link is now making the rounds that appears to be the very first What’s New page over at NCSA, dated June 27, 1993. Were you online in June 1993? (We were. But it’s impolite to gloat.)
The Weblog, then, has a storied past, one that we should cherish and respect. Oh, but we’d better stop. We’re getting all misty here.
In the past, we’ve been critical of user-contributed content, particularly at E-commerce sites. For A List Apart, we wrote that Amazon-style user reviews boiled down to "Alanis sucks!" or "Alanis rules!"
It was our impression that most people’s opinions, as posted on Amazonesque fora, aren’t all that interesting. One reason? They’re not experts. There’s a reason why professional critics have high-profile slots in the conventional media. By and large, they do in fact know what they’re talking about.
We have, however, found a few genres of user-contributed content that actually work. We’ll get to those later in this ongoing series. But let’s start with an antique collaboration technology.
First, a (Usenet) newsflash. One of the duopolist providers of free Usenet news, Remarq, was swallowed this week by some conglomerate or other and promptly lobbed off an arm: "[Whatever this conglomerate is] will no longer provide free, Web-based access to newsgroups at RemarQ.com."
The conventional wisdom about Usenet is that it is overrun with spam and/or porn. Generally, it is. Some newsgroups, however, aren’t, though they’re hard to find. Usenet is rather unsexy and carries the scent of death, so not many netters are in a big rush to root around the dumpster to find what few diamonds there are.
Further, Usenet newsreaders are nowhere near as widely used as browsers. Netscape typically can read news, but at most 20% of people online use it. Explorer offloads newsreading to Outlook, an E-mail program (a) that not everyone uses and (b) that, through its notorious, uncorrected programming defects, is single-handedly responsible for egregious virus attacks. Quite simply, if you hit a newsgroup link on a Web page, you have no reason to assume it will work.
It gets worse. Usenet carriage by ISPs is far from universal, because the flow of data is huge, costing real money in bandwidth and server space. AOL and CompuServe offer Usenet, so the lower and upper echelons are unaffected. Apparently it is the broad midrange of Usenet readers who rely on local ISPs that is affected.
Of course, there’s still Dejanews, which buried its formerly-high-profile, raison d’être Usenet holdings twenty or thirty fidgety, grasping-at-straws redesigns ago. It is possible that free access to Usenet may be on its deathbed: The Remarq page recommends signing up for a "free 30-day trial" with some site or other.
Usenet has a storied past. So do LP records, which, like Usenet, desperately cling to a dwindling set of alleged superiorities. How does one save Usenet?
Jon Udell may have an answer. Rather along the lines of Christian heavy metal, Udell describes how a debased medium can be "saved," in this case by using the underlying protocol, NNTP, to positive ends.
Whether or not the Usenet reorganizes along these lines, it’s crucial to separate the idea of shared discussion space from its implementation as the Usenet. The Usenet’s model of collaboration – and its existing, proven tools and technologies – can be redeployed on public sites, extranets, and intranets. NNTP conferencing can be a better kind of mailing list, one that supports the kinds of collaboration that the Web has so far failed to deliver.
It’s a very unsexy approach. Your typical Web site would prefer to buy a Web-based discussion board, which we’ll talk about in the coming days. But since NNTP is built into many server packages or can be downloaded for free, why reinvent the wheel?
One place we see NNTP deployed intelligently: Microsoft. Yes, them, or at least their support newsgroups. Perhaps this is an atypical example, since the topic is itself computer technology. But it seems to work.
So far, this discussion has dealt with the content carriage mechanism rather than the content the mechanism carries. Trust us, we’ll be getting to that shortly, and you can expect some ears to be singed.
We’ve added a page to MogulWatch: Oil and water in mergers and acquisitions. Newspapermen buying cable companies and TV folk buying newspapers are pouring money down the drain.
And besides, TV and print staff are largely unsuited to Web work. Not that half the readers of this blog want to hear that.
Seth Godin, author of a book on a highly dubious concept called permission marketing, is giving away complete PDFs of his new book, Idea Virus. He tells Wired News:
"My feeling is that E-books are going to be free," he continued. "There are just going to be too many of them. And when you look at the model, you realize E-books have more in common with Internet sites than with traditional books."
The concept that a writer will get paid for writing may soon be a thing of the past, Godin said. He predicts that corporations will begin sponsoring writers and financing both fiction and nonfiction in order to have content to offer. [...]
He cites his experience with his previous bestseller as teaching him an important marketing lesson. "When we gave away a third of the book for free, more than 100,000 people asked for a sample," he said. "This led to an instant increase in sales, much to the surprise of my publisher. By going from giving away just a third to sharing the entire thing, I hope to show that digital media wants to be free, and that those who contribute their ideas – and throw up the fewest barriers – are the ones who benefit the most."
Sigh. A hundred thousand people will look at a sample of a book. Samples are alluring. The sight of an ankle inflamed Victorian woman-lovers. Samples are softcore.
Giving away the whole shebang kills the mystery. It’s also overwhelming. Full disclosure, while appropriate and desirable in a great many milieux online, is too hardcore.
Too hardcore for what?
For writers to survive. Digital media has no intent. It does not "want" anything. It is readily replicated, but capability should not be misread as volition. "Digital media wants to be free" is a mild reformulation of the Wired syllogism "Information wants to be free." In that case, the catchphrase was used as an excuse to cover up Wired editors’ violation of a Canadian judge’s publication ban in a murder case. We guess that information’s insatiable desires outrank those of the lawfully constituted judiciary. (But we don’t want to hold a grudge.)
The prospect of corporations’ sponsoring book content, while partially at work already, is too shocking to seriously contemplate. Aren’t megalomaniacal media mergers bad enough? Doesn’t anyone remember the "Pepsi Presents Arithmetic" skit from The Simpsons?
– If you have three Pepsis and drink one, how much more refreshed are you? You, the redhead in the Chicago school system?
– Partial credit!
Megacorporations already decide who gets published. But at least they’re megacorporate publishers. Heaven help us when GM, Unilever, and Wal-Mart sponsor actual books.
You can give away content voluntarily. Literally tens of thousands of people and corporations do it every day. We’re doing it right now. But to give away an entire book – a brand-new book from a marketable author – is insane.
Godin is quite right. Sales will go up due to his (publicity) stunt. Given the choice between staring at a computer monitor or reading high-res print, smart people choose the latter.
"So," you retort, "what’s the problem? He can give away his damn book if he wants, and people will endure only so much eyesore before they’ll just pony up for the printed version." We don’t object to the practice; we object to the principles and the precedent.
Information doesn’t want to be free. Not all content should be given away. With a frictionless system like E-publishing, you may end up paying $50,000 in server costs to recoup $5,000 in payments. (Ask Stephen King.)
Or we’ll end up replicating the music industry, but with a twist (Cf. Steve Albini), where the publisher agrees to E-publish your book for nothing, docks you for server costs, and adds trivial royalties from the few people who paid for the E-book. You never recoup your expenses. It’s sharecropping. And what kind of royalties will you get for the print edition of your book? (Will there even be one?) How about your advance?
Print publishing is an expensive, wasteful system run by cartels. Nonetheless, it’s manifestly superior to Godin’s version of E-publishing. Authors should be paid, and not by some kind of corporate sponsorial interest masquerading as a patron/artist relationship. (Those aren’t books; they’re advertorials.)
We have gone on at length (perhaps a bit trop) about futuristic interface elements of the DHTML variety. (Example; another example; one more.)
Well, we found a few more: Village Voice, plus a whole discussion over at evolt.org.
Krazygonuts, this stuff. How well do they work in screen readers? We’re checking that out. We’ll let you know. (Theoretically, if the popout menus use imagemaps or are composed of sliced segments, each can be given an
TITLE. We strongly doubt, however, that these conditions hold.)
We’re working on a multi-instalment examination of the folly of single-media conglomerates buying into other media, as a followup to our MogulWatch coverage of the convergence myth. (Netscape browser disability repaired, by the way.)
All righty. CanWest and Quebecor are going even more nuts than BCE did in dropping billions in the name of convergence.
And boy, does that ever make no sense. So we’ve started a separate special report probing the tortured mind of the media mogul: MogulWatch!
Web sites make mistakes. What should they do when it happens?
In print, corrections can be buried in agate type on an inside page, but they’re present nonetheless. By contrast, we have awesome revisionist powers online. We can erase mistakes, pages, entire sites. (Hint: Google caches are a useful forensic tool.) It’s unethical to use these Orwellian tools without a degree of transparence, as our French friends say.
An Online Journalism Review survey pointed out the range of corrections policies at work online. You can probably figure out what trend is without even reading the survey: Cover your tracks. Erase your mistakes merely because it’s possible.
We strongly disagree with that practice. Indeed, we’re absolutists on this count. If you make a mistake, correct it in the original article, but state that a correction was made. You don’t have to reiterate the incorrect information, but you have to say where the correction occurred.
(Publications with a geeky readership could probably handle the use of pure HTML markup, namely
<INS></ins> for inserted text and
<DEL></del> for deletia.)
Well-organized online publications maintain corrections pages. You should set up bidirectional links between the source article and such pages.
A fun diversion: Slipup.com, tracking online corrections policies. Consider the site a kind of honesty police, even if none of your readers know about it.
We were quite chuffed – with ourselves, first of all, admittedly – about sexy flyout menus. (Examples.)
Lighthouse, in an hilariously vicious dissection, offers convincing counterarguments. "[M]ost Web designers exacerbate the problem by using their beloved tiny text in those cascading menus. This isn’t an interface; it’s a computer game."
Why is it we love the hilariously vicious commentary the best? Whatever could it mean?
By the way, forgive our delirium this week. We’ve been entertaining contradictory notions – that content and design are separable (we do want you to Skin the Blog) and that they aren’t.
The Web is not a rational place. Content creators, otherwise known as artists, cannot be expected to hold to Vulcan levels of rationality.
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Online, is content something you can:
If you see a movie only once, was it content? Was a play that was only ever performed once content?
Does content have to endure to be content?
If you see a movie once and all you remember is a few words of dialogue (insert your own example), then what part of the movie is the content? The dialogue or the whole thing?
In a musical, what’s the content, the book or the lyrics or the score?
If what you remember of a movie are amorphous images (never complete frames – the human mind doesn’t work that way), what content have you remembered? If you can summarize the movie’s plot and point out some scenes you liked, is that the content? What about the rest of the movie?
If you’re a cinéaste and you really get what the director was doing with mise-en-scène, are you seeing more content than a bored moviegoer in search of simple entertainment who watches the same movie and shrugs on the way out, muttering "It was OK"?
If you think Ford Mustangs look ugly but love Mustang convertibles in yellow, what part do you love? The Mustangness, the yellowness, or the convertibleness?
If you think E.R. is an overrated soap opera but you tune in nonetheless because you just love George Clooney and would watch him read the telephone book, what part of E.R. is content for you?
Do you fast-forward through credit sequences and copyright warnings on home videos? Do you fast-forward through commercials on shows you tape off the air? Are you fast-forwarding through content?
If you’re on vacation and what you recall of Niagara Falls isn’t the Falls but the argument you had with your friend at the time, what is the content of your vacation? Going to Niagara Falls or having an argument at Niagara Falls? If someone asked you how your vacation went, and you were being honest, what would you emphasize?
As a Hong Kong resident, the instruction manual for your new DVD player comes in English and Chinese. (And other Latin-alphabet languages; though you’re bilingual, you can’t read those.) Chinese comes first, with English right alongside. The two languages couldn’t look more different. Which one is content? If you’re unilingual, does your answer change?
Television commercials for the Gap look like Gap television commercials. But they’re all different. In fact, they are very different, evolving from a Matrix manqué to a West Side Story manqué. What is the Gappishness of the commercials? What is the content?
Your first child resembles your second child, and they both resemble their mother, though not so much their father. The first child is autistic and it’s been a tremendous struggle to communicate with and educate that child, who is really a separate species from the rest of the family. Is the content or essence of that child the family lineage, the family resemblance? Has the content changed because communication has been so difficult? If your child doesn’t really fit in, what is the familiness of the child?
You’ve got three kids, one of whom was adopted. But they all grew up in your home from youth. You’re white and the adopted child is a Chinese national. Does the adopted child retain Chinese content, or does the child assimilate your family’s content?
You have identical-twin sons. Both play basketball, both go everywhere together, both do well in school. But one’s gay, one isn’t. What is the content of their identicalness? What is the surface, and what is underneath?
What does any of the foregoing have to do with the Web?
We want you to think about surfaces and depths and content and interface.
We object to the idée fixe that content is somehow extractable. There’s content and there’s presentation, ostensibly.
That thesis is insupportable. The online world gave us the word content. We separate content from the vehicle used to communicate the content. We do this because the Internet and computers are so new that we are very aware of the vehicle. That is true in part because the interface is more than audiovisual: Moving a mouse, typing on a keyboard, listening to a modem connect. Further, you have to sit close to the computer (a computer, a special device) to experience the net. It’s an explicitly chosen task.
Reading a newspaper, listening to the radio, watching TV – we’re so accustomed to those experiences that the interface tends to disappear. Old media are comfortable, to adapt the terminology of Bill Stumpf, co-designer of the legendary Æron chair. Comfort is a lack of awareness. You may have been aware of turning on the TV or radio, or of picking up the newspaper (which you may have had to pay to do), but after that point, there is no awareness of what you’re doing. Are you even aware of turning the pages? (Only if there’s a kink, or they fold poorly, or you’re on the subway and have to avoid bumping into whoever’s nearby.)
The net is rather like that, in fact. You’re very aware of pages turning, and kinks, and bumping into things. The Internet is uncomfortable, in this mental model.
We go back a ways in graphic design. We remember the Russian constructivists, and their reincarnation as the agitprop activist group ACT UP. We remember the graphic-design collective that did ACT UP’s work, Gran Fury (still going strong in various incarnations: Cf. Donald Moffett at Bureau, Inc. in New York). We think of Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer, whose artworks are typographic (and, in Kruger’s case, are allied closely with photographs in an advertising-like way).
We remember the leading asymmetric typographer, Jan Tschichold, later forsaking asymmetric typography as implicitly fascist and becoming the greatest traditional book designer of the 20th century (for Penguin, no less). We remember beautiful books that said nothing, beautiful ads for products we hated.
With this history, you’ll have a hard time convincing us that graphic design isn’t content.
Web sites are all about graphic design. And content. They’re separate, right?
We spend time at design-heavy sites, like Design is Kinky and Kaliber 10000 (to the extent of our browsers’ capabilities). We find ourselves very aware of interface elements. Awareness signifies discomfort, usually. Not in this case. Awareness signifies pleasure. Something that gives pleasure isn’t a nothing. It isn’t icing on the cake, as if there’s anything wrong with icing.
Ever tried to remove a freckle from your arm? It’s not a freckle on your arm. It’s intrinsic. What’s the surface and what’s the depth? Isn’t the freckle part of the content of your arm?
We’ve decided that you cannot always separate content from design, or content from interface. But it is sometimes possible. We surf a lot with Lynx and read Web pages we mail to ourselves. It’s quite possible to extract content.
But are you extracting all the content?
Isn’t part of the pleasure of the Web not merely information (content) or services, but looks and experience?
We think that, at Web sites, whatever gives the visitor pleasure, or adds value, or informs, or makes the visit worth the time and effort is content.
It can be a photograph or a colour scheme or a searchable corpus of articles. It can be alpha or omega or anything in-between, or it may be something else again. It isn’t just extractable text or an MP3 you download or a GIF you save to disc.
(Why do you think we say this Weblog is about content and all that entails? It’s not a distinguishable entity. Not always.)
This same definition works as a litmus test of sorts. Not all criteria must be satisfied at once. If you like the "content" but hate the "interface," or like the "interface" but wish there were more "content," you’re invoking against the Pleasure Principle. We hear complaints like this all the time, actually. They may never go away, because sometimes there is a clear distinction between, say, interface and content.
However, what we want to kill off forever is the concept that an interface or a design cannot in itself be content. It can. Content is the biggest tent of the Internet – it’s such a big tent it is engulfing television and newspapers and radio and music and film. Getting back to family lineages (this does tie in together), content is not an either-or proposition any more than the singularly multi-ethnic Tiger Woods is.
You name it, content is it.
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All righty. It seems we just can’t win when it comes to NUblog colour schemes. We do a light-on-dark we like, and Netscapers can’t read it. We accommodate their disability and it’s gripe, gripe, gripe.
So let’s try something new.
We’re big fans of Haiku the Blog. Love the name, reminiscent of an old Python sketch. A rather creative juxtaposition of a centuries-old format with a mere sapling.
We invite designers to Skin the Blog. In the spirit of Mozilla (ahem – cough), Mac
Amp, Kaleidoscope, and related applications that let you alter appearance, we want you to redesign the NUblog.
LONGDESC– or any accessibility feature. If you don’t include that markup, we will.
It’s a bit of an experiment, this. (Has anyone done it before?) We were quite inspired by the designer vérité collection of Web designers’ Macintosh desktops over at Kaliber 10000. We get to gaze voyeuristically at a window on the soul, the desktop display. (Beats the hell out of the 1980s window on the soul, the WordPerfect supplementary spellcheck dictionary.)
We are opening up our soul to yours. You may project your design desires onto our content. We’ve got to like your stuff, of course, but we have pretty good taste. Try us.