NUblog archives

October 2000

(2000.12, 11, 09, 08, 07, 06, 05, 04
2001.01, 02)

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City sites are sexy

Our unconventional wisdom, which we shame-facedly admit was hoovered wholesale from Moses Znaimer, holds that, in an age of instant global interconnectedness, local information becomes critical.

City portals are all over the place. Everywhere we go, kids wanna rock, and they wanna do it under a city name. myTO, myBC, myOttawa. (We’re not even going to bother giving you links. Like, who cares? Right.) And there’s the infamous decision. (Screed.) (Factoid: “The U.S. company owns dozens of city domain names, including, and, all used to provide vanity E-mail addresses,” reads quite a sharp report.)

Anyway, the first thing you think of with a city domain is “service information.” Like a map to a restaurant, or a movie listing. You’re not going there for content. It’s the content/service distinction that so few Web potentates understand (NUblog passim).

Knight Ridder, a very with-it, hap’nin’, moderne newspaper juggernaut, is shifting its high-name-recognition site to God only knows why.

By bringing content from several key partners together in a single portal package, Ryan said, improves its chances of landing the maximum number of site visitors, in turn generating greater ad revenue. “Our belief,” he said, “is that it is possible for a media company with strong local media partnerships in a market ... (to) create a new media business that has a very deep level of ownership within that market, and that has the capacity to deliver the eyeballs – to deliver the most sought-after consumer experience that will allow advertisers to reach the people they want to reach. That’s the role and mission of any good media company.”

Right. Because you’re sellers of soap, not journalists. Does Izzy Asper run this company or something?

“The problem I would see with it is you would water down a little bit your product, and identity,” [a critic] said. “When you had (just) the Mercury Center, that had built a reputation for what it was and a very strong reputation. And now this has the potential to water down its identity.”

[The critic] also questioned the basic concept behind the portal strategy. Newspaper portals, in some corners at least, have come under attack by media critics and analysts who view them as an awkward attempt by local media to parrot the model of massively popular portals like Yahoo that have made threatening inroads into local online markets. “I think you’re better off taking your quality original news and syndicating it as opposed to just getting people to come to your portal.... The portal concept has limited value for content players.”

You want to find a sushi restaurant no further than ten minutes’ drive from your office. You go to You ignore the newspaper articles altogether.

You want to read about the corporation whose office you work in (anticipating a stunning début on FuckedCompany in a couple of weeks anyway). You get annoyed when the site tries to push sushi restaurants on you, or simply gets the in your bloody way while you’re trying to navigate, search, or read.

Who wins, except sellers of soap?

(These Knight Ridder kids oughta move to Canada. They’re very much in step with the thinking here.)

Digital film:
One more chance to blow it?

Forgive our cynicism. In fact, we are quite optimistic as we write this. We’re just not optimistic that the mighty Motion Picture Association of America will get it right with digital-film standards.

They’ll get a lot of it right. Picture and sound will be just fine and dandy, presumably. But we don’t trust unilingual American engineers – who, in fairness, do not constitute all those working on the project – to get the details right. Details like metadata, accessibility, and multilingualism.

For online distribution – seen by everyone as a sweet plum – this stuff’s gotta work for more people than just Americans with NT boxen and good eyes and ears.

[Beating of vegan dead-horse substitute] Previous coverage: Opening up accessibility; Metadata.

You’ve got to be able to sit there and watch the Spanish dubbed version of The Itchy & Scratchy Movie if you want to. Who’s minding that store, exactly?

Couple of issues:

Want to lay odds that people are gonna get all this right?

If the topic seems abstract, far-off, and irrelevant to you, maybe it truly is. Or maybe someday you’ll want to search for the scene in which Itchy juliennes Scratchy with the red, blood-stained axe and no other axe.

En tout cas, a WGBH source confirms that two of its operatives are at work on the D-Cinema committee. So maybe we shouldn’t despair.

Digital online film? It can be done. Kind of.

Remember Usenet? (Still?)

Way back when, our occasional series on user-contributed content mentioned hoary old NNTP, the protocol that made Usenet possible, and how it could still be useful in discussion boards and suchlike.

One of the preëminent mismanaged online behemoths, Deja, faces sale. (A fire sale, actually.) So what happens to the enormous Usenet archive Deja has maintained for years?

We expect it will be lost. Tristan Louis concisely explains a vast set of squid arms and tentacles dragging Dejanews’s irreplaceable archive down to the bottom of the sea.

(Concision. What a concept.)

Let a thousand Britneys bloom

Brevity certainly is not the soul of wit chez Jason Chervokas and Tom Watson, the former @NewYork columnists now kicked upstairs to Inside.

After wading through the duo’s missive on celebrities’ tightarsed “official” sites, we found the only real point:

The real case against is its vapidity, and we don’t just mean that as a reflection of its subject’s music. Like dozens of other “” sites, it makes the assumption that modern fans will take what you give them, that they’re interested in the company line – the official bio, the package. They are, of course, but their interest goes deeper these days for one compelling reason: they have the power. The Internet is not a mass medium. It is a medium of the masses, and even the most controlled and packaged star cannot control it.

So how are we supposed to square this with celebrities’ brave efforts to “recover” their domain names from “cybersquatters”? Even Jeanette Winterson, in (again) Brill’s Content (again, not online), whines for pages and pages and pages about how “He Stole My Name.”

Are we for central celebrity control or not?

We suppose we support celebrities’ “right” to secure “their own names,” despite the fact that civilians with equal names tend to lose such fights. (Explication.) A really smart celebrity site would do the following:

It really kills us to admit this, but AOL and the Amerikanski version of Big Brother avidly “embraced” and promoted fan Web sites. In fact, we’re working on an extended E-interview with some fan-site owners – from other disciplines – that will probably raise a few brows.

This just in:
Content sells!

Tiny, incidental mention in a story in the mighty New York Times describing academic research on the interaction of trust, price, delivery reliability, and the like. As we know from the real world (why is this a surprise online?), people don’t always buy on price alone. Some academics set up a trial wineselling site:

The professors said they decided to use wine in the test because most people lacked the knowledge to evaluate subtle differences in bouquet, flavor and body. They also did not know which wines go with which foods or in certain social settings. This lack of knowledge, Professor Ariely said, can make differences with satisfaction or regret over a purchase....

Eight sites were created, some emphasizing price, others emphasizing information to help select a wine. There were different levels of ease in comparing sites, some wiping out tentative purchases when a customer switched between sites, while others retained the basket of prospective purchase until the customer returned to either buy the wines or cancel the order. The professors also held wine tastings to gather more information. (The professors did not actually sell the wine but acted as a marketing agent for a licensed seller to comply with alcohol control laws.)

“We found with wine that if you give good information, consumers become less price sensitive,” Professor Ariely said. “They like the wine that they buy more, and they stay longer with the service that sold it to them.”

Like Professor Brynjolfsson, the Fuqua researchers found that information is most important in swaying consumers who are buying subtle or exotic products. When people shop for a product they know is widely available – Levi blue jeans, for example – price trumps everything.

With some difficulty (curse you, unsearchable, unlocatable, mysterious, impenetrable, unscrutable PDF!), we found the original research. (You can have a 100 K text or HTML version mailed to you. Details.)

“[A] well-constructed electronic shopping site can provide a vehicle for conveying non-price information related to quality that is superior to the comparable information that can be gleaned from shopping in conventional malls, catalogs, etc. [...] The consequences of better differentiating information should be like the effects of differentiating advertising.” Instead of sexy advertising, give us sexy content.

Indeed, the researchers describe as “well established” the proposition that “differentiating information can lower price sensitivity”: With more information at your disposal, price ceases to be the most important criterion.

Pretty obvious, huh? And indeed, our own survey showed that content provided by competitors (in this case, CD retailers worldwide) varied hugely in quantity but less so in quality. Do something different and you could own the market, though you’re still up against consumer inertia and name brands.

In truth, we’re losing interest in E-commerce content, since E-commerce (as we like to write it, “E$”) has been completely taken over by marketers, and they’re just not our kind of people.

How long should pages be?

We write long and, since we don’t run Blogger or a back end, individual entries are not saved as individual files.

The NUblog doesn’t look like other Weblogs. Is that right or wrong? Ask Jorn Barger: “The WWW page-length debate.”

A lot of discussion of people getting confused and losing track of links. A patently ridiculous idea; if you get lost, you scroll back and re-read or scroll back and find the link. But ironically, Barger’s very long treatise, composed almost exclusively of quotes from other sources, embodies that kind of confusion.

We think the point of his elaboration is “Are long Web pages bad? Depends.” Weren’t we saying that a while ago?

Hacking Jakob Nielsen

Where did usability potentate Jakob Nielsen come from?

Paul Dourish looked it up: “Even Internet Gurus Have To Start Somewhere.”

You know what else we found? A patent, attributed to Nielsen but assigned to Sun Microsystems, for a method of displaying tooltips in Web pages. The advantage of his system: You only have to specify the tooltip once for a given phrase and it will appear for all instances of that phrase on a page.

We’re not sure just how this is substantially better than the TITLE attribute, which you can place inside a <SPAN> tag to cause tooltips to appear in compliant browsers for that phrase. Yes, you have to repeat it all the way through, but that’s not exactly a huge cross to bear.

<SPAN title="the usability potentate">Jakob Nielsen</span>

And if you define a new class in your stylesheet, like SPAN.jakob, you can underline the relevant SPANs so people will know to run the mouse over them.

SPAN.jakob { text-decoration: underline }

So the final example is:

<SPAN class="jakob" title="the usability potentate">Jakob Nielsen</span>

There. No patents required. (We use this trick from time to time, actually. Kind of fun, this metadata.)

Getting snowed by magazine editors

First, we find lines like “Somehow the Web encourages you to be a little more attitudinal,” “[Online,] ‘there’s almost a necessity ... to make your central argument in the first sentence or so, and do it as provocatively as possible,’ ” and “It’s definitely a ranter’s medium.”

Quite fair – in comparison to newspapers. We like the less-uptight approach. Give us this over strict journalistic factuality anyday.

Next, from the magazine throne of the ancien régime, we read the whopper “Florio said Condé Nast’s early strategy was simply to recycle the editorial content of its magazines online. But now its new fashion site,, ‘seems to be working.’ And Lucky, a new shopping magazine, also will have an E-commerce site, to be called”

Oh, please. Condé Nast specifically refused to “repurpose” its magazine “content.” We wrote about this before. An early Condé Nast online effort was, which attempted to unite a bit of “repurposed content” with Web-specific features, like databases and searching. Where’s the truth here, let alone the news? (Recent CondéNet/Blogger mention.)

And as for Weren’t they having ever so many problems attracting employees not exactly salivating at the prospect of working for a glorified catalogue?


A slow news week

Not a whole lot to report, actually.

Modest NUblog improvement: printable versions. Most archive files are now available in pretty, full-colour screen and monochrome printer versions. Special reports will get that treatment next, after we finally get around to updating MogulWatch.


Charming, that Brewster

We just love the warmth and intelligence of Brewster Kahle, the man with one of those enigmatic, unforgettable names (Cf. Ayrton Senna). He’s some kind of majordomo at Alexa, which does something or other. Search or something. We’re not sure what.

Nice interviewette in Feed:

Yes. People doggedly insist on using the Web to slake their own thirsts. Take that, Mickey Mouse.

Corrosive, that Joel

Vicious, corrosive, damning: Words of high praise for Joel Ellis, writing in the New York Press about the manifest failure of CNN under the rule of Rick Kaplan, whose firing was important enough to warrant a full-on feature story in Brill’s Content (not online).

But we don’t quite follow one part:

The other major downside to fiefdom management is that it gives upstarts the idea that they can deconstruct parts of the CNN model without having to compete with the whole. Thus CNBC and a host of Internet financial news sites eat CNNfn for lunch. Thus ESPN and a host of Internet sports news sites eat CNN/SI for lunch. Thus MSNBC and FNC and a host of Internet news sites eat away at CNN’s “domestic” news offerings. CNN’s response has been to create more fiefdoms: CNN Airport News, CNN Hotel News. Which would you rather do? Dial up the Internet at the airport and do your E-mail, check your calendar, get the weather forecast and read the news or sit morosely in some plastic chair and watch happy chatters tell you the latest showbiz news?

Incumbents have it easy, even online. If CNN/SI is a separate site, at least on paper, it carries the double advantage of being separate and being a CNN tendril. The success of ESPN has to relate to intangibles like coolness (sports dudes are more attuned to what’s cool than teenage girls) and snappier content. (Trust us on this. Even though ESPN “repurposes” “content” from ESPN: The Magazine just as CNN/SI is the electronic outlet for Sports Illustrated, ESPN’s entire approach at least acknowledges the advent of the 21st century, while SI is still written for an audience of Christian fifty-year-olds mooning for the good old days of the Green Bay Packers over the backyard barbecue.)

Interactive TV:
A royal mess

The mighty New York Times describes the morass of techniques and incompatible standards that constitutes interactive TV today. What a bloody disaster. We have read about interactive TV for nearly 20 years. (Yes, that long: We recall old Popular Science articles, and the ancient Canadian videotext system, Telidon, was billed as a Line 21 captioning–killer and a Gateway to the Future.) We are very interested in seeing someone get it right: Television without additional features isn’t television as far as we are concerned.

But still, even now, no one is getting it right. The use of TV Crossover Links for a home game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? is a pleasingly low-tech approach. More of this, if you would. (Fun homework assignment: Set your television to Text2 to watch the Crossover Link URLs stream by!)

See our previous coverage in MogulWatch: Megalomania and the Failure of Convergence and opening up accessibility. And why haven’t we updated MogulWatch lately? Thanks for reminding us.

Content vs. service

We have to explain to people, some of them seasoned Internet veterans, that the net is composed mainly of service and content sites.

The two may coexist under one roof. Yahoo offers both, for example. So do all the failed portals, really. Checking your mail and zapping your friend an instant message are both services. Looking at a photo album or reading a news story revolves around content.

Pretty simple, this. Simple truths, however, are the ones that elude the marketing types who continue their very successful quest to overthrow the existing Internet.

Now eBay intends to sell ads and spam its members. Many of you will have read Doc Searls’ condemnation of this folly. We wish to cast another gloss on his analysis.

EBay was conceived and has grown entirely as a marketplace, not as a medium. [...] The the fact that eBay’s consituency is huge... doesn’t make that contituency an “audience.” [...] The advertising business, which includes the commercial media, don’t want to face the fact that their “audiences” would never pay for advertising’s goods. Even the term “audience” is a delusional metaphorical conceit. Book a theater to show nothing but advertising and see who shows up, even if it’s free.

(Actually, travelling compilations of TV commercials do attract cinema audiences. God knows why.)

Anyway, we think Searls’ analysis is much more simply expressed as: eBay is a service site. People don’t like it when you get in the way of their services. (Like butting in line.) People do tolerate advertising in a content site (though usually the ads are ignored).

We admit, though, that Searls’ terminology works better for the marketing types, who rely more heavily on jargon than rocket scientists.

Weblogs for new users

Finally, someone else saying what no one will actually believe from us: Weblogs work for net newcomers.

(Actually, Weblogs work best for intermediate users – people for whom the novelty has worn off, who are dealing with nagging, inchoate frustration with overly general Top Ten sites, and need a catalyst to explore their own highly specific interests.)

Over in the Guardian, the in-house blogger himself tells us “I believe there is one unmarketed, relatively unknown type of site that, executed right, will help to introduce the newcomer to the internet and keep them coming back. It is called a Weblog. [...] It sounds simple, and it is. Find one who shares your taste, and you have a surfing companion for life. The benefits to the new user are many. As with a conventional gateway site, you are soon offered links to other sites that cover your field of interest. But a good Weblog will contain extra qualities: topicality, an individual voice, and a simple, often Spartan, design. These combine to create user-friendliness away from the glare of the big corporations – exactly what the sceptical surfer wants from the net, and doesn’t get anywhere else.”

A smart up-and-comer hoping to compete against today’s oligopoly of interchangeable portal sites has a few options here. Which we won’t give away. Not for free, at least.

Might takes rights

We stagger out of bed each morning to another news item concerning the concentration of rapacious power in the stock-photo industry. (Previous coverage: “Photography: Worth a thousand?”; “An Unnatural Duopoly.”)

Corbis, one of the leading duopolists, bought Sygma in 1999, and now attempts to steal the copyrights and the past works of its photographers. As always happens, the best shooters are not taking this lying down, while the new kids, raised in a world where copyright has no meaning whatsoever, are happy to sign up.

In so many ways, it is a lousy time to be a “content creator.” We keep doing it out of love. In a generation or two, that will be the only reason to do it: It will be impossible to make a living, and you won’t own anything you create if you let anyone else publish it.

Condé Nast:
Slowly getting it?

We mentioned a Wired article purporting to explain why the Condé Nast magazine juggernaut is effectively absent from the online “space.” (Don’t you loathe that term? It’s almost as bad as “repurposing.” Or “content.”)

We are finally assured that the New Yorker actually will enact something other than its existing brochureware site. “It’s hard to say if our longest pieces would work on the Web, but the New Yorker is filled with all sorts of things that would work on a site – from cartoons to reviews to Talk of the Town – but what precisely we will do and what it will look like, well, bear with us a little while longer. No matter what we do, of course, the main preoccupation here will be the thing itself, the New Yorker that you get in the mail and on newsstands.”

God help us. Long text can work just fine online if presented with due understanding of the impediments involved in reading online. (Give it to us in chapters. Give us versions optimized for major and minor browsers. Provide versions with preset type and leading and with changeable type and leading.) And for heaven’s sake, while shovelware has its place, must exist on its own or you’re doomed.

Do we have to explain why? Funnelling people back to the print version is quintessentially American, a mass-media cœlecanth, a convergence manqué. That’s what CNN is trying to do, according to the Brill’s Content article. It ain’t gonna work. The best you can hope for is to make readers feel that both the online and print versions are right up their alley, however different they must necessarily be.

(David Cronenberg gets this right: A film adaptation of a novel must be unfaithful in order to do it justice. “I don’t think that any book is filmmable unless you shoot the pages of the book itself. I really think that the medium is so different.”)

Also, it has been revealed that CondeNet has a “relationship” with Blogger. (We’re not surprised: A CondeNet majordomotrix dropped a broad hint months ago that only now makes sense.)

It is not too late for Condé Nast to do things right online. The New Yorker plans do not, however, reassure us.


How not to search

We are of course steadfast proponents of multilingualism, which pretty much nobody does right.

Our example this week? Search engines.

EuroSeek, a Europe-only search service, reads the language setting of your browser and talks to you in that language. You can choose a different language for the interface, and you can search in a particular language.

EuroSeek handles those two functions differently. To select the language of interface, EuroSeek gives you an alphabetical menu listing available languages in the name of the language: Balgarski, Brezhoneg, Català, Cetina, Cymraeg, Dansk, Deutsch, and so on. (We face a wee character-set problem with the name of the Latvian language on Macs, but what can you do? Like the Icelandic characters eth Ð/ð and thorn Þ/þ, plus half the characters in Turkish and Hungarian, Windoids have a true advantage. Have you even looked at the full character sets in Arial, Georgia, and Verdana? But we digress.)

However, when it comes to searching for content in specific languages, EuroSeek flubs it majorly, giving you a menu with these options:

Search in:

  1. any language
  2. Bulgarian
  3. Czech
  4. Welsh
  5. Danish
  6. German
  7. Estonian
  8. Greek
  9. English
  10. Spanish
  11. Esperanto
  12. French
  13. Croatian
  14. Icelandic
  15. Italian
  16. Latvian
  17. Lithuanian
  18. Hungarian
  19. Macedonian
  20. Dutch
  21. Norwegian
  22. Polish
  23. Portuguese
  24. Romanian
  25. Russian
  26. Slovak
  27. Slovenian
  28. Finnish
  29. Swedish
  30. Turkish

Spot anything amiss there, like screwy alphabetical order? The entries actually are alphabetical, if you imagine writing the language names in the actual language, translating them to English, and retaining the original order:

A pedant’s delight, this. Vulcans nod in approval. And EuroSeek is at least consistent, doing exactly the same thing in French (Slovène, Finnois, Suédois).

But an English-speaking user has already selected an English interface. All the menus should read like perfectly fluent English. We’re not quite sure why this isn’t obvious.

Meanwhile, Google, the first service you should try for any search, hides its language options behind a special screen. It doesn’t read your browser language setting, and you have to be able to understand the English phrase “Language, Display, & Filtering Options” to change the language. Google then asks you to select language of interface and languages you’d like to search in by naming the languages in English. (That’s permissible with Chinese, Korean, and Japanese, given the likelihood that real-world users won’t have the appropriate fonts installed, but ridiculous otherwise; even with those languages, use romanized names in the original language.)

All in all, a prototypically American approach to localization: We’ll work in your language, but only if you ask us in English first.

We’re going to start an entire page of these later on, but we found another example of krazy DHTML interface jazzola. (Previously: alpha, beta, gamma.) Here it is: Xbox.

And it comes from Microsoft. Gah!

We tire of Douglas Rushkoff

We’re already pretty tired of Douglas Rushkoff (previous kvetch-o-rama), and now he goes and tops himself.

In the Guardian, he yammers on endlessly about some kind of abstract self-censorship that we’re not following at all. Two or three thousand words into this tome, we finally locate some “content,” not that it makes any sense.

The Internet’s functional standards are set by companies like Microsoft, through processes that are anything but transparent. Participating in the Internet through a Web browser is like experiencing the outdoors through a screen door. Our choices are filtered, and our participation is limited to typing in our credit card numbers and clicking Buy.

You tell ’em, Doug! “The Internet’s functional standards” are of course “set by companies like Microsoft,” and not in fact by bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium and the Internet Engineering Task Force, among several others. But thanks for clearing up our misconceptions. We were under the impression that the interoperability of the net was due to widespread coöperation, not domination by a single juggernaut. (We are quite aware of Microsoft’s damaging nonstandard products, but that’s a footnote.)

Viewing the Web through a Web browser is about as limiting as measuring voltage with a voltmeter. Using a browser as an MP3 player, a mail program (Microsoft Hotmail 666), or an FTP “client” works rather less well.

But why is he so upset?

Artists indirectly censor themselves by using programs like Adobe Photoshop to create graphics, Dreamweaver to design Web pages, or Macromedia Director to make interactive environments. Most university courses, understandably, teach students how to use such software (often made by their own donors) rather than how to recognize its underlying agendas. Students graduate with a fine understanding of the media landscape, but haven’t a clue that it was assembled quite arbitrarily.

Oh, for Gosh sakes. Photoshop doesn’t have an agenda. It isn’t a newspaper or a television network. It is tenuous at best to describe Photoshop as part of the “media landscape.” By that reasoning, aren’t camcorders and typewriters part of the media landscape? Is this Brezhnev-era Moscow, where the ruling party controls the means of reproduction and an entire samizdat underground flourished by necessity? Or are we dealing with a technically complex communications infrastructure that requires similarly complex software to get it to work at a highly-optimized professional level?

Why is he so upset?

And in any event, had Rushkoff done a little research he would have noted that kooky Dutch type designers Just van Rossum and Erik van Blokland, of LettError fame (they gave us Trixie, among other faces), made the same observation about a milieu where Photoshop really does constrain the range of possible expression: Typography, graphic design, and illustration. Except Just and Erik did it in 1997:

Their first message was a criticism of the design profession – that designers unwittingly limit their imaginations to what the existing software, etc., can actually do (the ToolHorizon). Hence, to use their terminology and the << characters in their original sense of “much less than,” ToolSpace << IdeaSpace. Erik: “We basically allow some programmer in Silicon Valley, who’s maybe doing his best, to make some decisions for us. ... You can do a million different things with Photoshop, but they will always be things you’ve done with Photoshop.”

We believe Photoshop has a greater influence on print design than online design:

One more time: Why is Rushkoff so upset?


You can "quote" “us” on “that”

Another day, another Netscape incompatibility. The hoary old beast, which renders HTML about as well as a Sinclair ZX-80, chokes on literal HTML entities for quotation marks, namely &ldquo;, &rdquo;, &lsquo;, &rsquo;.

We were all proud of ourselves for improving Web typography in this tiny way, but the Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Jack Valenti of Web browsers kicked us in the teeth again.

We have found, however, that numerical HTML entities for quotation marks work fine, so that’s what we’re using now, except for the headline of this section, whereby we use the four possible encodings in turn, one of which is likely to break in every browser save for iCab and Lynx.

We may give up and revert to simply typing " and . It (ag)grieves us to do so.

But, ever mindful of accessibility and universal compatibility, we are willing to sacrifice. Yet again. This is the third concession to Netscape we have made. Assuming we last till then, starting in 2001 we will ignore Netscape completely. Except for Linux, there now exist quite a range of standards-compliant browsers you could be using (Explorer, iCab, Opera). Why aren’t you?

Le contenu à l’invers

Hmm. You’ve got these sports “content” sites (sometimes even we cringe at the word – “So how do you live with yourselves?” you ask) “outsourcing” their “E-commerce.”

Whatever the case, Mr. Skipper said he was relieved to be free of E-commerce. “We’re good at creating sports content, aggregating a large audience and working with marketers to sell goods to those people,” he said. “We don’t have expertise in figuring out what jerseys or caps to buy. Retailing is a high-risk business anyway. You exacerbate that risk by not being good at it.”


Isn’t this quite the converse of what we keep yammering away at? If you don’t know how to create good “content,” let people like us do it for yez?

Yes, it is.

And we’re OK with that. As long as everybody ends up happy.

Finding a voice, or at least hiring one

We rant and we roar that the Internet is about specificity.

Have we unwittingly harkened back to the days when magazine editors imposed their will, leading to a grippingly specific ethos, feel, and voice?

Recent decades are rife with examples. Certainly the standard-bearer, at least in the conventional wisdom, is “Mr. Shawn” of the New Yorker. Hefner. Guccione.

(American examples. Forgive us.)

In an age of immediately obtainable global information, local focus becomes essential. In an age of globally undifferentiable online media, specificity of voice becomes essential.

Be different, in other words.

We’re just going to go away and think about this for a while. The genesis of this discourse was Michael Wolff’s piece for New York on the nouveau remix of Details (“for men”; we wrote for a previous incarnation).

[I]f you are a man in the magazine business, then at one time or another you have most likely thought, possibly obsessively, certainly enviously, about making your own men’s magazine – of having that kind of influence, that kind of cultural meaning. It’s hard to give up on this, hard to give up on wanting to get it right. [...]

[British GQ editor VerMeulen’s] was a deeply romanticized notion of not only what magazines could be but what a person working on such a magazine should be. A men’s magazine should not be a reflection of what we think men want to read but should be, he said with high romanticism, a reflection of the life the editor leads. The life. If it was an interesting life, then the magazine would be interesting.

Want your site to hold interest? Make it distinctive. Be yourself. Hire only people who have selves. Let them speak in their own voices. Don’t worry about offending people; no one has the right not to be offended. Don’t be corporate. (Pace Hissyfit.)

Don’t be like everyone else. It’s been done, OK? If you want a thriving virtual community, encourage distinctiveness. Hire larger-than-life personalities (David Lee Roth, Robbie Williams, Sinéad O’Connor, Camille Paglia... or moral equivalent) and let them go to town.

Dare to be different. Nobody else is. Nobody big, anyway.

We should probably write a grand, self-important discourse on this, but, like accessibility, we figure this is something you get or you don’t. And we beat enough vegan dead-horse substitutes as it is.

By the way, why are A-list Condé Nast magazines effectively invisible online? We’ve been trying to get a CondéNet potentatrix on the blower for months, but we should probably give up on that. A quickie overview article, with not all that many trenchant quotes (not even from Malcolm Gladwell), ran at Wired.

Note that failing to publish online is superior to publishing writers’ works online without permission, or with permission extorted via a contract that reads, in effect, “Sign this or you won’t get paid and we’ll never hire you again, either,” which, in case you aren’t aware, is the norm in the magazine business, and has triggered multiple lawsuits.

What were we saying about ranting and roaring?


Just before we continue, a link from the recent two-week lacuna: For those who do not know what Weblogs are, even after reading this one, we suggest the estimable primer by Rebecca Blood: Weblogs: A History and Perspective. She’s summed it up trenchantly.

Nail ’em, Bruce!

619 of you have perused our reader’s guide to the Sydney Olympics accessibility complaint, whereby Bruce Maguire, a blind person, launched a complaint in Australia against the official Olympic Web site, which he complained was inaccessible.

It was inaccessible. Sydney Olympic organizers were ordered to make relatively minor alterations by September 15, which naturally they didn’t do. (Why bother? The Olympics are a realm unto themselves.)

So now “Olympism” is about to be hauled in front of the legal system again, and will face monetary damages for refusing to comply with a lawful order. And then there’s the likelihood of a class-action lawsuit.

How terribly embarrassing. And entirely avoidable: Smart Webmasters code for accessibility. (You code for JavaScript and browser compatibility. What’s your excuse?)

We fully support everything Maguire has done and look very much forward to his continuing to nail the bastards. Feel free to quote us on that.


Sometimes we admire the rich and powerful for the willingness to say exactly what they think. Like, who’s gonna fire them? (Or, more accurately, quake in their boots and knock them for “intelligence and self-confidence,” as has been known to happen in this backwater province.)

Case in point: James (Not Rupert) Murdoch, taking the “global” media to task for cluelessness in localization and multilingualism.

In one of his first public speeches since taking the reins at... pan-Asian television business Star TV, Murdoch singled out Star TV founder... Richard Li as one of the worst offenders of “paying lip service to globalism.”

The 27-year-old, the youngest of Rupert Murdoch’s children, said so-called global media groups had not recognised the need to go local in the four dominant language groups – Mandarin, English, Spanish and Hindi – to compete in the world marketplace.

“Most media companies have failed to understand what it means to be a global company and nowhere is this more true than in Anglo and American countries that have assumed that simply broadcasting around the world, CNN-style, or exporting English-language films, is a sufficient global strategy.”

Wow. We dig this man. We are, after all, big fans of multilingual content, which is pretty hard to do properly. How reassuring to note that the failures of localization and the arrogance of English-speakers are not limited to the Internet after all.

It would be nice to see someone get all this right, wouldn’t it?

Nua sez: Content is invaluable!

We’re tittering at the double entendre already. Gerry McGovern of Nua, name-dropped in these electrons a few weeks ago, is on the content huskings again. “Internet Content is Invaluable” goes the title of his weekly ClickZ column.

Invaluable! We get it. (Is content “inflammable,” too?)

En tout cas, McGovern advises:

Today, however, people are not in the mood to pay upfront. Therefore, the way content achieves value is by becoming a context for commerce. ...[W]ith E-commerce you sell with content. Basically, on the Web, content helps you sell stuff.

This is all well and good, but quality content is very expensive to create and may simply not result in enough purchases to cover its cost. Keeping this in mind, the organization should seek to avoid, where possible, having to create too much original content.

Oh, dear. Here we go again. Executives are happy to blow millions on advertising and are willing to funnel hundreds of thousands of dollars down the gullets of vendors of content-management systems (Vignette, anyone?), and will pay top dollar for sexy JavaScript programming and customized database back ends, but the idea of hiring five editors and writers at $60K each just kills them.

In E-commerce sites that cost millions of dollars, just how can you dismiss content as “very expensive”? Even on smaller sites, one- or two-person operations are imaginable. Heck, hiring a part-timer beats the daylights out of syndication.

Anyone ever consider paying the CEO less and maybe losing the foosball table to pay for something more important? (Oh, all right, we’ll stop. We don’t want to sound bitter.)

There are a number of alternative content strategies. You can add to your content offering by re-organizing and/or summarizing content that already exists on the Web. In this way, you are creating new value out of already existing content with the minimum of cost. You can barter with other Web sites, giving them content that’s useful to their customers, while you get content that’s useful to yours. Another strategy is to use syndicated content.

Except that online-content wife-swapping offers no differentiation whatsoever. We’ve proven it already: In an article for A List Apart, we explored the content available at CD retailers worldwide, which boiled down to:

  1. None
  2. User reviews (“Alanis sucks!”/“Alanis rules!”)
  3. One-paragraph in-house reviews, uniformly positive
  4. Syndicated snippetettes from sources deployed for their respectability, like the New York Times

No site, not even the biggies, offered anything unique. What reason – what content-related reason – does a customer have to choose one site over another? None. (In case you’re wondering, Amazon wins out purely through inertia and the Zipf effect. Everybody uses them, so everybody continues to use them.)

This isn’t mere theory: The American outdoor-gear maker REI has learned that added content is necessary in order to sell. It boils down to the perennial issue of making up for the inability to paw the merchandise.

In their strategies, Web sites should focus on a manageable niche and deliver the best possible information to serve that market’s interests, [a source] argues. It’s a lesson that learned early on, according to Matt Hyde, REI’s vice president for online sales. REI... launched its first Web site in September 1996. The 140-person online division employs 20 full-time writers. Since launch, this team has churned out more than 45,000 individual pages of original editorial on three separate Web sites, including and, says Hyde.

Included in that figure are product description pages, as well as pages of outdoor tips, feature articles, and tutorials. What has been most effective at is seasonal lifestyle articles combined with collections of relevant products and detailed product information.... Thanks in large part to this substantial store of outdoor information and products, the three Web sites now get 1.5 million visitors monthly, and the sites posted a profit in 1999 with more than $41 million in online product sales. REI’s online conversion rate – the percentage of visitors who actually make a purchase – hovers at around 10%, in contrast to the E-commerce industry average of 2%. “Content is clearly one of our competitive advantages,” says Hyde. The payoff for editorial investments is measurable: increased customer loyalty, repeat visits, and a “sticky” Web site – i.e., one that gets people to stick around and, with luck, buy things.

(Or, as we put it in the A List Apart article, good writing gives customers a reason to visit your site when they aren’t planning on buying something.)

Back to McGovern:

Whatever the approach, the difficult reality today is that while consumers demand quality content on the Web, they are only willing to pay indirectly. This demands an inventive response from all those whose business rests on a Web of content.


Aren’t consumers already paying indirectly for content? Isn’t that why we have advertising and sponsorship?

No one, let alone us, has solved the how-to-pay-for-it riddle yet, in part because there are many possible solutions, a multifactorial approach that TV and print advertising managers just cannot fathom.

But the Internet is not as novel a content marketplace as McGovern thinks. It isn’t a platypus or the Basque language, inexplicably situated in an environment that is otherwise fully understood.

But enough with the metaphors. We’re a bit shitfaced on chocolate at the moment, so we’ll change the subject before we mangle anything else.

An unnatural duopoly

Remember our discursion on photography lo those many months ago? Well, there’s news.

We are not quite at the point where a few people own the entirety of world’s photography, but a few people do own nearly the entirety of the photography that media outlets actually use day-to-day.

Your choices are Getty and Corbis. Make your selection now.

Does it affect your selection that Bill Gates is the dominant shareholder in Corbis?

“Photographers everywhere are threatened by consolidations because all of these companies, as they’ve become more corporate, have developed teams of lawyers and everyone wants to own the photography,” said Brian Seed, a Chicago stock photography consultant. “There’s a big move afoot to end copyright as we know it.”

Another source in that article claims that Getty and Corbis account for “at best” 45% of the market. Not bad work if you can get it. Worse: “That, [the source] adds, makes it possible for a third party to enter the market with an even better deal.”

Is a choice of three giant vendors more of a choice than two?


...and print is like Panama

Over at A List Apart, our latest article: “The Web Is Like Canada,” a useful how-to guide to assist you in beating away the forces of convergence (which we are pretty much against).


Jaron Lanier:
The underlying low-bandwidth form

We don’t know what to think of Jaron Lanier. He’s just too far ahead of us, we guess. He’s making a ton of sense, though, in an Adweek interview. Snippets? You want snippets?

“These commercial, home-oriented broadband services tend to be created without any regard for latency of transmission.”


“The amount of time it takes for something to happen. If you see a particular frame of a television show a quarter of a second later than your neighbor, no one’s the wiser. Now, what if this model is completely wrong? What if people want to be connected with each other to be sources of information? What if they want to treat the Internet like a combination of videoconferencing, plus micro-broadcasting stations plus who knows what? In that case, they will care about symmetry.”

“Today video games start to look, on the surface, like movies, and so people who are old-media type people tend to think of them as if they were movie productions. It makes sense but, in fact, that’s the wrong way to think of them.... Prior to the advent of computers and simulation, little kids were stuck with a horrendous dilemma in their lives: They had to choose between the world of make-believe, where they’re alone in their heads, or the world of shared people and sustenance.

“But in [the latter] their powers were very limited. So they were trapped. Gaining the real world meant losing the power of creativity. In the computer, especially when connected to the Internet, you have for the first time a place that’s fluid like imagination, but also shared – so you have a path through the dilemma of childhood.”

Amazon, AOL, and eBay “have the following distinction: The majority of bits on their servers are provided by users and not by the business. That doesn’t mean that everybody on this service wants to be an artist. Everybody on Amazon that’s reading reviews and commentary and so forth is not trying to be an author....

“[W]hat I’m pointing out is that the core value here actually functions at low bandwidth. And I’m going to make another claim even more dramatic: The main thing people want bandwidth for, or will want bandwidth for, is in the outgoing direction.” Creation, he means, not reception.

We don’t quite agree that bandwidth, i.e., production values, is irrelevant in video games, for example. We played Space Invaders. We set up Pong in the Woolco store so that the ball would bounce endlessly between the two paddles without human intervention. It was about as high-tech as pinball.

Anyway, isn’t this issue re-emerging in the complaints about the photorealistic icons in Mac OS X? They aren’t icons anymore; they’re pictures. Apple human-interface guidelines for OS X (available in PDF) go through a convoluted song and dance to describe the new functions of the sexy icons (applications, utilities, and documents all look different now, and not at all in obvious ways), but they don’t look like icons.

In any event, Lanier agrees with us on one point: Simple, small-scale “content” online works best. Like reading and writing. Easy stuff. No video, no film, none of that nonsense. He believes that will change when immersiveness becomes attainable. At present, we don’t agree. Unless you give us a way to make an immersive world with audible and visible words all over the place. In that case, we are so there.

Describing technical illustrations

We’re very impressed by the National Braille Association’s guidelines for describing complex imagery for audiobooks. The techniques are almost directly applicable to audio description and to the obscure <LONGDESC> tag, two topics that we’re sure really cause you to burn with curiosity.

The World Wide Web Consortium received permission to post segments of the NBA’s guidelines. They’re fascinating, and pretty complex. (Very large file, with very large images!) Best print these out and give them time to sink in.

Bring us the head
of Miss Boo

We enjoyed Michael Rey’s tell-all bitchfest in a recent GQ print edition. What did the bitchfest bitch out?, of course! (Though this is nominally a Weblog, need we even bother providing links about Boo’s demise?) Rey described rampant overspending, a vagueness of direction that took on a scale almost singular in the history of the net (and then there’s Pathfinder), drug abuse in the office, and bonking à go-go. (Well, the last bit we can’t really hold against anyone. You’ve got all those Swedes milling about. It’s like your very own NHL team!)

The old assets were bought for just under a mill, and the new owner has some kind of amorphous content plans that we cannot figure out on the basis of an article.

Greeven’s advice for Ditch the Boom model of creating a magazine without any connection to the commerce portion of the site. “I thought it made more sense to get rid of an editorially separate content area,” she says. “I thought it should be the other way around – they should have used the content to make a really cool retail site. I imagine it would be content focused on keeping your sneakers fresh, or what uniforms do kids in Tokyo wear and where on the site would you find this? That’s what it probably should be. In general, it’s just such a weird time right now in terms of what people are going to buy online and tying that in with entertainment online.”

We know a mom-’n’-pop Web developer with a working prototype of a site that would do just that. Should we play yenta and hook the two up?


When will Jakob Nielsen
shut up?

We’re at our wits’ end with Jakob Nielsen, the “usability guru” who casually name-drops his upcoming presentation before the World Economic Forum in Davos while dissing real people’s efforts to communicate on the Web.

Jakob Nielsen is a snob masquerading as a dedicated professional committed to Web usability.

We rebuked the casual elitist for his unfeasible, hare-brained declarations on the “right” kinds of Web writing. Now he offers grand dismissal of real people’s content on the Web – at least when he’s not contradicting himself.

Nielsen’s Alertbox column “Content Creation for Average People,” which we’ll call the Nielsen Declaration, manages to assert all of the following:

  1. “[M]ost people are (and always have been) bad content creators.... When an average person tries to create content, they typically don’t have much to say and what they do say is often said badly. The vast wasteland of Geocities confirms this.”
  2. Yet: “Many people have interesting stories to tell or have expertise in highly specialized fields. Even when people don’t have material that the world might find of interest, they often have content to share that is very important to a few people, such as their family and friends.”
  3. “[S]chools have taught writing for centuries, and writing quality has scarcely evolved at all. On the other hand, many people can in fact write memos that get their point across.”
  4. And: “Even with much-improved video-editing tools, the average person will never win an Academy Award for editing – though they will tend to use such editing as their benchmark in viewing. When watching film, viewers inevitably compare it with production values they see on television and in the movie theater. Home video? No, no, no. Unbearable to watch.”

Let’s translate, shall we?

  1. Non-experts are lousy creators...
  2. ...except when they aren’t, and even when they are lousy at it, that doesn’t really matter if the audience is small, understanding, familiar, or indulgent.
  3. Even after decades of schooling, people’s writing skills are minimal, except when they are perfectly suited to the actual requirements.
  4. But audiences demand professional-level polish in videos.

Shortly, we’ll get to the parts of Nielsen’s latest screed that we actually agree with. In reality, creators and audiences have always tolerated a hierarchy of quality in media – more so in some (e.g., print) than in others (e.g., network television).

Even in professional television, standards are changing.

Standards evolve.

Indeed, online, the world is upturned.

Just as Nielsen’s diktats about online writing styles are valid and useful part of the time but not always, sometimes people demand high production values, professionalism, and richness in online content but not always.

We’re not exempt, for example, has a relatively crappy Web site. This NUblog isn’t half as technically sophisticated as the Weblogs of individual people who don’t even work in computers. Heck, we don’t have so much as left-hand navigation, let alone a content-management system, a back end, advertising, or any kind of programming at all, really. And jeez, the colours!

Compared to other sites on usability, content, and the like, we’re not superstars. We’re actually quite backward. But it hasn’t done us harm. People come here for the content and deem the presentation acceptable or tolerable. (Actually, we’ve received compliments.)

Similarly, in the Geocities example, freebie homepages can look atrocious yet be unique and valuable. We can think of two, both in the telecom field: Steve’s Toronto Area Cellular/PCS Site Guide and LincMad Telephone Area Codes & Splits (which started out as a freebie and retains that æsthetic). They’re complete crap to look at and we don’t care, because they give us what we want and we understand that they’re homespun, el-cheapo creations.

Nielsen himself admits there are “gems” dispersed amidst the coal. And that’s the whole point: It’s unrealistic and condescending to expect professional quality. Not all figure skaters can be Nancy Kerrigan. Some are Tonya Harding.

It’s a big Web. There’s room for everybody.

Nielsen to Webloggers:
Drop dead

Our other complaint – and this is something we are not apt to forgive – is one that’s well-articulated on the endless Metafilter discussion of the Nielsen Declaration: As far as he’s concerned, Weblogs don’t count. They don’t even count enough for a mention in the Declaration, while Geocities-style free homepages do – despite being vastly more complex from a technical standpoint. (Even the URLs are kludgy. Is your site in WestHollywood or Rainforest?)

Nielsen constantly kvetches about unusable software created by, and tested by, highly-educated computer professionals as opposed to real people, and here we’ve got literally tens of thousands of real people pumping out original text, graphics, sound and video day in and day out, worldwide, and we count for nothing.

And let’s not give Nielsen the benefit of the doubt. He knows all about Weblogs, and dismisses them.

Apparently, evidence that disproves a theory is best ignored.

What we like

Nielsen, as is his maddening habit, makes a lot of sense in other snippets of his Declaration. Giving people little hints does help them create; we call them templates. We should teach kids how to create online content, except that they’ll figure it out themselves; in reality, Nielsen is saying “if kids today were like me at that age, we’d need to teach them.” The kids are way ahead of us.

Photography works well, even for the peons, as we’ve explained before. “You just snap away and get 10–20 photos of an event, then look at a page with all the photos and select the best shots to publish on the Web. [That] will never make somebody a great photographer, but it will guarantee that the published photo is fairly decent. Selecting the best photo from a group of shots is an easy job.”

We implore the exalted Jakob Nielsen to get out more, to dig within himself to find greater empathy for the vast spectrum of online content that’s actually out there – and to give up expecting the whole online universe to conform to his highbrow demands.