NUblog archives

November 2000

(2000.12, 10, 09, 08, 07, 06, 05, 04
2001.01, 02)

See also: Special reports on moguls and megalomaniaOlympix

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AOLTV: Stillborn!

We’re still not all that big on suffering fools gladly, and we’re certainly not keen on suffering fools with billions of bucks to waste.


Like AOL. We previously described the doomed efforts in “convergent” television. (See the entire MogulWatch report.) TV Crossover Links kind of work. Everything else doesn’t, because overlaying the Web on a television program drives people nuts.

So it is in the increasingly-entrenched NUblog tradition of schadenfreude that we report on the first press reaction to AOLTV, the WebTV-killer by the Internet for Dummies.

Reaction to AOLTV sums up convergent television in a nutshell: Nobody wants it and it doesn’t work.

  1. Mike Langberg:
  2. Jared Sandberg: “AOLTV papers an electronic menu over half the television picture. Dive deeper into certain features of that menu to, say, use AOL’s chat rooms, and the TV picture is reduced to roughly one-fifth its original size.... Shrinking the picture has some TV networks up in arms. They fret that it dilutes the impact of their shows and allows too many distractions on the rest of the screen. Some network executives say that advertisers will be equally frustrated. ‘If Chrysler is paying for 100 percent of the screen,’ says Eric Shanks, vice president of enhanced programming at Fox Television, ‘they should get what they paid for.’ ”

AOLTV is a turkey. We hope it becomes a very-well--known turkey so as to scare off competitors with similarly limited imaginations and similarly limited grasp of reality. We need a lot of things online, but TV isn’t one of them. We need a lot of things in TV, but the Web isn’t one of them.


Well, hey: We finally updated MogulWatch: Megalomania and the failure of convergence. How? Explaining how buying a newspaper may substitute for getting a clue.

Revelation: Print is content.”

Tomorrow: We bash AOL. Join in the fun!


Catching up

The NUblog has been online since May 2000. (We would peg the first posting with real NUblog zing at June 5.)

Since then, we’ve published over 120 articles containing fully 800 links. Not bad, we think.

And, this week, we become one of the few Web sites (and possibly the only Weblog) with an International Standard Serial Number: 1496-287X. We officially exist as a periodical.

(Weblogs meet the definition of “periodical.” Look up registration details here: Canada, U.S., England, Australia, Netherlands. ISSN is its own .org and maintains a country list.)

Our only complaint is: Our esprit seems to suit the Internet generation, but not the people who actually own Web sites. That disjunction remains frustrating, but it no longer baffles us, because we have met too many of these manager types to be baffled anymore.


Just the other day, we featured a superexclusive interview with three authors of fabbo “content” sites.

Well, there’s always that distinction between content and presentation (discussion passim), so we thought we’d explore sites whose content deals with presentation – that is, typography.

Who are the people in this neighbourhood?

We asked a few of the same questions as in our previous E-interview, and then did the big lawyer-TV-show thing and shouted “Redirect!” to follow up with a few more.

Q&A – What role do you think good Web design (however you define that) plays in the way your site is viewed? Is it indeed essential given that you discuss graphic design?

Gen – Well, the content of a site ought to determine its design, right? To me it seems natural that a site dedicated to typography should be a bit on the “austere” side. Typography is a low-key subject, so it follows that the design of a site like Webtype should be low-key as well.

Some people disagree, of course. Typographic56, for example, seem to think it quite OK to sacrifice readability for fancy design. But it’s a bit strange when people from a leading Web-design firm, claiming to be experts on type, (1) use small, anti-aliased text on (2) animated backgrounds, and (3) chop their texts up into tiny bits (4) presented as a slideshow that (5) doesn’t work!

I think this is similar to the early days of print. Some of Gutenberg’s pages were dripping with flowery ornaments when you’d think that the Word of God would be enough. But then people began to calm down a bit.

Andy – Well, first I’d say that I have tried to make a point of not being a graphic design log (or a so-called “design site”). I really try to focus on the whole “putting letters next to one another” endeavor they call Typography. Of course, I have digressed to talk about design at times, which I think is inevitable.

That said, I feel that considering the focus of my site, certain things may be expected of the design. If someone were to do a site on typography (and much of its attendant minutia) and then not seem to care about these things themselves, that would be a bit hypocritical (and foolish-looking), wouldn’t it? Clearly my site isn’t a design tour-de-force: I’m not a graphic designer. All I can hope to do is produce a somewhat clean, to-the-point page, and I hope I’ve done this.

And like I said, though I don’t claim to be a graphic designer, I have read quite a lot about the history and practice of design. And I do feel I am a relatively keen observer of design trends (Web, print, etc.). I’ve also been using the Web for about six years now, and one thing I’ve found remarkable is the creation of this sort false design culture on the Web (AKA the K10K effect). I know identifying this phenomenon isn’t breaking any new ground, but the thing that really gets me are the so-called “Web-design gods” who haven’t one bit of grounding in the actual principles or history of graphic design. So I see a huge æsthetic chasm here, which gets back to your question of “the role of good Web design.” I think this is nearly impossible to address because what the new group of designers think is good design is often nothing like what bona fide designers see as good design. – K10K, in all fairness, is a kind of design that is intrisically Internet-like, even if the type is too small. What traditional design principles are appropriate there and are absent? (It’s also a Weblog, in part.)

Andy – Well, I suppose I didn’t mean it like that. K10k is great and they know what they’re doing. But I more mean the cult of K10K, in which the the look of K10K is regurgitated and distorted. I’m talking about the sort of sites that actively label themselves “design” sites, but whose owners know nothing of design and provide almost nothing of substance on their sites. – Don’t you hate it when people describe designs as “clean”? What’s the opposite? Dirty? “Clean” really means that ingénues can discern all the pieces on the page. But we digress.

Andy – Yes. Good point. “Clean” is a very stupid way to describe design. I mean this: with my site, I aim to be relatively unadorned, well-organized, &c. That is what people mean by “clean,” I think. Nevertheless, this sort of conflicts with my (as of late) great interest in the most adorned, ornate sorts of design (baroque typographical ornamentation, intricately-floriated Victorian alphabets, and such). But I too digress. – Is it noteworthy that your sites are quite austere and <quote>tasteful</quote>?

Andy – Like Gen said, I think our sites are mostly interested in letting the writing stand on its own. As I said before, I don’t aim to be pulling-off visual pyrotechnics. There are certainly more than enough 14-year-old Web “designerz” working on that at the moment. I do think a simple, austere design serves to perhaps lend some credence to what I write. I do spend a good deal of time thinking about what to write and often do research on things before I post. So I wouldn’t want a flashy look to obscure what I’m writing. – Are you seen as more authoritative or credible by having advanced graphic design – where, in one of those ironic inversions, simple = advanced? If you had the same “content” but your site looked like a Tripod automated homepage, would it still work?

Andy – Well, as I’ve alluded to, I’m pretty sure it helps not to look amateurish. Though my site is only six weeks old, I’m continually surprised by the sorts of people who read it. Many of them are from large, well-known but not-so-cutting-edge companies (of just about every sort). I suppose if my page was more amateurish or cluttered, these sorts of people might not be as disposed to reading it. – Is personal voice important? If you were an absentee landowner and everyone else did the talking, would your site suffer? Lines & Splines is a one-man army, but Webtype is a blog. What is the difference in tone?

GenWebtype would be a lot worse off if I was doing it on my own – I simply don’t know enough, and all the other contributors always post much better stuff than me. So it’s really impressive that Andy can do it all by himself! (Not that I’d normally admit to that in public, of course, with us being archrivals on the Web typography scene.)

Andy – Well, when I first started doing the site, I think I was hesitant to have too much of a “personal voice.” I didn’t even have my name or picture (the colophon page) when I first started it. I guess I felt reluctant to have these things because I was so certain that I wanted the site to be nothing like the ultra-narcissistic Weblogs which have proliferated. And I’m not at all bashing personal sites; indeed I love them and read many of them each day. But I felt that there was no need for me to add another Web page that was primarily concerned with the movie the author just saw, or how the author felt that day, or what sort of sandwich the author enjoyed at lunch.

But as I’ve continued with the site, I think my writing has become more conversational or informal, and thus more personal. After getting lots of E-mails about the site, I added the colophon. And I think, also, the feedback from the readers has made me less anxious about injecting my voice into the blog. Lately I feel like I have more of a conversation going with the readers, rather than just posting things into the ether. – Why’d you start it? Why was the topic so important that you made an open-ended commitment to maintaining a site about it?

Gen – In the words of that dimwit Fred Durst: Take a look around! It’s really appaling the way designers don’t give a damn about typography, or, even worse, view it as just another outlet for their Flash and Photoshop fantasies. That’s another reason why I didn’t want to make my site too flashy. People need to understand that being good at typography is similar to being good at grammar or spelling – if you’re not willing to work away at the small, small details, don’t even bother.

Andy – Well, I had been planning and planning to do some sort of type-related site for a long time. But the planning sort of kept me from doing it – I kept changing the way I wanted to structure it, etc. So I thought, well why not just make it a Weblog, as that will solve the whole format/structure problem.

As for the topic’s importance, well, for me there was no question about that. I really live, breathe, and sleep type. It’s very much beyond an obsession... but it’s a topic that relatively few people are interested in. So, when you are deeply focused on a subject, you obviously then want some way to communicate all the ideas you have on this subject with people. But I wasn’t really finding any way of doing, and that was a bit aggravating. So, for me I suppose the site is a way of letting all of this bottled-up type nonsense out of my head. Also, the site helps me to focus my thoughts on things – to synthesize the stuff rattling around in my brain. – What does official sanctioning mean to you? Let’s take the K10K example. They’re sponsored by Apple. If Adobe or (God help us) Microsoft wanted to sign on, how would you react?

Andy – Well, I’d certainly be more than happy to be sponsored (full disclosure: I recently interned at one of the two software companies listed above). But from what I know of the typography groups at both Adobe and Microsoft, I’d be surprised if they had the inclination to begin sponsoring sites. I’m not sure they really need to build brand recognition in the type world, in light of their current positions as the two most important type-technology companies – what with the joint ownership (Adobe, Microsoft) of the OpenType spec and all. – How much of your time does the site eat up? How many visitors, etc.? Are bandwidth costs a hassle?

Andy – The time the site takes is variable. Sometimes I see something that I want to blog and it only takes a moment. But the longer posts often require me to do some research, digging through my books and magazines, finding passages to quote, etc. Also, I often scan things from my collection of type ephemera, so that takes time. I’ve spent as much as an hour and a half on a single post, but most posts probably take no more than half an hour.

As for hosting costs, I’m lucky enough to host my site on a server with free, unlimited space and bandwidth, so it isn’t a concern for now. As for visitors, they’ve fluctuated (the site is only about six weeks old), and I haven’t done any exact counts. It appears that I get some hundreds of visitors each day, with exceptional days perhaps approaching a thousand visitors (a few days last month – the combination Kottke-linked/K10K-linked/blog-of-the-week effect, I suppose). – You started your sites because you’re interested in the topic – passionately so. That’s all well and good. But how do you maintain the commitment? Was stoking your obsession, as the Internet so readily permits, worth it after all?

Andy – So far it’s been a very rewarding way to spend my time. As I said before, I felt I had so much type stuff to natter on about, I just had to find an outlet (or else my head might explode). The amount of feedback I’ve received since starting the site has been astounding, and I really appreciate it. I’ve also had multiple offers to get involved in other projects, which has been especially nice. So, all of these factors (along with my continuing type obsession) helps to keep me committed to the site. – What kind of work do you do in print design?

Andy – Most of the print design I’ve done has been relatively unexciting newspaper stuff. I’m generally put off by the flashier sorts of print design; what I’d truly like to do is the more traditional sort of book design (for me, at least, this is the holy grail of typography). – What other variants of design Weblogs do you think we need? Motion design, for example?

Andy – I’d love to see a design log that focused on newspaper design. There’s really lots of stuff in that area that could be blogged. Jim Romanesko gets some of it sometimes on MediaNews, but a dedicated blog would be great. Magazine design as well, and perhaps advertising design. Motion design doesn’t interest me as much, but I’m sure there’d be plenty of readers for something like that.


The gay agenda

We wrote the following about the consolidation of ownership in stock-photo agencies:

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

We worry about media concentration in Canada. We should be worrying about media concentration in the gay scene. (The “homosexualist” scene, to deploy the gorevidalism.)

The Advocate survived for decades as a fortnightly gay newsmagazine. Later, Out, led by sexy Michael Goff (previously the assistant of designer Roger Black, later a Microsoft petit fonctionnaire, now a superimpressive vulture capitalist; see “Yin Eats Yang”), tried to poach their turf with a fluffier, more asinine, but better-looking monthly. (Designer? Investor? Roger Black!) Then there are the raft of “gay in-flight magazines,” plus city papers all over the place.

Online, PlanetOut battled with for top and bottom status. PlanetOut is led by media starlet Megan Smith, whose gf unit Kara Swisher writes for the storied Wall Street Journal. (The lovebirds even correspond in public, in a twee, rarefied simulacrum of a Weblog.), as befitting its generic name, lacks a comparably sexy Übergruppenführer.

But in February 2000, the Advocate bought Out, which had churned through editors like perforators through chad (or F-16s through Somalia). The Advocate’s parent, Liberation Publications, also owns Alyson, the book publisher. We had an American gay print monopoly. (It’s even worse even than we’re explaining here. Read this explication.)

Minutes later, PlanetOut bought the Advocate, pretty much shocking everybody with its AOL-snatches-Time-Warner chutzpah.

Oh, wait. Let’s let Megan say it.

“It is the gay and lesbian version of the Time Warner–AOL merger,” Smith said in an interview with Reuters. “The focus is to be this new, integrated media company which will touch the customer 24 hours a day.”

What an unfortunate but revealing choice of words. The gay-media monopoly wants to touch you 24 hours a day. Totalitarianism – in high heels and plaid flannel shirts.

(Insert Gahan cartoon from National Lampoon: Worried elves sweep and labour in a workshop. Posters show stern, Big Brother–like Santa: “He sees you when you’re sleeping! He knows when you’re awake!”)

Now PlanetOut and are merging. Apart from the in-flight magazines and city papers, there will now be one gay media outlet in the U.S.

Your choices are PlanetOut,, the Advocate, and Out. Make your selection now.

Think TV will come to the rescue? Oh, please. This isn’t England. There’s effectively no gay coverage on TV. sponsors the tediously correct, soporific, and middlebrow PBS institution In the Life. PlanetOut “streams” Queer Television. Of course, they’re nominally separate entities. Nominally.

Our diverse gay communities are constantly beating their pierced chests about diversity. Anyone who self-declares as gay, lesbiana, bisexualist, transsexualist/transgenderist, or “questioning” and plays any kind of race or gender card can cause the entire infrastructure of leftist gay mainstream culture to turn on a dime to meet their demands. (This has nothing to do with real diversity, as leading mainstream American gay organizations found out when Eric Plunkett, a deaf gay man, was murdered at Gallaudet. Even coverage in the Advocate, a publication that’s had decades to set up an audiotape or Braille version, betrayed vast disability ignorance.) Diversity is self-evidently one of the strengths of the diverse gay, lesbiana, bisexualist, transsexualist/transgenderist, and “questioning” communities.

However, this diversity is increasingly illusory. There will be no true diversity in American gay media coverage from now unto the moment of Armageddon, merely interlinked synergistic “consumer brands.”

By the way, are you looking for independent coverage of this new monopolist-in-formation? Where are you going to get it, apart from this modest Weblog? Straight media barely understand gay culture and treat PlanetOut and as targeted niche “investment opportunities” (read this story on the deal’s “investor potential”). Straight coverage is glancing. (Any outlet that isn’t queer-specific is a straight outlet. We’re sure liberals will be outraged at this declaration of reality.)

You don’t think this is a monopoly? What other gay news sources are you gonna look at? PlanetOut owns everything. (The estimable but small-scale Weblog WebQueeries, Outsports, and the Gay Financial Network aren’t even in the same industries.) PlanetOut’s announcement and’s are identical. Merger releases usually are, of course. It would be cynical to view this as the inauguration of a future monopolist pattern.

Are you in favour of a “diversity” of voices online (and in old media, for that matter)? Just where is that diversity in our diverse gay communities?


Grasping defeat from the jaws of victory?

We loved the article over at a nominal rival of ours, Content-Exchange, on the real road to success for electronic books. The big publishers don’t have a clue. (Big anythings never do.) The little people are already selling tens of thousands of E-books. Preferred price is less than US$10; preferred format is PDF. (We were wondering if we were just weird or something for wondering why the hell everyone was trying to reinvent the wheel. You can set up a PDF for any kind of page; include graphics; specify type. They are dirt-cheap to “author,” and every computer has a reader. This we like.)

Publishing cartels, and Microsoft, are clearly trying to take over all electronic-book publishing. Look at what happened at a seemingly innocuous awards presentation.

Still, the concept of the electronic book is fundamentally sound. The “online” component of E-books is tenuous at best: It is merely the delivery medium, not the medium of experience. So E-books lie slightly outside the purview of the NUblog.

That ain’t gonna stop us. More “content” than “online” this week.

The form of the book

Very early CD-ROMs, like I Photograph to Remember and the vastly overrated From Alice to Ocean, were electronic books. What killed that experiment was (a) the net, (b) the slow speed of CDs, and (c) crappy computer monitors.

E-books are fundamentally an issue of industrial design and typography. We’re strong on both, so here is a bit of a history lesson.


Only three technologies have ever struck us as futuristic in that 1950s magical “How the heck they do that?” sense.

  1. The Grid Convertible, an early-90s Windows/DOS laptop whose LCD screen could be folded face-up over its keyboard, turning it into a very impressive Etch-a-Sketch. (The so-called form factor of the Etch-a-Sketch is widely beloved on this side of either pond.) It was the absence of a laptop’s telltale clamshell fold that made it.
  2. Any Macintosh running more than one monitor with an expanded desktop. We now find it inconceivable to run a personal computer with a single screen and do not consider three monitors extravagant.
  3. The Apple Cinema Display, which one-ups the Grid Convertible and almost trumps dual monitors. The screen is so gigantic and bright, yet so thin, that one must step back several paces to read the subtitles on a DVD. (Just like a television. Is the Cinema Display the first appropriate display for convergence?)



Back to reality

“It’s been done already,” you say. The Rocket E-Book is about the size of a laser-printed page trapped in an Etch-a-Sketch. If anything, it is too small.

We’re not going to discuss software and format issues. There will end up being multiple formats, and every reader will be able to display all of them – even machines by protectionists like Microsoft and Gemstar. Find us a computer these days that cannot display HTML, PDF, plain-text, and Word files. DVD drives can read old CDs and CD-ROMs. The PlayStation 2 can do that, for heaven’s sake. Mutual interoperability will be the norm – eventually.

We’re also not too interested in electronic paper or E-ink or whatever it’s called. Among other things, we’ve seen Björk’s music video “Bachelorette” (by the director of the past, present, and future, Michel Gondry) in which a heroine’s memoirs write themselves – only to unwrite themselves later on. We mangle printed pages in our purses enough as it is. We don’t want to go around mangling electronic leaves, which will be just as fragile as paper (or Tyvek, at least) but ten thousand times more expensive to replace.

An E-book should not gussy itself up in the drag of printed pages. It should take the form of a display device, not the New Yorker. Ever seen one of those novelty telephones that arranges the pushbuttons in the format of a rotary-dial phone? That’s what we’re talking about here. (The word “skiamorph” has been adapted to refer to objects or words whose form is locked into an era that has been supplanted, like “blackboards” that are green, or indeed “dialing” a phone.)

Old books live as E-ghosts

Printed books will remain. Unequivocally. Full stop.

But the infrastructure of publishing is too costly to support small-market titles or books that don’t have to be written to “standard” lengths.

High-resolution scanning of out-of-print books is an excellent course of action. Typography queens will blanch: You will lose typographic complexity, particularly for old letterpressed books, where type is impressed right into the page. (Letterpress typefaces like Baskerville and Fairfield look brassy and overprecise when printed other ways, worst of all on coated stock.)

The issue came up in Nicholson Baker’s preservation of old newspapers: Microfilming cannot render the dazzling full-colour graphic design of a broadsheet page (and doesn’t even do justice to the typographic colour of a text-heavy page).

A rare book you can download in ten minutes is worth the degradation in image quality. If you require the printed version, you can still buy it. Yes, you pay twice, but the electronic version is manipulable. (Scans of antiquarian books must provide an image of the page along with an optical-character-recognition searchable variant. Even a word-processor spellcheck can capture most scanning errors; you can double-check against the image for mis-scans.)

Short books

Books don’t need to run 200 pages. Short books should really be published in electronic form. Really, they already are: They’re called Web sites. There are few existing formats for printed small books (“chapbooks” are one of them; museum catalogues are another; kooky happy fun novelty impulse-buy books piled at bookstore cash registers are another). It’s hard to make money off them. It’s probably hard to make money off short E-books, too, but at least the up-front costs are lower.

The conundrum:
Expensive device, small readership

E-books by big-name print authors are nothing more than a publicity stunt. It’s like some bobbysoxer of a pop singer declaring that she really wants to act. Gotta extend into all media, right? For the thousandth time, no.

The number of people who will buy a big-name author in E-format is small. So is the number of people who will buy any title in E-format.

The audience will be small for years, if not decades.

Yet the E-readers will be expensive for years, if not decades.

E-books will be consigned to niche products. There’s nothing wrong with that: Ever heard of laserdiscs? Not DVDs, laserdiscs: The old twelve-inch videodiscs. They represented a more-or-less-healthy cinephile market for a decade. Videodiscs are to videotapes as E-books will be to print books: Something smart, well-heeled, technically-literate people choose. The best we can hope for is that E-books will become like DVDs: Something not-necessarily-smart, not-necessarily-well-heeled, not-necessarily-technically-literate people choose. Videotapes are still vastly preferred over any kind of disc. Paper books will be vastly preferred over digital ones.

So don’t blow it

Our advice to the E-book industry, not that they even read the NUblog: You’re producing art-house films. Blair Witch (and The Full Monty and The Crying Game and Sex, Lies & Videotape) notwithstanding, niches should sometimes remain niches. Think Saab, not Pontiac.

Maybe E-books oughta be like amateur porn – something anyone can put together that will attract only a few. There are worse fates.


“You can always go on”

The Offspring = George Michael.” Discuss.

We seem to remember an entire music video by a then-unindicted George Michael – “Freedom ’90” – in which the former international Wham<bang> megastar did not appear, subbing sexy male and even female models in his place as a protest against his treatment at the hands of Sony’s contract lawyers.

The aggrieved millionaire felt he had been reduced to a mere provider of software.

He’s right. The compact disc turned music into software – manipulable, executable, bootleggable files.

Music as software. Ring any bells?

The NUblog is the only leading Weblog on Internet culture to eschew discussion of online music (unless you count linking to a screed by Miss Courtney Love). The issues are self-evident, and were sewn up beautifully by Esther Dyson: “Yes, it’s wrong to steal, and yes, the music companies have legally binding copyrights. But the reality is that it’s not good business to annoy both your customers and your suppliers – especially if you’re an intermediary whose added value is questionable.”

It will inevitably become necessary to give away some music online in order to put a dent into wide-scale illegal distribution, which in any event will gradually become eradicated by deals with the devil music industry. But the leading test case so far does not inspire confidence: The Offspring.

The unexpected punk heroes (see also: All, Descendents, Bad Religion) may be millionaires, but they understand the digital era. They answer their own E-mail. They fought to keep their fans’ E-mail addresses private unto the band, and won. (Talk about your opt-in marketing.) They attempted to post an entire new album, Conspiracy of One, in MP3 format before CD release. There was also a plan afoot to give away a US$1 million prize.

The resulting dialogue, as seen in Warner Brothers toons, goes like this:

It seemed to be a case of mutual assured destruction. If the Offspring goes under, Sony takes a big hit. Otherworldly ice-blond Offspring declamator Dexter Holland and the lads figured they were so valuable to the Japanese multinational that the knives wouldn’t come out. Nope: Sony threatened to sue.

Only in the cable-TV industry are relations up and down the rungs of the ladder more poisoned than in the record biz. If major labels were parents, they would sue their own children for not loving them.

Various half-arsed countersuits were envisaged, one of them based on the claim that Sony, by releasing Offspring CDs in an unencrypted format (as all consumer recording formats have been, Serial Copy Management System notwithstanding), opened the band to piracy. But MP3 is an unencrypted format, and by posting the entire album the band itself would clearly engage in piracy. (Musicians on major labels are sharecroppers. They don’t own their own work. Spike Lee had something to say about this: “The attitude was, ‘Get the publishing rights and give the nigger a Cadillac.’ In the end, it’s about ownership.”)

The band ended up giving away a single, “Original Prankster” (with even more of those trademark Hollandaise declamations), but still giving away the million-buck jackpot. Hardly the same, really, is it? The video for “Original Prankster” predated the album release by weeks. Anyone with a satellite dish or a digital cable box could have recorded the song off the TV airwaves in scrumptious digital quality and uploaded it hither and yon. By the time the official MP3 gets posted, it’s old news. What could have been a bold embrace of the principle “If we give it away, people will buy it” was reduced to a largely futile gesture.

If George Michael (like Prince) was reduced to a provider of software well before the net took off, what does that make the Offspring?

We wanted to ask Offspring manager Jim Guerinot a few questions about Web content, and no questions at all, really, about the Sony contract. Was he interested in an E-interview? “Not really.” We’re still trying.

The Offspring is to Sony as Bertelsmann is to the RIAA

Officially, Sony is party to the Recording Industry Assn. of America’s campaign of crushing the little people under its jackboot wiping out online music piracy. (They purpose is the latter; the effect is the former.)

The Offspring are signed to the Sony label, and are all but owned by Sony.

The Offspring break ranks and plot to post an entire album in MP3 for free download.

It’s hailed for brilliance inside Sony, but the suits win: We’ve got to look like we’re still onboard with the RIAA pogrom education campaign. The chink in the armour is, however, publicly revealed.

Bertelsmann, in the form of its mighty BMG label, is party to the RIAA action. But it breaks ranks and “inks” a deal with Napster.

Universal Music, ever farther and farther removed from slinging velvet-bagged gin, is also along for the RIAA’s ride, but signs a unique deal with

How many chinks in the armour are there now?

There’s a precedent for this, and it’s found in one of our little obsessions: Accessibility.

Officially, the Motion Picture Association of America is opposed to any legislated increase in captioning or audio description on television. (The MPAA has made endless filings to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, whose Web site is so disorganized and broken that we cannot provide you with links. Take our word on it here.) The MPAA, while happy to dub and subtitle its films for foreign markets, is adamantly and irrationally opposed to captioning and audio description in first-run movie houses in the U.S. – even the Rear Window system, which doesn’t bother anyone on the cinema who doesn’t need the access features, is something the MPAA merely wishes to "study."

The problem? Every MPAA member with television interests already captions its shows. Every studio captions its home-video releases. A number of studios license their home videos to the Descriptive Video Service and the RNIB for separate release with always-audible descriptions. Basic Instinct and T2 actually came out on DVD (in Region 1) with audio description. MPAA member studios sponsor and support Rear Window captioning and description; at least one new title comes out every month.

Shockingly powerful, seemingly dictatorial cartels like the MPAA and RIAA are like repressive societies everywhere: Small-scale issues not central to the party platform may be officially opposed, but they flourish behind the scenes, sometimes quite openly.

The RIAA can set out to win various legal canards, but the gig is up. The behind-the-scenes flourishing is no longer behind the scenes.

Not the spawn of Satan

Avatars evoke ridicule. An avatar is a representation of a person in an online environment. The representation usually takes the form of a human being or an animal (kitties and horsies being common, also centaurs and bipedal lions). The idea is that, in the absence of full-motion video or for reasons of personal concealment, a picture represents you better than mere text will.

Infamous example? Ananova, purchased by British “telecoms” behemoth Orange for an astronomical sum: £95 million. (That buys a heck of a lot of Æron chairs at Internet startups.) Ananova – an odd and multiply-evocative name, jiggering images of Brave New World, They Might Be Giants, and quavering-voiced typewriters – is a “virtual newscaster,” acting like the talking heads on TV news.

Indeed, real-life newsreaders are about as lifeless as a virtual image. The big knock againsts avatars online is that, as moving images, they sock up bandwidth.

But look at it another way. Jakob Nielsen and his ilk constantly complain that Web writing should be short and punchy. (So what’s our excuse?) That only applies to sites with a lot of visual distraction, like a portal, but we’ll leave that for now.

If you want people to read all the way through your news item, even if it’s chunked up into Web-friendly snippets (which traditional print journalism teaches you to do anyway), avatars actually help.

For the first two sentences, Ananova shows you one face. Then she changes expression and shows three more sentences, with the words optionally appearing in a slightly different location. You are forced to re-scan her face and the words, defeating the impulse toward monotony. Ananova keeps on modifying her appearance, in ways that are subtle but only slightly more overt than a stone-faced human newsreader, and before you know it you’ve read through the entire news article.

It took you longer than churning through straight text and it required incremental re-downloads of new facial expressions, but you enjoyed it more.

What’s not to like?

(Admittedly, avatars are a MIT Media Lab–style idea – something the eggheads love that will never put a dent in the real world. Pebbles is one example, a robot that sits in a classroom on behalf of an absent but “telepresent” disabled student. This stuff isn’t gonna fly. Also, we are very tired of the frustrated-virgin-programmer-boy perversion of making every notable avatar female.)

Focused online storytelling

We had a good little jag the other day about the impossibility of “building” community. But the alert reader would have noted a contradiction: One subject of our interview with maintainers of single-topic Web sites, Caroline van Oosten de Boer, runs a U2 Weblog, where fans gather to share news.

A gathering is a community, isn’t it?

So how do you entice people to gather online?

A couple of test sites may show the way: and Ticketstubs.

At Croon – yet another creation of the Dutch dynamo, C. van O. de B. – you trade anecdotes of songs and how they moved you. Chez Ticketstubs, you’re meant to upload a scan of a ticketstub and tell us all about what happened to you that night, from picking up your date to watching the show to getting in a fight with your date.

Now, don’t you find both these sites fall into the category of “Why didn’t I think of that?” Sometimes, brilliant ideas seem self-evident once revealed.

The wee complication is that neither Croon nor Ticketstubs is up and running properly yet. A fully-functioning site would do more than merely permit the uploading of disjointed personal narratives. Rather akin to what we find on Hissyfit (NUblog passim), you’d get a lot of “Yeah, that happened to me, too, and here’s what I did about it” cross-chat. Or “Oh, please. That’s nothing,” followed by a story that tops the original.

Smart operators would license these concepts, and the domain names (winners both, at least in English), for music- or concert- or travel- or TV- or movie-related sites. And in a world of online CD retailers with undifferentiable content, an original, exclusive feature like Croon could attract some attention.

Similar ideas? That’s what you come to us for. Run public Weblogs on topics like:

  1. People I Miss: Runs the risk of treacle and maudlinness, but memories of people you no longer know are universal, and who else are you going to tell them to? (Markets: E-cards; directories of addresses and phone numbers, dull as dishwater as-is; seniors; young adults in out-of-town universities.)
  2. Ships Passing: Memories of people who blast into your life and disappear forever. Two variants: Sexual and not. (For examples of the latter, dig up the obscure film A Midnight Clear. Markets: Dating and personals; city portals; nightlife guides.)
  3. My Dinner with André: Memorable conversations at mealtime, including, for Maritimers and the Irish, those held at the kitchen table. (Markets: Food and dining; housewares and appliances, including mainstream department-store powerhouses.)
  4. Second Chances: Life shows you a detour around a seeming dead end. Risk of being overrun by born-again Christians and plane-crash survivors (Cf. Chuck Palahniuk). (Markets: Born-again Christians, an actual market meant sincerely here; plane-crash survivors; dishwater-dull insurance brokers.)
  5. Last Night’s Dream: A dream you manage to remember, and manage to put into words. (Markets: Consumer products; beds and mattresses; spirituality, including the Madonna-with-hennaed-backs-of-hands variety.)

We could go on. But we give away enough million-dollar ideas on this page as it is.



We’re kind of anti-portal, as described in a laparoscopic-surgery level of detail earlier. We still talk to portal managers who are in a big rush to develop community. “Community development,” they call it, unsurprisingly.

Big surprise, kids: You cannot “develop” community. It isn’t like planting tomatoes. At best it is like tilling the soil and hoping tomato seeds will happen along and germinate. This may be a rather stronger stance than Derek Powazek’s experience would support, but we are not Derek Powazek.

Idées fixes

Portalistas, mired as they are in yesterday’s thinking, see community as an inevitable outcome of providing “message boards” and “listserves” (sic). Install those services and “community” will follow. Well, gee. You’ve got dozens of people living around you in your apartment building. Are they all your friends?

(Some portalistas are foolish enough to add “instant messaging” to that list, though instant messaging is nearly always person-to-person, like a phone call.)

“Message boards” don’t cut the mustard for a few reasons that will be obvious to seasoned netters and completely invisible to portalistas and marketers who name-check that catchphrase but have never actually used them.

  1. They dilute discussion. If there are already five mailing lists on Limp Bizkit, adding another forum will not add to the number of voices. It will merely increase the chance that there won’t be a critical mass of readers to actually respond.
  2. They’re derivative, as portals themselves are. Why should your members participate in your Limp Bizkit “board” rather than any of the others?
  3. They’re undifferentiated, a corollary of the first two points. We can’t emphasize this enough: Feature parity does absolutely nothing for you anymore. Every third site on the net offers free E-mail, but how many people choose tiny sites’ free mail over Microsoft Hatemail or Yahoo? Feature parity is merely expected, but you cannot expect people to actually use the parity features.
  4. They’re technically complex. Keeping a particular discussion threaded and on-topic requires good software (for the threading) and some kind of moderation (for topicality).
  5. They’re passé, harkening back to Usenet days of yore, when everyone online had Usenet access (no longer true, as described here before). Early, widespread Usenet use established the idée fixe of “discussion fora.”

The Web is now too big to support the everyone-talking-at-once model of “message boards.” And ironically, the Web’s encouragement of topic specificity militates against widespread deployment of “boards.”

As for mailing lists: We love them to death, but consumer-level software of the eGroups/Topica variety is technically inferior to the king of the hill, Listserv. The ease of setting up a mailing list is more than outweighed by the fact that the people who set them up – it is unfair to stereotype them as AOL-calibre twits, but we’ll do it anyway – know nothing about mailing-list etiquette, let alone how to handle the crises that inevitably develop on lists.

And besides, Microsoft has single-handedly destroyed mailing lists by two defaults in its Outlook mailer software: HTML and append-entire-preceding-message, both of which royally gum up the works. (AOL ranks a close second, now that version 6.0 cannot send a plain-text message at all.)

A possible answer

Let’s run a hypothetical test case. Say you’re starting up a new portal site. You have a few thousand users already – from, say, your existing ISP business. If you’re determined to “develop community,” why not try something different – something that acknowledges present-day reality rather than rehashing a 1995-era Web?

Buy Bonds Blonds Blogger

We’ve got a simple solution to the problem: Blogger.

What happens under this scenario? Your users get to know each other’s likes and dislikes. Rather like communication through the now-outdated medium of the compilation music cassette, readers come to understand fellow members’ personalities through their daily-journal entries and the sites they link to.

It’s Blogging 101, this. Not rocket science. The rocket-science part is grouping everyone together under the big tent of your own “portal” service. (Another word to the wise: Hold parties and soirées in cities with major or even minor groups of members, but ixnay the loud music. People require f2f, RL interaction.)

For this to work properly, you need exclusive access. Under this scenario, a smart operator either buys Blogger outright, or buys a big chunk that guarantees them exclusivity – exclusive general-interest portal, exclusive Australian portal, exclusive German-language portal.

The kids down at Pyra, fresh off their star turn in the 2000.11.13 issue of the New Yorker (samizdat version), can start a new product line: CommuniBlogger™.

There. We’ve just given away a million-dollar idea, or at least a C$65,000-a-year idea. Go nuts with it.



Dame Edna’s greatest gift, she tells us, is “My ability to laugh at the misfortunes of others.”

Who are we to argue?

We deride, lampoon, decry, savage, and belittle the concept of “convergence.” Indeed, the MogulWatch! special report pulls out the tape measure to gauge the amount of rope the TV-plus-Internet industry is spooling out to hang itself. You know this already.

Latest proof of the folly of convergence? The most pigheaded, self-impressed, and imperious new-media shop in the province of Toronto, ExtendMedia (né Digital Renaissance), a cultish bunker run by Keith “Scoutie” Kocho and his poochy, is firing staff. (Two articles: first, second.)

Juicy quotes? Oh, honey. They don’t come any juicier.

  1. “ ‘We have taken what I would characterize as a fairly aggressive gamble in positioning ourselves in the interactive television space, and the market just hasn’t materialized yet,’ Mr. Kocho said.” It hasn’t materialized yet because no one wants it and it doesn’t work, fool.
  2. “ ‘It is a case of being able to hold on long enough,” said [some kind of analyst or other]. ‘With this kind of game, it’s labour-intensive, and you have to have all those programmer guys working long hours to get product out the door. If you don’t have anybody to pick up the product, the first thing to go is people.’ ” Why not just fire Keith Kocho? It’s not the hard-working “programmer guys” who are at fault.

Longtime readers will recall a gushing, breathless, dampened-panty profile of Kocho by some hack or other in some jackboot paper or other. “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.” Like so many “E-entrepreneurs” without a viable business, all Scoutie may be left with are his blue jeans, his beloved mutt, and of course a golden parachute twice the size of the salaries of the “programmer guys” he canned today.

Our best wishes to those “programmer guys.” May you find work in a real industry somewhere. And no hard feelings about Scoutie, huh? The world just isn’t ready for him yet.


Political “interactivity”

We’ve got this election going in Canada, and the dead-tree newspapers are busy rushing their election coverage into the 1980s. Instead of merely reviewing campaign commercials, now they’re reviewing Web sites!

The standards of comparison are all wrong, as befitting a medium that still measures the length of stories in column inches. Of course they don’t know how to evaluate a Web site, which would include assessments of graphic design, navigation, usability (particularly under difficult conditions, like a slow modem on an old computer), accessibility, and of course content. Yes, if you are a detractor of a certain party, the fact that the party’s site failed to budge you even a millimetre can be germane.

The biggest paper in Canada, the storied Toronto Star, an operation with a technical infrastructure that gives a Brezhnev-era telephone switchboard a run for its money, shakes its withered hand at the TV screens attached to their typewriters and reviews the oligopolist federal parties’ sites. (Note: One of the commentators is billed as a Web designer himself. God help us all.)

Attallah: I can’t imagine anyone wanting to come back a second time. There’s nothing very interactive - no audio clips, not even the TV commercials. [...]

Custode: A hip and interactive site that impressed me the most overall. It looks like they had a lot of people working on it. They’ve got a version of the party platform with animated graphics. Very professional. [...]

Presenza: They’re trying to use all the technology available, with streaming video and audio. It’s very funky, very modern and it’s got the best links to other sites. [...]

Attallah: They’re effectively running their TV campaign on the Internet with clips of [a party leader and his daughter] and some MPs. They gave me the strongest reason to come back to a site. [...]

Attallah: When you go to this site, the first thing that happens is that they’ve got their hands out asking for money – a pop-up window that you have to close. It’s the most annoying site.

Where to begin? (Well, how about the title of the story? “Luring voters into their Web.” Bleeding-edge, huh?)

  1. How exactly is a site “interactive” if it shoves “audio clips” and “TV commercials” down the pipe at you? How are you interacting? This isn’t like driving a car, where you’re constantly adjusting to changes in what’s happening around you. You hit the link and the audio or “TV” then “streams” at you. What’s interactive about that?
  2. How is it that animation can be deemed “professional”? If we called the animation cartoons instead, would they still be professional?
  3. The decision to “use all the technology available” makes a site “very funky, very modern.” Does it persuade voters? Does it inform in any way? Does that mean it even works in people’s browsers?
  4. Should political Web sites, like any other sites, use a particular Web technology merely because it is possible to do so, or should appropriateness be considered? (Wouldn’t that require the parties to hire someone with more than six months’ online experience, itself limited chiefly to zapping virus-attached Outlook E-mails around the globe?)

We’re sort of morally opposed to assisting political parties, no matter how worthy. We wouldn’t assist a slaughterhouse or a tobacco juggernaut or Microsoft, either, so don’t take it personally. But there are two obvious things to do on a political Web site:

  1. Offer enormously more information that you could possibly afford to put out in print or for broadcast. The contradiction here is that political handlers fight over every single syllable. (Actually, every punctuation mark, and we don’t mean an impassioned discussion over the use of a comma before and. We mean demanding that incorrect punctuation inserted by a political operative be retained.) Nowhere but in politics do you strive to say as little as possible. At the very least, post the entire party platform and every bit of research you have at hand supporting each claim.
  2. Text and images only. Multimedia simply does not work on a general-interest Web site, as we have explained ad nauseam already. Besides, during an election it is impossible to avoid political broadcasting on radio and television. You’re wasting everyone’s time, not to mention adding to your bandwidth costs, retransmitting this crapola online.

Which is worst: Political parties that don’t get the net, political consultants who don’t, or newspapers that don’t?

Internet fire sale

Yes, we write long. We admit as much. But we write as long as necessary. The oversold Chervokas/Watson team at seem to think they’re writing a column that has to be 750 words long each week.

En tout cas, we dug through the rubble and figured out that the duo is advising large companies to buy smaller “failed” Internet “properties.” It worked for, kind of, and it might work for Ironminds (op. cit.).

By making asset acquisitions, buyers can avoid taking on the operating deficits of Internet media companies. This shift in acquisitions would reflect the reality that many of these so called “companies” are really single products. Startups with a million users acquired on someone else’s dime will be most attractive, particularly where the audience, assets or revenues of the target properties are additive to the acquiring company.

Blogger, anyone?

One of the Cluetrain kids sez something similar, actually:

From an Internet perspective, Web micromarkets are not markets at all, but rather nascent communities of interest. They tend to gravitate around articulate, knowledgeable and entertaining voices-individuals or small groups driven by a passion to communicate their views. A good example is the Motley Fool, which began as a microscopic dot in the petri dish of AOL’s greenhouse incubator. Today, these “fools” touch millions of personal investors. Micromarkets needn’t remain micro.

Because entry costs require high returns on investment, broadcast media rarely offer such emergent voices a hearing. However, the Internet reverses this trend, providing many low-cost vectors for small scale publishing – Usenet newsgroups, E-mail lists and Web pages. Think of these as “micromedia” instead of mass media.

...Cisco just implemented Blogger enterprise-wide. [Confirmation from a Cisco blog and from Blogger. – NUblog] Imagine the avalanche of intellectual capital such a move could precipitate. The Internet has always demanded that business read between the lines. Weblogs raise the bar.

And while we’re on the topic of Blogger – do we ever shut up about that service, which we don’t even use ourselves? – you can now pay US$195 a year for the privilege of Blogger without having to credit the service on your site. But what’s this bit in the fine print?

Note: If, within 90 days from the date of your purchase, Blogger ceases to exist in its current, or a compatible, form; or if you elect to stop using Blogger for the site selected; or for any other reason, you can, at your request, get a full, pro-rated refund for the time remaining on your subscription.

(Emphasis added.) Ominous, or mere precaution?

eBay: “Viable on all platforms”?

We just finished dissing some self-impressed new-media potentates’ advice to start print magazines to be “viable on all platforms.” Like hell.

eBay just pulled the plug on its magazine. (Not quite: The contract will simply not be renewed.) An analyst claims that the eBay “brand” is so strong it doesn’t need propping up with dead trees.

So, in order to be “viable,” do you require the print medium after all?


“All power ultimately arises from content depth”

Behind the scenes, we’ve been conducting a round-robin interview with three “independent content creators” – a trio who run their own tightly-focused, deep, authoritative sites on specific topics. (And you know what we think about tight focus and specificity.)

Who are the people in our neighbourhood?

  1. Caroline van Oosten de Boer, the brains behind, a Weblog on the world-dominating rock band. The widely-loved Caroline runs a raft of ancillary sites, including her famous personal blog, Prolific (“She Logs for Europe”)
  2. Tom, the single-named Webmaster, author, and critic who runs the site on the sexy, uplifting, life-affirming, mouthwatering topic of mad-cow disease, fittingly named (“You Are What You Eat”)
  3. Stephen Maeder, a young lad engaging in the balancing act of overseeing, which has quickly become the preëminent source of information on the most underground discipline of cycling there is – bicycle trials, alias observed trials or trialsin. (It’s bicycle obstacle riding, if you don’t know)

Our three correspondents put a lot of love into their sites, not to mention time. And they beat the shite out of corporate sites. Time to find out why and how.

Q&A – What role do you think good Web design (however you define that) plays in the way your site is viewed? Are you seen as more authoritative or credible by having advanced (or simple) graphic design? If you had the same “content” but your site looked like a Tripod automated homepage, would it still work?

Caroline – It wouldn’t work for me. For me there has to be a good balance between brain and brawn. I don’t know whether the site is seen as more authoritative or credible by its visitors. In my experience, people will believe any old shite online (or offline) no matter what it looks like. 50% of the people who E-mail us at thinks we’re the band. And I am sure it wouldn’t be any different if the site didn’t look as slick as it does. What’s important to me is whether I think it looks credible. – We’ve encountered a similar phenomenon in other fields, like print typography. 99 out of 100 people couldn’t tell the difference between the thoroughly-researched and absolutely correct and refined way to do something and the defaults in, say, Word for Windows. Who’s right?

The Web seems to involve different expectations from print. If you run a print newsletter on a pet topic, even in the age of desktop publishing, it only takes a minimum level of “professionalism” to seem credible. Usually this means a big headline and text in columns, and maybe photocopied on tabloid paper and folded in half, making it look like “a real brochure.” Yet online, people seem to want very sophisticated design, or at least they want a site to look like all the big corporate sites they’re familiar with, using left-side navigation, frames, and so on. The gap between a hastily-laser-printed paper screed and what people think is credible is much smaller than the gap between a Tripod-style site and what people think is credible online.

Tom – My site is very dumbed down by intent and experience. Plus I never revise the design. People don’t like change. I am locked down and love it – five years of this and I look what makes the absolute least work for me. Visitors are from all walks of virtual life; I have a person a minute 24/7 from 57 countries, there is not time to deal with browser gripes. You can’t shut anybody down on a disease site.

Content grows by about 20 or more articles per week, that’s my reality. I gang them up in top-anchored packets of 10 off a new link on the main page: Uninspired but efficient. What people want is old information just where it was last, and new information up front. The site depth is two clicks to read 6500 articles. At one time I thought, just swipe the design over at, be authoritative looking. Later I realized it didn’t matter, content rules.

All power ultimately arises from content depth. My job is to drive large governments into information oblivion. Try it sometime. For real depth there are no shortcuts to hard work, only efficiencies. Project all the subliminal site authority you want, at some point they’re going to say, where’s the tofu? So I went with the design I had and busted butt on content. They can’t catch up now, like how are you going to out-feature Excel. All power ultimately arises from content depth.

Stephen – How the site is designed really doesn’t matter much to my viewers, as it’s one of the very few sources for biketrials information. As long as there is new content, they’re happy. They don’t care that I have this horribly long left navigation frame and bad organization of content. The way the site is designed only seems to bug me! It would actually almost work as a Tripod automated homepage, but I’ve got to give myself a little more credit than that! :-) – Is personal voice important? If you were an absentee landowner and everyone else did the talking, would your site suffer? Is it important that it’s Caroline’s U2 site, Stephen’s biketrials site, Tom’s BSE site?

Caroline – It’s important to have a voice. My site is not just run by me; I’m lucky to have a handful of people working on it that I can trust to put up good material. I can go to bed at night and wake up and know I’ll find something funny or interesting on the site. When I first started, I had more people working on it – I gave access to anybody who asked. But that didn’t work out. So I restricted access to some people I hand-picked. I guess that does mean it has a personal voice.

Tom – Yes. Though I completely depersonalized myself from day one. A lot of news articles are preceded by Comment (webmaster) but the webmaster is never named anywhere. If there is some big fat lie, I insert a bracketed clarification because I am ethically opposed to the further dissemination of misinformation, plus in spongiform encephalopathies it could kill people if they took the government’s advice. Then I colour text, often highlighting something very different than the press “officer” would have wanted. I keep it factual and sober, with links to supporting documentation. In literature, they call it deconstructing. People love to see me kick ass, talk back to the media, truth getting in the last word for once. So that’s the personality of the site: no compromise.

I have people over in London helping round up news. In the end, I gave them a room of their own, within the site. So that is a separate style. There are two other sites within the site, one on Frankenstein foods, another a hardcore human genome project annotation tutorial. – The trend we see here is benevolent dictatorship: “I decide the look and tone, but I am not the only subject in this kingdom.”

Caroline – Definitely. I do not believe in democracy in projects. One person needs to take the lead, and needs to lay down the law. I cannot work any other way. (Which makes the day job pretty hard on my nerves.)

Stephen – It is certainly very important to have a personal voice. Because is run by me, the beliefs and views I hold about biketrials find their way into how I write about certain happenings and what I write about. My perspective absolutely influences what newcomers think of the sport. Also, people often directly ask me questions in the online message boards, titling their messages – “A question for Stephen....” Some of the time, people really want to know what I think about something. It’s important in the trials community to be accessible in this way, at least to some extent. (It just eats up a good deal of time, occassionally!) – Oh... mustn’t forget. Why’d you start it? Why was the topic so important that you made an open-ended commitment to maintaining a site about it?

Tom – I was raised to leave my campsite cleaner than I found it. It didn’t really matter: global warning, dioxin, nutriceuticals, endangered species, or mad cows, whatever, it was time to put an oar in the water. The truth is out there because someone put it out there.

Caroline – I started on a whim, when U2 put Webcams up in their studio earlier this year. I was bored and wanted to have a new project to play with. I’d been talking about it with one of my friends and one night I just got the domain and started it. I’ve been a U2 fan since 1984. My interest has waned over the years, but I’ve always kept up to date with what they do. It’s almost impossible for me not to, because most of my IRL friends are U2 fans and at one point all my online friends were too. The new album has pulled me right back in.

It was important for me to put up U2 site up that is different from what is out there already. There are tons of U2 sites and they are almost all quite serious. It annoys me that a band that I know as a well developed sense of humour isn’t exactly known for its “humourous” fans. On the contrary. So I wanted a site that reflected something intrinsically Euro/Australasian: Taking the mickey. We love the band, so we slag them off – that’s the principle of things. We do parodies and piss-taking in between real news and very illegal MP3s. Not everybody gets it. – This is a big thing with “fan” sites (term used advisedly). We seem to work – to use another imperial metaphor – from the ethos of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition: “I may bitterly disagree with something Bono or Ot Pi or Prusiner does or says, but fundamentally I want U2/people with TSE/biketrials to succeed and flourish because I am personally committed to the topic.”

Caroline – Also, we, the “knowledgeable” fans, are the only ones allowed to mock. When others – non-fans – do the mocking, it is a crime that needs to be punished. This is how it seems to work. – We get this a lot ourselves. “If all you want to do is complain, why don’t you get out of the business?” “Because we have knowledge and skills and can do a better job. So why don’t you let us contribute, you dilettante halfwit?”

Stephen – I started Stephen’s Trials Page (one of two predecessors to to provide information that I wished was up on the Web. When I was first learning trials, there were no sites out there with a how-to manual. I tried, as best I could, to provide a resource that would’ve been helpful to me when I was starting out. It started out very small, and slowly worked up to very big. What keeps me going now is how much of a positive impact it has on the sport and on people. When I get an E-mail from some kid in the U.K. saying that he found two new riders to ride with who live in his town because of my Web site, I smile. When I get an E-mail from someone in a far-off country where “nobody” rides trials saying that the only reason they keep riding is because of my Web site, I smile. In a very big way, is a positive influence. – What does official sanctioning mean to you? If U2 made U2log “official,” or if the BSE Inquiry (ha!) placed its stamp of approval on, or the BIU or UCI somehow anointed the official Web site, would it influence you at all?

Caroline – The fun of is that it isn’t official – which means I don’t have to go through the Kommissariat to have things approved. I do run an official site for an artist,, where I take things seriously and the goal of that site is to keep fans informed and to promote the artist. However, we (myself and team) do feel the need for recognition – and would love to know whether the band or management check out the site. In fact we do hope to be the site management goes to for a laugh.

Tom – It would drag the site into all sorts of compromises. It sounds great at first but soon you are sucked into “the people would panic and commit suicide if they knew the truth about mad-cow disease” or the “people will not get the elective surgery they need if they fear the blood is contaminated” so back down off the truth a little. Soon it is a downward spiral and you become another voice of the establishment. You may know more inside stuff, but you can’t do anything with it. It is a different kind of power involving elite, closely-held knowledge vs. a power that comes from credibility with a broad audience that wants to know the truth. – Are we right to think that the fact the sites are unauthorized is rather preferable for you, if not an actual point of pride, and you’d turn down official imprimatur even if it were offered?

Tom – No, I am interested in effectiveness, not in being controversial per se. It does grate on me, however, that a scientifically impeccable, precautionary, principle-oriented site is viewed as radical instead of what it is – ultra-conservative. It is mixed right now, some governments, scientific journals, and newspapers (e.g., New York Times) provide links now. Many government sites are leery of seeming to endorse external content in any event. Plus there is an inherent rivalry over who shall provide the information.

There was probably more of a middle ground, where I could have gotten links more often without watering down the content. No question but that the placement and authority of external links help with site traffic. But at this point in time, anyone with a substantial interest in the subject is aware of my site and is forced to use it whether they like the tone or not, because of content depth. The subject is so complex that only a serious visitor is worth recruiting. There are 424 external links to me at this time, plus the site is so huge that it dominates keyword searching on any engine.

Being “unauthorized” cuts down on future opportunities to commercialize the site. For example, you won’t see any veggie-burger ads on my site. That opens another whole can of worms, infringing on your primary purpose and preceived credibility. You can’t have it all. I chose to focus on unfettered content.

Caroline – I wouldn’t turn down running an official U2 site, I think, because (1) it would mean shitloads of cash; (2) I’d do a better job, especially if I get to choose the people to work with. However, it would be a different site from, with a different approach and a different purpose. – How much of your time does the site eat up? How many visitors, etc.? Are bandwidth costs a hassle?

Caroline – I am online 24/7. I have no life. I get between 2,000 and 5,000 visitors a day – more than any other personal site I’ve ever worked on. I just got billed $124 extra because I went over my bandwidth allowance. This is a hassle and it means I can no longer host the files I want to host. I’m looking into solutions as we speak.

Tom – About half of the working day. (I am paid – not at my commercial consulting rate, though.) Running about 1.7 visitors per minute 24/7 of late or about 12,000 a week or about 43,000 a month. It is fairly awesome, really, compared to college teaching or a seminar where you might have a class of 20. Bandwidth cost? No, $14 a month from a small provider, no limits on anything. But that provider knows and approves of the site purpose, and that is important to security if you know what I mean. I keep it under 100k on a single visitor page load. – You started your sites because you’re interested in the topic – passionately so. That’s all well and good. But how do you maintain the commitment? Was stoking your obsession, as the Internet so readily permits, worth it after all?

Caroline – I don’t ever seem to have problems committing to my own projects. When it gets boring, I’ll quit or change.

Tom – I would be spending just as much time on something else, so no alternative, really. Used to work on rare-plant conservation, that took up a lot time too. It has been worthwile in that I am still interested and learning things. When that gets old, I will pass on the site to a new person.


Bitchy, bitchy, bitchy

Did you hear that the music industry held a hack-off? You were explicitly invited to hack the so-called Secure Digital Music Initiative. Linuxites called for a boycott.

John Lettice, writing in the Register, viciously attacked SDMI. Confirming a Salon report, Lettice declares that SDMI has been broken, full stop.

SDMI says that tests will check “whether the proposed technologies were affected in such a way as to avoid the intended effect, whether the results can be replicated, and whether in attacking the technology the music quality was degraded.” That opens a crack which could potentially be wide enough for a truck to drive through, because it exposes (appropriately enough) the analogue sliding scale factor that has to be built into the tests. Technologically the watermarks (which include an audio component intended to survive in analogue recordings) could be ripped out, but in doing so you may degrade audio quality unacceptably. Therefore, it is perfectly possible for SDMI to have 450 hacks, all of which successfully break the protection, but to bluster about Salon being “completely off the mark.”

The future’s looking bright for secure online music, isn’t it?

We agree with the skeptics: The only way to conclusively protect copyright owners’ rights will involve inventing an entirely new technology so tightly controlled that it extinguishes existing copyright law worldwide. Very simply, the conglomerates will own everything, and you will pay for each listening, viewing, or reading.

Andy Wang,
sharpest tool in the shed

Ever read Ironminds? We didn’t much, either. Then we read this interview with majordomo Andy Wang sounding quite up and energetic despite having been ditched by his corporate paterfamilias, Novix.

Wang says he had some reservations about Novix’s plans from the start. “I thought that parts of it were shit ideas,” he says, but it was a chance “to go play with Bill for a while and build something for real, even if they build an inferior product. I thought, if we build something that actually reaches a million people, and they fuck everything else up, that’s still someplace that reaches a million people and we can publish cool stuff on it.”

He says he instantly started hearing from friends in the industry offering him jobs. [We wonder what that’s like. – NUblog] For now he’s holding out while actively pitching Ironminds to potential investors. “I mean, we’re so lean. Ironminds could operate efficiently on $300,000 per year, and if we have $750,000 we can put out more stuff than Salon does. If we can stay alive until January, when a lot of this [dot-com failure] shakes itself out, we’ll still be here, and we’ll be one of the first choices for a pet content project.”

Lots more topics in the conversation, like livin’ large in Manhattan. We admire this Andy Wang. Hire him for your pet content project. Consider this a recommendation.

“Viable on all platforms”

We’re not opposed to the expansion of Web “properties” into magazines. Presumably Nerve is a wonderful magazine, if you’re a middlebrow Windows user and self-styled intellectual. Yahoo<bang> Internet Life probably works just peachily for the ultra-newbies. Inside will surely become a must-read among the expense-account class.

But let’s not pretend this is a hedge against online losses. One of the guys behind tells Forbes “You’ll see in the coming six to nine months that everyone is going to have to be viable on all platforms to survive.”

Um, reality check.

  1. That’s exactly the reasoning of the megalomaniacs who run newspaper and television empires. It’s a hip, Manhattan-elite way of dressing up the decomposing corpse of convergence.
  2. Online “properties” do have the advantage of working in the print medium, in a way. It isn’t as much of a leap to go from online to print as it is from online to television, but all of a sudden you’re going to be dealing with entirely different design principles; radically reduced space for articles; a payment and residual system which, while under litigation presently, has decades of precedents and will inevitably cost money; and, quite obviously, paper and printing costs. You’ll also have to bribe the big magazine distributors, and hold sexy, expensive new launch parties.
  3. Online “properties” are rife with twits. Leader of the pack? Salon, of course, which crashed and burned mightily in its hubristic plans to start a TV show (even if it was to be hosted by the peerless Daniel Richler; skimpy coverage). Even Slate has been flapping its fey little wings trying to get a PBS television series off the ground. Can you imagine anything more tedious? Don’t we have to put up with enough kinsleyesque milquetoasts on the existing twee chat shows? (Salon seems to have come to its senses, now simply sponsoring an existing show.)
  4. TV costs millions. It is impossible to produce an inexpensive television program that will pass muster even with U.S. syndication services, let alone networks. The concept of broadcast quality is an exclusionary cabal, though anyone can join with enough expensive equipment and talent. Who online has that, again?
  5. As the more sensible critics point out (we’re among them), it takes years and years and years for print “properties” to make money. Online “properties” haven’t had that time yet and generally are losing money coke-encrusted hand over Skittles-stained fist. Remind us again how starting a new business proven to eat up time before breaking even makes you “viable” for “survival.”

To be “viable” in more than one medium takes more than some self-important executive’s declaration that we all need to do it.


Dan Gillmor visits Prague and learns of guerrilla journalism. Here’s an odd little bit:

I was hugely impressed with some software Tacic is developing with several colleagues from other organizations. It’s a Web-based editing and production system that allows journalists to post stories and pictures from within Web browsers, wherever they may be. Cobbled together with low-cost and free software tools – necessity being, as always, the mother of invention – the editing and production package is already in use by several Web sites.

So we wrote Gillmor and asked if he referred to Blogger. Nope: Something way better, he says.

Blogger already has lots of competition (Manila, Pitas), though Blogger holds the hearts and minds of the A-list Web intelligentsia. Whatever could this new animal be? Inquiring minds want to know.

Let a thousand Volvos bloom!

We described, just the other day, how boring-as-shite “official” artist Web sites are. For the thousandth time, let’s state the obvious: It helps your cause to nourish fan sites.

Latest casualty?, to which Ford is busily putting the screws.

Third, the case came up when Hans tried to sell the domains earlier in the year. If Ford was really concerned about their brand equity, they should have sent the guy a check. (He wasn’t asking for tons of dough, just US$250,000. Probably close to the legal bill that will be generated by this action.) Ford hasn’t said anything about buying the domains since their lawyers sent the first salvo.

In particular, the less-well-known marques need to appeal to their fanatical fandom core (pace Macintosh). We say this because we are Saab, Citroën, Alfa Romeo, and indeed Volvo fetishists. All those marques are now or recently were in trouble. Anything that stokes the fires of love can only help.