NUblog archives

December 2000

(2000.11, 10, 09, 08, 07, 06, 05, 04
2001.01, 02)

See also: Special reports on moguls and megalomaniaOlympix

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Testing Web content:
Not rocket science

We loved a short and devastating story in BusinessWeek explaining just how bad the new! improved! Wal-Mart Web site really is.

We don’t understand why everyone doesn’t do at least rudimentary usability testing, which costs literally nothing. All you do is visit the site and attempt to perform readily-anticipated tasks. We did this a few times in our guerrilla usability analyses. You might not find all the faults in your site this way, but you will find the killer, dealbreaker, offputting, stop-you-in-your-tracks errors. Guaranteed.

En tout cas, Timothy Mullaney attempted to look up the book Code & Other Laws of Cyberspace.

At, you learn in three sentences that Code was published last year, is “categorized by the Library of Congress as intellectual property,” that it weighs 1.32 pounds as shipped, and that its International Standard Book Number is 046503912X. This data may help’s warehouse keep track of inventory, but it didn’t do diddly for me.

(Our Understatement of the Year Award goes to....)

It’s a different scene at Amazon. You get reviews from Amazon itself, from the New York Times, and from Amazon users who love and hate the book. You’re also alerted to related books, just as a good salesperson would do.

Can you believe it gets worse?

This isn’t about frills. doesn’t even give customers the basics. Take electronics. I went shopping on both sites for portable CD players and boomboxes, and Amazon’s superiority could hardly be missed.... On a GPX CD player, for example, the Amazon review and 33 user reviews were supplemented by a table that let me compare the GPX’s features with those of other players. Simple one-click boxes referred me to accessories and batteries. At, I got a jargon-filled quickie list of features with no explanations and the news that a similar player weighs 1.9 lb.

Do we need to keep beating the dead horse that content on E-commerce sites sifts the wheat from the chaff? A few articles (blogged before on this very site) explain how:

  1. Our own “Cutting the Cheese,” documenting the cheesy content at online CD retailers
  2. New York Times mention of academic research (and NUblog coverage)
  3. Nua survey, and experience, detailed in our coverage

And speaking of REI

The online exploits of the Amerikanski outdoor-gear retailer – really a small-time outfit in the grand scheme of things – are documented so frequently that it’s raising our eyebrows. Are we dealing with journos projecting their love of the outdoors, or at least of outdoor knickknacks? Or are they just tired of writing about Amazon and phoning up some Danish-American blowhard for pre-scripted commentary?

REI Climbs Online”:

REI had a mission to inform, and management looked to the Internet to create informed employees and customers alike. “What we were hearing from our members was a need for product information,” said Jerry Chevassus, REI’s director of store development. “Our industry can be very ‘techie’ and intimidating at times. Our employees can be intimidating as well.” [...] There is a price paid for that authenticity, but it is hard to quantify. Some analysts say REI’s site has a homegrown look, which might be true to its roots, but lacks the slickness of a site like “REI’s site is a little more meaningful than most, but it’s certainly not the best I’ve seen,” said Ken Cassar, an analyst with Jupiter Communications Inc.

Oh, for heaven’s sake. “Meaning” is now officially excluded from the qualities that define a “best” site. (We’re suspending our usual practice of deleting the names of “analysts” so that this particular “analyst” can be tarred and feathered later on.)

“Any product” means the Web store offers 10,000 items, a larger assortment than any physical store, even the 100,000-square-foot Seattle flagship. “Any time,” of course, means the site operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and Mr. Hyde notes that 30 percent of orders come in between 10 P.M. and 7 A.M. Pacific standard time, when none of REI’s retail stores are open. “Any place” means the site is available wherever there is a computer. To make it more accessible, launched in five languages. [...] Now REI brings its Web site to kiosks placed throughout its retail stores, another pioneering move since emulated by the Gap and others.

Well, heck. Maybe “meaning” isn’t what the Gap is looking for anyway.

REI put up its Japanese Web site – – in response to the company’s surprisingly strong catalogue sales in that country.... REI kept the site authentic and localized content by hiring native Japanese speakers in Washington to develop the site. For example, on the site, ordering an item that is out of stock prompts a “sorry” message that includes a figure shrugging with his palms up. But REI’s Japanese site developers said this gesture would be considered impolite in their country, so it was replaced with a bowing figure.

A cutesy localization example better suited to television. Then again, these are Americans writing this. And shouldn’t the URL be or (the -J suffix is widely used) or simply Then again, these are Americans, who believe everyone speaks, reads, and types American.

And one question, after all this talk of REI: Why is Mountain Equipment Co-op so slow to do anything remotely similar? Having produced a report on one store’s wayfinding system that went over like a lead balloon, we suspect it has something to do with antiprogressiveness and rule by outdated granola-feminist ideology. (“Gaia will be harmed by an extensive Web site. Tread lightly! Selling gear in colours other than earth tones is hurting Gaia enough as it is. Decoration makes baby Gaia cry.”)

Confirm or deny.


Sydney Olympics nailed

A thousand readers have perused our Reader’s Guide to the Sydney Olympics Accessibility Complaint, which explained, in something approaching laypeople’s terms, just why the mighty Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (SOCOG) lost a human-rights complaint to Bruce Maguire, who alleged that SOCOG’s inaccessible Web site discriminated against him as a blind person.

SOCOG lost. SOCOG, predictably, refused to put into place the requirements of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, which ordered SOCOG to add ALT tags to images and imagemaps on its Web site,

Though the addition of ALT texts to images is so rudimentary as to equate with dotting a lowercase i when learning cursive handwriting in grade school, the limitless cauldrons of contempt, dismissiveness, and corruption stirred up by the International Olympic Committee and everything it touches guaranteed that SOCOG wouldn’t abide by the order. Why should it? The Olympics are a law unto themselves.

All that is history, and we don’t want to get into a tirade. But guess what? SOCOG did not get away with it and will now have to pay Bruce Maguire $20,000 for its refusal to comply.

All the details, including a thorough excoriation of SOCOG’s entire attitude problem, can be read in the addendum to the Reader’s Guide to the Sydney Olympics Accessibility Complaint.

We have always held that legal requirements, and lawsuits, are the worst possible reasons to produce accessible content. The Sydney Olympics showed us the worst of the worst – the worst possible way to go about the worst possible way of going about accessibility. SOCOG’s model is one that must be studiously avoided by all sensible Web authors of all sizes.

Since this is a Weblog, here are links to two juicy articles on the decision:

  1. Discrimination blast on Games site”: “The audience of Web-accessibility experts laughed and hissed when [an HREOC official] repeated SOCOG’s claim that it would take up to 500 days’ work to add alternative text to images, provide a list of links and make the results table accessible to browsers for the blind.”
  2. SOCOG makes unflattering history”: “ ‘SOCOG throughout this case just took a very intransigent position.’ ”

Irish access

Meanwhile, Tom Farrell writes in to point out an audit of accessibility features at certain Irish governmental Web sites. The readable “white paper” takes an approach similar to our guerrilla usability analyses, which we really ought to add to.

Further AOLTV Schadenfreude

Ah, yes. Schadenfreude. It’s becoming something of a theme here on the NUblog. We felt not-very-shameful joy for Extend’s layoffs, and have been whoopin’ it up shoveling dirt on the grave that AOL dug for its stillborn Omen II of a fetus, AOLTV.

In case anyone’s wondering, this AOLTV thing is the online juggernaut’s attempt at “convergence,” which, as we have demonstrated over and over and over again, does not and cannot be made to work. (Read the superspecial AOL disembowelment over in the MogulWatch special report.)

In merely the latest instance of bad press (despite what PR apparatchiks tell you, there very much is such a thing: Ask Richard Jewell), Daniel Greenberg in the Washington Post writes:

The single most useful thing a smart set-top box can do is simply present all your available channels in a grid.... But AOLTV does this by grouping your TV channels by categories – news, movies, music, sports and so on. It refuses to display them all in a single list, the way most people are used to channel surfing. You have to navigate through several menus and a lot of clicks to go from your local networks to a music channel. This is a nuisance. Even a tech-support rep candidly admitted it took him “about five days” to get used to it, though now he likes it more.

(He would say that. The walls have ears, and tech support is the lowest rung on the high-tech totem pole, a gulag from which the only escape is a slightly larger veal-fattening pen or selling encyclopediæ door-to-door. Can you say “climate of fear”?)

We’re not done yet:

But when you select an AOLTV channel, it changes the TV channel too. I wanted to check the news on the data side of AOLTV while watching a movie, but when I selected the AOL News channel, it flipped over to AOL merger partner Time Warner’s CNN Headline News.

Throughout cyberspace echo the cries of politically-correct comedian Iggy Catalpa: “Conspiracy!”

AOLTV asked me to agree to be switched to the $21.95 monthly billing plan, even though I was already paying on an annual basis. A call to AOL confirmed that my plan was not switched.... AOLTV does, however, succeed in ensuring that lots of screen real estate is given over to ads.

And there’s one thing we don’t get about AOLTV: Just how do you use it for AOL’s true killer app, cybersex? With a keyboard and a remote control, just how is one-handed typing possible?

AOLTV: The Internet’s first Ishtar.

Recent links

Two articles we’re liking, both from the “powerhouse”, which will shortly begin its own grave-digging by publishing a money-sapping dead-tree edition:

  1. We previously waxed dystopian about E-rights while seeing much to like in E-books. These philosophies, of course, represent Romulus and Remus of rights management and digital publishing. Which will prevail? According to Roger Parloff, neither, because both are too broad and are not supported by legal precedent. (American legal precedent, at any rate.)
  2. We note monumental self-assurance in the voice of Richard Curtis, a literary agent who claims to have solved a lot of the practical chicken-and-egg problems of E-book publishing. Of course, he’s cheating: His company, E-Reads (a name we fear will become axiomatic: The rhyme trumps the tired prefix E-), leaves the gate with 1,200 books from B-list name authors. Still, we generally support monumental self-assurance, particularly when you have the stones (more than a thousand of them) and the technical infrastructure to back it up.


Skinning the blog,
and everything else

Episode I:
Boring your arse off with history

(Episodes II and III below)

Fresh off our closely-argued eye-glazingly long discursion on E-books, time for a similar discursion on skins and content.

This one is so damn long that we’re going to spread the pain over the week. Because this week is pretty painful for us, and you have to share some.

Recent news hook, since you probably insist on that sort of thing: Adobe is starting up some amorphous multi-platform content (re)publishing “strategy” based on XML.

The lesson: For decades, you’ve never had full control over the ultimate form of your “content,” and you have even less control now. The surprise? Less control is better.

Along the way, we’re going to pursue that elusive presentation/content distinction. Previous coverage:

  1. Interface and content, surface and depth: Interfaces are too content!
  2. Le modernisme nous a donné le contenu: Modernism put the presentation/content or interface/content distinction on the map
  3. Aristotle, king of content: Actually, Aristotle put the distinction on the map


A lifetime ago, after unending complaints about the NUblog’s colour scheme and Netscape incompatibilities (the former altered, all of the latter fixed), we invited readers to skin the blog – to come up with your own redesigns of our existing content.

Didn’t go very far. Mihir Joshi gave it the old college try (we’re now using his white-background approach, with credit), but no one else was biting.

Were we merely ahead of our time? Consider:

Literature review

From Feed:

If a single development can be said to have triggered the recent surge of consumer interfaces, it is – appropriately enough – the rise of the MP3 sound format, and specifically the panoply of user-created "skins" available for MP3 players like WinAmp. As a grassroots interface design movement, the “skins” craze is probably second only to the rise of the Web itself in its scope and diversity. currently lists thousands of alternative skins for the WinAmp application, created by almost as many armchair interface designers.

[Next a brief synopsis of Brian Hayes’ dissection of QuickTime 4.0’s interface.] However much I agree with the sentiment behind Hayes’ critique, there’s still something slightly doctrinaire about it, something that neglects the energy and inventiveness of the skins craze, with its endless variations on the consumer interface theme. I think this explains the somewhat mixed feelings I have about the consumer interface as a genre. I appreciate the design flaws of the QuickTime player, but I still find myself enjoying it – if only because it looks so much more elegant that the gray, abstracted windows that otherwise populate my computer screens.

We’re living in an age of mass customization, as Gaetano Pesce noted. Seven Cycles will custom-build you a bike, and you can check its gestation online in real time. Any online bookseller will sell you any combination of books (yes, that’s an example of customization: brick-and-mortar bookstores can sell you only what’s in their real-world inventory, though online bookstores can’t always ship all your selections together).

Computers become an extension of the human mind, which includes a visual cortex; some of us want our computers to look special. The Mac OS, for example, is allegedly a tried-and-true, complete system in and of itself, but it still permits you to alter the desktop background, load random desktop pictures, and run desktop DVDs; there’s also the Launcher, a sort of Mac OS for Kids. (Years ago, we wrote about the progenitor of desktop customization, Wallpaper. It’s been bubbling up through the collective subconscious for a while.)

Customization is an accessibility issue: Some visually-impaired people simply cannot tolerate, say, a white screen. Furthermore, screen readers interpret visual interfaces differently. For certain disabled users, customization of the UI is the norm, not the exception.

Apple overlord Steve Jobs is understood to be push–pull on interface issues: He gives us the Appearance control panel but only one Theme – Apple Platinum, the Mac OS 8.5 default. The ostensible reason? Tech support prefers not to deal with the complexity of multiple different Macintosh interfaces that are unidentifiable and undiagnosable over the phone.

We buy that reasoning, but intelligent, experienced users should be able to select their own preferred interface, and commentators should refrain from praising one as “much more elegant that the gray, abstracted windows that otherwise populate my computer screens.” If you like it, go for it. (Interesting discussion of commercial potential of Themes. The Allegro Themes Project offers dozens of Mac OS Themes.)

Episode II:

Let’s take a walk through the detritus of recent media.

Moral of the story? While there might be only a single Mona Lisa, a single instance of a media entity is rare.

The problem with “repurposing”

Ohh-kaaay. Now that you know more than you ever thought practicable about multiple media formats of the past, it’s time to consider the future.

Adobe, in a prototypical vapourware announcement, has declared that Net Publishing is the future. (“Why, it’s so modern! It’s ultramodern! Like living in the not-too-distant future!”) Net Publishing, were it to appear on the cover of the Rolling Stone, would bear the legend “He’s Hot, He’s Sexy, and He’s Dead.” Because “he” pretty much is.

[Some consultant or other] says that Net Publishing’s value depends on publishers who are pursuing a cross-media strategy. “If you’re publishing a magazine today, and you don’t have a desire to repurpose your content, could you get along without this?” he asks. “Sure. But if you do have a Web component, then you have a need to take content that was designed for a print environment and convert it to another medium. To the extent that that can be automated, then you can certainly try to take advantage of that.”

Then there’s this sexy new report you can buy. The propaganda declares:

Cross-media publishing (or “multi-channel,” to use the more recent buzzword) has been a preoccupation for both publishers and system providers for several years. The overall vision is very exciting – take your newspaper article, put it on the Web, send it to WAP phones, use all the emerging channels of information distribution. There is nothing totally wrong with this vision either. “Author once, distribute many” is clearly the general direction in which content providers are moving.

News flash:
“Repurposing” cannot be automated

Pundits seem already to have forgotten the Web when discussing the forthcoming mobile “revolution.” Back in the day, we had to invent entire systems to “repurpose” our “content” from “print” to “E.” The fact that, say, a magazine article ended its life as a Quark Xpress file did nothing to make it suitable for Web publication. An electronic format – seemingly the necessary and sufficient qualification for E-publishing – was neither necessary nor sufficient. Among many other things, a print file lacks hyperlinks and will severely mangle the obstacle-strewn and klugey process of specifying Web typography. (Give it a whirl yourself. Do a quickie HTML export from Microsoft Word. The clean-up checklist is two screens long.)

Even using macros, we had to personally supervise each and every conversion of hundreds of old word-processing files to HTML – and that was HTML 2.0, producing the plainest-Jane pages conceivable.

Others shared this pain, and sought help from content management. Entire such systems were spun off – into standalone companies with arrogance to match their billion-dollar valuations. “Vignette was created by CNet and spun off a while back as a stand-alone business. Vignette is not profitable and has not achieved widespread acceptance by any means. The problem with content management systems is that the needs of each organization are so different that an amazing amount of consulting... is needed to make the darn things work.” In other words, even publishing words and pictures that never existed anywhere but on modern computers cannot be automated.

(Further, the still-young history of content management boasts the coining of the most vulgar and distasteful word in the whole of the English language, “repurposing.”)

What’s the rush?

But having already tired of Web content, which hasn’t even reached the training-bra stage, let alone a first date, suddenly everyone is horny for wireless content. When will people learn?

This stuff will not lend itself to automation. You will need staff to supervise each and every conversion. You will be tempted to hire technician guys and 22-year-old poli-sci-graduate girls straight outta school. Big mistake: To do this properly requires an eye, which the kids, with their deceptively-attractive el-cheapo salaries, simply do not have.

And don’t try to take shortcuts. Even producing a mere text-only variant or printable variant of an item will not suffice for, say, a mobile phone, because the head of the page will be strewn with navigation links you cannot readily skip on a small screen.

Back with the propaganda:

Imagine you are a newspaper publisher and you want to reach other channels, such as WAP. What will become increasingly clear is that each channel has its own needs and prerogatives; you do not read content on a Web site or on a Palm in the same way that you do on a printed page. These problems will become even more clear as new broadband media becomes more widespread. So where is the market for new services? Pfeiffer Consulting anticipates an increasing need for specialized service providers to assist original content generators in adapting their content to each channel. “Content Managers” would become preferred partners in turning the raw content from the provider into a best-of-breed platform-specific experience.

(Except that the term “content manager” already has a meaning. We need to coin some other term. We’ve already gone down that path with Web log, the list of hits your site received recently, and Weblog, a page of daily links or diaries.)

We see an opportunity here for the age-old industries involved in old-media adaptation. We’re just going to broadly hint. But, as so often happens in the world of online content, this kind of content conversion requires taste and acumen.



Just a wee plugette here for our muckraking new article over at A List Apart: “Flash access: Unclear on the concept.” Macromedia is late to the party in making Flash accessibility. Are they too late altogether, and will hotshot young designer d00dz get the message anyway?

National content restrictions:
Heed the rule of law

The amoral, unprincipled demimonde of warez-ripping d00dz and Napster habitués was OUTRAGED! the other day when a French court ordered Yahoo to take technical steps to block U.S. “content” from French eyes. The content in question is any information about Nazi “memorabilia” (a bit too innocuous a word) that is up for auction or sale. (Apparently information about Nazi memorabilia in other contexts is permissible. Do we imagine Antiques Roadshow–style euphemisms, like “This armband, for appraisal purposes only, might fetch £2,500 at auction”?) In any case, it was a just decision.

We believe that a “freewheeling” Internet that ignores national borders is a nice enough thing and is quite desirable most of the time, but should not be depended on. How unfashionable, we know. It boils down to this:

  1. Content creators want national and international laws respected when it comes to, say, copyright.
  2. Laws preventing you from duplicating Yahoo’s homepage on your site infringe on your ability to express yourself through that means. Such laws are justified, John Perry Barlow notwithstanding, because the contexts in which you can give away your work and still make money off it are few and far between and need to be preserved by rule of law. (It is OK to voluntarily give away your work without expecting payment. If, however, you need the money to survive or simply want compensation for your effort, you’re going to need protection one way or another, either by the Mob or by Jack Valenti screaming in your opponent’s telephone handset or by copyright legislation.)
  3. Copyright laws also permit holders to limit the territories in which their works can be enjoyed. You can sell your novel in Italy but not in Spain if you hate the Spanish for some reason. It is occasionally annoying, particularly for Americans, to be unable to watch British TV shows, but that’s the way licensing works.
  4. Scope of copyright varies from nation to nation. For example, an author’s moral right (droit moral) is a serious point of contention in Europe (principally the U.K.), but much less important in Canada.
  5. Freedom of expression is limited everywhere in the world. Libel and slander laws are the most common entrenched limitations in the West. In that case, as in copyright protection, illegal expression (unauthorized duplication; libel; slander) might get you nailed.
  6. More benignly, opponents of censorship point out that, with sufficient warnings, a television program with violence, sex, nudity, or swearing (or atheism or homosexualism or paganism or vegetarianism or whatever else gets uptight right-wing Christian evangelicals even more uptight) can nonetheless go to air; it causes less harm to require you to choose to watch it or not than to squelch the free expression of the creator. Go ahead and write, direct, shoot, and sell your show; don’t expect us to watch it necessarily. You can push; we may nonetheless decline to pull.

Using these precedents and analogies, then, a law restricting the sale of Nazi memorabilia merely falls into this continuum of restrictions on the origination of content (Cf. free speech) and its reception (Cf. licensing laws). Your homepage or Internet service, domiciled outside France, may say whatever it wants about Nazi memorabilia. When it comes to France, however, you must comply with their laws. That is particularly true if you want their other laws to apply to you, like copyright protection.

You have a right to create your Nazi memorabilia site. France has a right to block it. While this may seem like stalemate, the rule of law is like that sometimes.

Before the Slashdot kidz get all high and mighty, note that we tolerate cross-border Internet restrictions only when they derive from laws. Individuals and companies should never try to restrict your viewing of their “content” by virtue of where you reside. (Or really, for any other reason, except perhaps paying a membership fee.)

Such actions, apart from being bad business, are governmental in scope. Individuals and corporations shouldn’t be finding you guilty of trespassing, theft, murder, or adultery, either. We have laws for that, too.

If you resent the stalemate and feel the laws are unjust, agitate for their repeal. North Korea, various Islamic countries, and China all come to mind. You have many options. Concerted civil disobedience is one form of agitation. A stinking-rich crybaby empire like Yahoo cannot, however, lay any moral claim to civil disobedience; all evidence shows that the portal juggernaut has simply filled 747s with lawyers and airlifted them to France, the standard modus operandi of the aggrieved corporation.

We see an undercurrent of juvenile peevishness in the entire case, with Jerry Yang blurting, in an imperious and indeed xenophobic and America-first manner, “We are not going to change the content of our sites in the United States just because someone in France is asking us to do so.”

Indeed, the U.S. constantly attempts to enforce its laws overseas. Remember the commando raid to capture alleged “terrorists”? The Motion Picture Assn. of America is a parallel U.S. government, and it has nearly unblemished success at frustrating other nations’ efforts to put their films first. U.S. cultural hegemony – the aptly-named military–industrial–entertainment complex – has been ongoing throughout the postwar era, and our American friends would like to see it continue. All of the above says nothing about international espionage and wiretapping (and the least said the better, given that France is an equal malefactor in that regard, and all the Western countries spy on each other, cooperatively or covertly).

But let any country attempt to enforce its own laws on its own soil, with any kind of effect in the United States, and the righteous indignation flows like treacle. Can you say “hypocrisy”? (The miniseries A Very British Coup documents exactly this phenomenon.)

This, by the way, is not a theoretical issue for us. Case in point? Showtime. Picture our surprise the other day when we tried to take a look at the Official Web Site™ for the upcoming series Queer as Folk (itself a remake of a U.K. series – national licensing, anyone?). Hailing that page from a Linux box domiciled in Canada produced this infuriating message:

We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States.

Evidently the system had done a quickie IP-address lookup and deemed us foreign. Checking the same page through another, rather more international provider (whom we won’t name, because we don’t want to queer it for everyone else using that service) loaded the page no problemo.

We have a hard time excusing this behaviour merely because it is analogous to international licensing laws. We were trying to learn about the program. We were not looking for the program itself. While artworks are artworks, the program is what’s commercially valuable, not the promotional site. Standard practice is to disseminate movie trailers as widely as possible, for example, but tightly control the movie itself.

Showtime failed in its efforts to keep information concerning its U.S.-only program out of our hands, but not for want of trying. We resent the attempt. If there were certain limits on “subsidiary” licensing of, say, copy, photos, or music that restricted them to the U.S., that’s one thing. (It’s inconceivable in a Web site, and it almost never happens anywhere else – Mystery Science Theater 3000 isn’t seen in Canada for reasons of rights clearances, and that’s the only example we know.)

A visitor assumed to be “foreign” might have been an American who is out of the country temporarily. Or maybe the visitor was trying to learn about the program before it airs in a second country (as it will in Canada; we certainly don’t trust Showcase’s site even to function, let alone tell us anything). An American resident might have signed up for hosting out of the country where it’s cheaper. In any event, you lose goodwill, which should not be underestimated online. (Think of Amazon’s Purchase Circles and the firestorm they produced.)

And in any event, as both the Showtime and Yahoo Nazi cases demonstrate, people will find a way around your restrictions. We just want Showtime to stop acting like a government with its own laws and Yahoo to stop acting like a government unconstrained by laws.

Christmas is an humbug.


Broadband celestial jukeboxen at Farmclub!

After months of trying, we still cannot figure out Farmclub. (Perverse corporate nomenclature: Jimmy and Doug’s

We read, way back in July, some kind of interview or other with Jimmy Iovine, an addled music-industry executive with a Cube and a Cinema Display who is breaking out the elastic bands to tie back his ponytail and get jiggy with the kids online:

If we don’t figure out this Internet space [sic] soon, we’re heading for trouble.... We need to move right now. I don’t mean tomorrow. I mean this second. If we do, there is an upside that is enormous. If we don’t, we’re going to see that what happened to the movie business is going to happen to us. Thin margins. If we don’t win this one, we deserve it.... [The] consumer is trying to tell us something. They enjoy music online. They’re telling us they want a new kind of access. Let’s give them what they want: real simple, real convenient. If we make the experience too difficult, they are going to go somewhere else and get it, somewhere where it’s easy.

Wow. Progressive. Gotta keep them margins up. (So much for “reaching the audience.”) And didn’t margins double back when CDs came into being?

Farmclub, however, is also a weekly television series and a record label. is repulsive. We have given it every single chance to redeem itself. The show tosses bones at eclecticism (the occasional R&B artist, a punk band), but all the show features are mooks: The Limp Bizkit/Korn/Kid Rock axis of déclassé trailer-trash noise, conjoined with the most gruesomely dumb-arsed variants of rap heard in 20 years. It’s vulgar in the wrong way, cheap without being fun, assaultive without a target for the assault; it lowballs the audience. We yearn for a musical variety show, and this ain’t it. (Guess which program came closest? Rita & Friends!)

On the Web, Farmclub invites you to upload your music. The value-adding features? You can search for bandmembers and musicians and DJs and MCs. And the Farmclub record label might sign you. Or you might make an appearance on

And did we mention that Edgar Bronfman handed over 25 million Amerikanski dollars for this venture? (Can you say “burn rate”?)

Why isn’t this working?

Categorizing music

Farmclub is staring down an intractable content-management problem. We tend to forget that “content” is intended for human enjoyment. You can hide that fact pretty thoroughly when your site is text-only (particularly if the text is mostly data or information rather than prose), but when it comes to music, the emotional component is paramount. And we can’t automate that yet.

Napster is a household word because you can download music that you already know about. You’re living in a dreamworld if you think people use online music services to discover new bands. (We’ve read this claim over and over again, sometimes even in legal defenses.)

You can’t even use such services to discover new bands who already have record contracts and are moderately famous. (You know about the Offspring, but how will you learn about Less Than Jake?)

Remember collaborative filtering? As epitomized by one of the more misguided Web sites of the mid-’90s, Firefly, you sit there and type in ratings for album after album after album (which you likely will never have heard, wasting your time as you watch Web pages slowly materialize over a 1996-era 28.8 modem) and the system will magically suggest other albums that, statistically, you are bound to like.

(“Name that tune, Mr. Spock!”)

In the pre-digital era, it was already difficult to broaden one’s musical horizons. Specialty television services and hideous computer-programmed radio formats gave the misleading impression that people really do have limited interests – country only or hiphop only, that sort of thing.

Well, give us five country fans who reject every other genre and, without even a Firefly-style interrogation, within five minutes we’ll have a list of bands that some of them hate, others like, and others love. Any kind of disagreement at all queers the whole system. (You might sit through a music video you don’t particularly like in the hopes of seeing one you do like later on, but you won’t buy the album!)

Gross categories have no bearing on listening enjoyment. And that’s what discovering new bands is all about.

How does this translate into online content?

The suits are right

Unfortunately, another Hindenburg of idealism must ignite and plummet to the ground. You need a record label to make it in the business. It can, however, be an indie label, and “making it” comes in different forms.

You cannot avoid “offline” promotion. It is the only way to sell records. Dress it up any way you want: Live gigs; music videos; articles in the music press (in the press, not on Web sites); somehow getting your records onto a film soundtrack (best-case scenario: High Fidelity). What spurs people to download your music online is knowing you offline. Period.

All Farmclub does is collapse the process a bit, removing a few ribs from the thoracic cage. Why are you uploading your music if not so you can get on TV? Why do you need to get on TV? It’s the fastest way to become known.

Face it: You’re not uploading your music so unnamed average people can listen to it. “Doing it for the exposure” is a myth, a self-delusion, when it’s not an active con.

Accordingly, we dismiss the entire premise of online music sites. Will the future prove us right? Is it true that online downloading will work only for already-famous bands?

In a word, yes.

And that’s not the half of it.

That pesky infrastructure

Charles C. Mann delivers a stunning, possibly deadly blow to the legitimate alternative concept of online music distribution: Subscription services. You pay a certain amount per month for all-you-can-eat access to a major label’s library. And oddly, the piece ran over at Inside, which itself is trying to prove that subscription models work.

In “The Hot New Bad Idea: The Celestial Jukebox,” Mann explains that it is pretty much technically impossible to serve music on demand.

That’s it. That’s one hell of a bowling ball knocking down the pins.

But there’s another problem: Small and mid-sized independent labels, and truly independent musicians, wouldn’t be included in any all-you-can-eat subscription service. That fact would eventually become known, and resentment of the major labels would replicate itself all over again. It would suddenly be impossible to find Green Day before they signed to a major, and it would also be impossible to find Stiff Little Fingers.

And if even one major label refused to sign on (entirely likely: We’re talking about getting North and South Korea at the same table here), the whole project is useless. A video store that stocks no movies from Disney is a video store no one shops at.

So how will it work?

We like the Offspring’s aborted approach: Give away an album and people will buy it.

Artistes should provide some kind of downloading, secure or otherwise. Content sites unrelated to music should license downloads, too: If Universal sells a day pass for US$3.95 and you only want one single, your content site could strike a wholesale deal with Universal and sell single downloads for £0.75.

There are a few options. But online music sites won’t do anything for undiscovered bands. Mark our words.

Coming soon: What’s wrong with official band Web sites?

See also: The Offspring: “You can always go on”; Chinks in the armour of the E-music war.


Lingua america

The other day, we lobbed a tiny bombshell at for a localization policy that flubs the details: The Japanese subsite is listed under As we described before, the approach is “We’ll work in your language, but only if you ask us in English first.”

What put the bee in our bonnet? If you set up a language indicator in anything but the target language, you’re not really serving that target audience. You’re scaring off the source audience, warning them of trouble ahead. We learned this from famed graphic-design blowhard Erik Spiekermann, whose firm, MetaDesign, redesigned a newspaper’s television listings. Spanish-language programs were denoted by S for Spanish. But “Spanish” in Spanish is español, which starts with E.

So if you mark a program with S, you’re warning anglophones away from the program. (“No way, man. It’s in Spanish.”) Mark it with E and you’re advertising it to espanophones.

Quickie guerrilla testing

So are we being hard on REI? Oh, a little. And we admit, it’s merely a detail.

But how are other sites handling the deceptively simple issue of language selection?

We covered the topic a few times before (first; second; third). So we did a quickie guerrilla usability analysis, rather like our small coterie of other quick hits.


  1. With a browser explicitly set to English defaults, with which language does the site greet us?
  2. How do we switch languages? Is it near the top or the bottom of the page (above or below the fold)?
  3. Once we switch languages, what residual words remain in other languages?

We looked at just a few candidate industries, like retailing and computers. The test was more or less realistic: Some surfers would not bother to set their browser language to something other than English, and we looked specifically at sites in multilingual nations. (Within reason. Do we expect Finnish corporate sites to provide Swedish or Sami content for those language minorities? How about the Chinese in Canada, which, actually, we could find a few examples of?)

The .com sites we explored are putatively international. Putatively.

  1. Wal-Mart, with stores in nine countries: English only, period
  2. L.L. Bean:
  3. Amazon
  4. Dell
    1. Canada
      • Canadian flag in upper left corner alongside (baseline-shifted up half a line). Greets in English
      • Screams “Welcome to Dell [tacky rotated red maple leaf]” near screen top, just above a choose-a-country pull-down menu. (The use of a Canadian flag is an American’s idea of internationalization, cognate with the practice of littering TV shows and movies shot in Canada with American mailboxes. In either case, it sticks out like a sore thumb.) Canada is preselected on the pull-down menu. Below it is the word “English” (underlined, but not a link) and French (sic – not Français, and it’s a link, but not underlined)
      • French page is completely in French, up to and including the link back to English, which, of course, is given as Anglais. (Now “Français” is underlined, but it’s not a link, either.) Same flag and in upper left corner, but without a baseline shift
    2. Belgium
      • Greets in Dutch. Same format as Canadian site, with flag in upper left and, in this case, baseline-shifted upward
      • Country and language selectors in same spots as Canadian site. French is given as Français
      • French page is wholly in French. Flag legend in upper left now becomes In other words, Dutch is the default language, and French is something unusual
    3. Switzerland
      • Greets in German. in banner
      • Now-familiar country and language selectors. French and English on offer. (English? Why not Italian?)
      • French and English pages wholly in those languages. They give the appearance of having less content than the German, but that merely reflects longer German sentences. French page places in header, English Again, German is the default and French and English are something unusual
  5. Ericsson
    1. Canada
      • Greets in English (and redirects you to a nation-specific URL, The greeting is bizarro – an image reading “Bienvenidos! Welcome! Bienvenue! This site will be serving all customers in Canada and the U.S. Update your bookmarks!” Apart from sounding like a Joel Grey number in Cabaret, why lead with Spanish? Why does the URL say /US-CA/ and not /MX-US-CA/?
      • No language selectors
      • English only
    2. Belgium
      • Greets with an oddball, blue-faded photo of a decidedly Dutch-looking man on a rocky outcropping fingering a mobile phone. Words are overlaid: “Nederlands/Français/English”
      • The entire compact page is a language selector, with additional text links under the photo
      • Dutch, French and English pages are a mishmash of target language and English product names and categories (along with “Newsroom” in all cases). It’s a rather Japanese-trendy or Eurotrash feel, where English loanwords are carpet-bombed for prestige value. (There aren’t Dutch and French translations for “network operations and service providers”?)
    3. Switzerland: Greets in English. Some German content in central window. No language selector. There is no subpage. Only a handful of words in German. Easily the most bizarre and anomalous “multilingual” site tested
  6. Apple
    1. Canada
      • Greets in English
      • French link at very bottom
      • French page entirely in French, but it doesn’t match the English: The centrepiece is different, and the what’s-new section is blank
    2. Belgium
      • Greets in Dutch
      • Pull-down menu as language selector. Default setting is, of all things, “Apple”
      • Dutch page entirely in Dutch (except for page footer, oddly). French page wholly in French, with footer in English save for one word
    3. Switzerland
      • Greets bilingually, with a mangled, overlapping image of words asking you to select a language
      • Bilingual pull-down menu whose default reads “Sprache/Langue”
      • German page is wholly in German (except for most of the page footer, yet again, and the page title: Since when do German-speakers call their country Switzerland?). French page is wholly Francized, with the same exceptions

Moral of the story

The right way to handle a multilingual site has been covered previously on the NUblog. For starters, read and respect the browser’s language settings. Permit language selection in the target languages right up at the top of the page. The resulting pages should be rendered wholly in that language.

Not very difficult. Tedious, and strewn with little details to mess up, but not difficult. Still, no one gets it entirely right. Some American retailers get it spectacularly wrong.

We like the Ericsson Belgium approach: We will not assume which language you want. (It’s the most conservative approach; the site should have read our language preference.) The house of cards falls down in inside pages. Dell’s translations are the most thorough: You never have to be reminded that the company is based in Austin, Texas. We still cannot figure out what was going on with the Apple page footers, which could never decide what language they were using.

Note that local subsidiaries of the same multinational never did the same thing. Even the Apple look and feel, which is supposedly standardized, falls down in details. It falls down in intelligent ways in some cases, as in Switzerland’s, which overrides Cupertino diktats in order to serve its bilingual populace.

Who’s at fault?

Whom do we blame for this? (Blame is necessary to improve the Internet.) Clueless unilingual managers; restrictive corporate-identity programs dreamed up by unilinguals; Web-design shops selling “strategy” and not content and flash (sometimes with a majuscule) rather than worldliness, sophistication, and literacy of many kinds.

Of course, the Internet is run by Americans, and, on the whole, Americans do not care about languages other than American. We are under no illusions that conditions will improve markedly. Not even Christmas cheer is enough to temper our experience here.

Further testing

We get a lot of readers here. Many of you work in big Web shops. You probably wouldn’t keep coming back if you didn’t agree with us half the time.

So do your own testing. Look at some of your fave multinationals. If your firm is or does work for such juggernauts, take a few minutes and surf the “international” sites. Even if you don’t understand the language, you’ll spot little mistakes in seconds. Your mission, then, will be to do something about them. Let us know how it goes.