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February 2001

(2000.12, 11, 10, 09, 08, 07, 06, 05, 04

See also: Special reports on moguls and megalomania | Olympix

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Recent links

Oh, just a couple of links we’ve run across:

  1. There’s now an entire Weblog on internationali{s,z}ation/locali{s,z}ation: Liga. It’s still pretty new. We’ll see how it goes. Certainly we couldn’t be working in a more ironically-named field. Why is “abbreviation” such a long word? Why are both “internationalization” and “localization” spelled two different ways in national English variants, and why are they so long they are given their own postal-code-like abbreviations, i18n and l10n? We lay odds that Jim Carroll won’t be along for this ride.
  2. It probably bores your arse off even to consider it, but character encoding is an eternal bugbear in Web content – in languages other than English, anyway. (If all you ever write are the characters visible on an American computer keyboard, skip this section.) Eventually you’re going to have to deal with writing a zed with an acute accent or differentiating a beta from an estset. The place to start is chez Jukka Korpela. He writes English in that very restrained and correct way Nordic second-language learners do, and his vast network of pages will teach you more in less time than you could ever imagine. One problem: His main site just got nuked by his former employer. There are now three mirror sites (first, second, third). The piece on character encoding is here.
  3. Apparently there’s some kind of multilingual HTML editor for Macs called Muwse (perverse Japanese orthography). It requires a vast array of installed language kits to work properly. And in practice, few sites, if any, require mixed Japanese and Arabic on the same page.


Links as content

Pssst is a French-language technology Weblog after the manner of Marginally entertaining. Rather a lot of the links lead to Multimédium.

An interview with one of Pssst’s founders (you know it hurts us to use any word with three consecutive letters) explains the core of the Weblog phenomenon. (Weblog in French is webabillard, apparently.)

Q. Qu’est-ce qui différencie les webabillards des médias traditionnels?

A. La principale différence, c’est l’hypertextualité du média... Dans Pssst, la nouvelle, c’est le lien; le contenu est ailleurs. L’éditorial n’est pas dans le commentaire, il est dans le lien. Avouons que c’est aussi moins d’efforts pour les collaborateurs, donc que c’est moins d’efforts de contribuer beaucoup et souvent! Ça, c’est très Internet: c’est gratifiant pour les collaborateurs et intéressant pour les lecteurs.

We provide this snippet, of course, after kvetching out a consultant on localization. Well, science is supposed to be unified, isn’t it?


Stick to English, Jim

Bitter, bitter, bitter. That’s all we are these days. We have a policy, here at the red-hot NUblog, of refusing to name commentators cited en passant in stories quoted here. (We simply remove the name. Author bylines are preserved.) If they’re famous and established enough to get quoted, they don’t need our help, and the number of consultants we’ve encountered with more than a petri dish of brain cells to rub together is one: Ian Angus of Angus Telemanagement. (Knocks against Ian: Omnipresent in Canadian media. Web site demands Java and frames.) And “analysts” are all in thrall to Microsoft in one way or another.

The most famous Internet consultant in Canada, Jim Carroll, banged out a column off the top of his head for a BellGlobeMedia property yesterday. His topic? Multilingualism online. Ever heard the axiom “a little knowledge is dangerous”?

[C]orporations that plan to do business worldwide will find they need multiple versions of their Web site. For an example of what major companies are doing, look at Microsoft, which has done a tremendous job at providing “localized” Web sites. (Visit Belgium and its neighbours at for an example.)

Oh, dear. The Benelux site is in fact not even remotely localized; it is the Dutch Microsoft site, speaks to you only in Dutch, and, very far down on the page, provides a link to As far as Microsoft is concerned, operating system equals browser and Benelux equals Netherlands. So much for the Be and Lux.

The issue of how to install support for different language character sets is a bit beyond the scope of this column. Suffice to say it can be fairly easy. Just click on “View,” then “Encoding,” and you’ll be led through a process by which you can install what is needed.

Love those assumptions, Jim!

De toute façon, we gather that Jim was too busy recommending Microsoft “solutions” to his clients to read even our intro course in corporate Web localization. We love it when Internet experts get all excited over the multilingual Web. Even though they can’t tell good from bad.

And did we mention Jim’s miserably slow-loading, buggy, standards-flouting, Java-applet-laden personal site?

Stick to English, kiddo.

Jaron Lanier
is so adorable!

What’s not to like about Jaron Lanier? The musician/intellectual grates rather less than the hoi polloi he hobnobs with over at

Anyway, we loved the dreadlocked one-man thinktank’s futurist interpretation of a world with no Napster, or, more accurately, a word in which file sharing is outlawed. “If we make Napster-like free file sharing illegal, we’ll have to rid ourselves of either computers or democracy. You can’t have both.” Ah, yes, the slippery slope. Always good for a self-limiting, tendentious, overweening, unintentionally humorous argument.

The punchline? He’s probably right! God love ’im.

The cost of community-building

We slogged through a long (self-limiting, tendentious, overweening) article over at one of our nominal competitors, the one with the sexy, rolls-off-the-tongue name of, on community-building. The grand conclusion? “The biggest expense is in managing a community, not building one.” (But, hey, weren’t we just told that infrastructure costs more than content? Maintaining infrastructure also has to cost more.)

Oh, but here’s the part we really loved.

Community doesn’t mean either audience or user-generated content Just to be sure were all talking the same language, let’s not confuse community with user-generated content. They can be connected, but theyre separate things. Nor should we confuse community with audience, because audiences are passive observers, but community members are active participants.

If community doesn’t mean “user-generated content,” then members of that “community” are indeed “passive observers,” making them an “audience.”

Community always involves user-generated content. What the authors seem to believe is that only articles or features constitute content. (Not the approach, shurely?!) Well, hey, replies count, too.

While briefly mentioning mailing lists (mostly to slag them as overabundant), the whole article revolves around Web “boards.” How 1997.


Pipes earn more than water

Andrew Odlyzko writes, over at First Monday, “Content is not king.” And he proves it, demonstrating that spending on infrastructure vastly trumps spending on content.


Yeah? And?

Even the $5 cover price of the Sunday New York Times doesn’t remotely begin to represent the true cost of production. True content is always subsidized and is grossly overshadowed by the costs involved in getting the medium to you. People are shocked that the graphic-design magazine Eye costs $35 an issue. But that is probably how much it actually costs to produce. The fact that we can cite precisely one case of true user pay should tell you something.

Odlyzko explains further that people use telephones, even 3G cellphones, to chitchat rather than to surf. Yes. We knew that, too.

We look at Odlyzko’s article as comprehensive documentation of a phenomenon everyone should accept as inherently true – once it’s brought up, anyway, even in cocktail-party conversation. Obviously the medium costs more than the message. It’s the sort of thing that’s self-evident as soon as someone points it out to you. (“Oh, right. I knew that.”)

What Odlyzko fails to explore is the converse: The feeling people have that individual increments of bits should not cost so much. Your cellphone should not ding you 15p a minute, because you know perfectly well it isn’t costing the telephone company 15p to hold a circuit open for you. Early record-company experiments in online downloading, where singles were offered for $2.95 apiece (pushing the price of the equivalent of a CD to $36), were universally rejected because everyone knows there aren’t 295¢ of infrastructure involved in delivering a single single. (The big publishers are recapping the same mistake by pricing E-books the same as their print forebears [NUblog passim].)

The question, then, becomes one of elasticity. What is the proportion of cost to items received that people will accept as fair?

If you make something affordable and reasonably priced, will people be less likely to steal it?

Probably not. Probably not online. That theory works fine in real life, where razors other than the Gillette Mach III are racked like regular merchandise by Mach IIIs are kept nearly under lock and key. Or take the case of Zip discs: One store we know put out 100 Zip discs for sale one day and ended up with 20 left on the pile at close of business. Fully 15 had been legally sold. In the real world, you know a product is overpriced if people steal it more often than buy it.

Online, that doesn’t really work, but we nonetheless find some vestige of that elasticity, which rests at the core of the ongoing dilemma “How do we get people to pay for what they’re now accustomed to getting for free?” Damned if we know.

If we’re rambling here, well, give us a break. We just finished slogging through Odlyzko’s article, which could not possibly have been set up worse for online reading (NUblogs innumerably passim).

Attitude queens:
A story of failure

What hath content wrought? This accursed Weblog, among other things.

We gave birth to the NUblog, as if parthenogenetically, in April 2000. We have since written something like 180 articles with 800-odd external links. Such an œuvre exceeds even the requirements of daily-newspaper reporters, who rarely actually have to report daily in the newspaper.

Where, exactly, has it gotten us? Another day older and deeper in debt.

We’ve had something like 30,000 NUblog page views. Am I Hot or Not? gets ten million a day.

Hey, man. We’re on to something here. Majorly.

We’ve produced good work, established a delightfully acid and arch new voice, and offered a very large resource for anyone who wants to avoid making mistakes in online content. Further, we’ve given away valuable content concepts – happily so, in fact.

And it has pretty much gotten us nowhere. A couple of dozen fan E-mails. (The latest: “I love it. I think you are doing some of the finest, most thoughtful, articulate and literate stuff on the Web. It’s a great site.”) Effectively no hatemail, a lifetime first. (Quite literally, we cannot walk down the street without eliciting a comment. Once a week, anyway. Usually related to a hat of some kind.) We’ve earned, in essence, the respect of enough of our colleagues to populate a symphony orchestra, with Metallica standing in for rest of the Web.

Indeed. The rest of the Web. Layoffs notwithstanding, it’s doing nicely, don’t you think? Full employment for strumpets and milquetoasts who don’t know how to turn off HTML in their Microsoft Outlook or even why that would be necessary, and unlimited use of the company espresso machine for ad-agency executives for whom moving to “interactive” was “a natural.”

What of Well, we have the satisfaction of being right, but none of the satisfaction of having clients.

We don’t suffer fools gladly, we are told. We are not corporate types, we are repeatedly told. Yet these admonitions do not begin to explain the wholesale drought in the content business. Our content business, the only one that matters. In short, we cannot possibly be that acid and arch. Something else must be going on, as one informant has hammered home on ever so many occasions.

We don’t know what that is. Months ago we gave up all but the thinnest onionskin layers of pretense that we produce the NUblog for any reason other than public service. (We really mean that. We are attempting to add to the extent of human knowledge, using a new medium to spotlight itself.) Habit, too. Keeping up appearances.

It isn’t true that our site’s homemade design (which nonetheless works better than any Web shop’s Flash site, complies with HTML standards, is accessible, offers full archives, and so on and so on) acts as a foghorn that warns schooners laden with gold bullion away from the treacherous shores of our sharp tongues. Our favourite other small-time consultancy, WebWord, is even more graphically and technologically primitive than our site, and Mr. WebWord himself, John S. Rhodes, is thriving over there in metropolitan Ithaca. (We’ve spoken with John about the relative merits of sexy Web design. We are not talking out of church here. There is something of a mutual admiration society between us.)

We don’t know what’s wrong, but whatever has been wrong continues to be, with no end in sight. Eventually we’re going to give up. The trigger will be found in our personal lives, and someone already has a finger wrapped around it ready to squeeze.

We’ll keep on keeping on for a while yet. But in one readily anticipated future scenario, this and related sites get taken down while we fight for simple existence.

This is not a veiled call for clientele. We know the meaning of the term “lost cause.” Clientele prefers other consultancies. We are but lambs sacrificed on the altar of free markets, and we’re fine with that. We are simply tired of pretending to be successful. We’re all sorts of other things, but not that. Not yet.

In other news, AOL still bites.

We love the dapper, arch, erudite Michael Wolff, media critic for some rag or other (actually, New York). Beautiful article on how famous people congregate, how normal they seem among each other, and why. (Fame requires you to watch from the outside in, nose pressed to glass. When famous people “hang,” are they actually doing that?) Wolff, of course, wrote Burn Rate, the memoir of his own online failures that itself bashes AOL into a pulp in the most genteel and respectable way possible.

Wolff has, however, recently put his foot in it. In an interview, he says:

Online, megalomania equates with hubris, and hubris invites retribution. Think small, work smart, and hire just the right number of staff and you’ll make it.

And if you blow it, write a book. After all, Michael Wolff did.

(Oddball coincidence: We once wrote an article for a company<slash>magazine Wolff founded, NetGuide, on the topic of online music communities. Ahead of our time, as usual. We doubt this constitutes a conflict of interest.)

It’s the Bash AOL Show!

Gerald Ford was a comedian’s dream: He couldn’t walk to the presidential bathroom without face-planting.

Brian Mulroney was a caricaturist’s dream: His chin jutted out enough to sub in for the nose cone of an ICBM. (Final scene of Dr. Strangelove, anyone?)

Meanwhile, Turner CNN Time AOL Warner Brothers is a dream come true for a Kontent Kurmudgeon™. They can’t do anything right – and they do it wrong in such entertaining ways! A new faceplant every single day!

Stop making sense!

We’re still not understanding what the hell CNN is doing with its interactive division. Technically, it is being shitcanned in favour of “integrating” the “interactive” producers into the soporific news juggernaut’s main operations. (Not the “real” operations, shurely?!) This article isn’t making any sense at all.

The division not only is being gutted by staff cuts of roughly 25 percent, it is essentially being dismantled as control of the Web sites moves to the television networks.... Instead, each network general manager will be responsible for both broadcast and interactive programming, with a senior executive in charge of interactive matters for each network.

So mid-level managers have to handle everything, but the “senior executive” can ignore half of it.

“You will always have television producers producing television and interactive producers producing interactive. It’s the way in which they work together in managing the news and info and stories that come in from the field that’s the real true test.” [...] But [some professor] worries that the moves, especially the loss of an interactive evangelist..., could end up compromising interactive journalism at CNN. “It’s still so new that many of the traditional people don’t have appreciation or understanding of what can be done in an interactive environment. It can become an afterthought.”

An insider tells us that TV people do TV and Web people do Web, while an outside critic complains that the TV people don’t know what the Web can do. Isn’t the latter a conseqence of the former?

Specialization is preferable, as we described before. The Web staff won’t need to learn anything about TV, because they grew up with it. If, however, CNN deploys combined TV/Web/radio/print reporting teams on major events, then by simple virtue of driving there in the same vans everyone’s going to pick up the feel of the other media.

On the whole, maintaining separate “interactive” divisions makes little sense in a unified conglomerate like AOL Time Warner CNN Turner ICQ. Maintaining separate functions while people work in close proximity makes tons of sense.

The Georgians like to think they aren’t as airy-fairy as the media elites on the Coasts. OK, prove it. Act like a family with a mixture of kids born to the parents and adopted. You may not look alike, but you all sign your homework assignments with the same last name.

AOLTV, an eWorld manqué

We just love to bash AOLTV. By all reports – all reports – the TV/Web set-top box is substantially worse than anyone could have dared expect.

And we love that about it! Anything that hastens the demise of convergence is OK in our books.

The latest nails in the coffin? Edmund Sanders:

I found AOLTV to be a pretty cold and lonely place. Despite numerous attempts to make human contact, I never found anyone else out there. Granted, the service, which launched last summer, is still fairly new. And AOL won’t say how many people have signed up, so the number must be embarrassingly small....

An online poll asks, “Who’s the best male actor?” Just how lonely is AOLTV? Including my own vote, there were a whopping two responses to that question. Frequently, however, these channels didn’t live up to their own hype. “Is your favorite musician on TV? AOLTV Music can tell you.” But apparently, it couldn’t, because nothing happened when I clicked the box several times. “Will there be any surprises at playoff time? Join this chat.” I was transported to a chat room – all by myself.

Anyone remember eWorld, the AOL manqué that barely anyone subscribed to? (We did. “When you’re alone and life is making you lonely, you can always get the hell out of eWorld.”) AOLTV is the new eWorld.

Technology buffs, who hate everything AOL does anyway, predictably will be disappointed by the lack of advanced options and the sluggishness with which the interface moves. [...] Once set up, AOLTV takes control of the set. A translucent AOL logo appears at the top of the screen at all times. More disturbingly, the system reorganizes all the TV channels. Rather than numerical order, channels are arranged by topic, such as movies, networks, kids and family, sports, shopping and news. [... E]ach time users surf past one of the AOL program-guide channels (and they are hard to avoid), the TV screen shrinks to make room for updated data and the whole system gets hung up for 10 to 20 seconds. That’s an eternity to a channel surfer just quickly flipping through to see what’s on. Invariably, I kept clicking the channel button impatiently during the delay, which only resulted in a subsequent explosion of channels zipping by as AOLTV tried to catch up. Consumers may be willing to wait for a Web page to load. But waiting for a TV channel to change is excruciating.

And, as we documented previously, when you dial up one channel, AOLTV may give you another – a channel Turner AOL CNN Warner owns.

CompuServe Time CNN Warner AOL Brothers simply cannot make up its mind whether divergent media genres should be unified or separated. The party line is “unified,” but troubling murmurs of dissent keep burrowing to the surface (as we see in the CNN example), while AOLTV manages to make AOL and TV notably worse than they already are.

Netscape, a Pathfinder manqué

We defend Pathfinder, the failed early Time Warner online portal. Why? Shovelware has its place.

If you use the term archive rather than shovelware, doesn’t it make ever so much more sense? It’s so much sexier and more monetizable, isn’t it?

Admittedly, a “repurposed” magazine article will lack all the nice links and also all the telegraphic writing style the caterwauling critics of online reading demand, but sometimes all you’re actually looking for is a magazine article. Is that so wrong?

Anyway, ICQ Turner AOL Warner Time plans to breathe life into one of its many neglected divisions, Netscape, by smothering it with other neglected divisions. New Turner Line AOL Time CompuServe hereby recapitulates the Queer, Spazz & Retard Theory of High-School Athletics: Pile the losers together. (Who are the last kids to get picked for the team? It isn’t just the quiet artsy boys or the kids with LD or the Gerald Fords. It’s a tie for last place!)

Allegedly: “will be a hub for Time Warner content. It’s been touted around internally,” said a source in Netscape who requested anonymity. Netscape executives are also considering renaming the Web site once it inherits AOL Time Warner’s content, but they have not decided on a new name, according to one source close to the company. Just a few months ago, Netscape dropped “Netcenter” from its name; now it simply calls the Web site “Netscape.”

Now, back in the day, Pathfinder worked because it was born into the world to be nothing but a content portal. Netscape has been adrift for years – human years, Internet years, dog years. You can download a browser (if you can find the links) and check your snatchmail and read syndicated Reuters headlines. Of course, the only reason you’d visit Netscape in the first place is if your browser takes you there automatically as its default homepage. It has all the allure of cauliflower soup.

If CNN AOL funnels Time SI People Fortune content into Netscape, the only readers who will understand what the hell is going on are those in the media industry themselves. (Incestuous!) Real people don’t know that Time and AOL are the same company. It will never occur to them that the new Netscape is the source for combined content. Why? People don’t want combined content. (In a searchable archive, yes. As a destination, no.)

And that will still be the case if the site’s name changes from Netscape. (Changed to what? Pathfinder? Nissan would object.) If the name changes, where do you go to download Netscape 6?

Are you as confused as we are? What is going on here?

We’d do it this way:

We give away gold here. We give away gold.


Well, we ran across one of those periodic what’s-goin’-on-with-online-newspapers reviews the other day. Half of the advice applies equally to portals, which, as you know already, we pretty much hate.

“This has been an industry that has been based on me-tooism and fads,” [a commentator] said. “Whenever someone did something, everyone else had to do it. When anyone spent money, even too much money, everyone else had to do it.” [...] “Five years ago, so many consumer-targeted Web sites imagined being almost everything,” [an executive] continued. “Everyone imagined they could sell cars, have auctions, be an E-commerce player and change the way you invited people to parties – all at once.”

Specialize, for heaven’s sake.

[N]ewspaper sites offer a better sense of who the audience is than Web portals with great amounts of traffic.... “What we like to do, especially for direct marketing clients,” [an ad agent] said, “is to track the quality of audience – what leads are generated, who turns into sales. Newspaper sites give us more qualified leads or sales than other sources.” Compared with all-sports sites and most search engines, “the news does wind up pulling ahead in terms of response rates and quality of audience,” she said.

Of course. Visitors of newspaper sites can at least read and write, while frequenters of “all-sports sites” and search engines have vocabularies limited to “XFL,” “Britney Spears,” and “hot lesbo action.”

Does interface boil down to logos?

You’re not going to believe this, but corporate logos are absolutely the least important feature of “branding” and “identity.” They should also be the last thing designed in a new identity program.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it?

OK. How many companies do you like?

How many of their logos can you draw freehand? We’d wager it boils down to FedEx (don’t you use the mail more often?), VW (do you own one?), Apple (do you own a Mac?), and maybe Michelin (aren’t your tires Bridgestones?). The Nike Swooshtika, probably.

Recollection of logos has little to do with present-day business use. How often do you buy a Mac or a Passat? How often do you change your tires? You merely remember their logos because they are longstanding and well-deployed.

But those are rather the exception, aren’t they?

What’s the logo of your supermarket? How about the manufacturer of your car stereo? What is the logo on your milk carton?

Apart from Kiss, can you think of even five musical groups whose logos you can draw from memory?

How about cinema? Give us five movies you’ve seen in the last year that can even be summed up in a logo.

Let’s give you a bit more education here. A logo that consists purely of a word (FedEx’s is an example) is actually a logotype. A logo that is largely pictorial, like Apple’s, is a logo proper.

Why can’t you remember many logos? Because most logos are actually logotypes. We doubt you can differentiate Univers, Helvetica, and Arial. Just how are you going to remember even five different logotypes? How do you draw them?

Logos per se stand in for words in many cases. (In countries with poor literacy, colouration and photographs on product labels are used to differentiate brands.) We could run a test of logo recognition by slapping, say, a Volkswagen circle on a PowerBook, and an Apple with a bite taken out of it on a Jetta. You’d notice something amiss immediately.

But it’s hard to test logotype recognition. What are you going to do? Switch fonts? Screw the letters up? Switch to Greek?

In short, then, people say logos are important, but that is because (a) logotypes are less iconic and harder to describe and reproduce despite being vastly more commonplace and (b) that’s what people think you want to hear.

Now, then. On the Web, are logos even more important? A questionable study says yes.

Following up on an earlier investigation, a not-very-new report (summarized here) states that what stuck in people’s minds as differentiators of one site versus another was one simple thing; Logos. Subjects were shown Web pages and asked to tell the researcher if the page was from the same site as the preceding page or represented a new site. The old research found eight factors by which people would differentiate sites, but seven of those were toast in the new study.

After making a judgement, the participants were asked to tell which of the eight dimensions most affected their judgments. For both experienced and inexperienced users, “logo” was the primary dimension used. Even though the subjects in the first experiment tried to identify why they had made their judgements, seven of their eight within-page dimensions seemed to have little, or no, actual impact on the decisions being made. (Test participants frequently try very hard to satisfy testers with logical, but meaningless, explanations for their performance.)

Right. And test participants know that logos exist, and that they have a nice name with an internal rhyme. Of course they’re going to tell you logos are important.

What were the other seven “dimensions”?

  1. Background color and/or background pattern of a page
  2. Company or organization logo or symbol
  3. Font style used and its characteristics (size, color, bold, italics, etc.)
  4. Location of the table of contents on each page (left, right, top or bottom)
  5. Organization of text and graphics on a page
  6. Style of graphics used in pictures, banners and illustrations
  7. Subject-matter of the Web page
  8. Title or heading at the top of the page

Note that none of those can be summed up in a nice two-syllable word. And what are we missing here? Content. (A nice two-syllable word, albeit lacking internal rhyme.)

If you ask people to explain what separates two sites, might they not fall back on a word they already know, one that represents a concept they think is always a differentiator?

In usability testing, it’s common to run site prototypes by test subjects using no actual body copy or images (which could be blurred in the prototype). All the navigational and “branding” elements, like text and image links, could be in place, using real words or “Greeked” text. The subjects’ mission is to tell the researcher which of these elements is the search box, the link to the homepage, a link to the next page in a series, that sort of thing.

The present study appears to have done much the same. Subjects were presented, presumably, with content sites (as opposed to service sites like search engines), but were denied access to the actual content. How so? “The participants were shown the Web pages one at a time for about 20 seconds.” Very experienced Web-surfers can chew through the meat of an entire page in less time than that. But those surfers typically ignore everything else on the page. In this experiment, the subjects were clearly expected to consider everything on a page.

If you had to look at everything on a typical commercial Web page, could you figure it all out in 20 seconds?

When asked whether or not that page represented a new site or the same site as before, are you going to futz around trying to put concepts like “font style used and its characteristics (size, color, bold, italics, etc.)” into words or are you just going to say “The logo was different”?

A useful new experiment would test personality and point of view as differentiating factors. It might not be so hard. License segments of short stories from authors with divergent styles – Martin Amis, Will Self, Peggy Atwood, Mark Leyner. Using exactly the same page designs, show different segments for 20 seconds each. Can the subjects tell you if the author has changed?

Snatchmailed news

Did you know you can E-mail news articles from Yahoo?

We didn’t, either. (But we’ve been E-mailing articles to ourselves for the better part of a decade. You know how news articles expire after a while? You have a few choices: Save as text, save as HTML, or mail them to yourself using Lynx. There’s no excuse to lose things. The last option is, however, the easiest, producing a well-formatted plain-text variant complete with hyperlinks. Storing news articles in your E-mail makes them easy to find. But we digress.)

Apparently, snatchmailing news articles is so hot! hot! hot! that Yahoo lists the Most-Emailed Content (orthography sic).

Fun, huh? Sometimes it’s good to be reminded that online content and Web content are not the same thing. Remember, if the Web died tomorrow, most of us would stay online. E-mail is the lifeline; Web sites are not.

“Provisional But Forever”

We have run across a quite long and not at all Web-like article (all the more reason to like it!) that originates a new way of looking at modifications and copyright. To the age-old question “Don’t I have to pay Jack Valenti to caption Shakespear in Love and post it on the Web?” the answer, from Kevin Carey of a U.K. organization called humanITy (love the capitals), is “You’re asking the wrong question.”

As far as Carey is concerned, we need a new way to authorize and pay for future modifications of an artwork when those modifications are necessitated by a change in audience (e.g., suddenly you want to air Coronation Street in Italy) or medium (Webcasting Coronation Street). In “Provisional But Forever: Two Faces of Internet Publishing,” Carey spits out gem after gem after gem, like a South African diamond-smuggler.

This Carey guy rocks pretty hard, doesn’t he?

He’s missing a few points. Elsewhere, he complains that rightsholders demand renegotiation for every subsequent technology. Well, that may be true after the rightsholder has extorted full rights from the creator, but not otherwise.

What happened to the other half? Ethically, it’s yours, but the publisher extorted all rights and can do what it wants.

Fair-dealing provisions (and, in the U.S., fair use, which is notably different) already allow you do to things like add hyperlinks. It comes under the rubric of “review and commentary.”

But in any event, a clarion call from Carey. You read about it here first. And, if experience is any guide, last.

Further death knell for portals

You probably read that Michael Eisner shut down its useless portal Like we care.

But the man at least tells it like it is.

Seventy percent of the advertising for portals is going to the top three players. The 10 second-tier portals are left picking up the scraps.

Feature parity does nothing. Interchangeable portals are just that: Interchangeable. Except no one buys ten different brands of interchangeable products.

A further death knell for portals. Would they hurry up and die already?


Stepping boldly into the year 2000

Why,” you may ask, “are you so damn quiet about Plastic?” The reference, of course, is to the newfangled group Weblog from Automatic Media (NUblog passim) that makes the existing Weblog A-list look like steerage class on a prewar ocean liner.

Well, weeks of negotiations with Automatic Media potentates have resulted in an accord to answer one question at a go by snatchmail, with a promise of extensive delays. We are experiencing the first such delay. Welcome to Internet time.

What’s the issue? Famous people acting like established Internet concepts are their own idea.

More on Plastic in due course. We have another example to look at.

Twee milquetoast house organ Slate (NUblog passim) has embarked on a grand Experiment in Longform Cyberjournalism.

The brutal fact is that for nonessential reading, people for some reason still prefer curling up with paper and ink to sitting upright in front of a computer screen.... Being on a computer screen is actually an advantage in attracting readers at work, who seem to prefer not to be seen curled up with a paper magazine--whatever their preference in the privacy of their own homes.

Well, which is it? People prefer to read for pleasure on paper or onscreen? (Both, clearly. That’s why even we offer printable versions.)

One form of magazine journalism seems especially resistant to the Web. That is the long, reportorial piece like those published in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, and the New York Times Magazine. If people are reluctant to read a 1,200-word article on a computer screen, expecting them to read 5,000 or 12,000 words on a screen seems especially hopeless. And arbitrarily chopping a long article into shorter “pages,” as many sites do, isn’t much of an improvement.

Oh, this is rich!

Those of us who’ve been online longer than the advertising executives who received their first porno spam way back in 1998 will of course recall Slate’s original design, which divvied up articles into chunks navigable by page numbers. Yes, page numbers, so help us God, with no table of contents, no subtitles for the resulting jump pages (as they’re known in the print biz) so you’d know which section was next, no nothin’. It was such a wholesale recapitulation of the print medium – which of course was all the twee milquetoast organ could possibly relate to – that even Jakob Nielsen dissed it.

Can you say revisionism?

And anyway, it is untrue that people won’t read long articles online. We’ve explained already how to present such texts in a readable manner, and have even refuted the complaints of a site’s unreadability posted by its own editor. One way is indeed to break things up. Another is to provide a printable version, which itself is usually easier to read onscreen (fewer ads, simpler layout, easier to futz with font sizes). Guess what? Slate does both.

It gets better. The New Yorker’s long-delayed Web site is forthcoming in weeks, apparently. Two of the august periodical’s star writers, Malcolm Gladwell and Rebecca Mead, run their own Web sites featuring longform “content.” The Atlantic is online. So is the Times Book Review.

Which part of all this isn’t working, again?

Instead of doing all his reporting and then composing a long article, [some writer] will file dispatches, which we will post immediately, as he goes about his research. The readers will be able to follow the reporter as he gathers and analyzes his material, and we have no more idea than you do about where the story will lead him or how it will come out. When he is done, if it works, the entire article will be published as an E-book. In fact, we hope that readers will actually help put the story together by supplying information... and by engaging and helping the author to refine his arguments. Call it “transparent journalism.”

Or, better yet, impatiently mutter “It’s been done.”

We will commend Slate for doing one thing right: Listening to readers. A typical newspaper mistake is to post an article and encourage the rabble to talk about it in that magical panacea of community-building, “discussion boards” (NUblog passim). Problem? The author of the story rarely, if ever, joins in the fray, and whatever discussion takes place on the “boards” is completely ignored by the publication, except of course if you swear or utter a remark that offends the sensibilities.

Here Slate intends to use readers as sources, which they are anyway. It’s nice to have everything upfront. Indeed, Slate is all chuffed at its bravery, as though it were some kind of high-school student in 1980 who dares to wear a pink triangle to school.

Would even the most scrupulous and fair-minded reporter... want his sources to know his thoughts, strategies, hopes, tentative conclusions before he even talked with them, or indeed before they even have decided whether to cooperate? [...] Would the typical source want the journalist/interviewer to be able to read his or her mind? Would either party in any transaction, commercial or emotional or any other sort, not feel disadvantaged by having his or her thoughts one-sidedly exposed on the Web?

[Sigh] Is there some kind of satellite delay up in Redmond? Opening yourself up is what the Internet makes you do. It is quite simply impossible to keep secrets online – if you have any kind of presence at all, that is. (If you merely own an E-mail address but don’t run homepages, that’s a different story. Then again, if your address is, how many secrets are you managing to keep?)

Online media force you to express things you would never express any other medium. Back in 1994 (nineteen ninety-four, OK?), we wrote about this in the Toronto Star:

In the winsome 1992 film The Waterdance, Eric Stoltz portrays a writer recovering from a paralyzing spinal injury. His girlfriend, played by Elizabeth Dennehy, is married to another man. She visits Stoltz in the hospital one day armed with an (ancient) Macintosh Portable, ostensibly so he can keep writing while recuperating. Immediately he types out:

– how often do you fuck him when you see him?

She’s a bit surprised, but Stoltz eggs her on and she types back,

– Every hour on the hour.

– so there are problems in the bedroom.

– Why are you pursuing this?

– because, before, you said you were going to leave him.

– It’s not so simple.

– now, you mean.

– Then. And now. I love you both.

– bullshit. you can’t love two people at once.

– I do.

– well make up your fucking mind.

This little scene cannily illustrates how rules governing what you can and cannot say – rules at play in human discourse even if we’re not conscious of them – are apt to change when the computer is the medium of communication. Stoltz and Dennehy would never have spoken the words they typed out. At the same time, the immediacy of the computer transforms the written word into a form of dialogue that postal letters couldn’t emulate. The computer gave the words emotional distance, but that distance, ironically enough, encouraged them to use emotional words.

Journalists are not special. The vaunted distance between Unbiased Sojourner of Truth and mere “sources” can and will vanish to zero. We know this ourselves: We will shortly be the subject of a profile in the Atlantic (too long for twee Slate milquetoasts to read online?) and are having to tread carefully about what we write on various sites, since it is now subject to immediate copy-and-paste into a personal profile in a storied journal. Sources of all kinds can now rebut anything found in conventional journalism by posting their own Web pages; the heavily co-opted medium of the letters-to-editors column is quite passé.

This is where Slate is doing something gutsy. Participatory, even Weblog-style reportage. We’re strongly in favour of it. The exercise is, however, critically handicapped by the particular subject-matter – genius sperm donors – which could not interest us less. Actually, even by Slate standards it plumbs new depths in irrelevancy and uselessness. And what the hell are average readers gonna be able to tell a journalist about genius sperm donors?


By the way, we’ve been told twice in two months that we are not corporate types. We suppose this explains everything.


New Porker

Talk about anticlimactic! finally contains “content.” Of a sort. The embarrassingly outdated, even amateur, graphic design (which breaks every standard in the book) recapitulates the risible failures of early Slate, errantly mapping print design on the Web. Have these people never looked at (NUblog passim), which evocatively translates the ethos, even the graphic ethos, of a hoary old rag into the medium of Jennifer Lopez fan pages?

(Incidentally, we nominate “Waiting for Tonight” as the unlikely successor to Captain Hollywood Project’s “More & More” as most unintentionally embarrassing music video in the dance genre. But we digress.)

Now, we were wary of the staid organ’s forays into le monde branché, but only because of David Remnick’s specious warning that “it’s hard to say if our longest pieces would work on the Web.” Pshaw. We’ve beaten that vegan dead-horse substitute enough already.

(Ominous additional remark: “No matter what we do, of course, the main preoccupation here will be the thing itself, the New Yorker that you get in the mail and on newsstands.” We suppose we were warned.)

Anyway, the new is receiving reviews almost as savage as those of AOLTV. Ken Layne:

When historians look back on the Internet Bubble, they’ll mark February 2001 as the End of Web Publishing. That’s because the Web-wary New Yorker has timed the debut of its hideous online edition to coincide with the total collapse of not just the business, but the very idea, of online journalism as some specific thing....

So, let’s review the New Yorker site. It is awful. Awful, ugly, pointless, searchless, archiveless. And there’s not even a current cover illustration. It’s naked. should have remained as it was: Click Here to Subscribe, perhaps finally debuting in 2004 when we’re all eating rats and living in dumpsters. [To say it is to make it happen, so knock it off. – NUblog]

But what did anyone expect? When’s the last time you saw a “cool Web site”? Just a few years ago, people actually said things like, “I saw a cool Web site.” When’s the last time you happily read something on the Internet? When’s the last time you checked E-mail and did anything but cringe and wish for death?

It’s over. Thank you, New Yorker, for making it official. You folks keep printing a magazine and sending it to my apartment, and I’ll keep ignoring your Web site, and we’ll forget this ever happened.


Meanwhile, never to be outdone in any calibration of cluelessness and missing the point, some halfwit in a tweed jacket and elbow patches over at Slate yammers on for screenful after gormless screenful, offering the following, which can only be taken at face value:

We are prepared to declare the online “Goings on About Town” an unqualified success. The listings are broken down into individual links: one for the Theatre, one for Movies, one for Art, and so on. This feature, combined with the fact that you can search for individual plays or movies or art exhibits by hitting “control f,” makes the online version of this section easier to navigate than the print version.

Within-page searching by using the browser Find command is fine and dandy for certain kinds of homogeneous documents, and for content-Weblog archives which, embarrassingly enough, still are not served up by database. Newsflash: “control f” isn’t the only possible command sequence, though in the land of eternal rain and monopolies they apparently believe otherwise. And, gee, shouldn’t we let people search or browse by title, cinema, theatre, or gallery? Even puny Eye lets you do that.

Sure, geeks can hack their way through anything. So can nerds. Nerds are happy to scan a printed page for five minutes trying to locate a gallery listing, so the ability to “hit ‘control f’ ” seems like an evolutionary advance.

Well, it isn’t, any more than two tin cans strung with a wire are a telephone.

Which is worse, a twee failure of a Web site or the twee failure of another twee failure of a Web site to recognize it?

The Bash AOL Show

When we last enjoyed the Bash AOL Show here at NUblog, Time AOL was busy merging CNN’s online division with everything from TV to janitorial services, the ghost of a new shovelware portal was espied in the wheezing corpus of Netscape, and AOLTV remained the most viciously derided consumer product since the pet rock.

And the hits keep on coming!

[A]fter seemingly completing the installation, AOL began downloading a software upgrade. Twenty-odd minutes later, the service developed amnesia – I needed to re-enter all the information.... Scores displayed in the AOLTV “sports” channel were a day old; the TV shows being promoted had already aired. I also got the kind of annoying error messages common to computers: “AOLTV denied a request to send you elsewhere so that you could view this page.” Huh? Or when trying to read a series of headlines in “news”: “Unable to load, system cleaning up, please wait.” “That is too large for AOLTV to display or play. This problem can occur with very large pages, sounds or movies.” Why even offer me the chance to click on it?

It is a mixed blessing to learn that this abomination may well be the first “convergent” product, the first electronic TV program guide, that will eventually be accessible to blind and visually-impaired users. AOL is spending some of its own money to work with the National Center for Accessible Media (who in turn enjoy a U.S. government grant for this specific purpose) to make the damn thing work through voice output. Soon you won’t have to be able to see to know just how bad AOLTV is.

Watson & Chervokas:
Hominids at the typewriter

Why, exactly, do Tom Watson and Jason Chervokas over at Inside practically never make any sense?

We’ve dissed them before and have name-dropped the dyslexic duo a few times, but mostly we just frown and try to decipher the distinctive English-like language-encoding system Watson and Chervokas hammer out on their Smith-Coronas. It’s like decoding the nasal mutterings of a dwarf on Twin Peaks.

What are the little christers up to now?

Well, apparently “content” is the original open-source sector.

Think about music. What’s the “source code” of popular music? The 32-bar, AABA song form? Diatonic melody? The blues? Well, sure. On top of those basic innovations, which are owned by no one, succeeding generations of creators have built specific copy-protected works that they’ve marketed, but which in turn became the basis for future inventions. Did George Gershwin sue every be-bopper who wrote songs on top of “I Got Rhythm” chord changes? Of course not. Because the arts have always worked this way. How many times have western writers plundered The Odyssey for themes, drama, situations, characters?

(Question: Did the dyslexic duo come up with this harebrained analogy upon stumbling out of a liquid-lunch matinée of O Brother, Where Art Thou?)

Watson and Chervokas appear to be proposing a Quest for Fire theory of intellectual property: Everything evolved from grunts, which can’t be protected, so nothing today should be protected, either.

Irreducible atomic particles of a communication system, like an alphabet or kanji or sound waves at a specific hertz, can no more be protected by intellectual-property law than can hydrogen, an octopus, or the sun. (Yes, OK, alphabets and kanji and even sound waves can be subdivided, but not in general practice. They’re the building blocks. And yes, you can patent living organisms – but we’ll see how long that lasts.) It is oxymoronic to equate any of this to open-sourcing. You can’t choose to open-source intellectual property if it isn’t intellectual property in the first place.

Further, Watson and Chervokas mistake sampling and inspiration for duplication and adaptation.

While “the arts have [not] always worked this way,” that’s how they work now. Sure, file-sharing and even the simple display of Web pages in a computer will require the touching up of copyright laws, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater here.

And let’s stay on topic. Even if some irreducible base concepts could be traced back from every copyrighted work, it does not follow that the copyright is void. (If you find out at age 20 that you were adopted, do your parents suddenly cease to be your parents?)

We understand why geeks and teenage boys seek the wholesale overthrow of copyright law, which they declare passé: They want to steal Microsoft Office and Limp Bizkit albums (or vice-versa) and don’t want to be bothered with the vagaries of, and decades of case law surrounding, concepts like fair use and fair dealing. Yet two writer/intellectuals, two seasoned veterans of the “content” biz, two well-funded conference presenters and consultants, seem to be reaching for nearly the same goal. The difference? Watson and Chervokas are trying to define copyright out of existence. Isn’t this actually worse than ignoring copyright completely?


New mojo coming down the pike. Watch this space.

Cut the crap

Style and content, never having bothered signing a prenuptial agreement, are now bickering over who gets the keys to the cottage up north.

Hackers are reverse-engineering Web sites to cut out the crap. What crap? “Tables, ads and graphics.” The underground content fetishists go mainstream!

This fella named Nic Wolff wrote a proxy to cut the crap from According to an article, there are actually a whole host of samizdat methods to skim the vegan cream substitute off a “bloated” Web site. (Don’t you love how complex Web sites are always dissed with the same term, “bloated”?)

We remember a similar crap-cutter for the old Dejanews search interface. But since Google just finished buying pretty much every datum owned by Deja, we can consign that one to the dustheap of mergers and acquisitions. (We did, however, love the domain name My-Déjà.com. So spacey. Like a Jean-Michel Jarre composition, without the laser show and chest hair.)

And of course burnin’ up the wires among the Web intelligentsia is Jeffy the Z’s clarion call for adherence to Web standards, firmly separating style from content.

Do you remember, back in the dark prehistory of the NUblog, our eyeglazer on the separation of style and content? Our definition of “content” remains unequalled, in our opinion, for real-world validity:

We think that, at Web sites, whatever gives the visitor pleasure, or adds value, or informs, or makes the visit worth the time and effort is content.

So a site like Toys, which generates random fantasy URLs, is quite clearly a content site even though what you read on the site is as closely related to real URLs as Jabberwocky is to real English. ( A lot like Japanese English, isn’t it? “Wildlife Port en Ouest de Moose.”)

It gives pleasure. The visit is worth the time. It is content.

The “interface” that Nic Wolff’s crap-cutter elides is not content in and of itself because that would be nonsensical, like a water molecule without hydrogen. Even if you replaced all the real words on the Salon homepage with so-called Greeked text, the resulting nonsensical page would not amount to content.

(As a formulaism, “Greeked” is the “bloated” of typography: We never manage to come up with any other term, like, say, “Frenched.” Greeked text is in Latin anyway.)

But the text of the articles is content. Text of articles plus illustrations and ads and the interface are all content, too, when taken together.

Similarly, unless the topic of conversation is stylesheets, separating HTML from stylesheets, as Jeffy the Z advocates, does not mean that both halves amount to content. The HTML, as rendered, probably is. The CSS cannot be rendered without HTML. The rendered HTML and the HTML with its stylesheet, however, are indeed content.

The demand for multiple views of the same content is gaining force (and anyway is the standard practice worldwide in movies and television). Skinning is but one example (NUblog passim), and Apple is throwing hissyfits about skinned Aqua-like interfaces, which they’ve got as much chance of stopping as Rupert Murdoch does of stopping Black Bart Simpson T-shirts. (Irie carumba!)

Style cannot exist without content. Content can have virtually no style. Not rocket science, but this fundamental, even eternal truth is finally catching on.

Add the crap

But what if people like the crap on Web sites?

Previously, we derided an alleged “professional” Web designer who earnestly believed that political sites with online videoclips were more “interactive” than those offering “only” text and graphics. Wow. “Click the Play button to watch Stockwell Day’s press conference (RealVideo).” It’s as interactive as changing channels with your remote control. (You’ve provided a stimulus and the site gives you a response – a video stream. But that’s it. Where is the ongoing give-and-take of stimulus and response that constitutes real interactivity, like an actual human conversation or even driving a car?)

Anyway, a study of online newsreading suggests that people just love to read an article if it’s broken up into segments, the sort of thing twee milquetoast standard-bearer Michael Kinsley pooh-poohs after having used it himself (NUblog passim). A summary of the study purports:

[B]reaking up stories is viewed by many users as representative of a Web site being more “interactive.” [I]nstead of a single big block of text, break it into clickable component parts... gave the test subjects the impression of the site being more interactive. Now, most Web editors wouldn’t consider that to be an interactive trait, but what’s happening is that users are made to feel that they’re going through the content at their own, controlled pace – instead of having an entire article spoon-fed to them.

Oh, dear. When spoon-feeding a baby or a particularly recalcitrant ExtendMedia or Sapient account manager, you fill a small spoon, declare volubly that it is actually a choo-choo train, shove the spoon down the gullet, and repeat the process. Chunking an online article into segments is spoon-feeding. Providing the full text in one document is quite the opposite – something akin to a fraternity hazing ritual involving a funnel.

But the misapprehensions don’t stop there!

The perception of a news site’s interactivity quotient [sic] also is affected by “bells and whistles...” Adding things like audio or video clips, interactive databases, chat rooms, discussion forums, and “add your comment” features attached to articles adds to a site’s perceived interactivity. That seems obvious, but what’s not is that just the presence of such interactive bells and whistles changes the user’s perception of the content for the better – even when these features aren’t used much.

Of that list, the only thing remotely “interactive” is the “ ‘add your comment’ feature.” But yes, we can believe that people are deceived by interface features.

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: There are a number of ways to present text online. All-in-one and in chunks are two such ways. Both of them work. Let the little people (and “professional” Web designers) delude themselves into thinking their additional little clicks are more Internet-like. And God help us when a print-journalism site also has to carry videoclips to be taken seriously.

Well, God help us, but we’re halfway there already. The new advertising format at, which intrudes about as much as a tracheostomy, is summed up thus:

Theres a valuable lesson to be learned here. Glitz and flash are showy, but it is contrast that really catches the eye. The ads are flashy, the editorial content isn’t, and therefore the lines between the two are clearly drawn. There are no more distracting “Powered by” buttons stuck onto navigation bars, no search site logos attached to the tools, and no commercial links within the text of headlines and stories.

Hmm. Maybe the contrast of advertising and toolbars and noticeable backgrounds focuses the reader’s eye on the news “content.” After all, eyes certainly aren’t focused on banner ads.

Maybe it is this nearly-autonomic reaction of human visual processing that leads news-site readers to rank “interactive” pages more highly.

And speaking of contrast....

Blue and green cannot be seen

Nice punchy mini-memoir from Todd Follansbee, a Person Living with Colourblindness™, on just how difficult it is to figure out low-contrast Web sites.

Colour deficiencies are hard to test for, even with the sexy new Photoshop filter simulating various kinds of monochromatism. (Apparently the filter goes overboard, removing red entirely, for example, when all one would actually perceive is a paler red.) Pale-on-pale and dark-on-dark designs are the killers, it would seem. Among other things, removing the underline from links might be a bad idea. Which the greater cost – kneecapping descenders on q, y, p, g, and j or making some links entirely invisible? (Bold type with no underline as the basic link, with underlining on A:HOVER, may also work.)

If graphical browsers allowed us to number links on a page and select them by typing the number (as Lynx does), you would at least know a link is present. (It also enables severely mobility-impaired people with lousy adaptive technology to skip hundreds of links on a page.) If authoring tools used the TABINDEX attribute on links, authors could make essential links on a page accessible by simply hitting the Tab key.

Message boards:
They still don’t work

Just the other day, we explained, for the umpteenth time, that “message boards” are a mere sop to “interactivity,” and “whatever discussion takes place on the ‘boards’ is completely ignored by the publication, except of course if you swear or utter a remark that offends the sensibilities.”

A few sweeps of the hour hand later, mighty Sports HBO CNN AOL Fortune did its own squelching of free speech. found itself the unwitting forum for hate speech this week when some readers of a story about Edwin Black’s new book, IBM and the Holocaust, posted racist and anti-Semitic messages on an attached “scribble board” [which] was taken down Wednesday morning after other visitors and executives from Random House Inc.... complained.

[A functionary] adds: “We don’t even stamp your hand to get in. I like them. In an idea-perfect world, I would have a scribble board on every story. I want our users to feel they can interact with other users, the writer and the material.”

Just where do the writers come in? As with any “message board,” journalists tell us what to think, and we mutter amongst ourselves in response. Keep the hordes outside the gates, unlocked with a retina scan and a quick verification of your lunch expenses in the Meatpacking District.

If you write something online, you have to defend it online – whether in private E-mail or in whatever “message board” a vendor sold you for a hundred grand.

[...]“I’m reluctant to jettison it, so we’ve got to come up with a better policy to let people know it’s not censored,” [the functionary] adds. Some of the changes... he’s considering include being more selective when choosing which stories will be open for discussion, requiring participants to register before posting comments and creating an acceptable-use policy. A spokesman for AOL Time Warner says the public bulletin boards and chat rooms on the online service are monitored, and if a posting is found to violate the service’s terms of service by containing racist or hate speech, it is removed.

How can you “let people know it’s not censored” when, by the recent action, the “scribble boards” are proven to be heavily censored, and official CNN Time AOL New Line policy requires “monitoring” for “racist or hate speech”?

Which is more important, stopping people from saying certain things or coming up with an entirely new approach that involves readers, journos, and editors in a discussion that puts them all on the same level?

It seems easier for media juggernauts to spend the same kind of money and make the same kind of mistakes as their competitors rather than doing something different. Not even new, necessarily. Just different.


We kind of think Slashdot is the Hooter’s of online news: Vulgar, unabashedly low-end, overrun by opinionated loudmouths with – how does one put this? – limited sophistication.

(If you absolutely have to read tech commentary from plebes, try Kuro5hin or Advogato. Frankly, though, the “professional” news sites, even satirical microsites like the Register, remain head and shoulders above the voices of the rabble. We encourage the rabble to speak and insist that journos respond to them, but we are under no obligation to enjoy reading what the plebes write.)

We were nonethless bowled over by the plain-spokenness of Robin Miller of whatever holding company it is that owns Slashdot. His lesson – keep your staff costs low – is something you hear about every couple of months, though it is merely one of a litany of lessons that should have been obvious yet has never managed to sink in.

I remember looking at the excellent (now bankrupt) APBNews site, and marveling at its 142 staff members, 400+ freelance stringers, and extensive use of multimedia presentations. It was a fine-looking site, but according to my profitability calculations its audience – several tens of millions of pageviews per month – would only support 10 or 15 editorial staffers and, perhaps, 20 or 30 stringers. By contrast,, one of the sites I oversee, has a total of 10 full-time workers. Slashdot generates about 30 million pageviews per month, which makes it one of the world’s most popular “tech” web sites.

Miller lampoons million-dollar content-management systems while defending himself against the lampooning of Web whiz kids when it comes to graphic design:

Many sophisticated graphics designers, like the folks at the famous design studio Razorfish (which is currently going through a series of layoffs), laugh at our crude layouts and lack of illustrations. We build our sites this way on purpose; text is inexpensive to produce and takes little bandwidth. Our sites are not designed to win awards, but to require the fewest possible clicks for readers, and the least possible amount of labor on our part, per story.

Of course, in Slashdot circles ugliness is a badge of street cred. This is the leather-bar theory of Web design: You may think your dirty jeans, flannel shirts, exposed pot bellies, and scuffed leather jackets make you more “real” than the manicured pretty boys in the sweater bar down the street, but in the end you’re all still gay.