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Bye Bye Croisan Views

10 Mar

This is not the first blog I’ve abandoned. That would be Words at http://www.markeveretthall.com, an experiment I conducted many years ago. I created Words to post some of my old published essays and to play with Apple’s iWeb software, the worst blogging tool I’ve worked with by far. I learned what I could and then, like so many other people, moved on to other things.

In addition to Words and now this, I’ve also dropped two other blogs. One, Sanity as a Service, was for Computerworld and the other ran at TG Daily. Both companies were paying me enough to post regularly, then they changed the deals, so I stopped writing for them.

From the start, Croisan Views was a different kettle of fish. I began it less than eleven months ago with a specific goal: quit after 100 posts or one year, whichever comes first. This is my 100th post.

Millions of individuals have started blogs, then tossed them away for various reasons. Gartner Inc., the market research firm, estimated that as many as 200 million blogs may have been left to rot on the side of the Information Superhighway. As you know, that doesn’t mean there’s a blog famine ahead. WordPress, which hosts Croisan Views (and is the best tool I’ve used to manage a blog), alone has 18 million blogs. Blogger, LiveJournal, Xanga, and other sites offer millions upon millions more.

Some bloggers approach their task as if it were a never-ending story, infinite in scope, not unlike the Internet itself. That’s why so many blogs get abandoned by their authors. The work becomes too daunting after the initial rush of good feeling upon seeing their work online. That feeling can give way to despair once the deathly silence of the worldwide web envelops the blog.

Most successful blogs are tightly focused. Whether on technology, politics, baseball, or whatever, they reflect the passions and obsessions of their creators. But I wanted Croisan Views to reflect my overall life during the time I wrote it; a general-interest blog that detailed things that I did as well as the world as I saw it. Yet, I thought the blog should be more than a public airing of my personal diary, something I’ve kept since the 1970s. Admittedly, this strategy is not a recipe for an overwhelmingly successful blog. But it made it a pleasure to write.

As I’ve noted before, I am a numbers-obsessed fella. In addition to my personal output target of 100 posts, I wanted to generate a modicum of traffic to Croisan Views. I thought 5,000 unique visitors in a year was reasonable. I surpassed that number early last month. Lately, I’ve been averaging about 200 people per week, up from around 50 this past autumn.

Getting people to my site was not easy. I lacked an established third-party source, such as Computerworld, to manufacture attention to the blog. I never paid a dime to any SEO company or expert to develop a plan for adding more visitors. Growth, such as it was, was all organic. From its launch last April, it took nearly two months until Google, Bing, and Yahoo began to index Croisan Views. Search engines drive about half the people to this blog. Twitter, where my @Croisan existed until last month, as well as my Facebook account delivered a small, steady number of folks. But it was Reddit and StumbleUpon, which I just started using in January, that gave me the biggest bumps in unique visitors. Although my old blog editor at Computerworld says it’s the top source for her operations, I never used Digg because I find the service tedious.

Choosing accompanying art, as we print-publishing people call any image associated with a story, was one of the more difficult parts of the blog process. I want it to connect in some way to the specific post, but I was limited in my store of images. Virtually every photograph on the blog was taken by me, although my friend Klaus Herzberger snapped the one of me in the Alps and I’ve used public domain images on a couple occasions. Of course, David Leishman generously provided me with magazine covers from his magnificent collection, which I’ve used from time to time.

Croisan Views has been a joy and a burden. As I noted with my post about quitting microblogging at Twitter, keeping a blog is time consuming. Finding good links, responding to comments, choosing and cropping photos, and simply coming up with new ideas and then writing and editing them all take up hours each week. The volume of work I produced here would fill a small book if printed.

I’m glad Croisan Views is done, though I suspect I’ll miss it. I hope in some small way, you will, too.

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24 Hours in Cyberspace: 15 Years Later

23 Oct

I was rummaging around some seldom-opened cupboards in the garage when I came across a few boxes of books that had been stored back in a corner when we moved to the Willamette Valley more than 10 years ago. Inside one container I found a copy of 24 Hours in Cyberspace: Painting on the Walls of the Digital Cave still shrink-wrapped and pristine, untouched by human hands.

Published with much fanfare in late 1996, the book’s conceit was to have photographers around the world visually capture a single day (8 February 1996) in the life, as it were, of the worldwide web. More a magazine with many different stories to tell between hardcovers than a proper book with a single voice or point of view, 24 Hours in Cyberspace encompasses much of what exists today online, yet it lacks almost everything that is important about our contemporary cyberspace experience.

The sometimes goofy, occasionally poignant photos in the book reflect a random collection of people whose lives somehow touched the web. The team behind 24 Hours in Cyberspace showed how some people involved in health care, politics, education, and other areas are engaged with the worldwide web. They touched on sensitive topics as well, such as the proliferation of pornography and the spread of Holocaust deniers online. The attempt was a comprehensive glimpse of the influence of the web in daily life.

In truth, though, all the people covered in the book are also engaged with cellphones, televisions, automobiles, and other technologies we embrace. The web, as depicted in 24 Hours in Cyberspace, is just another tool. Nice. But not earth-shaking.

For example, one photo spread shows an American in St. Petersburg, Russia negotiating for his “prospective Russian bride whom he met online.” How different is that from bachelors in the Wild West shopping for mail-order brides in the penny newspapers of the day? And, while another photo shows some young women in Bangi, Malaysia who, according to the excitable accompanying text, “lift the lid on Pandora’s box as they check out a bare-chested Matthew Modine on Hollywood Online.” Hardly revolutionary considering most those women had probably already seen similarly dressed men in the thousands of magazines published in their country. (And Matthew Modine? Come on, ladies. Have better taste.)

Of course, it’s easy to carp about a nearly 15-year-old book which contends that the Internet “is a shape-shifting, borderless medium firmly in the hands of ordinary citizens bent on turning it to extraordinary ends.” Given that ordinary citizens in China, Iran, and behind other borders face government sanctions if they violate national laws while online seems to undermine that statement.

1996 was, in terms of the worldwide web, a far more innocent time. The authors of 24 Hours in Cyberspace could not envision Google battling with a sovereign nation over a search engine. Perhaps because the book’s producers did not even mention Google, Facebook, Twitter, social networking, software as a service, cloud computing, or any of the other truly revolutionary aspects of the Internet.

As such, 24 Hours in Cyberspace is not a very interesting or insightful book. It tells us nothing important about the real power of the Internet. Nor does it tell us much about who we are as human beings. But it does offer yet another proof point that making a bet on what we’ll be doing online even just a few years from now is probably a poorly placed wager.

What Cisco’s ūmi Needs to Blow Away Facebook

6 Oct

Hate to say it, but ūmi, the interactive video Telepresence hardware and service targeting consumers from Cisco is a dud. At least, it is in its current incarnation. Needless to say, Cisco thinks differently and believes that there’s a home market for its product. According to the company:

With Cisco ūmi telepresence you can place and receive video calls from any computer with a webcam, and Google video chat. It’s another great way to share your family with friends, see your son at college, or keep in touch with Mom when she’s away on business.”

Despite the engaging photos on the company’s website of people doing just that, there aren’t many families I’ve ever met who feel a constant urge to see mom while she’s traveling on business. Few of us want to add video to a communication process that works great as audio-only. After all, who wants to get dressed up for a phone call, even if just for the kids? Certainly not mom at the end of a day of meetings.

What Telepresence desperately needs is an API and a browser. Yes, that boring application programming interface and an everyday browser. The API will attract developers and a browser will captivate users.

With an API, software companies can build applications that will do, well, whatever consumers want to do with interactive video, which is not, I repeat, to see grandma in her capri pants and tennis shoes, when talking with her on the phone would be just fine. But what people will want to do with ūmi is what they do with Facebook and other social media: play games, communicate with comrades, display photos, show movies, and present links to the ever-expanding online world. They want to publish their lives to followers, friends, and, even family.

So far, ūmi, AppleTV, Roku and other systems are missing the boat about how to merge the TV and Internet experience. What they need to offer is a way for consumers to create their own content, just as today they can do for social networks.

People need to have a browser to work with content. But when I say browser, I’m not necessarily thinking about Safari or Chrome, though I’m open to the notion. I’m thinking about an application on an iPad, a TV remote or something else in my living room that lets me grab segments of an ABC sitcom or an ESPN sporting event and weave them into a post that also includes a home video of my cat, a YouTube link, a Ping tune, and maybe a profound, profane or prosaic voiceover from me. Or something. Anything other than just staring at the screen and talking.

In my view, people have absolutely zero interest in watching people watch them have a telephone conversation. Most of us would rather watch grass grow. We want to interact in ways that show others how creative we can be by splicing together snippets of our day or syncing slices of our lives through a gamut of sources available to us online and on TV. We want to leverage what we’ve learned using PCs, smartphones, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other technologies and services. ūmi and its competitors are not that.

So, if ūmi (or Apple TV, Roku) is going to succeed it will need more than just the ability to send video streams back and forth. It will need to build and support robust APIs that are adhered to by content developers in Hollywood as well as in Silicon Valley. It will need a way to control the hardware that may or may not include a PC keyboard, but is dead simple, yet flexible. (Hence, my initial choice of the iPad. But it could just as well be an Android device or a new kind of TV remote.) ūmi needs an ecosystem.

Right now Cisco has a box with a cool name that does something few people want. With an API and a new-fangled browser, it will have something consumers crave. And something Facebook will fear.

 

 

Edge of Your Seat Reading in the 21st Century

9 Aug

If reading influences what we think and believe, it’s little wonder that so many of us have a jaded view of government, business, media, and society in general. Just look at your typical best seller list from the New York Times or USA Today and you’ll find them chock-o-block with thrillers and mysteries, more than any other genre. Anyone familiar with these cousins of fictional style knows that nothing in life is what it appears to be; there’s always an agenda or conspiracy in play; and the truth exists merely to be suppressed.

Reading these books teaches you not to trust institutions of any sort. Politicians, bureaucrats, CEOs, journalists, and probably your next door neighbor are all up to no good. These genres feed a worldview nourished on cynicism, doubt, suspicion, and dread. Perfect books for our time.

I enjoy a gripping thriller or a taut mystery as much as (often more than) great literature. But the key to a top-notch one is not the plot, but the people in the plot. That’s where the thriller and mystery writer can match the literary artist. If they can engage you with characters at the level of, say, Edith Wharton’s Ellen Olenska in The Age of Innocence or Jake Barnes in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, you’ve found yourself a winning writer.

Here’s a selection of character-driven thrillers and mysteries from the first decade of the 21st century that stayed with me because the people in them were complex, interesting, and even profound as well as fun to spend time with, if only on the page.

The Falls (2000) by Ian Rankin. Almost any Rankin novel of the last ten years is worth your time. Resurrection Men would be an excellent alternative. But the plot in The Falls is more subtle and satisfying. Inspector Rebus is, as ever, an exceptional antihero worth getting to know.

The Good German (2001) by Joseph Kanon. Set immediately after World War II in the ruins of Berlin, the story is a character study of a man trying to square his pre-War life with post-War realities as the foundation for the new Cold War is being laid. Conspiracy. Greed. Murder. Femme fatale. What’s not to like?

December 6 (2002) by Martin Cruz Smith. Not one of Smith’s better known works, probably because it’s not part of his Arkady Renko series (Gorky Park, et. al.), but it is his most intriguing. Plus, Smith introduces his most engaging and likable character, Harry Niles, who is caught up in a 24-hour whirlwind of events the day before the “date which will live in infamy.”

Dark Matter: The Private Life of Sir Isaac Newton (2002) by Philip Kerr. If there’s a mystery/thriller writer with a higher IQ than Kerr, I haven’t read him or her. His novels make you think and none more than his quirky mystery involving Newton and his erstwhile assistant sidekick. However, if you’ve never read Kerr before start with The Shot or Dead Meat from the previous century. They’re better still.

A Place of Hiding (2003) by Elizabeth George. Most of George’s mysteries center on her Inspector Thomas Lynley. This one, however, takes two minor characters, Deborah and Simon St. James, from her other Lynley novels and puts them front and center in solving a knotty conundrum.

Bangkok 8 (2003) by John Burdett. Although I’ve read other Burdett novels with his delightful detective Sonchai Jitpleecheep, this is the one that started it off. And it’s the best of the bunch.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson. Mysteries involving bad things that happen to children generally leave me cold. They deliver cheap thrills, building our interest around threats to the utterly innocent. Atkinson’s approach is much different, building the plot around the characters more than the crime. An exceptional story.

The Lighthouse (2006) by P.D. James. This is another excellent novel with the stiff, eloquent, and poetic Commander Adam Dagliesh. Almost any James novel will satisfy (such as 2001’s Death by Holy Orders), but this is particularly illuminating as her main character deals with issues as his career sputters towards its close.

The Book of Air and Shadows (2007) by Michael Gruber. A wonderful tale with a handful of characters who are all well-drawn, unique, and oodles of fun to follow through a fascinating plot that spans centuries. None of Gruber’s other books come close to this gem.

The Spies of Warsaw (2008) by Alan Furst. Everyone is spying on everyone else and everyone knows it. But our favorite spy is the best character of the bunch, Jean-François Mercier de Boutillon. Gallant. Brave. Thoughtful. If you’ve never read Furst, here’s the place to start.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009 in English) by Stieg Larsson. Lisbeth Salander. Mikael Blomkvist. Need I say more, except this is the best of the trilogy.

Dumbed-Down Content Will Hobble Paywall Strategies

30 Jul

Before the New York Times had a website, if you wanted to learn about what a critic thought of a new movie, the gossip from the runway at a Paris fashion show, or what a pundit said about the latest scandal from Washington, you had to thumb your way into the nether pages of the newspaper to find the stories. Now they are all front-and-center on the Times web home page.

For some, this is progress. The Times online is much less stuffy than it is in print. There are fewer gatekeepers to information because more of it, in greater variety is staring you in the face on, in effect, Page One. All you need do is click.

There’s another view about the Times and other mainstream media populating their online home pages with, shall we say, fluffier content than their print venue. They are dumbing down content to get more eyeballs.

Slate recently shut down its Big Money website because at 400,000 unique visitors a month, it wasn’t enough to attract advertisers. Marketers appear to be looking for sites that can deliver one million+ unique visitors each month as the floor for what we used to call a publication’s circulation.

To get a million or more visitors means kowtowing to the lowest common denominator of online user. And on the Internet low can be pretty common, indeed.

My former employer, Computerworld, had an editorial mission to inform, educate, edify, and, to a certain extent, entertain enterprise-level executives like CIOs, CTOs, and other bigwigs managing information technology. Always perceived as a bit stodgy by some, the trade newspaper did not publish an editorial about Linux until I wrote one in 1999, and it was still considered a bit radical and not very “serious”  an IT subject by some working there at the time.

Fast-forward to today and you’ll find that both Computerworld’s print and online properties are awash in copy about Linux and, heaven forbid, Mr. CIO, Macintosh-related information. Precious little of it (sorry, guys) is of great value to CIOs and what they do in their real jobs. But the content’s virtue is that it attracts unique visitors in droves to Computerworld’s website. And the strategy works brilliantly as a business because Apple and Linux fanboys continue to get validation when “stodgy” ol’ Computerworld gives their favorite technology a platform. Although the information has little or nothing to do with publication’s “mission” to serve IT executives, who are much more wrapped up in the strategic tech issues that once dominated the print edition’s pages, it does bring clicks.

I’m not saying the Linux or Mac content on Computerworld or the fashion and movie analysis on the New York Times sites are dumb. Far from it. It’s all insightful, some of the best you’ll read online. However, to compete for the number of eyeballs needed to succeed online, there’s been a tsumani of these dumbed-down stories compared with the editorial standards that once guided the publications.

If media paywalls are ever going to work, they need to raise the level of content. Sensational stories are everywhere. If publications hide behind paywalls their take on the latest about Lindsey Lohan or the iPhone, they will fail miserably. That information is free and worth every penny. For paywalls to succeed, publications need to put their “mission” content, whatever it is, behind them.

In a reverse from days gone by, Page One will be where all of the commodity content appears, while behind the wall, deeper into the publication, that’s where the serious stories will run.

Ego and the Power of Print

29 Jul

During the recent years of print publishing’s decline, I’ve heard many reasons why print remains relevant. You know them, too.

* Print is more portable

* Print has higher resolution

* Print is a better medium for photojournalism and designers

* Print is perceived to have a greater value than the same content in digital form

As time passes most of the arguments in print’s favor begin to lose their impact. As the headline says, “Even Print People Know Print Is Dead.”

Except it’s not. Our egos will keep print alive for a long, long time.

People prefer to see their names in print rather than online. Content online feels ephemeral, while print reeks of permanence. In fact, seeing your name in print is a much more motivating force to most writers than money. We’re told, for example, that citizen journalists get involved in reporting on their communities in hopes of getting their names in print.

Digital content doesn’t sustain the ego like print does. In an era when everyone and their dog has a blog, there’s nothing special about writing one. (BlogPulse currently counts 144 million of them.) Sure, writing a blog can give your ego a taste of fame, but getting your name in print is like sitting your ego down to a four-course meal of immortality.

In the hundreds of stories I’ve written for various publications, when they’ve involved working with public relations professionals I’m always asked if the piece will run in print as well as online. If yes, I often get access to more senior officials because the PR person knows that the high-and-mighty aren’t impressed with seeing their names online. But if they can see them in print, the PR pro gets happy slaps on the back. (Unless, of course, the story is not very flattering.)

It’s time we started to include the most powerful argument in print’s defense: our fragile egos. I think print can ride on them for many years to come.

Commenting on Comments

5 Jul

Among the many blessings the Worldwide Web has brought us is the Comment section following any article published online. From the New York Times to Haaretz from the lowliest blogger to soaring celebrities, readers get to post their reactions to news, events, opinions, and, yes, commentary everywhere. Editors like to label it “community involvement” or some such nonsense.

That’s what most of it is, too, nonsense.

First, the overwhelming majority of the comments left by readers are anonymous. Or, at websites like Salon, each commentator has a made-up user name that guarantees anonymity to other readers. Some print publications even have begun using anonymous messages left online as submissions to the Letters section of their magazines. Wired magazine sprinkles them amidst missives signed by real people. My former employer Computerworld rarely publishes a letter from writer who has an actual name and job title. Every one is signed by Anonymous.

Second, commentators have trouble staying on topic. They stray this way and that. Single-minded folks will always write about their hot-button topic no matter the subject at hand. Often anonymous writers will get into pissing matches with one another, careening off onto unrelated territory with their invective-charged comments.

Third, there’s the invective itself. Being anonymous, many commentators see little reason to grace their words with an iota of politeness. They rant. They rage. They rip everyone apart. From where they sit, it seems, nothing and no one is worth a smidgeon of respect. To them an insult is a worthy insight.

Finally, there’s the plain ignorance on display. As noted earlier in this blog, professional writers need copyeditors. So, I do not hold it against readers when they post comments rife with typos or wrong subject-verb agreements. That’s why in days gone by a Letters page editor might connect with readers who submitted letters to have them approve an edited item. It’s also why other magazines would proclaim on a Letters page that submissions might be subject to editing for “length and clarity.” But, in so many cases, even a good editor could not make sense of some of the reader responses left online.

All this is not to say I abhor reader reactions to stories and OpEd pieces. Obviously, I read them. But sometimes at the end of a session reading a long string of pointless, mean-spirited, logic-free, and downright dumb comments, I feel as though I have utterly wasted my time. That the only reason I kept reading was to come across a prize example of reader foolishness. It’s as if I am a NASCAR fan, claiming to be enthralled by the roaring cars hurtling past in a blur, when all I am really waiting for is for the cars to crash