Journalists Should Bite the Bullet

image 
screenshot from CNN’s website

It’s the one area where old-style journalism hasn’t really made the strides it could. I can understand why: Journalism is a very, very conservative profession. But The Journalism Iconoclast, written by Patrick Thornton, makes a telling point when he points to a nice new feature of CNN.com’s website — the bullet point:

One of the features many people may have noticed with the relaunch of CNN.com earlier this year is that CNN offers succinct bullet points above articles about the key points of the story. Most people skim stories anyway, so why not give them the ultimate way to skim an article? Maybe they will read the whole thing, but use the bullet points to help them remember key points.

Patrick suggests newspapers adopt this for their online offerings; I would actually be in favor of their doing it for their offline offerings too. Buzzmachine, for example, is not the only one bemoaning a buried lede. Indeed, I often find the inverted pyramid approach outdated and less useful for the sort of rapid scanning we do now we’re so webcentric.

One commenter to the story, Marc Matteo, points to one of the key problems with newspapers introducing this kind of bullet-point approach: Shrinking budgets and harried editors. In which case I would farm the bullet pointing out to people who aren’t even journalists. As Marc himself points out, non-journalism websites don’t seem to have this problem. How about allowing readers to add the bullet points themselves? Indeed, it may even be possible to automate the process.

The nasty truth is that a lot of what we take to be good sound journalistic writing was designed for an earlier, slower time. Now we want to catch the gist of something in a few seconds, and we’re looking for reasons not to read them, rather than feeling we should, we have to, or (God forbid) we want to.

Bottom line: Newspapers and all traditional media should not just be looking for new ways to deliver their news, but new ways to write it too. An example of good, pithy writing is actually Techdirt, which rarely strays (unlike this blog) over 250 words, including story, background and (usually quite tart) analysis.  

The Journalism Iconoclast

Spin-my-Blog Post

Hi Jeremy this is Mark leaving the 1st spoken message on your typed pad blog.

Voice-to-Screen messaging – powered by SpinVox

“It Says Take a Left Up This Impassable Mountain Track”

 
photo from Reuters

Apparently technology is making us so dumb we need signs to jolt us back to common sense. Reuters reports that Britain has started trials of special road signs warning “drivers about the dangers of trusting their satellite navigation devices (satnavs)”:

Some have reported that software glitches have sent drivers down one-way streets or up impassable mountain tracks.

One ambulance driver with a faulty satnav drove hundreds of miles in the wrong direction while transferring a patient from one hospital in Ilford east of London to another just eight miles away.

At what point, I wonder, did the ambulance driver think that perhaps he wasn’t taking the fastest route? The original story, according to The Times, involved the driver and his colleague driving

for eight hours before finally delivering the patient. After the equipment sent them north, they covered 215 miles in about four hours. The way back was only slightly shorter and took more than 3½ hours.

The device was reprogrammed, as were the two drivers. The Times comes up with a couple more examples:

Last month a woman dodged oncoming traffic for 14 miles after misreading her sat-nav system and driving the wrong way up a dual carriageway.Police said it was a miracle that no one was injured after the young woman joined the A3M, which links Portsmouth to London, on the southbound side — only to head north.

In September a taxi driver took two teenage girls 85 miles in the opposite direction after keying the wrong place name into his sat-nav. The girls asked to go to Lymington in the New Forest, Hampshire, but the driver tapped in Limington, Somerset.

I hear Somerset is very nice in September.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Face it: Facebook is all about you

This is my weekly column for Loose Wire Service, a service providing print publications with technology writing designed for the general reader. Email me if you’re interested in learning more.

I can hardly make my way to the drinks table at parties these days without someone accosting me, pinning me to the sideboard and impaling me on the question du jour: What is with all this Facebook stuff?

“It’s a good question,” I usually respond, determined to get something liquid inside me before answering. The truth is that the Internet is changing so fast, and changing us so fast, it’s hard to keep up.

Loyal readers of this column (hi, Colin!) will be familiar with my twitterings on social networking tools like Twitter, Jaiku etc, while the rest of you will remain bemused at best, at worst, tossing the paper aside, comfortable in the knowledge that none of this applies to you.

Well, I’ve got one word for you and it’s this: Skype. To understand why Facebook is so hot at the moment, and why those of you who think you can skip reading this column shouldn’t, we need to look at Skype, the free or cheap Internet telephone service.

From that we’ll see that technology, the Internet, all that stuff affects us all, and surprises us with its ability to change our habits without us really noticing. Or complaining.

Skype, you see, was nothing in 2004. Into 2005 it remained a sideshow. But then people realized it worked. Voices at the other end didn’t sound like frogs in a well. Suddenly everyone was using it to make calls, especially those people in parts of the world where phone calls were ridiculously expensive.

Then the Network Effect kicked in: The more people on it, the more people who weren’t on it felt they were missing out — if not financially — and they signed up.

And signing up didn’t just mean saying yes; It meant buying a headset, downloading software, installing it, signing up for Skype, and, if they wanted to make calls to ordinary telephones, buying credits, which meant using a credit card online.

For a lot of my friends, all of these were firsts. It was a delightful shock to behold. And once they had done those things, they were then ready to do the same thing with other services.

This was a big leap, one that is consistently underestimated by nerdy types who do them casually. Sadly, it was also underestimated by Skype and its new owners eBay, both of whom have failed to leverage the Skype revolution into anything more substantial.

When earlier this month Skype was down for a few days, there was only muted complaints from ordinary users — not because they don’t use Skype, but because they haven’t yet come to rely on Skype. (For what it’s worth, they should, and eBay should ensure that they do, by a) making it super-reliable and b) adding cool features that real people really want.)

Don’t be left out

Anyway, back to Facebook. Facebook was until recently — September 2006 — a social networking/homepage type tool for college folk in the U.S. Now half of its users — in other words, more than 17 million people — are outside college. (These figures are from Shel Israel, a consultant and writer who asked Facebook for stats.)

What’s interesting, though, is how most of these users aren’t techie types. While I’ve been trying to get friends of mine (those friends who aren’t techie, which means most of my friends) to sign up for these kinds of services for purely selfish reasons (there are only so many Twitter messages like “Restoring my computer to WinXP SP1 just for fun today! Wildness!” you can take) it’s only with Facebook that that actually happened.

And it didn’t happen because of me. Most of them signed up anyway, and were already there when I arrived. All sorts of people — friends from different walks of life, different continents, colleagues, ex-colleagues, readers (OK, reader), age groups, denominations and interests, genders, etc., etc.

Even journalists, not usually known for their hunger for the technologically new, are signing up. Facebook has tipped, in the timeworn phrase, in the same way Skype did. But why?

Well, the obvious answer is because everyone else signed up, so no one wanted to be left out. But I think that happened later. What happened first was that Facebook’s developers made it pretty easy to get started — add a photo, list the schools you went to, find a few friends who are also Facebook users.

Then there are compelling reasons to stay or come back — joining an interest-based group (there are 47,000 of them), loading a third-party application to do silly extra social things (more than 2,000 of them, including maps showing where you’ve been, your favorite movies, that kind of thing.)

The biggest reason, however, is that you find all sorts of people you hadn’t seen for a while, lost touch with, worked with or knew only indirectly; once you’re Facebook friends, the ice is broken and you’re sharing again, comfortable in a network of mutual friends.

All of this would sound quite so-so were it not for the fact that Facebook is geared towards social interaction. Not necessarily of the direct kind, upon which business networking sites like LinkedIn are built (“Please introduce me to Joe Bloggs in your network as I want to sell him my idea of Flying Underpants”) but the indirect kind: “Anyone seen Ratatouille yet?”, “I can’t believe there’s no English soccer on TV”, “My wife just left me for a lumberjack.”

Such utterances — posted on your Facebook page, but easily visible to friends in your network — invite comment and response, but don’t intrude in the way a direct message would.

I call it “displaced chat” — partly because I have pretensions to academia, and partly because I believe it describes a way for people to interact with others without directly approaching them.

Of course, we shouldn’t get too excited about this. Something will come along to dethrone Facebook soon enough (I give it six months; once everyone has basically hooked up with everyone they know or want to know, there’s not many places to go.)

But, as with Skype, it doesn’t matter. The gates have opened. A whole new bunch of people have embraced a technological innovation — social networking online – and found that it’s easier than they thought. And more rewarding.

I have no idea what the next big thing will be. But the biggest thing now is not Facebook: It’s that ordinary people are using it.

Songs for Suits

image

Things are never so weird they can’t get weirder. Techdirt posts on a legal firm’s corporate song “Everyone’s a Winner at Nixon Peabody” which really has

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

to be believed. I don’t guarantee it’s a pleasant experience, but it’s the only way to know just how low companies can go to get their staff feeling good about themselves.

But I frankly had no idea how many of these things there are out there. Techdirt links to a sadly now obsolete list of the best from ZDNet. And there’s hardly a big company that doesn’t seem to have one. Some companies trumpet them loudly to the world, with songs, lyrics, videos and sheet music (it would have to be a quiet weekend for someone to get out the Wurlitzer and start playing corporate songs, I suspect.)

Here’s one from Henkel (“And the story of success/Is based on more instead of less”). This was in 2005 named the best corporate song in the world by the Stevie Awards. (I can’t believe I missed that; I’ve not been following the Stevies as closely as I should.) The press release accompanying this dizzying victory quotes Ernst Primosch, Vice President Corporate Communications of the Henkel Group as saying “This confirms once more that we are on the right path with our ‘One! Henkel’ strategy.” It does, Ernst, it does.

Malaysia seems to be particularly keen on them, if these are anything to go by from DRB-HICOM, Penang Development Corporation, Park May Berhad and Kuching North City Hall.

So how do you go about writing and recording your own corporate song? Well, RedBalloon Days, an Australian website is offering a day in the studio for A$6,600 along with professional musicians and writers (you can only imagine what these pros must be thinking about their careers as they try to come up with words to rhyme with Peabody or Henkel.)

Of course, it can backfire. Shell wrote a corporate song that was so bad it was awarded “Company Song So Awful I Was Positive It Was a Spoof” by my BBC Business Daily commentator colleague Lucy Kellaway. She kept a copy of it

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

(yes, it is to the tune of “We Are the World”.) Lyrics here:

WE ARE THE BEST
WE ARE ALL WINNERS
WE ARE THE ONE’S WHO HAVE MADE THE CHANGE
WE’VE GROWN THE BUSINESS

You gotta love it. But not everyone does. Greenpeace’s blog said the song had become a laughing stock as it was emailed around the world. And Nixon Peabody seem none too happy their song has found its way into the public domain: They have apparently pulled the YouTube version and are apparently trying to get the MP3 file removed from Abovethelaw.com, where it was originally outed.

Which is a shame. This sort of thing, painful as it is, needs to be heard.

Technorati Tags: , ,

Stoop to Congoo?

Is business networking site Congoo resorting to spam to build its user base? I suspect it is.

Congoo is on one hand a good idea — a place to gather and monitor content on your industry, including content that is usually subscription only (like WSJ.com, who publish my weekly Loose Wire column.) But it’s also a networking tool — indeed, its blurb emphasizes that over the content:

image

But I don’t like being spammed, and I think Congoo may be doing that. Of course, they’re not alone in being accused of spamming — the likes of Plaxo, Zorpia and other networking services make it overly easy for a new recruit to send an email blast to everyone in their address book without them realizing it. To me that’s spam. Even Facebook isn’t entirely blameless: Add any application to your profile and you’re usually within a whisker of spamming all your friends unless you’re alert and scout around for the “skip” button.

But Congoo seems to be taking a different, and in a way more openly spammy, approach. It’s emailing non-subscribers — apparently at random — inviting them to join the network — with no apparent invitation from an existing user, or even a personalized email to indicate the recipient is being chosen for a specific reason. Here’s part of what I got this morning, from someone called Rebecca Simpson, identified as “Manager Network Development”:

We would like to formally invite you to add your professional profile on Congoo. You may recognize many of the professionals already featured:  Media & Advertising  Healthcare  Internet Finance Technology  Politics  & Law

Rebecca’s Congoo profile says she has “specialized in working with press and media outlets to distribute information. I have also organized and executed guerilla marketing campaigns as well as developed proprietary systems and methods for measuring ROI on Web buzz.”

That may be so, but frankly I’m not impressed at this particular pitch. No attempt is being made to categorize me, as I’ve shown only an amateur’s interest in healthcare, and my grasp of law goes no further than thinking ‘tort’ must be in some way related to the word ‘retort’. And I’ve had no prior dealings with Congoo that I can recall aside from several pitches from their (somewhat, er, insistent) PR company, whose own contact database could do with some consolidating.

It appears I’m not alone in thinking this might be a bit too spammy to be decent business practice. The net-abuse mailing list last week collected four examples of an identical message from one Heather Faulkner, who also happens to carry the title of “Manager Network Development” (how many managers of one department are you allowed? I’m not really up to date on that kind of thing), while the spam manager at AKBK Home captured more than 50 in a few hours.

And then there’s Congoo’s own policy on spam, of which this seems itself to be a transgression:

Congoo is concerned about controlling unsolicited commercial e-mail, or “spam.” Congoo has a strict policy prohibiting the use of all Congoo mail accounts to send spam.

I’ve asked Congoo for more information on this, and on their policy about emailing people. At best, I’ve got it all wrong and it’s all a big mistake. At worst, it’s a pretty poor display of a networking site trying to build its base through tactics that make it little different to those of a Viagra salesman. Times may be tough amidst the runaway success of something like Facebook, and the critical mass of LinkedIn, but stoop low and there’s no way back to standing straight.

Lost in Transmission

image

I dread to think how much eBay is paying Waggener Edstrom to handle press relations for their Toy Crusade. At least I think that’s what is being launched — all the press stuff I received this morning, including image-laden email, attachments was all in Chinese. Oh, except for the headline.

I know I should, but I don’t speak Chinese.

Now, admittedly, the event is about China, it’s being organized in Hong Kong, and the website itself is entirely in Chinese (no English version in sight), but you’d think one of the world’s biggest PR agencies could have managed

  • to have a database of journalists’ language preferences clue: names are often a giveaway), or
  • perhaps an English-language version somewhere in the text, or
  • a link to an English-language version, or
  • an explanation that this is a Chinese-language only event/issue, or
  • a link on the email indicating it was sent by an intern with no idea of what mayhem he may be creating for himself by blasting off emails to all and sundry, or
  • a link in the email to a place where we journalists can complain volubly and ensure we never receive another email like it.

Serious lesson in this: At the very least, this kind of email is likely to end up as spam in a non-Chinese speaking recipient’s email inbox because the Bayesian filters will have been trained to treat it as such. (This is what happened to mine.) So that’s all pretty much a waste of everyone’s time.

But at the most, as a PR agency you’re being paid large amounts of money to target the message to the right people. I’m clearly not the right people. So either don’t send it to me, or send me an English language version, or send me a query about whether this might be of interest. Or expect me to get grumpy, and take 15 minutes of my day to write a grumpy blog post like this.

Update, Aug 27 2007: I’ve just heard from Waggener who have offered an apology and explanation:

In the case of the toy crusade press release, a staff member accidentally inserted the wrong distribution list, and this was overlooked by their supervisor during the checking process.

People do make mistakes and of course the individuals concerned are very apologetic.  To be sure, we have also added more safeguards to the process to minimize the likelihood of this ever happening again.

Fair play. Of course it’s better that these things don’t happen, but they do, and their response is measured and the right one. The proof will be in the pudding — will it happen again?

The Sleazy Practice of Internal Linking

image

It’s a small bugbear but I find it increasingly irritating, and I think it reflects a cynical intent to mislead on the part of the people who do it, so I’m going to vent my spleen on it: websites which turn links in their content, not to the site itself, but to another page on their own website.

An example: TechCrunch reviews Helium, a directory of user-generated articles. But click on the word Helium, and it doesn’t take you, as you might reasonably expect, to the website Helium, but to a TechCrunch page about Helium. If you want to actually find a link to the Helium page, you need to go there first.

I find this misleading, annoying and cynical on the part of the websites that do this. First off, time-honored tradition of the net would dictate a website name which is linked to something would be to the website itself. Secondly, clearly TechCrunch and its ilk are trying to keep eyeballs by forcing readers to go to another internal page, with all the ads, before finding the link itself. Thirdly, because I’m a PersonalBrain user and I like to drag links into my plex (that’s what we PBers call it) it’s a pain.

Fourthly, it’s clearly a policy that even TechCrunch has trouble enforcing. In the case above, the original post had the word Helium directly linking to the website itself, but which was subsequently edited to link to the internal TechCrunch page (as noticed by a reader of the site). If you subscribe to the TechCrunch feed, that’s what you’ll still see:

image image

TechCrunch isn’t alone in this, by the way. StartupSquad does it (a particularly egregious example here of five links in a row which don’t link to the actual sites). For an example of how it should be done, check out Webware, which has the word linking to the site itself, and an internal review as a parenthetical link following. Like this, in Rafe Needleman’s look at companionship websites. Click on Hitchsters and you go to the site; click on ‘review’ and you go to a review.

image

It’s a nuisance more than a crime, but to me it still undermines a central tenet of the web: links should be informative and not misleading. If you are linking to anything other than what your reader would expect, then you’re just messing around with them.

Google’s New Interface: The Earth

image

I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

image

Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

A Beginner’s Guide to Saving an Old Computer

(This is the text of my weekly Loose Wire Service column, written mostly for newcomers to personal technology, and syndicated to newspapers like The Jakarta Post. Editors interested in carrying the service please feel free to email me.)

What should you do with an old laptop that is so slow you have time to down a cup of coffee while it gets ready?

A reader wrote to me recently: “I would be very grateful for your advice on how to make my very old (1999?) Toshiba Satellite 2545CDS laptop work faster and less erratically.”

His symptoms may be familiar to you: “Composing this message in Yahoo Mail becomes a hardship. The cursor moves slowly or disappears, to suddenly reappear. The computer is always doing something other than what I want it to do — the hard disk drive light is flickering madly, the drive is whirring, but the cursor won’t move.

“Using the Delete or Back Space key is particularly exciting: you press the key many times and nothing happens until the machine wakes up and wipes out your whole sentence. Appending files to messages takes hours, and when you leave to go to the bathroom the computer has put itself on standby.

“It takes me a whole cup of coffee to wait for the laptop to get ready to do two things simultaneously like proofreading a document in PDF format while listening to AccuRadio Classical.”

The reader goes in a similar vein for several pages in the best description of a computer past its sell-by date I’ve come across. He concludes: “Other friends have told me it is time to buy a new laptop, and I now have a much faster Toshiba Portege.”

But understandably, he’s reluctant to let go of this piece of hardware, with plenty of hard disk space remaining, and better inboard speakers than its successor. So what to do?

This reader has done the first thing right — clean the Registry. The Registry on Windows machines is the place where all the information about your programs and settings is stored. Windows refers to this file a lot, so the bigger it is and the more messy it is, the slower your computer runs (and the bigger the chance of errors.) So you should keep it clean.

The easiest way to do this is via a program called CCleaner (no, that’s not a typo; the first C stands for something a family paper like this can’t mention.) CCleaner is free from here: http://www.ccleaner.com/. Download it.

Then, just to be on the safe side, create a Restore Point in your system in case you don’t like what CCleaner does (you’ll find System Restore under your Accessories/System Tools menu. CCleaner will also let you save a backup of your registry before making any changes).

When you’ve created a Restore Point, run the “Scan for Issues” on CCleaner’s Issues tab (it may take some time). Then click on the Fix Selected Issues button. When this is finished your Registry should be a lot cleaner — meaning the computer will be faster. A bit.

Next stop is to defragment the hard drive. This tidies up the files on your hard drive so they will load more quickly and new files can find a place for themselves without having to split into smaller bits. Think of it as cleaning up after a raunchy party: the files are the wine glasses and plates piled up in the sink, the kitchen cupboards are your hard drive where they all need to go.

Windows has a pretty good defragmentation tool called Disk Defragmenter in the same menu as the System Restore program. Run that — and drink another cup of coffee or six while it’s doing it. It could take some time.

This should speed up your computer. But it may not be enough. There could be several reasons for this. One is that the hard drive is overloaded. (If so, delete the big files until at least half the hard drive is empty.)

My reader is clearly not having this problem: He reports using only 1.5 gigabytes of the 4 GB hard disk. In this case, you may be better off cleaning the hard drive of everything and starting again.

This is not a step to be taken lightly: It involves backing up all your data, collecting all your serial numbers and installation disks for software you have, and then canceling all hot dates for a few days as you laboriously reformat your hard drive and install the operating system, the drivers for your external devices, software programs and settings, and then the files you saved from before.

It’s like war: boring and scary in equal measure. Boring because watching a progress bar move slowly from left to right isn’t fun, and scary because you occasionally get heart-stopping moments where you think you’ve lost an important file forever, or the whole process stops for no apparent reason.

I wouldn’t recommend it, but neither would I recommend you outsource it — at least until you’re absolutely sure you’ve backed up every single file, e-mail, photo and password you might need again. But if your computer is not responding to lesser measures, this might be the best way to go.

Another tip: If your computer is an old one, don’t try to force fancier operating systems onto it. If your computer was made in 1999, for example, chances are it won’t like Windows XP very much, for the good reason that XP came out in 2001 and was designed for faster chips than were available back then. Your computer won’t like it and will rebel.

Better to have an operating system that’s older than the computer. Even better, if the computer is not going to be your main device, ditch Windows altogether and install Ubuntu (www.ubuntu.com), an Open Source (meaning free) operating system that looks a lot like Windows, but will run quite happily on older machines.

You could still play music files, write documents and e-mails or surf the Web on it, and you’ll be considered very cool by your friends.

There’s always another option: Ditch the laptop and just use the hard drive as external storage for your other computers. But that’s for another day.

The Jakarta Post – The Journal of Indonesia Today

Technorati Tags: , , ,