Archive for ‘Technology’

Live Thoughts on Biden v. Palin

By , 2 October, 2008, 3 Comments

There is a lot being written about this election as a watershed moment for the rise of new media political coverage. One reason is just timing: the election comes just as new media is really hitting its stride. Another reason is the many young people joining the political ranks after consuming gallons of Obama Kool-Aid. A third reason, however, is the level of micro-competition taking place here. By micro-competition, I’m thinking of the LONG campaign season due to the heavily fragmented primaries (some 15 candidates in all). That process created a culture where, even more than usual, little details mattered as voters tried to differentiate between candidates whose policy positions were often alike. That culture has fed into the general election, even though there are real policy topics to discuss now. With all that detail, in this nitty-gritty (or nit-picky, depending how you see it) campaign culture, new media has come to play a crucial role. Blogs are ideally suited to link together small items to help us see the whole. More importantly, they’re ideally suited to comment on small items in rapid succession: which is why if there’s one blogging practice that really exploded in this election, it’s the practice of live-blogging political events. With that, here are my live thoughts on tonight’s debate.

9:00 pm: Both candidates come out strong. Biden is forceful and makes himself the wonk–calls out Sarah Palin early for being fluffy by asking if HE can “get back to the question.” She’s articulate and poised, more confident than she has seemed in interviews with the press, and carefully steering the first question about the economy to her (professed) area of expertise, corruption.

9:20 pm: Ouch, Palin is using her stump speech again. “Government is too often the problem.” She is making a point of showcasing everything she learned in debate boot camp this week. “McCain’s plan is detailed, and I want to give you some details.” And she does actually know the numbers, impressive. If she could have said ‘detail’ again she would have. Not sure how credible it is to say the government is bad when you are running to join it, but hey, that’s just me. Biden is acing the delicate balance of being aggressive against Palin’s policy statements without attacking her and taking the feminist backlash by speaking to Gwen Ifill and not Palin directly. Biden’s best comment so far: McCain’s health care plan is “the ultimate bridge to nowhere.”

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Homework

By , 15 September, 2008, No Comment

I’ve been negligent lately about posting here. In part, that’s because I took a little vacation these past few days to Providence and Boston and left my laptop behind. In part, that’s because I’ve been swamped by my Columbia workload. But most of all, it’s because when I do find time to get online, I’m too busy enjoying several other sites to worry about this one.

So, let me pass on some gems to keep you all occupied and distracted:

1. The Big Money, a brand new business site that launched today, comes to us from the team that brought you Slate. Similar layout and a few common features (Today’s Papers–>Today’s Business Papers). I think the layout could be cleaner and less banner-ad ridden, but overall, I’m impressed with the content and excited to see something in the web journalism world that has a business focus and isn’t just a compendium of stock-tips or gossip. It’s a sign that this technology is really becoming a new establishment, not just some goofball accessory or insurgent hippie subculture.
2. The Conversation, an NYTimes feature where two of my favorite columnists–Gail Collins and David Brooks–do a joint podcast of them just bantering about current political news. Political opinions journalism, most of it on television appeals to its audience of die-hards (the people who read poll numbers all day for fun) as much because of the character eccentricities of the pundits as because of the content: think of everyone you know who has a crush on Anderson Cooper or remembers fondly the time Judy Woodruff cried on camera. Print pundits have a harder time getting that personality through unless you’ve been reading them consistently for years and years–this feature helps.

3. MSNBC Video. I don’t think any of the other major news networks has this good an archive of video spots from their top shows. Since I don’t believe in waking up before 2 pm on weekends, I miss out on all the juicy interviews on the morning talk shows. But I’ve been savoring the video clips from Meet the Press this week. In particular, I’m loving Joe Biden commenting on religion. Every Democrat makes this argument (I’m personally anti-abortion but politically pro-choice) and quickly gets pigeonholed as an out-of-touch impious elitist. Biden seems somehow more believable when he separates his Catholicism from his politics here than, say, Kerry did in 2004. Not sure why, but it makes me hopeful about his prospects in a debate against Sarah Palin, whose major credential includes her appeal for religious conservatives.

The Reader Column

By , 2 September, 2008, 1 Comment


Today was my first day of school in a nifty new(ish) program at Columbia, a Journalism MA that is as much about training journalists in a particular field (business, politics, arts or science coverage) as it is about training them to think about journalism as an entity.

In our first class discussion, we tried to map out the journalistic method–dividing up the tricks of the trade into two columns, “research” and “presentation.” Then we shared stories about times where we have compromised that method to make a flashier story: by taking an atypical example and building it up to signify a broader trend or subsuming factual accuracy to the flow of a narrative. One professor, Nick Lemann, added as an aside that this model won’t fully apply in the future, since the Internet has a journalistic model all its own.

I disagree. One of the problems the news media faces in making the transition to the Internet age is this sense that somehow all the core principles of the field no longer apply, that the blogosphere and the e-zine are some wilderness where only tribal natives can survive. Instead, we need to start treating the web as a way to solve the ethical dilemmas of old media journalism, and seek other scapegoats besides technology for the dilemmas that remain.

First, amend the model by adding a third column: the readers. To most old media hands, that means a group of tech savvy consumers apathetic about serious news and a voracious appetite for junk. The recent squabbles between sportswriter Buzz Bissinger and sportsblogger Will Leitch are a good example: Leitch says he deals in sports gossip because it’s what readers want.

And in digital reporting, it’s even more tempting to write the story that sells. In an old newspaper, reporters wrote and only the guys in the subscription office knew how their words sold. Today, every reporter sees the number of comments or diggs a story gets.

But, it’s silly to blame the technology. It is not that Google is making us stupid, but rather that we are choosing to use Google in stupid ways. Technological advances and a vapid news media, are symptoms, as another professor (Evan Cornog) reminded me, of a much broader social unraveling, the collapse of our sense of civic duty and communal ties. Fix our social fabric, and I assure you, media will return to its role as a component of what Cornog calls “responsible citizenship.”

Moreover, the Internet, when used correctly, can be a boon for the journalistic method on the ethics front. Web journalism, as Jeff Jarvis reminds us daily, is a conversation where readers have a say in shaping content. That means readers wind up checking reporters when we stretch an example or overdo the storytelling. And because we can upload our sources along with our analysis, even an overblown story can be brought into context.

Finally, and this is what heartens me most, making readers part of our model of journalistic practice can encourage reporters to be more, not less, responsible. In the best case scenario, that focus on readers reminds us that we write for society, that we are businesspeople and creative minds, but public servants, the ‘fourth estate,’ too. Once we’re done marveling at the flashy gadgets of today’s newsroom, I hope we’ll see that our mission is unchanged.

You Can’t Beat the System

By , 1 September, 2008, No Comment

My dad collects coffee mugs. Everywhere we go on a vacation, while the rest of us hunt eagerly for T-shirts and keychains, he shops the international Crate and Barrels for dishes. From London, we have a mug with the Underground map and the tagline “You Can’t Beat the System.” I like to drink from it while I read the financial section of the New York Times…

Thought about the “system” today when I read this story about a McCain aide who thought to juice up Sarah Palin’s Wiki entry before she was unveiled as a Veep choice on Friday. The article takes up the question of whether tampering with Wikipedia is immoral or just smart politics.

That reminds me of the controversy that errupted last year, when viral marketer Dan Greenberg unveiled some of the tactics he uses, or recommends others use, to sell brands online in a tell-all post on TechCrunch. Some of the conversation was about the ethics of individual tactics (paying bloggers to write favorable posts, for example), but much of the dialogue was about the ethics of using the Web to sell things at all.

There’s a lot of hippie culture among techheads, so much so that some of them talk as if making money from online activities is itself sacriligious. As someone who sees free culture as akin to free markets (not free lunch), I’m inclined to respond, “You can’t beat the system.” And you can’t blame Ackerman or the McCain campaign for working it.

Old Dude 1, Techheads 0

By , 29 August, 2008, 1 Comment


Last week, I was all amused to watch CNN steal Barack’s thunder by breaking his veep choice before his so-so-cool text message went out. I took it as a sign that old media might be more agile and relevant in this high tech age than some bloggers like to argue.

This week, I’m all amused to learn that McCain has picked Sarah Palin as his veep. Of the choices he had, I think he made the best one. His other finalists–social conservative Romney, ‘Sam’s Club’ conservative Pawlenty and hawk Lieberman–were all fatally flawed: reviled as a person, an unknown and gasp! a Democrat.

But the benefits of picking Palin–proven maverick, social conservative–are undercut by the baseness of assuming that Hillary voters will swing to her just because she’s a woman:

1. most Hillary voters weren’t for her JUST because of her gender
2. the ones that were, the ones for whom “women’s issues” are the only issues that matter are not the kind of people who would vote for a pro-lifer.

Plus, as a man with serious health/age concerns, McCain is picking a VP with a decent shot of being No. 1 one day. Palin’s foreign policy resume just isn’t big enough for that. That said, on domestic policy, I think Palin fits right where McCain wants to position himself, so overall, I think it’s the right choice.

Given that neither McCain or Obama totally bungled their choices, then, I think the veep choices come out even, meaning the race is still neck and neck and still focused on the same few states as before.

What McCain does win, however, is the media battle. Mr. Old Dude, supposedly out of touch and mocked by Paris Hilton for his mashup video of Obama managed to keep his choice a total secret in the age of 24-hour news and bloggers dying to scoop him. Meanwhile, Mr. 21st century, Obama, got scooped. Score one for being old, I guess.

Call me old-fashioned

By , 27 August, 2008, No Comment

I know we’re in the age of Web 2.0 now, where the pursuit of information gives way to the pursuit of links, ways to connect and think about information.

Call me old-fashioned, hungover from Web 1.0, but I still get a kick out of raw information troves like this project to digitize the Dead Sea Scrolls. One may wonder why, 10 years into the Internet Age, we still haven’t scanned and uploaded all the pre-web written material. Well, obviously, there’s a lot of it. But more importantly, most old documents can’t handle radiation and bright light. Which is why this project is so exciting. If this Israeli venture works out, and we apply the same technology to other ancient tomes of wisdom, we might finally get that universal library, the digital Alexandria, webheads have been heralding since 1995.

Apocalypse 7: Stealing Barack’s Thunder

By , 24 August, 2008, 1 Comment

Unless you lived under a rock last week, you probably heard some chatter about the Obama campaign’s plan to announce a runningmate (it’s Biden, by the way) via text message The young faithful Obama-ites would be in the know before the media pundits; the news would be all over the blogs before it hit the evening broadcast.

It didn’t work out that way. Late on Friday night, CNN had enough material to break the Biden news on air, followed within minutes by the other networks and the websites of all the major newspapers. Panicked, the campaign sent out their text to supporters at about 3 am (AFTER the news was out for the general public) instead of the 8 am time they had planned. Oops.

Now my anecdotal reporting suggests a certain correlation between the Obamamaniacs and the free culture radicals who are waiting for blogs and citizen journalists–camera phones in hand–to obliterate the CNN’s of the world. Both groups are young, urban lefties, after all.

So fittingly, when the Obama cell phone campaign got scooped, the free culture argument lost out too: the threat of new technologies didn’t kill the old media hounds, it just made them work harder to get the story first.

By raising the bar, might the Internet actually be good for the news industry?

Comcast in Portland: A Cautionary Tale

By , 18 August, 2008, No Comment

My friend Steve just moved to Portland, OR. Being a 22-year old man with clear priorities, he immediately set about acquiring food, a TV and a couch. In that order. Food is easy to come by in Portland, apparently: there are free ice-cream cone giveaways on the streets, and $1 hot dogs at minor league baseball games. Setting up cable, however, proved a challenge.

In a city that hosts chipmaker Intel, it’s only fitting that Steve would turn to the web to set up his new Comcast account. But instead of filling out an online form to request a visit from the cable guy (which is fairly standard across the country), Steve found himself handing over credit card information via an instant message.

The process was a lot faster than calling one of those corporate 800 numbers and dealing with an automated menu (“press 1 to pay us, press 2 to pay us more”), but Steve wasn’t pleased. This is “f***ing retarded,” he said. “Horrendous.”

First off, there’s the uncertainty of putting your credit card info into an IM that you have no confirmation page for. Halfway through the transaction, the IM client crashed when Steve tried to open a new tab on his browser.

Secondly, there’s the increased chance of fraud: the credit card Steve used actually belonged to his girlfriend Dana.

Thirdly, an IM conversation is an ideal place to make typos and grammatical gaffes. The Comcast rep asked to “ruin a credit card,” and after setting up a time for an installation told Steve, “Please make sure that there should be someone 18 years old and above, who is English speaking must be present for the duration of the appointment. Please be inform that the technician will call you 15 minutes before the installation.”

I don’t buy the whole Google-makes-you-stupid theory about internet users, and I don’t think the Comcast rep speaks this way in real life. Rather, I believe the same individuals can be less articulate over fast-paced communication technologies like IM or SMS than they are in print or even over e-mail, where there’s time to spell-check and proofread. And while error-prone IM is fine for personal conversations, Steve says that’s not okay when $100 a month is at stake. I agree.

And Steve is a tech-savvy guy. Like most 20-somethings, he uses the web to listen to music or surf YouTube!; plus, he has a subscription to a service that allows him to watch live coverage of professional sports that don’t make prime time on ESPN. That he still expects a certain formality and decorum from commercial relationships is a telling sign: just because the internet allows us to abandon all the old playbooks, doesn’t mean the Google generation wants that. That’s an important lesson for any companies trying to navigate the digital age.

Never Thought I’d Say This

By , 12 August, 2008, No Comment


…but Wolf Blitzer has done something right. For the record, I have no soft spot for his newscast, the Situation Room. It’s something I watch at the gym because it’s just mindless enough to keep me distracted while I run or ellipticize. But a few days ago, something Wolf said actually got me thinking.

Apparently, you can download a Situation Room screensaver on the show’s website and get a running ticker of headlines on your screen. It’s one of those inventions that makes me wonder why no one thought of it sooner. In the olden days, families ran their TVs on mute over dinner. In the ancient days, they kept the radio on low volume in the kitchen. The news was background noise. In today’s digital world, the screensaver is (silent) background noise.

Granted, it’d be better to have the global headlines from a decent news show like BBCWorld or some regional news from a local station (here in New York, that’d be NY1). Still, even a Blitzer-ticker beats those silly swimming fish or the geometric animations that come on most PCs.

Good Girls Don’t Blog

By , 27 July, 2008, No Comment

The blogosphere is all abuzz because of an article in the New York Times about a conference of female bloggers called BlogHer. The article looks at the conference as a sign of a glass ceiling in the blog world where women tend to blog as a hobby, while a lot of men have been able to make their blogs a full time, and highly lucrative, job. Maybe, the piece muses, that’s because women don’t want to be blogger-executives. Or maybe it’s because they can’t get venture capitalists and advertisers to support them.

The feminist blogs are up in arms that the article confirms stereotypes of women. Because the piece focuses on blogs about fashion and family, it implicitly suggests that women don’t blog about anything else. And because it’s in the SundayStyles section, it confirms that women bloggers aren’t real entrepreneurs, who would get profiled in the Business section. Simply by devoting two pages to discussing gender difference, some of these bloggers say, the article has helped to create them.

The piece has a lot of problems, but they would certainly not be solved by treating BlogHer as an ordinary business conference and ignoring the presence of gender altogether. Rather, instead of simply stating that women blog differently or get less funding, the reporter–Kara Jesella–needed to spend more time probing those inequities. This article should have been longer on cultural criticism and shorter on fluffy prose. By spending several paragraphs, for example, on the atmosphere inside a ladies’ restroom, Jesella leaves no room for analysis.

She drops bombs like “women are taught not to be aggressive and analytical in the way that the political blogosphere demands, and are more likely to receive blog comments on how they look, rather than what they say,” then doesn’t explain her point. The feminist blogs had a field day with this statement, because it seems as though Jesella is endorsing this image of women as non-confrontational and appearance-conscious.

What she could have, should have, added was that even though women bloggers aren’t passive airheads, enough media moguls think of them this way that they might have a hard time raising money. Big advertisers might be confident of the success of an angry man’s blog (think of Arrington, Jarvis, or Drudge) and fearful of an opinionated woman. The article really wasn’t about who female bloggers are, but the struggles they face as a result of the way they are perceived. It strikes me as an attempt to expose sexism that falls flat because it’s badly written, not (as the bloggers contend) because its author (a woman, by the way) is a sexist herself.

The whole point of the BlogHer conference is for women to network with one another to get around these kinds of impasses by DISCUSSING gender issues. To somehow cover the conference without talking about the difference between male and female bloggers is just naive, and hardly a productive feminist approach.