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The Dewey Belushi system

Here’s the Onion on the Dewey Decimal Classification system meeting its nemesis, Jim Belushi. (Thanks to Jay Hurvitz for the pointer.)

Libraries sans Dewey

Barbara Fister has a terrific article in LibraryJournal about libraries who have moved away from the Dewey Decimal Classification (DDC) system, many in favor of some version of the BISAC system that arranges books alphabetically by topic. This is a more bookstore-like approach. The article presents the multiple sides of this discussion, with lots of examples.

The disagreement among librarians is, to my mind, itself evidence that there is no one right way to organize physical objects. Classification is pragmatic. You classify in a way that works, but what works depends upon what you’re trying to do. Libraries serve multiple purposes, so librarians have to make hard decisions. If the DDC isn’t the safe and obvious choice, then libraries have to confront the question of their mission. The classification question quickly becomes existential in the JP Sartre sense.

At the end, she quotes from Everything Is Miscellaneous where I say that the Dewey system “can’t be fixed.” I still think that’s right in its context: No single classification system can work for everyone or for every purpose, although they can be better or worse at what they’re trying to do. In that sense, the DDC can be improved, and the OCLC has continuously improved it. But because it’s premised on assigning a single main category to each book, it is repeating the limitations of the physical world that require physical books each to go on a single shelf. Any single classification is going to be inapt for some purposes, and is going to embody biases constitutive of its culture. It’s the job of a library and of a book store to decide which single way of classifying works best for its patrons, with the obvious recognition that no single way works best for all. Books are miscellaneous. Libraries, bookstores, and the shelves over your desk are not.

Anyway, Barbara’s article is a fascinating look at how libraries are trying to do the best for their patrons, working within the constraints of the physical.

Herkko Hietanen, a Berkman Fellow, is giving a talk about TV. “Television is really broken.” It’s not providing what consumers want: programs when we want them, where we want them. It lacks interaction with other viewers and with broadcasters. It has ads. It’s geographically limited. If you had to pitch TV to a venture capitalist, it would have a hard time getting funding.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Herkko gives a brief history of the highlights. VCRs were an early attempt to fix tv. This frightened the broadcasters, who took it to court, where — in Sony vs. Betamax — they lost. The court said the manufacturers were not responsible for infringing uses because the devices had non-infringing uses, and personal use was declared a fair use. Satellites extend over-the-air (OTA) broadcast. Community antennas were first set up by stores selling TV sets. Now cable is dominant. But contracts limit core innovation. “If you’re afraid you’ll piss off your content provider, you’re not going to do something that’s good for the consumer.”

There has been some innovation in the core. On-demand video. Time-Warner “LookBack” lets you view any show on the day it’s broadcast at any time during that day. Cable also provides a whole lot of channels. But, “Intelligence in the middle stops innovation at the edge.” The industry has litigated against just about everything innovative. E.g., Cablevision want to launch a service that would centralize storage rather than putting it in the set-top boxes. Just about everyone sued Cablevision for copyright infringement. The court saw that every user would have their own copy of a saved show. The court decided it doesn’t matter where the copies are stored. Herkko says it’s too bad it didn’t go to the Supreme Court so we’d have a definitive decision.

The problem with mythtv, Herkko says, is that it’s not user-friendly. [I spent 1.5 yrs trying to get MythTV to work, and failed :( Wendy Seltzer, seated across the table, has been using MythTV for years.] Tivo is easy but not all that easily hackable. You can’t share TiVo’ed shows, you can modify the code in the box. ReplayTV got sued for having a skip commercials feature, and went bankrupt.

Herkko points to living room clutter as another problem with TV today.

Herkko looks forward to PVRs getting connected to the Internet, because connected users create social networks, and they start to innovate. “We want stupid networked records and intelligent open client-players.” We want connected and tagged shows. We’ll have interactive TV for real, including gambling. Social groups could recommend what to watch.

This all creates privacy problems. E.g., an MIT study discovered they could identify gays by analyzing their social networks, with a high degree of accuracy.

At some point, users will probably start sharing their resources, cluster their recorders. Why should everyone record the same show over and over? Why get it from a central recorder when your neighbors have a copy? Of course, this is what got Replay TV into trouble, Herkko notes. He thinks that the social interaction around shows will happen before and after the show, because people won’t sit with a keyboard in their laps. [Since I'm on the backchannel as I listen to him, I guess I disagree.]

What about ads? Adding social networks would mean that people could watch ads they actually want to watch.

Overall: TV can be fixed. Social networks. Socially-oriented recorders.

Q: This is a compelling vision of the opposite of the Net. The Net is smart at the edges and dumb in the middle. TV has been the opposite. You seem to hope that the future will invert so consumers can get what they want. But consumers have never gotten what they wanted. What will change it?
A: We need brave entrepreneurs to test it in the courts. Having network recorders isn’t that different from having a VCR.

Q: When you were talking about the keyboard in your lap, I think that’s wrong generationally.
A: Voice works while watching tv. But typing and sharing the screen doesn’t.

Q: You’re talking about what the cable companies will do. But then there’s the stuff in the IP world: mythTV, Boxee, etc. That’s where the exciting stuff is.
A: Innovation at the core is very slow, while innovation at the edge is happens very fast.

Q: If the Internet arises to bypass the core, will the quality decline? Will it be more like YouTube style?
A: That’s a real concern. If everyone skips the ads, then there won’t be profit in producing high quality shows. Although there are also premium channels. And in Finland we pay an annual fee and get 4 channels.

Q: There are a lot of forces driving the centralization of TV. With that comes control against innovation at the edges. Is TV going to change or be changed by people sharing content from the edges?
A: If we force a change on TV, the broadcast flag will be re-introduced. Big audiences still demand the lay-back experience.
Q: The sitting back phenomenon has persisted for 50 yrs. Why will it continue?

Q: What is your main research question?
A: When recorders get connected, what sort of innovation are we going to get?

Q: Don’t we need non-Net neutrality to ensure that the video experience over the Net is good enough to inspire innovation in that space?
A: It can be done in other ways. You don’t need immediate delivery of all packets if you’re downloading for viewing late. E.g., in Finland I have a box that records 2 weeks of all 10 channels.

Q: The picture you’re painting is not very TV-like. It’s not broadcast, not one-directional, the business model doesn’t work, we’ll be using our computers…So, it seems like you’re dissolving what TV is. Rather talking about the “social enrichment of TV” [the title of Herkko's talk], we should be talking about the visual enrichment of the Internet. E.g., how do you see Hulu, which has some community features.
A: I defined TV at the outset: It’s geographically bounded, it’s broadcast, it’s scheduled, etc. And Hulu takes some of the edge approach, but it’s very much a core app. We’re going to see a big shift of control from the rights owners to consumers.

Sidewiki: Google at the center

I agree with Jeff Jarvis’ critique of Google’s Sidewiki.

Sidewiki is ThirdVoice yet again. Both let you write and read comments on a site — actually on the site — so long as you have the proprietary client. ThirdVoice failed mainly because it couldn’t get enough people to install its client. (Of course, one could ask why enough people weren’t interested in this.) Sidewiki might succeed because it’s part of the vastly popular Google Toolbar. And, as Jeff says, that means it might succeed because Google is using its near ubiquity as a center of the Net. Which is troubling. For example, again as Jeff reports, insofar as the commentary on his site about his Sidewiki post occurs in Sidewiki, Google now owns the comments on his post. Troubling.

I think there are reasons to doubt Sidewiki’s success. As more people add comments, we need good ways to sort through them, to eliminate spam, to decide which types of comments are useful to us. Google is promising us algorithms. But algorithms won’t know that I don’t particularly want to read comments about my friend Jeff’s character, but I am particularly interested in what technologists are saying, or about Net politics, or what my friends are saying, or about how to hack Sidewiki.

Sidewiki has its uses. I’d rather see it connected to social networks, and I’d rather see it provided as an open source browser add-in. But I don’t know who should own the comments and what the control mechanisms should be. This is one of the edges of the Web that defies easy answers because it’sso hard to tell what is the center and what are the sides.

News is a river is a blog…

WLEX-TV in Lexington, Kentucky, an NBC affiliate, has turned its news site into a blog. It actually contains news produced independently of what goes out on broadcast. Very very interesting. It’s a different way of slicing the news, with much debt to Dave Winer’s river of news idea, and it’ll be fascinating to see how and in what ways it’s useful and how it changes our idea of what news should be.

The temptation of stories

Journalism at its best is a way to uncover and communicate the truth, subject to all the usual human limitations. But journalism’s fundamental form, the story itself, brings a special temptation to manipulate the truth for economic or aesthetic reasons. The temptation is resistible to varying degrees, depending on the type of story (the temptations are greater for feature stories than for hard-core reportage of the day’s events), the nature of the journal, and the standing of journalist. Nevertheless, the temptation is there, built into the form itself.

The very idea that there’s a story is itself a temptation. Maybe the story is on Facebook addiction or the rise in incivility. A journalist who goes back to her editor and says, “Nope, no story there” has disappointed the editor who now has to find another story to fill the hole in the paper newspaper or to feed the maw of the online publication. Not a big deal; it happens all the time. But if it’s fifth consecutive time that the reporter says there was no story there, it’s getting to be a problem. If it’s the reporter who has suggested the stories in the first place, as is often the case at many publications, she will be judged a failure because she’s wasted her time and gummed up the editor’s planning.

It’s not like it’s supposed to be in science, where a failed hypothesis is as valuable as a proved one, even though of course every scientist would rather discover that a new compound cures cancer than that it doesn’t. A failed hypothesis in the world of journalism is a story that won’t run, that won’t bring in readers, that won’t give businesses a page on which to place an ad. There are real prices to stories failing to pan out. Reporters are thus tempted to make the story work.

Even when the hypothesis of a story is true, journalists almost always reach a place in the story where they know what they want their interviewees to say. An interview is requested of a particular person to provide the “some experts disagree” statement or the “the implications of this are vast” verbiage. If that person doesn’t provide it, someone else will. Depending on the stage of the story, the interviewee may spark interest in a side issue or an approach the reporter hadn’t considered…resulting in someone else being called to provide the other side or the amplification.

This happens at some of stage of the story even when the topic is interesting no matter what storyline it takes. For example, the death of Pat Tillman is interesting because it is instantly symbolic: Football star turns down a life of fame and wealth in order to defend his country, and dies a soldier’s death in Afghanistan. Beyond the basic reportage the day that it happened, it was bound to inspire journalistic stories. A reporter could enter with an open mind. Even so, she’ll enter with an open mind looking for an angle, which is to say, looking for a story. Is it a relatively simple narrative of an inspiring patriot who gave his life to support his ideals? Or was there “more” to it? That search for the “more” isn’t simply a hunt for unknown truths. It’s a search for a narrative that reveals the simple surface to be a veneer from which we will learn something unexpected. The reporter may have no idea what the more is, but once she gets a hint of it, she’ll be on it, and the narrative itself — if not personal ambition — will carry her forward. Maybe Tillman wasn’t as virtuous as we thought. Maybe his death wasn’t as straightforward as we were told. Maybe his story was of a life fulfilled or of a life wasted or of a life more complex than we’d thought. Maybe it’s about the government’s cynical use of him, or of the media’s own eagerness to find a hero. But something will emerge. And as it emerges, it gathers its story around it, and the reporter is off looking for the voices who will play certain roles in the story. Why? Because the story demands it.

At the very least, the temptation journalistic stories is that of all story-telling, the basic way we humans make sense of our world. Stories, not just in journalism, are about the gradual revealing of truth. The surface wasn’t as it seemed. The ending was contained, hidden, in the beginning. What looked continuous was in fact disruptive. Stories have a shape, and story-tellers fit the pieces into that shape. There’s nothing wrong with that, except in an environment where there’s economic and social pressure to produce a story. Then the temptation is to get the pieces to fit. And that can corrode the truth.

So can the simple fact that stories tend towards closure. They end. They’re done. Some circle of understanding has been drawn and closed, tip to tip. The story says, simply by ending. “This is what you needed to know.” There can often be truth in that, but there is always falsity in it. The world, its events, and its people escape even the best of stories.

Stories are not going away from journalism, just as they’re not going away from history, biography, or how we talk about our day over dinner. They’re fundamental. Stories are how we understand, but they also inevitably are constructions, incomplete, and organized around a point of view. All stories are temptations. Journalistic stories have their own special and strong temptations because of their economics and because of the nature of the medium in which they’ve been embodied. Now those economics and that medium are changing, diminishing the old temptations but creating new ones:

::: Because we are increasingly turning to publications that explicitly take a stand, the temptation to include false views for “balance” is diminished. But, the preference for partisan media creates a new temptation: To over-state, in order to attract attention. [Guilty as charged!]

::: The old medium limited the length of stories, forcing unnecessary trimming except in very special circumstances. The new medium has infinite space so that stories can be right-sized. But it turns out that prolixity discourages on-line readers, so the new temptation is toward brevity. It’s not clear if that’s an expression of an impatience that’s always been with us or if the new medium constitutes a new temptation.

::: The old medium’s inability to embed links encouraged journalists to try to encapsulate the world in a single column of text. The new hyperlinked medium can tempt authors to gloss over points and contradictions because they’ve put in some links, putting the burden on readers who are (usually) lazier than the writers.

::: The economics of the old medium tempted publications to appear valuable by being a reliable source of the single truth. While they of course have encouraged discourse on controversial topics, their bread and butter have been stories that “get it right” and thus serve as a stopping point for belief. Stories are the bulwark of authority, and authority is the currency of the old journalistic economics. The new medium now can include as many stories as we want, from as many different points of view, connected by curators above the stories and by hyperlinks within the stories. The story no longer has to tell the whole truth. It’s just one of the stories. But, while that’s true of the ecosystem as a whole, the old temptation to be a single-source truth shop exists for individual online publications, whether they’re commercial or personal.

Now, the form I’ve adopted for this essay, which is itself a type of story-telling, is one of balance: Old temptations matched by new temptations. It’s a form that aims at inspiring trust: “See, I’m presenting both sides!” And that itself can be corrosive. Indeed, in this case it is. While the old temptations are being replaced by new ones, the locus of truth is moving decisively from individual stories and publications to the network of stories and publications. The balancing of temptations misses this most important change. The hyperlinked context of stories creates not only new temptations to go wrong, but a greater possibility for going right.

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