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Archive for February, 2007

Blogs, journalism (yawn), and a correction

James McGrath Morris has an article at that tries to de-hype blogging’s contribution to news by saying what bloggers do is nothing new and pointing out that blogs are error-prone.

We’ve all been over the error prone argument forever. As for the argument that blogging is nothing new, well, nothing is really new. The importance of blogging for journalism does not rest on a claim that it’s without any precedent. In fact, James says that the blogs’ claim to a lack of objectivity is a return to the “Golden Age of Journalism,” which would mean that while it’s not new, it’s different. James is arguing against a strawperson, and thus sleighting the real effects of blogging on journalism.

Finally, he goes on to say that “blogging may be more democratic, but it’s also likely to be less read. There is a point when there are simply too many blogs. With 30 million blogs today, we may well have reached that point.”

That last point sounds a bit like the Yogi Berra remark that no one goes to that nightclub any more because it’s too crowded. It ignores the research that shows there’s a short head and a long tail, which means that a handful of blogs are being massively read and — more important — there’s a huge network of nodes each of which accretes a local readership.

And then he sort of misrepresents me. The nerve! He says that I announced in an “All Things Considered” commentary that I am no longer reading many of my friends’ blogs. Not exactly. I didn’t stop reading my friends’ blogs; I gave up on keeping up with them every day. There’s a difference: I still read my friends’ blogs, just not as steadily as I once did. And, fwiw, my point was that it should be considered rude to assume that anyone has been keeping up with your blog. So, James was off a shade. But, then, we all know that articles about blogs and journalism are error-prone. (Damn humans!) [Tags: ]

EgoSurfing made easy

Yes, I do occasionally search for links to my blog and mentions of my name. You may call it ego surfing or Web narcissism, but I prefer to think of it as “listening to the conversation.” Yeah, right.

It was one of those searches that turned up, a free site that shows you where you rank in each of the major search sites. It also assigns “ego points” according to a formula that’s secret, thus vitiating the feature. You can have it search for your name, your site, or any string. You may also discover, as I did, that your domain is not indexed at all by Zero hits on “” at msn! (The EgoSurf faq is amusing.)

Fortunately, the site works slowly, so you won’t be tempted to check it 15 times a day, you narcissistconversation-lover, you! [Tags: ]

Pipes and Eyes

Many Eyes aggregates a bunch o’ interesting visualizations of data, including the words in Green Eggs and Ham and Guantanamo detainees by age and release status. (We’ve released lots of the Pakistanis but few of the Yemenites.)

Yahoo Pipes lets you construct customized RSS feeds from multiple sources with just the sorts of info you care about. For example, this feed does a content analysis of the NY Times feed and uses that to look up photos at Flickr. You build ’em through a visual editor that takes more than 45 seconds to figure out. (Thanks to Colin Maclay for the links.) [Tags: ]

Pipes and eyes

I have a brief post at about Many Eyes (a visualization site) and Yahoo Pipes (a feed aggregator)… [Tags: ]

John Palfrey’s awesome outlining software

I believe the software John Palfrey used at the BeyondBroadcast conference is MindMap. It combines outlining with superslick presentation quality. There’s an open source outliner that some compare with it called FreeMind, but on a quick look, it doesn’t seem to be nearly as slick…but it’s free and open source. [Tags: ]

[berkman] Matthew Pearl

Matthew Pearl, author of The Dante Club, is giving a Berkman talk. Gene Koo (his ex roommate) introduces him as someone doing a form of literary remix. He’s teaching a class at Harvard Law called “Literary Visions of Copyright.” He’s going to talk about the 19th Century copyright battles. [As always, I’m approximating. Matthew speaks eloquently; live blogging generally misses the eloquence.]

The Copyright League consisted mainly of authors who “wanted to rethink and reshape” copyright. James Russell Lowell — poet and president of the League — came up with the motto:

“In vain we call old notions fudge and bend our conscience to our dealing. The Ten Commandments will not budge and stealing will still be stealing.” [Approx.]

“This became a mantra for copyright advocates.” Note the appeal to a higher authority, Matthew points out.The motto compares commercial dealings to an older and higher regime. Writers at the time — Louisa Alcott, Mark Twain, etc. — petitioned Congress in support of copyright. The US laws were pretty much are they are today, but there was no international protection: British authors couldn’t get copyright protection here. This meant US publishers could publish British authors without paying a cent. This also undermined several generations of American authors because a Dickens book only cost $0.25 but a Twain might cost $1.25. (Harper, the publisher, was “the most notorious and proud pirate,” says Matthew.)

Kipling wrote a poem about buccaneers that’s about book poetry, which someone referred to as “bookaneers.” Poe’s “Purloined Letter” is about writing stolen but left in public view, another metaphor for book piracy. Dickens, who called himself “the biggest loser” because of his lost royalties, wrote Martin Chuzzlewit about an unstable American system. Harriet Beecher Stowe sued a publisher for publishing a German translation. She lost the case, and was criticized for being against treating people as property but favoring treating books as property. [Wow. These seem to be separable issues!]

There was tentativeness among the authors supporting copyright, says Matthew. They wanted to protect authors but not crush the laborers who manufactured books; if copyright were introduced, they feared book manufacturing would move to other countries. Also, the lack of international copyright enabled cheap editions, supporting a democratic ideal. Mark Twain and Walt Whitman were especially sensitive to these concerns; Whitman’s Leaves of Grass positioned him as a friend of labor. Dickens was making tons of money on his speaking tour and was painted as greedy for wanting royalties also. Matthew compares this to current attitudes towards rich rock bands. People also argued that we needed copyright freedom in order to alter British texts for American readers, including taking out some of the lords-and-ladies feel. (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court is about American hostility to that, Matthew says.)

Matthew says some of the fun of studying this is that the authors are imposing a narrative on the topic. It’s a narrative of natural rights and pirates, even though according to the law at the time, the “pirates” were doing nothing wrong. “They became pirates because that’s what we put into our rhetoric until we believed it.” “All of this gradually wore down the paradigm of a collective ownership of the works.”

Matthew says that we should learn at how we’re creating our own narrative of piracy. E.g., the FBI warning at the beginning of DVDs even though copying a DVD for your own use is legal. E.g., Disney recently bought the copyright to Oswald the Rabbit (its pre-Mickey character) even though Oswald’s first three cartoons are out of copyright and thus Oswald is out of copyright; Disney is shaping the narrative. Google Books is now also trying to shape the narrative.

Q: [me] Were there moral arguments in favor of not having international copyright?
A: The most effective argument was that it would hurt our workers.

Q: What about logical consistency, protecting authors everywhere?
A: There was a different sense of boundaries. We assume a globalized world. But people were not embracing the natural rights argument. Copyright didn’t come out of a rights argument originally, in the Constitution. Someone said it was about copy privilege, not copy right.

Q: (ethanz) In other parts of the world, they make an argument that they need pirated texts in order to go to university. The US violated British copyright when it was developing, so it’s right for India and China to do so now. How would Twain et al. have replied to this?
A: Fascinating argument. We didn’t have a national literature in the 19th C. Moby-Dick was dismissed. All we can do is imitate, it was thought. One argument was that we need easy access to the British texts until we’ve established our own American literature.

Q: Would people have paid more if there were a different copyright regime?
A: They get into the minutia of it in the Senate arguments. There’s no agreement. The introduction of public access libraries in the middle of the century threw the pricing up into the air.

Q: Was there a parallel rhetoric in Europe?
A: There wasn’t much market for American books in England (Cooper and Twain were exceptions), so the British were all for copyright. The government got involved.

Q: Dickens and others acknowledged that they got wider distribution because their earlier books were pirated in the US.
A: Same thing with Google Books: You’re getting attention for your books, especially for books that are out of print.

Q: Did people argue that writers wouldn’t write or wouldn’t share it with the public?
A: Yes. You see this in the Senate hearings. Without copyright, you couldn’t professionalize writing enough to enable writers to earn a living, it was argued. Twain said that writers should go live in England for a bit before publishing to get British copyright protection; he was out of touch with what writers can do.

Q: Initially, copyright protection went to printers, not authors. How did that transition happen?
A: (Simon) In the Renaissance, patrons gained prestige from the affiliation. In 18th C Ireland, Swift was able to prosper without copyright. It’s an interesting to compare cultures that have and do not have copyright protection.

Q: When did we go from writing to being a professional writer?
A: (Simon) It’s hard to pinpoint. [He mentioned a 1774 copyright decision that I missed.]

Q: The audience wasn’t receptive to the economic argument, because it came from rich authors. How about the reaction to the moral argument?
A: It’s hard to say because the public wasn’t a part of the conversation. Women weren’t even part of it.

Q: (cbracy) What was the relation between the authors and their works?
A: Authors still tend to have control over their books than musicians generally do. If you publish a book, you own the copyright. That’s not the case with screenplays: You sell the copyright. But publishers want to reinforce the idea of single authorship; they don’t even like long acknowledgements.

Q: [me] The piracy narrative doesn’t hold up in even on its own terms now; now we can’t even use works we’ve bought all the ways we want, and “piracy” just doesn’t work as a metaphor. Do you see any other narratives around that might work better?
A: The commons? There’s so little discussion of public domain in these 19th C discourses. I’d love to read a history of the concept of the commons (which Louis Hyde is doing).

A: (ethanz) There are developments in the UK that might make Beatles albums public domain in 2012, which will recreate the 19th C situtation in which cheap British imports compete against US music. a: “Sharing” is a counter narrative.

Q: (Gene) You have made a career out of both sides of the copyright issue (i.e., copyrighted works about copyright)…
A: I definitely do feel Jekyl and Hyde about copyright. I’d enforce my copyright if it came up, and we complain when the royalty statements from the Chinese publishers are wrong, but all we can is complain. “I even write the copyright notice for my books.” The notice originally said that no characters are intended to resemble people living or dead.

Q: (egeorge ) How would you feel if I did fan fiction based on your work?
A: I haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about that. They’re writing a screenplay of my book, and it’s nothing like the book. I’m getting paid to let them alter my text. If I’m not getting paid, I guess I’d feel that so long as it’s non-commercial, I’d be fine about it. It gets word out about your book.

Q: The difference in prices between American and British was multiples. Why?
A: You wouldn’t have to pay an advance. Competition. And there was variance.

Q: Who’s your next book about?
A: It’s secret.

[Great talk. And a very likable, modest fella.] [Tags: ]

My failed BeyondBroadcast talk

I did the “wrapup” at BeyondBroadcast, and tried to talk about the thought I keep coming back to but am never able to articulate. At least it was brief – under 10 minutes, I think. Here’s the outline of what I said:

1. What’s the thread between participatory culture and participatory democracy? Why think one has to do with the other? How can participatory culture be “transformative,” as Henry Jenkins suggested in his terrific opening talk. (Digression: The mainstream media are focused on including “user-generated content” on their sites as their response to participatory culture, but that’s not transformative.)

2. Well, what is democracy. There are bunches of definitions: Majority vote, society of equals, government that gets its authority from the people. But most important, it’s ours. The government isn’t theirs, the way it was the king’s.

3. So, what does “ours” mean? Again, there are bunches of definitions: What the law gives you control over, on our side, of our nature or essence. But, when it comes to culture, look at the difference between your study of a foreign culture and your participation in yours. Culture is ours because it makes us who we are; we are indistinguishable from it.

4. But, participatory culture is changing the nature and topology of ours. It’s ours in a different way. We can create works with strangers, with anonymous crowds, and in all the other ways we’re inventing. This is a very different sense of ours. And it’s not just that we can build Wikipedia or Flickr streams. We also get to make these works matter to one another: That we can surface and pass around the video or the prose so that it becomes a shared cultural object also changes the nature of the ours.

5. So, how does this new ours affect democracy? (And it’s more likely to affect democracy before it affects politics since those folks have a death grip on power.) How does this ours get turned into an us that operates politically? I dunno. I.e., this talks makes no progress on the question it raises :( [Tags: ]

More spies embrace social networking tools

“The U.S. Department of Defense’s lead intelligence agency is using wikis, blogs, RSS feeds and enterprise ‘mashups’ to help its analysts collaborate better when sifting through data used to support military operations,” according to an article by Heather Havenstein in Computerworld. Wikis, blogs, mashups…lots going on there. [Tags: ]

Massively peer reviewed science

Dario Taraborelli has a terrific post looking at the strengths of weaknesses of social software when stacked up against scientific peer review. He finds lots of uses, especially since traditional peer review doesn’t scale, although he doesn’t think social software will replace it.

Overall, the systems Dario looks at are better at flagging items as interesting than at vouchsafing their credibility, although his proposal for “a wiki-like system coupled with anonymous rating of user contributions,” would head in that direction. [Tags: ]

Ack! I had moderation set to On!

If you were waiting for your comment to be approved, I apologize. I didn’t realize I’d set all comments to be moderated, so it was only by accident that I discovered I had a queue. Sorry!

Also: D’oh!

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