Sunday, August 19, 2007

A publishing phenomenon in China

Aventurina King at Wired is reporting on a publishing phenomenon in China, where free web access to novels has spurred record sales of printed books.

Literary sites like Source of Chinese and Magic Sword invite authors to upload their novels onto the web, where they might get noticed by an avid audience of young readers and eventually by publishers. King tells the history of Zhang Muye's serialized novel Ghost Blows out the Light, which has been "viewed more than 6 million times online" and has "sold 600,000 in print," and of another novel titled Killing Immortals that was launched online before selling over a million copies.

This is a collaboration of media that provides opportunities for emerging writers, increases revenues for the sites and for the publishers, and broadens readership. King mentions that "writing and reading novels has become the hobby of an estimated 10 million youth." The trend also strikes a balance between the "wisdom of the crowd" in determining pop-culture merit and old-fashioned editorial gatekeeping, since site publishers can identify the best novels to present only on their for-pay "VIP section."

The trend even contains a hint of throwback to the Victorian age, with its rage for serialized epic-length stories:

In the print world, book length is limited by the cost of paper, printing and distribution. On the Internet, where production costs are close to zero, length equals profit. VIP readers pay a couple of cents for every thousand characters (a print novel generally has 250,000 characters). Contracted authors are paid seven to 12 dollars per thousand characters, depending on their clout.

I've been arguing for years that hypertext does not represent any threat to the book. Here's a case of the web's influence to preserve a traditional aesthetic in writing while revolutionizing the economics of publishing, for the benefit of writers and publishers and the public.

Nor is it in the least surprising that the audience is willing to buy the books they can acquire at a lower price or even for free online. The pleasure of reading, especially fiction and poetry, continues to require the physical page. In his essay "Visible and Invisible Books" that appeared in The Future of the Page, University of Virginia's Jerome McGann points out that:

The history of the book medium and the development of fictional conventions within that medium have evolved an extraordinarily nuanced and flexible set of tools for the imagination. The truth is that the 'hyper' media powers of the book, in this area of expression if not prima facie, far outstrip the available resources of digital instruments.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

On the Road for 50 years

I've been following the NY Times open forum on the 50th anniversary of On the Road, which has racked up almost 300 comments so far (just before noon, Wednesday).

More praise than criticism, I'm pleased to see. Much of the condemnation of the book amounts to an ad hominem against Kerouac himself for his treatment of women, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc. Much of the praise amounts to lyrical affirmations of the counter-culture movement. But nowhere, so far, has there been any mention of the typewriter's role in that novel.

The book that Truman Capote dismissed as "typing, not writing'' is the quintessential typewritten novel, and the story of its making is the stuff of legend: Kerouac, pumped up on coffee and amphetamines, composed On the Road during a 20-day marathon in April 1951. To avoid having to stop repeatedly and insert paper, he stitched together a 120-foot scroll beforehand and fed it into the platen.

Kerouac could thus type as he had traveled, the pages rolling through the typewriter like the road rolling under the wheels of cars on their way west. On the Road couldn't have been written any other way. The typescript sold for $2.4 million in a 2001 auction.

Today we write with whispering keyboards on electronic screens. We run spell-checkers, move blocks of text around at will and print perfect copies that never have to be marred by an eraser or a handwritten correction. Fifty years ago, Kerouac created the prototype for one part of the modern technology: Word processors provide a "virtual'' scroll that allows us to glide along without interruption, from page to page, on a spotless white road that stretches to the vanishing point of an imaginary highway.

The Kerouac scroll was a rough, two-lane Rt. 66.

The major drawback of our modern word processors is that they make editing and revising too easy. They distract writers with limitless opportunities to second-guess themselves, to tinker with every sentence, to rethink and revisit everything they write. That writers get anything accomplished is a wonder.

His scroll compelled Kerouac to move relentlessly forward, along with the momentum of the work. It moved in one direction only, through the story and out of it, with no way to retrace his steps or reconsider his course. The lack of an opportunity for second thoughts set him free.

I think the immediacy of blogging is a healthy correction to the impulse for always producing faultless copy. In the rush to continue this freeforall online conversation, we publish errors and infelicitous phrasing. That in itself is a healthy, humbling discipline.

I think that if Jack Kerouac were alive today -- and sober -- he'd be blogging with the rest of us.

(Note: Parts of today's entry are re-cast from a 2001 article I wrote for the Columbus Dispatch.)

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Summertime blues

This is the summer of overload. I'm juggling six writing courses (two sections of business communication, two of technical writing, and one each of web and creative writing), in addition to a course in linguistics that wrapped up last week.

In addition, I'm trying to score an agent for my recent novel Entanglement and complete a few early chapters of my new piece.

This blog has suffered as a consequence, even though I daily run across stories I'd love to comment on at length, including John Tierney's piece in today's NYTimes about the possibilities that we're living in a computer simulation -- about a 20% possibility, according to Oxford University philosopher Nick Bostrom.

If we're characters on the hard drive of some higher intelligence's supercomputer, our best survival strategy is "to be as interesting as possible, on the theory that the designer is more likely to keep you around for the next simulation," suggests Robin Hanson at George Mason University.

I find the idea of life as a kind of hyperfiction oddly comforting right now, though it does concern me that my character has become more than a little boring with the repetitious acts of delivering lectures, grading papers, and riding the bus back and forth between home and campus. I need a better life if I hope to stay in the plot.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The RIAA vendetta against webcasting, explained

Mike Masnick at TechDirt provides some background information on the RIAA push to drive webcasters out of business by raising their royalty rates to absurd highs.

The answer is that webcasters favor eclectic artists and independent labels, over the corporately standardized music represented by the RIAA.

Traditional radio, of course, is dominated by a few similarly formated stations that all play RIAA-backed music. 87% of the music you hear on the radio is from an RIAA-member record label. However ... only 44%of the music on webcasts are from RIAA labels.

Quote of the day

Stefanie Olsen at News Blog has this new finding about environmental concerns in the online teen community:

Teens who are most active online and influential with peers are also the kids most concerned about the environment, according to a study published Monday by research firm JupiterResearch. ... Green teens are more apt to listen to music, post a personal page online, respond to an online poll or converse in a chat room, according to the report.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Peer review threatened by online academic publishing

I couldn't help but smile over Andrew Leonard's Weekly World News-inspired headline on Salon yesterday:


This posting on his "How the World Works" blog covered the shutting down of the Weekly World News, and an article by economist Glenn Ellison about the future of peer review in academic writing and publishing.

The issue is over economists who are short-cutting the rigors of traditional academic publication by posting their papers online, for public consumption.

Ellison, Leonard writes, has compiled "data indicating that top economists are responsible for a shrinking share of the articles published in the best journals. And while this might be good for promoting public access to the latest in economic thought, it's bad, suggests Ellison, for the time-honored academic practice of validating the merit of new research through rigorously mediated peer-review."

While there's no question that peer review is essential to assuring the accuracy and soundness of academic research, the practice tended to centralize scholarly authority in a limited number of "elite" journals. If prominent academics bypass the journals by sharing their work online, the privileged status of the journals (and of the universities publishing them) is diminished.

This diminution of privilege begins to level the playing field between institutions of higher learning, since professors at "non elite" schools can now have electronic access to the data and other resources once physically confined to the major research centers.

And in an online world where space and location can't erect barriers to collaboration, “an up-and-coming new-growth-theory theorist at the University of Florida can coauthor a paper with a Stanford or Harvard or Chicago professor without having to move across the country."

Leonard refers to this new development as "the democratization of education." It's also a serious threat to the major research institutions that subsist lagely by commodifying knowledge.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

More generalizations about blogs and narcissism

Edward Champion's recent LA Times article "Blogging: a crash course on introspection" is probably the most muddled commentary on blogging I've encountered in the past year.

His thesis is that "confessional" writing has been "spurred by cyberspace," with narcissistic bloggers baring their most intimate secrets with shameless abandon, pandering to "our voyeuristic culture." Champion wonders "why so many writers want (or need) to expose themselves."

The number of stereotypes and sweeping generalizations Champion manages to compress into the opening paragraphs of the article is truly dazzling. If only he'd taken the time to consult an undergraduate-level textbook on modern literature, he might have also gotten some of his terminology right.

The "confessional" writers were a movement of poets (primarily) who in the 1950s and 1960s began treating an autobiographical "I" as the primary subject of the work, delving with stark frankness into emotional and sexual experiences in a way that violated previous taboos about what constituted proper poetic material.

Champion conflates confessional material with introspection, though they are not the same thing at all. T.S. Eliot, for example, was a deeply introspective poet, but he avoided personal revelations in his own work. I've heard it argued that Anne Sexton, one of the leading confessional poets, was herself not terribly introspective.

The article also seems to equate "confessional" with "narcissistic" and (though Champion doesn't use the word himself) "exhibitionist." However, the "I" of the confessional poets was, more often than not, something other than the "real" I, an invented self or persona that enabled the writer to explore a wider range of themes than his or her personal experience permitted.

What this article contends this all has to do with blogging remains a mystery. Supposedly, writers like Ginsberg and Plath and Lowell are off in the afterlife kicking themselves for having died before the Internet came along and gave them limitless opportunity to indulge in their narcissism and expose themselves to an online audience. Supposedly, a new generation of confessional writers has emerged, again "spurred by cyberspace."

If that is indeed the point of the piece, Champion selects an odd assortment of writers to prove it. His examples -- Amy DeZella, Jane Ganahl, Jonathan Ames, Josh Kornbluth and others -- are professional journalists and performers who were already working with personal materials publicly, before moving to the Internet. In their interviews, they all seem fairly discontent with their online experiences, probably because their presentational styles are better suited to print or stage than to the blogosphere.

If there really were a new confessional school of writing in the process of emerging online, I'd be interested. But Champion hasn't found one.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007


Technorati Profile

Britannica isn't the Pope

Slashdot yesterday provided this link to "Errors in the Encyclopedia Britannica that have been corrected in Wikipedia."

The page lists 62 of them, in fields ranging from history and biography to math, science and linguistics. This one, for example, is on "Pushkin in Bohemia":

It is a basic fact of Russian history that the tsarist administration never allowed the poet Alexander Pushkin to go abroad, a nuisance that he deplored in Eugene Onegin and other verses. Therefore, Britannica's assertion that "frequent guests" of Karlovy Vary included Alexander Pushkin and Tsar Peter I the Great is untrue. -- Ghirlandajo10:27, 16 December 2005 (UTC)

Certainly the study of history, just like every other academic field, advances through debate, conflicting interpretations or selections of evidence, the discovery of new source materials, and the evolution of critical theories.

As I've contended before, that's the rough, sometimes contentious process through which all human knowledge must pass before it achieves status of generally accepted truth. And Britannica, as an artifact created by fallible human beings, may include the occasional facual error, without having its overall credibility and authority challenged.

But the point of this story is that Britannica is not infallible, and that authentic scholarship is happening at Wikipedia, as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Bloggers, editors, and I.F. Stone

At Salon today, Gary Kamiya writes in praise of old-fashioned editing and editors, and naturally touches on the blogosphere:

In the brave new world of self-publishing, editors are an endangered species. This isn't all bad. It's good that anyone who wants to publish and has access to a computer now faces no barriers. And some bloggers don't really need editors: Their prose is fluent and conversational, and readers have no expectation that the work is going to be elegant or beautifully shaped. Its main function is to communicate clearly. It isn't intended to last.

Still, he says, the better writers will be the ones who ultimately prevail in the electronic age, as quality rises above the glut of competing voices. Success will be awarded either to the highly talented writer, or to the writer who collaborates with a highly talented editor.

Kamiya's piece reminded me of a tribute to another of my heroes, the rebel journalist I.F. Stone, that Dan Froomkin posted back on July 9.

"The best blogger ever," Froomkin wrote, "died in 1989 at the age of 81." The I.F. Stone Weekly, which ran from 1953 to 1971, was essentially a paper blog. Stone's newsletter was composed as a miscellany of short articles, opinions and commentary on material written by other journalists, like today's blog.

The newsletter's other blog-like quality was that it was unapologetically opinionated and passionate, "a far cry from the passionless prose that afflicts so much mainstream political reporting."

Like so many of today's top bloggers, Stone built a community of loyal readers around his voice — an informed voice, full of outrage and born of an unconcealed devotion to decency and fair play, civil liberty, free speech, peace in the world, truth in government, and a humane society.

Froomkin criticizes the feeble attempts at blogging so many newspapers have launched, which he complains are written "in monotone." Stone's informal, impassioned, energetic style is what the print-reporter-turned-blogger ought to be emulating.

As Kamiya contends, editors have a significant role to play in the future of online media. But both writers and editors need to be attuned to the way that blogging involves a different approach to voice from the newspaper column.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Quote of the day

The important point that I'm trying to make is that storytelling has nothing, whatsoever, to do with logic. Logic is a limping stepchild of the true processes of the spirit. It's an illusion. It's a defective little parlor trick. Associations are the way that we perceive. Electrical connections caused by the juxtapositions of experience. That's the way we are really built, and storytelling takes into account that truth.
--David Milch on his vision of HBO's surreal John from Cincinnati

I wish Milch had been allowed to complete Deadwood, which was a far superior show. But I like what he has to say about perception being associative, and the ultimate illusory quality of logic.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Quote of the day

Copyright developed in the age of the printing press, and was designed to fit with the system of centralized copying imposed by the printing press. But the copyright system does not fit well with computer networks, and only draconian punishments can enforce it.

The global corporations that profit from copyright are lobbying for draconian punishments, and to increase their copyright powers, while suppressing public access to technology. But if we seriously hope to serve the only legitimate purpose of copyright -- to promote progress, for the benefit of the public -- then we must make changes in the other direction.

Richard M. Stallman, in the Abstract to his talk "Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks," before the Computer Science Club at the University of Waterloo.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure

Robert Blechman's insightful article, at blogcritics, on how science fiction has depicted time travel in terms of the dominant media of the time (vehicles and roads in the print era, portals and beams of light in the early television days), set me thinking about one of my favorite movies of all time, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure.

Blechman's piece reviews Paul Levinson's novel The Plot to Save Socrates, which presents an intricate tangle of time jumps instead of a linear journey to another age and a return trip back. Blechman notes that Levinson's characters "hypertext" across time.

Like Dr. Who, the title characters of Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure use a phone booth as a time machine, but the movie (released in 1989) is eerily prescient of student research techniques of the 21st century.

In the film, Bill and Ted are high school friends whose plan to become heavy metal stars is threatened by the fact that they're both failing history. When they need to give an "excellent" report in order to fulfill their strangely significant destiny, a force from the future provides a time machine so they can travel into the past and capture historical figures (Abraham Lincoln, Billy the Kid, an hilarious Socrates, and others) to give the report for them.

Many of our students have become Bill and Ted. They hyperlink, following trails of embedded associations rather than pre-structured routes laid out by inductive or deductive logic. They gather raw source material, often with randomness that frustrates their professors, and present what they've collected as finished work, something they view as original because of their novel juxtapositions of items that had never been brought together before.

Our students, I believe, sincerely interpret what they do as research. We academics, of course, dismiss this kind of work as slapdash laziness. The disagreement represents a gap in training and experience in professional research. It also represents an age gap, however, between one generation that's grown up with hypertext and the internet, and another that mastered research techniques using print.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure should probably be required viewing for both students and professors in every Introduction to Research Writing class around the country, with a question for class discussion: "Did Bill and Ted make an excellent report? Why, or why not?"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

More bad news for print publications

NPR's Morning Edition has carried a story about another blow to traditional print publications. This time, though, no one's blaming the Internet, since the problem originates with the United States Postal Service.

Postal rates for magazines are scheduled to rise on July 15, an average of 13%, but the increases will not be uniform. Because they're not automated to USPS standards, small magazines like the American Poetry Review will see a steeper hike (20% or higher) than the big titles like Time, which may see increases of less than 10%.

To the editors of the small magazines, the inequities seem both unjust and suspicious.

NPR interviewed Teresa Stack of The Nation and Jack Fowler of the National Review, publications on opposites sides of the political divide that are nevertheless united in criticism of the USPS policy that will cause enormous increases in mailing costs.

"For a small magazine, $100,000 is a major amount of money. Opinion journals, because they are opinion journals, are often kryptonite to potential advertisers. Therefore, we are much more dependent on lower postal rates than the big boys."

The big boys in this case are the magazines published by media giants like Time Warner. Professor Robert McChesney (University of Illinois-Champaign) believes, in fact, that Time Warner was one of the architects of the new rate policy, which in effect eliminates a "periodical subsidy" that's been in effect since the beginning of the postal service.

That subsidy was created in the first place because "the founding fathers wanted to subsidize the delivery of newspapers and magazines," in the belief (as McChesney says) "that self-government requires a diverse and vibrant press. And the genius of the postal subsidy then, as now, is that it doesn't favor a particular viewpoint. It doesn't allow the government to pick which magazine gets it and which doesn't."

One might argue, as the USPS and Time Warner do, that this is no attempt to undermine a free and vibrant press, in order to favor corporate media. It may be true that this is simply a case of economic concerns trumping the needs of a democratic society, which is perhaps an even sadder interpretation of the situation.

In either case, corporate media continues to grow, and the independent press is further diminished.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Knowledge, information, and generations

Loyd Case at ExtremeTech wrote a fascinating comparison of how different generations view information:

"I think ... that the baby boomers tend to view information as simply words, pictures and diagrams. My older daughter regards information as something that's mutable, and that flows, not as something fixed and chiseled in stone. We see that on the Internet, too, as people experiment with mashups of different media, with information (data) mixing freely with algorithms to create different ways of looking at the world."

Case attributes the difference to the difficulties my generation faced in simply acquiring information the old-fashioned way, through laborious research using alphabetized categories and the Dewey Decimal system, in contrast to the ease with which today's students can locate almost any fact with a few keystrokes. My own students give me disbelieving looks when I tell them that a 30-second piece of research they've performed on LexisNexis would have taken up to an hour during my undergraduate days.

Case contends that this ease of finding information is also "creating a generation of skeptical kids who can better sort out bad information from good information." Our generation, by contrast, "had to rely on editors and peer review to uncover bad information. Even then, bad information would propagate, and would often take years to correct."

While much hand-wringing occurs each time a factual error is discovered on Wikipedia, it's astonishing how quickly mistakes are corrected online, bad data replaced with good data, the vigilance of the online information community in spotting errors. The result, Case says, is that the new generation is one of "editors, synthesizers, and creators" equipped with tools to build knowledge structures we could never have imagined.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Amateurs for human rights in China

Tony Long, in his Luddite column at Wired, has registered another traditionalist's complaint against Web 2.0 and in moderated support of Andrew Keen's The Cult of the Amateur: How Today's Internet Is Killing Our Culture.

To Long, the Internet ("a narcissist's dream come true") has performed a disservice by supplying amateurs with tools for reporting on events that only trained professionals should have access to.

He complains that "opportunity and desire alone do not professional historians or journalists or pundits make. There's this process known as 'learning your craft' and 'paying your dues' that all professionals must endure. Sorry, but trolling the web and blogging from your darkened study doesn't qualify as on-the-job training."

As someone who spent eight years of postgraduate work earning my doctorate, I wholly support the idea of "learning your craft" and "paying your dues" toward your professional credentials. What I can't credit is Mr. Long's assumption that our professional historians, journalists and pundits are doing a swell job without the interference of the untrained, poorly informed masses.

The media may be chock full of professionals; but in these days when even NPR has begun parroting the Bush administration's recent, transparent act of propaganda in labeling every insurgent in Iraq as "Al Qaeda," many of them don't seem to be measuring up to their responsibilities.

It seems to be the professionals, rather than the amateurs, who are "killing our culture."

But never mind about the American situation, for a moment. Imagine instead a country where media is overtly controlled by the government and the elite, where ordinary citizens have no hope of drawing attention to gross injustices because the press has been ordered not to report on them. That's the point of a heartening story at, about 400 Chinese parents turning into "citizen journalists" to rescue their children from slave labor conditions in brickyards.

"The parents' Internet posting was part of a growing phenomenon for marginalised people in China who can not otherwise have their complaints addressed by the traditional, government-controlled press," Breitbart reports. In another case, police riots aimed at flower sellers in Zhengzhou were recorded on someone's cell phone and eventually posted on YouTube.

In response to this growing power in the hands of a previously powerless group of people, the Chinese government has called for a "purification" of the Internet, and has tightened its crackdown of "cyber dissidents."

That's probably the best way to deal with amateurs. They ruin everything.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Trust us -- we're scholars!

I've just completed grading final papers for my six spring quarter classes, and am pleased to report that Wikipedia has not yet brought an end to education, truth, or even western civilization. My students gathered material from multiple sources, checked facts, and developed their own reasoned arguments based on the best available data.

For teachers who are still concerned over the evil menace of Wikipedia, though, the Online Education Database (OED) is offering Top 7 Alternatives to Wikipedia. It's an interesting list, in that it contains not only the predictable Scholarpedia and Encyclopedia Britannica Online, but also the conservative wiki Conservapedia, as an answer "Wikipedia's alleged left-wing bias."

By including Conservapedia, the OED (not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary) tries to balance an alleged leftist bias with one that is overtly right wing, as a matter of that site's stated policy. On Conservapedia, "The information found on this site is free of foul language, sexual topics and anything else deemed offensive by the site's editorial staff." One certainly doesn't wish for knowledge that would offend anyone's sensibilities, after all.

In short, OED find one cultural perspective acceptable because it results from a centralized editorial authority . . . but a different perspective unacceptable because it has emerged from the actions of a social network of volunteers with similar interests. Although the OED seems to be gently mocking in its tone toward Conservapedia, their own bias toward authority is clear.

The OED prefers information and knowledge to flow top-down from an acknowledged authority, rather than to emerge bottom-up from a community. Why? Because "it is hard to imagine that millions of anonymous users could accurately maintain a factual and unbiased living encyclopedia. Wikipedia is a non-profit site that is policed by hundreds of volunteers, yet very few of these volunteers have the experience and knowledge of a professional writer/editor. A cultural bias has seemed to have washed over many entries on the site, as general consensus replaces cold, hard facts."

OED prefers the model of Scholarpedia, where "Experts must be either invited or elected before they are assigned certain topics and, although the site is still editable by anyone like a wiki, updates must first be approved before they are made final." But implicit trust in this type of authority-based system is based on two shaky assumptions: 1) that the authority is disinterested in the way this knowledge will be used or interpreted, and 2) that the authority doesn't harbor any cultural biases of its own.

But anyone who's spent more than a few years in academia and research institutions knows that scholars and experts are never disinterested, or free of cultural bias. Their careers and professional reputations depend on how what becomes of the data and information they generate. It's almost impossible to put a half dozen PhDs from the same field in a room without witnessing internecine warfare.

It's not just on Wikipedia that "consensus replaces cold, hard fact." Knowledge has always emerged from conflict between competing ideas, viewpoints and factions. It does not descend like cooling rain from the heights of Parnassus, where saintly scholars confer in whispers. On Wikipedia, at least, the struggles, conflicts, errors and missteps that are part of the process of arriving at the truth are made public. I, for one, have no objection to my students becoming aware of that process.

I think it's appropriate for the academic community to be wary of Wikipedia, and to caution students not to blindly trust its facts. But the same caution should be given for all sources of information, including the alternatives to Wikipedia offered by the OED. Each is a human product with its own limitations, agendas and biases.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

The future of online text - looks a lot like poetry

Earlier this month VentureBeat reported findings by Walker Reading Technologies regarding the inefficiency of conventional linear text, the kind you're reading right now.

Since "the natural field of focus for our eyes is circular," they say, our effort to focus on a single line, our brains are force "to a wage a constant subconscious battle with itself to filter and discard the superfluous inputs" from the lines of words above it and below it.

So Walker Reading Technologies has unveiled its LiveInk program that analyzes "written language for meaning and language structure, and then applies algorithms that reformat the text into a series of short, cascading phrases. It breaks complex syntax into simpler syntax, which makes it easier for the brain to absorb the material."

The resulting lines of text, which they illustrate in a jpeg, are remarkably similar to free verse, or simple found poetry.

Poets, of course, liberate their language from the forced march of prose linearity by breaking lines, to indicate both the natural pause of the human voice taking a breath, and to reveal deeper semantic and syntactic levels of utterance. It's coincidental that a program is developed to break prose into poetic lines at the same moment when contemporary poetry is moving from the printed page into what is often spontaneous and unique oral performance.

The company claims that LiveInk increases reading comprehension by "10-15 percentile points on nationally standardized reading tests." If their claim can be substantiated by educators, LiveInk could unleash the potential of the e-textbook at all levels of education. The great objection to online and electronic text is that it's difficult to read, because of the limited resolution possible on the screen or monitor, in comparison to the high resolution of the printed page.

But the physical book is limited by practical considerations of physical space, the size and number of pages that can reasonably be bound and carried -- a limitation that doesn't apply to hypertext, since the formatting of lines will have minimal effect on the size of the file or its demand on memory space.

If LiveInk truly enhances comprehension and improves comprehension, it will mark a revolution.

The one question is whether students will resist LiveInk's reformatting of the line. After all, it looks suspiciously like poetry, a form of writing that most students in my classes over the past 35 years have rejected as being too "weird-looking" to understand.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

More about online campaigns

Following up after yesterday's post regarding online campaign strategies, I recommend Michael Scherer's piece called "Power to the people, 2.0," at Salon.

Scherer's focus is on the lessons that John Edwards and Barack Obama learned from Howard Dean, about using the Internet to build an authentic political community. He quotes Joe Trippi, formerly Dean's manager who's now in the Edwards team: "People want to belong to something. They want to belong to a community that goes back to that notion that there is something bigger than yourself."

In service of building the social network, campaign managers are even taking the unconventional step of shifting attention away from the candidate's image and toward the supporters' active involvement in local issues. "On Tuesday, the home page of Obama's campaign Web site did not even feature a head shot of the candidate." (Doesn't Obama know that the Internet is only for narcissists?)

Hillary Clinton's camp, by contrast, is using her web presence to position her publicly, with relatively meager efforts to solicit active involvement. The Republicans, Scherer notes, "have treated their online operations more or less like an electronic form of direct mail campaigning. The campaigns rarely seek to involve supporters through online outreach in anything beyond traditional volunteer work and fundraising."

The article ends on a note of caution, reminding readers that Dean's Internet savvy failed to deliver his New Hampshire victory. The point is well taken. However, the Dean campaign is now several years in the past. Social networking is a more influential, more pervasive phenomenon today, far better understood than the nascent movement it was in the 2004 campaign.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Democrats turn out to be good at "doing" the Internet

Jose Antonio Vargas, in yesterday's (May 21) Washington Post, gave an insightful commentary on politics and new media, pointing out that "the culture of Democrats is a much better fit in the Internet world" than Republican culture.

The Republican party's greatest strength in decades past has been their disciplined technique of staying unified in the delivery of its message. The standard procedure is to formulate the message at the top, at the level of the RNC or the White House, then distribute that message downward through various media outlets.

But that process doesn't work in "the often chaotic, bottom-up, user-generated atmosphere of the Internet."

The less discipline, more fractious Democratic party is being invigorated by the free forum chaos of Web 2.0, according to Peter Leyden of the New Politics Institute: "All this talking and discussing and fighting energizes everyone, involves everyone, and gets people totally into it."

The few Republican triumphs online that Vargas chronicles, which include 2004 attacks on John Kerry and Dan Rather, were still top-down, coordinated projects rather than grassroots initiatives by cadres of amateur politicos, as has generally been the case with the notable Democratic successes, such as the YouTube broadcast of George Allen's regrettable "Macaca" comment.

Republicans have had astonishing success on radio, which McLuhan called the "tribal drum." The advent of Web 2.0 offers a new, radically different form of participatory community where the voices of Democrats and Progressives may speak the loudest.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

In praise of paper, in hope for hypertext

I've just finished reading Matthew Sharpe's dark, hilarious novel Jamestown, in which one of the multiple narrators wonders at himself in the act of recording his thoughts on "humankind's flimsies and least likely invention, paper."

My own feelings about paper are untinged by irony, but hypertext has complicated my relationship with it.

Last month, I spent an afternoon sorting through some boxes I'd left unopened in the basement for over a decade, and discovered a folder containing yellowed typescripts of poems I'd assumed lost after a hasty division of personal effects when my first marriage suddenly ended. My only other copies existed as WordPerfect 5.1 files on a 5.5" floppy -- irretrievable, corrupted documents on antiquated technology.

Our electronic files are fragile, in danger of obsolescence. Paper lasts. Even when the individual page disintegrates with age, the technology remains constant, unchanged for thousands of years. All hail to paper.

A few weeks ago at Salon, Laura Miller reviewed David Damrosch's The Buried Book, which is an account of how the Epic of Gilgamesh lay "buried in the ruins of a Mesopotamian palace" for almost 3000 years before being unearthed by archeologists in the 19th century. The story, of course, was recorded in cuneiform and baked onto clay tablets -- an even hardier medium than paper.

I have no idea what expectations the Gilgamesh scribe might have entertained about the future, the longevity, of his efforts. It's clear, though, that papyrus and then paper enticed writers to visions of immortality. The paper text offers the advantage of being easily reproduced, whether by scribe or (later) by press. This possibility of such permanent, portable, reproducible records led the Roman poet Horace to predict (rightly!) that his poems would outlast bronze monuments ("Exegi monumentum aere perennius"), a sentiment echoed by Shakespeare ("Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme") and other writers through the ages.

I continue to work in the medium of the printed page, almost every day, pursuing every writer's dream of a finished, published piece that will live beyond my allotted years. This morning I taught a Business Communication class in a computer lab where two editors from Columbus State's student literary magazine, Spring Street, were compiling manuscripts for this year's edition. Watching them work, I felt the old romantic thrill of bringing the work into print, birthing it into paper.

Hypertext, the electronic document, is impermanent. We bloggers and web writers commit our thoughts to binary code, electronic files, servers, and pixels on monitors -- all technologies that may be as useless in the next decade as my old 5.5" floppy is now. What we write today may be (will likely be) unavailable to a future audience in any form.

But its singular appeal is its novelty. Unlike paper, hypertext isn't freighted with millennia of cultural history, social associations or artistic expectations. It's a radically new medium, with potential that's we've just begun to realize.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The crisis in newspaper book reviews

Novelist Richard Ford has never read a literary blog, but he's ready to critique them anyway.

In a May 2 New York Times story about the decline of the book review in papers across the nation, Ford remarks that "“Newspapers, by having institutional backing, have a responsible relationship not only to their publisher but to their readership, in a way that some guy sitting in his basement in Terre Haute maybe doesn’t.”

While I'm reluctant to second-guess one of our greatest living authors (and a fellow Mississippian, as well), such high-brow stereotyping of the blogger lacks understanding and gratitude for the contributions the blogosphere has made to the book industry, and to individual authors such as Mr. Ford.

The crisis of the newspaper book review was a topic of conversation on yesterday's Talk of the Nation, when John Freeman of the National Book Critics Circle was a guest. Economics are at the root of the problem, with publishers struggling to cut costs in the face of market uncertainties, in part brought on by Internet competition. Seemingly no one views this as a welcome development, and no one with an ounce of sense is about to claim that the blog can replace the traditional book review.

But book bloggers are a major force for good for the publishing industry, and for authors. Motoko Rich of the Times mentions the case of the short story collection This Is Not Chick Lit, which was largely overlooked by print reviewers but received a great deal of support and attention in the blogosphere. The result? The book "is now in its sixth printing with 45,000 copies in print."

I hope that Mr. Ford, a man of great sagacity, will reconsider and sample at least a few of the book blogs where 'guys sitting in their basements' have been promoting his work for years. I myself stand second to no one in my love of the old-fashioned book review, and I hope for its rescue.

However, if it goes the way of extinction, the blame will fall on the newspaper publishers who have abdicated their responsibility to the literary community -- a responsibility that the literary bloggers seem happy to assume.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Gatekeepers and publishing

This weekend, I co-presented a workshop with Assistant Professor Judith Anderson at Columbus State Community College's annual creative writing conference, this one titled "Genres and Generations." Our workshop dealt with the opportunities Web 2.0 has opened to artists, and how writers can use blogs and social networking to attract and build an audience for their printed work.

During an afternoon panel discussion on creative nonfiction, someone in the audience raised a question about blogging as a form of the essay. The panelists answered that bloggers were, essentially, narcissists, a waste of bandwidth and of time. This judgment drew sharp objections from the floor, including several from participants in our morning workshop. They countered the stereotype, arguing that many bloggers are intensely aware of and involved with the world around them, linked in a network of communications with others who were often passionately committed to issues, interests and causes.

The keynote speaker for the conference had been Walter Mosley, who on Friday night read from his book This Year You Write Your Novel. Mosley encouraged the audience to invest the time and effort in attempting to write their own stories. One audience member asked Saturday's panel how Mosley's injunction squared with their condemnation of earnest bloggers who are dedicated to writing. The response was that bloggers are certainly permitted to write, but they're wrong to publish.

Publishing, the panelists agreed, requires gatekeepers, to minimize the dangers that unmonitored publishing might pose to society and to individuals. The discussion then switched to the topic of fraudulent material that had been posted on Wikipedia. (Never mind that Wikipedia isn't a blog. All hypertext is equally suspect.)

The panel was composed of people whose wit and judgment I hold immense respect for, but I must disagree with them on this point. I believe they view the Internet simply as simply a different delivery method for the printed word, rather than as an entirely new medium. But the two are different. Print, as McLuhan pointed out decades ago, is mechanical and explosive. It fragments the audience into individual, specialized readers. Hypertext is electric and implosive. It tends toward a tribal structure of deep involvement, a breakdown of barriers.

Print-oriented academics, I believe, see the blog as a private journal (including all the form's associations with paper, ink and handwriting) that has been posted online merely for the sake of the writer’s vanity. A small percentage may, in fact, be that.

The true blog, though, begins as unmediated electronic text, posted as a statement in an ongoing conversation. It's not a matter of isolated words designed to be contemplated in tranquility. It's a voice speaking in a village, in a chorus or babble of other voices. As long as the social structure of the village is healthy, the service of a gatekeeper, deciding who may or may not speak, is not required.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Keyboarding or handwriting?

CNet's Candace Lombardi has an interesting article on the teaching of handwriting skills in the computer age. In the fall of 2007, Virginia Tech will issue tablet pc's to students and require students to use them in classes. At Memphis State, however, Professor June Entman banned her law students from bringing laptops to class. The speed of the keyboard enables students to transcribe her lecture. Taking notes by hand, she contends, requires independent, active thought, interpretation and analysis.

Is she right? One's answer to that question may be determined by his or her age.

In my generation, handwriting and keyboarding skills were taught at different stages of the educational process. In fact, it was primarily women who learned to type, in training for future secretarial roles. My junior year of high school, I was the sole boy in the second-period typing class, in a room with 23 teenage girls. Those were some of my happiest adolescent days.

For those of us who developed these skills separately, I think, typing is a distinctly different experience from writing by hand. I still compose poetry and fiction with a pen and a notebook, waiting to commit anything to the computer until it's pretty much in a final form. This isn't a Luddite resistance to technology, only an acknowledgement that my thought process is different when I'm on the keyboard. My words seem to arrive through a different route, the style is altered, and I'm paradoxically less inclined to edit and revise on the screen than I am on a sheet of paper.

Most of Professor Entman's students are unhappy over the ban. As a teacher, I fully support her right to dictate the rules governing her classroom. But I wonder about her assumption that younger students may be processing information differently if they bring laptops to her lecture. For them, the experience of typing may be the same as that of writing by hand.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Tragedy, news, and social networking

As students at Virginia Tech cope with this week's tragedy on their campus, and attempt to return to a normal life, many of them are expressing anger at the press for creating a state of siege on their campus. "You've got your story. Now go home," one young woman said this morning during a story on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

One grievance that students have raised -- and it's a legitimate one -- is over the way that reporters from wire services, newspapers, television and radio raided their LiveJournal, Facebook and MySpace pages hoping to contact witnesses to the shootings, urgent for interview time. Robin Hamman at has compiled a catalog of requests students received from ABC, the LA Times, CBC, CNN and others. Some display sensitivity to what the students' emotional turmoil, but others lived up to the mainstream media's image as crass, heartless purveyors of suffering.

Slate's Michael Agger reports that a number of students, realizing they were drawing media attention "rapidly set their journals and MySpace pages to friends-only," to block unwelcome demands for details and emotional reactions that one anonymous poster satirized with the words: "Please let us exploit your grief. ASAP THANKS!"

That was the right decision, but the fact that it needed to be made points out the dilemma of social networking, that it erases the distinction between public and private. By posting personal messages to their network of friends, on a public site, the students opened themselves to this kind of unwanted attention, at a moment when tragedy drew the eyes of the media to their campus.

Robin Hamman urges the news media to "Think before you link. Understand that some content published in public was never intended to be seen by a mass audience." He's drawing an intriguing and subtle distinction between the "public" and the "mass" -- probably too subtle for anyone to expect a reporter hot on the trail of a breaking story to observe, though.

Sadly, this issue will come up again, during some future crisis or catastrophe when social networking once more becomes citizen journalism. But a richness will result from the ability of individuals to tell their stories at first hand, unmediated, and for those stories to link organically, for a fuller picture to emerge.

As TextualDeviance has pointed out of the Virginia Tech tragedy, "the students and student journalists at this school have done a better job of covering it than the mainstream media have, by not only being more on top of it, but by integrating content from multiple sources into a cohesive, continually updated story that still manages to be journalistic despite much of its amateur origins."

The price of that richness will be a further sacrifice of the personal and the private.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Dionysos, Apollo and the Blogosphere

I've been following the debate this week over Tim O'Reilly's call for civility in the blogosphere and his suggestions for a code of conduct governing what kinds of behavior will or won't be permitted on individual sites. Included in the program is the elimination of anonymous posts.

Online response has been, overwhelmingly, negative. So I find myself on the minority side of an issue -- certainly not for the first time in my life. I fundamentally agree with O'Reilly and with Tony Long's tongue-in-cheek challenge on Wired to anonymous posters:

If you're going to fire a rocket at someone in a blog post, or anywhere else, at least have the class to use your real name and stand behind your vitriol. Anything less makes you a coward and invalidates whatever bile you've spewed. My name is on this, and I'm calling you gutless if you don't sign yours. What are you going to do about it, blogger boy?

The arguments in defense of anonymous posts, which I admit have some merit, include contentions that anonymity encourages more people to join an open discussion, and that it minimizes the ego battles that interfere with fair debate when the identities of the parties are known.

But I suspect that something more fundamental is at stake here than online manners, or even morality. This is an issue about the fundamental character of the medium, whether it will be Apollonian or Dionysian.

The O'Reilly camp upholds Apollonian ideals of order and reason in the quest for idealized truth. Apollo was the god of cognition, individuation and civilization, core qualities of Western culture. In addition, he was the symbol of "ethical" conduct, in the root sense of that word: the idea that what was permitted to and what was expected of the individual was a product of his or her public character. In the Apollonian view, civic order depends on everyone possessing a known and fixed identity. Anonymity or the possibility of shifting identities leads to chaos.

Dionysos is thought of today as the god of wine, but that's simply a shorthand notation for his true significance, which was the power of intoxication in various forms. Intoxication destabilizes fixed identity, leading to a merging with the "other" and a widening of possible experiences. He was also patron of the Greek theater, where actors publicly presented themselves as characters who they weren't. The Dionysian experience is tribal, mythic and communal. It was, in addition, "ecstatic" (again, in the root meaning of the word). Ecstasy is the state of "standing outside" the self, of temporarily setting aside the burden of your quotidian identity, liberating you from yourself.

If this past week's response to O'Reilly's code of conduct is a reliable indication, it appears the blogosphere has a strong Dionysian current that will resist ethical reform -- not because bloggers support hate speech, but because those ecstatic possibilities are a key feature of the medium.

Monday, April 9, 2007

Free speech, hate and accountability

The shameful treatment that Kathy Sierra has recently suffered in the blogosphere has stimulated debate on topics ranging from misogyny to hate speech, anonymous postings, and censorship. The death threats made against Ms. Sierra for her unforgivable act of being a woman with opinions reminded me of a study about what has happened to human decency online.

Psychologist John Suler speculated in CyberPsychology & Behavior that flaming and other forms of anti-social behavior may be caused by a disconnect of "the brain's social circuitry" in the online environment, resulting in a loss of empathy with the person on the receiving end of the message.

Angela Rozas of the Chicago Tribune laments that "The Internet was supposed to revolutionize the way we communicate: information at our fingertips, global discourse, every man's opinion could be heard. But 12 years after I opened my first e-mail account, I have grown weary of the hate littering our e-world. Perhaps it's time we start policing ourselves. No more hate messages by anonymous posters. Every posting should require a name, address and telephone number. That information could be shielded from public view, and though some people might make up names and phone numbers, the requirement for submitting them might reduce the number of hate-filled messages left online."

It would seem that a code of conduct is sorely needed. Some have been offered already, by BlogHer for example. Now, as reported in the New York Times, Tim O'Reilly and Jimmy Wales have joined the call for greater civility and perhaps "several sets of guidelines for conduct" on different blogs and sites.

The counter argument to this proposal is that limiting visitors to a site in what they may or may not say, or removing comments that violate a site's specific code of conduct, amounts to censorship. Free speech, after all, is the essence of the blogosphere. How do you balance one person's right to express himself or herself, and another person's wish not to become a target of abuse, slander and threats?

Blogs and social networking sites may not be legally responsible for remarks posted on them by visitors. Nevertheless, we're still ethically responsible for safeguarding the rights of everyone who visits our sites. Having grown up at a time and a place where hate speech was all too common -- practically the norm, in many circles -- I can testify that threats and abuse aren't used to stimulate a lively debate or promote the free exchange of opinions. The only purpose of hate speech is to isolate and silence its target.

As a policy for open communication, "Free Speech for Me, but I'm Going to Make You Shut Up" seems questionable. Site owners have a duty to monitor their sites, and people who post comments should be accountable for their words. Abusive anonymous postings are an exercise in cowardice, not free speech.

I'll admit that it's going to be devilishly hard to devise a code that equitably distinguishes hate and abuse from legitimate, reasoned expressions of opinion. But if we're serious about the growth of the blogosphere as an open forum, it's worth the effort to try. I agree with Tim O'Reilly's remark, "one of the mistakes a lot of people make" is "believing that uncensored speech is the most free, when in fact, managed civil dialogue is actually the freer speech. Free speech is enhanced by civility."

Monday, April 2, 2007

The future of newspapers

A recent blog from Arianna Huffington about News 2.0 presents an optimistic vision of papers like the Washington Post starting to successfully embrace the digital age. The Post, for example, has "gone from a largely local paper with a print circulation around 656,000, to an international paper attracting eight million unique online readers a month."

But I began growing nervous as the article continued in its rosy assessment for the future of hybrid digital-and-paper delivery system like NewspaperDirect. The debate over the merits of the printed page vs. the computer screen has been continued too long. This old debate is wrongheaded in its approach, obscuring how dynamically different hypertext is from hard copy, consumed in tedious discussion about which is more convenient or more aesthetically pleasing.

So I was relieved when Huffington at last turned to a more vital issue, how new media is beginning to affect journalism in its substance, rather than in its delivery methods. She praises, rightfully, sites like Talking Points Memo and TMPmuckracker for bringing together "journalistic doggedness and reader interactivity" in breaking the recent Justice Department scandal involving the fired U.S. attorneys.

It's beyond question that the mainstream media has, for the past decade, failed the public miserably in its duty to inform and watchdog. Witness the lead-in to the American invasion of Iraq, when the only responsible critique of the plan was offered by Knight Ridder and by the online "fringe." Most newspaper, as well as all the commercial broadcast networks, simply yielded themselves to the euphoria and hysteria of the moment.

New media developments may assist in increasing a mainstream newspaper's audience, but they won't save the newspaper industry from its own growing corruption and incompetence. I am myself a daily reader of the New York Times online, but I entertain no illusions that I'm getting more accurate information or improved coverage from the electronic version. It's still the Times, limited in what it can report and predetermined in its outlook by its old political and corporate affiliations.

Never mind the joys of listening to the rustle of the pages and the feel of ink smudging your fingertips. If you're not getting complete, balanced, independent reporting from your newspaper, you're wasting your time. The online press is beginning to flex its muscle and prove its potential for wedding professional journalism with citizen journalism.

Huffington herself points out that "breaking a big story isn't always about getting the inside tip from a Deep Throat -- many times it's simply the piecing together of seemingly random bits of information there for everybody to see. But when they are assembled together, suddenly a big story can emerge. The blogosphere excels at this."

Friday, March 30, 2007

Politicians should stay off MySpace

Another story emerged this week about a presidential hopeful getting stung in the campaign's misinformed effort to exploit the social networking phenomenon.

This one involves John McCain, whose staffers set up a MySpace page that not only borrowed the designed of TechCrunch CEO Mike Davidson, without attribution, but also embedded a menu image directly from his server, thereby eating away at his brandwidth with every visitor to McCain's site.

Davidson responded with an "immaculate hack," by replacing the image they were using with another, with text in which McCain seems to be reversing his stance on gay marriage. "No server but my own was touched and no laws were broken," he points out.

To me, the most interesting point of this episode is contained in Davidson's comment that "I think the idea of politicians setting up MySpace pages and pretending to actually use them is a bit disingenuous." That's a polite way of putting it. I'd use the words "cynical" and "embarrassing" instead.

It's embarrassing to witness clueless politicians and their aides trying to "connect" with the MySpace generation this way, betraying themselves for the dinosaurs they truly are by trying to act cool in a medium they don't understand.

It's cynical, in some cases other than this McCain episode, for politicians to decry these sites one day and then campaign on them the next. The Shifted Librarian recently commented on the ironic positions of two other presidential candidates, "Duncan Hunter of California and Ron Paul of Texas, both Republican members of the U.S. House of Representatives," who offered a bill that would have blocked student access to MySpace and similar sites on school and library computers. Yet both candidates -- or rather, their aides -- set up their own campaign pages there.

Politicians who don't grasp the culture of MySpace should stay off it.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Narrative, perception and hypertext

I've returned from a short spring break between quarters at Columbus State, a week I devoted entirely to editing a final working draft of my novel and putting it into the mail to several potential agents.

Writing this one has been an interesting experience. I consciously decided to create a traditional novel, one with a linear plotline. It was the structure needed for this particular story. I haven't taught any literature courses for almost a decade, having turned my efforts instead to technical communication and hypertext. Returning now to the craft of fiction, I realize how far I've wandered from the traditional plotline's Aristotelian assumptions about the nature of reality and perception.

In the world of the standard novel, experiences occur through chronology and causation. Characters hasten through a corridor of moments, constantly progressing forward. With each step, however, the corridor grows narrower, as one event or one decision limits the range of possibilities for all subsequent actions or choices. It's essentially a tragic perspective, although the novel often provides a comic alternative by revealing at the end that the characters' own perceptions were flawed or that a secret force has been at work to counter and alter what seemed to be an inevitable outcome.

So I was intrigued, one day after completing the manuscript, to find an article in the New York Times about anthropologist Mary Douglas' new analysis of the "ring composition" in narrative. Douglas concentrates on literary works and sacred texts that are characterized by their "lack of structure, repetition and episodic incoherence." The article's author Edward Rothstein mentions the Book of Numbers, Persian poetry, epics and unconventional novels like Tristram Shandy as classic examples. Douglas believes that these are organized according to an organizing principle of experience very different from the Western sense of narrative, but closer to living experiences when we make sense of events only through dawning realizations:

At first one event follows another. We may not be entirely sure where it is going. Is there a point at all? Then, with declarative emphasis comes the turning, where, with a shock, we hear a first echo. We connect these different moments; a pattern begins to take shape. Then, step by step, other similarities are heard — they too take on meaning — moving backward from the most recent to the earliest in time, until we return to where we began. This kind of narrative needs to be heard again, for it is only in the retelling that the full nature of its order is revealed.

One point I derive from the article is that we have legitimate alternatives available to the Aristotelian aesthetic of chronology and causation of linear narrative. The ring composition is one of those. Hypertext is another, since it operates through simultaneity and association, through an open space rather than a corridor, with options and alternatives opening with each act or decision, rather than closing. Hypertext fiction is still in its infancy, hampered I believe by the absence of tools to allow the full realization of its potential. But its comic aesthetic is promising, nonetheless.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Narcissists on the internet?

The Internet is creating an entire generation of narcissists. That, at least, is the conclusion of a professor at San Diego State University. But is this science, or just another round of generational stereotyping?

Eric Gwinn of the Chicago Tribune reports on the findings of Jean Twenge, who maintains that "Young people born after 1982 are the most narcissistic generation in recent history." We know this because, among other transgressions, they're flaunting themselves shamelessly on MySpace and You Tube.

The bulk of Gwinn's piece concerns the dangers of young people divulging personal information without safeguarding themselves, which is a legitimate concern. But the scholarly commentary that frames the issue consists of a very old puritanical theme, that every new medium or new art form releases the latent vices of whatever generation embraces it. It's the same argument, dating back to the 1950s, that claimed rock music had made my generation shockingly libidinous, and that watching Howdy Doody on television turned us into fuzzy-thinking Marxists. It's the same argument that blamed MTV for spawning a generation of iconoclastic hedonists, the likes of which the world had never seen. It's the same argument, still current today, that claims video games are responsible for youth violence, in the schools and on the streets, which had never been a problem before. So why shouldn't MySpace turn the young people of today into narcissists?

Besides being puritanical, the argument simply misunderstands the medium it's criticizing. YouTube and MySpace, two of the social networking sites that Twenge singles out, are part of the Web 2.0 development of the Internet, which encourages user participation and user creation of original content. In each case, the "content" consists of text and images about the users themselves -- but in the construction of a social network, not as an isolated platform. An individual "all about me" website, unlinked to anything outside itself, would be narcissism, the narcissist alone in a room with a mirror up to the self. MySpace is an open party, where each guest arrives in an interesting outfit and strikes a pose to draw attention.

Social networking online is not much different from networking in person. It involves the conscious creation of a public image, a persona, selecting aspects of the personality, some heightened and others downplayed. The persona isn't the true, full personality, but rather a somewhat artificial projection. The healthy, integrated individual recognizes it as such, and doesn't confuse the projection with the core personality, the construct "out there" with reality.

In addition, educator Andy Carvin has pointed out how Twenge misconstrues the "ethos" involved:

She also makes too much of the fact that some of these tools have brand names that embrace the first-person, such as MySpace and YouTube. Twenge equates these tools with being “all about me.” They are about me, but not in the way she thinks they are. The vast majority of people who use social networking sites aren’t in on it to become famous and have hordes of adoring fans. Sure, some people are there for vanity or proto-celebrity purposes, but most people are there for us, not me. They’re communities where people come together to find each other and bond over likeminded interests. They’re communities where people reinforce interpersonal relationships through sharing and creating content. The names MySpace and YouTube are merely references to the fact that they’re an experience built around your interests and creative abilities - and the others who share those interests and abilities. Just as Time Magazine botched it when they declared “you” as person of the year, Twenge misunderstands the ethos of social media, not recognizing that users of social media do it because they care about the notion of “us” and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Jean Baudrillard: March 7, 2007

French postmodernist Jean Baudrillard, who among other achievements extended McLuhan's critique of media as a controller of perception, died March 7, 2007. Buried deep in evaluating final projects and giving exams at Columbus State, I wasn't able to pay tribute to him at the time of his passing.

I was and continue to be an admirer of his thought, although I found his actual writing to be almost impenetrable. In the mid-80s, a graduate student friend at Ohio State, very up-to-date in postmodern theory, lent me his translation of Baudrillard’s 1972 work For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. I did my best to get through it, but found myself frustrated enough at one point to throw the book against a wall, so it could share my pain.

His 1988 work The Ecstasy of Communication brought me similar grief. But I understand enough in the abstract to recognize the importance of his thoughts on the seductive power of media to substitute a modeled hyperreality for physical reality.

Baudrillard used the term "simulacra," from Plato, to describe an historical progression of how art and media have created different types of "copies" or nature or reality: from representations of things, to idealizations; then on to mass-produced mechanical reproductions, ending in our time of electronic, digital simulations of things. This is the age of hyperreality, virtual reality creating what he called a "desert of the real."

A challenging, controversial figure. I have a dream of someday returning to his work, when I'm older and much more patient, when I have time to savor his depths and the intricacy of his style. That won't be any time soon, though.

For an excellent overview of Baudrillard's work, check this site from the University of Western Ontario.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Blogging isn't CB radio, but .

Back in 2003, when the Chronicle of Higher Education wondered to itself whether blogging would go the way of the CB radio, the question was already a cliché. It's turned out to be a cliché with impressive staying power, since people are still posing that question online today, as if it were some sort of novel idea.

What irritates me about the question isn't its relevance, but its technological and cultural snob appeal. It assumes that CB was a perfectly serviceable tool, appropriately used by taxi drivers and truckers, until uneducated masses of enthusiasts swarmed upon it, like flies on the carcass of a wildebeest. Americans filled the airwaves with a babble of pointless, inane chatter, before suddenly abandoning all their radios in the dumpsters of interstate rest stops.

Blogging, the suggestion goes, might prove to be just another silly fad, like CB. Everyone's blogging now, but soon we'll all repent our foolishness and feel embarrassed about those blogs we stuffed with our inanities.

I'm disinclined to be dismissive. I suspect that the CB radio craze was a signature event in American culture of the 1970s. The fact that it was short-lived doesn't diminish its significance. Perhaps by attempting seriously to understand the appeal of the CB, we can better understand the current blogging phenomenon and make clearer predictions about its future.

One problem with CB radio phenomenon is that it dates to the 1970s, a decade that was hard to take seriously even while we were living it. Citizens band frequencies/channels had been available to the populace since the 1940s, but as late as the 1960s they were used only commercially by radio dispatchers and cab companies. Transistor technology eventually made the hardware affordable, and the FCC opened additional channels to the public. But improvements in the technology didn't themselves create the sudden, unprecedented demand for these radios.

The root cause of the CB craze was, in fact, a political event: the passage of the universally despised national speed limit of 55 mph. In 1973, an act of Congress turned every American motorist into a potential outlaw. The CB became the most essential weapon Americans had for combating the federal government's attempted curtailment our right to drive as fast as we chose and squander as much gasoline as we could afford to.

Used at first by interstate truckers, for the practical purpose of outwitting the highway patrols, the CB became a romantic symbol of the era. Truckers themselves, usually liminal figures in the national mythology, enjoyed a short period of glory, replacing the cowboy as the symbol of independence and rebelliousness. Two major stars of the time, Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds, played truckers in some of the biggest movies of their careers. A 1975 song titled "Convoy" by C.W. McCall made its way to the top of the charts around the world.

The 1970s was the decade of the road. For those who weren't around at the time, it's hard to grasp the sense of discontent, restlessness and dislocation that characterized the era.

Hitting the road had become a central theme of popular culture even before the national speed limit. As early as 1971, Carol King lamented about singing "One more song about moving along the highway / Can't say much of anything that's new."

Maybe it was the national hangover we were suffering after the turbulent, assassination-filled 1960s. Maybe it was weariness over our mounting losses in Vietnam and disillusionment with the political process that eventually culminated in the Watergate scandal. Maybe it was a series of recessions and a sense that the country was losing its competitive edge internationally. Maybe it was the fact that, as McLuhan once noted, societies where social mobility is diminished just naturally become nomadic.

Whatever the reason (or, more likely, combination of reasons), we were suddenly a country of Jack Kerouacs, all of us on the road searching for something we couldn't define. The CB radio filled a growing void. We'd lost our old communal ties, and required a tool to build new social networks on the highways. We were lonely. But more than that, we were yearning to reconnect with a unique American character we felt we'd lost. The CB wasn't just a radio: it was a stage where people developed complex, exaggerated, often comic personas for themselves. The airwaves were all at once filled with distinctive characters, sometimes almost mythic figures, joining in a great Whitmanesque chorus of American voices.

And then the craze ended, as suddenly and (at least on the surface) inexplicably as it had begun. But the end, I think, can also be linked to a political event: the 1980 presidential election, when Ronald Regan succeeded Jimmy Carter to the office.

Everone remembers Jimmy Carter as the president of "malaise," even though he did not actually use the word in the infamous address when he attempted, more frankly than the American public was comfortable hearing, to diagnose the nation's ills, its failure of nerve and loss of self-confidence. The word has nevertheless attached itself to the Carter administration -- unfairly so, because the whole decade was a period of malaise, not simply the four years he served as President. Ronald Reagan was not a great President, whatever the conservatives' nostalgia for him would claim, but he was the cure for the malaise that ailed us at the time. He restored Americans' belief in themselves and in the future.

His voice unified the country, reunited us with our communities and with our sense of self. By the time the national speed limit was repealed in 1982, the CB craze was already well over.

The CB served a social, political and emotional need of its time. Once those needs were satisifed or could be met in other ways, the craze ended. Blogging may also be a patch on some contemporary wound to our collective psyche, some ache that can only be soothed by spinning new social networks where we can proclaim and celebrate our individualities, while also solacing ourselves in the comfort of the crowd. History has shown that when we suffer the curse of living in "interesting" times, we develop interesting media to help us cope.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Diebold backing away from paperless voting machine business

Here's a follow-up on comments earlier this week about the value of a paper trail: Diebold -- infamous for its paperless voting machines -- is lamenting the damage done to its image as a manufacturer of fine safes and teller machines.

As a citizen of a state (Ohio) that landed in the Bush column through voting fraud during the 2004 elections, my heart bleeds for a company whose chairman Wally O'Dell promised to deliver our Electoral College votes to the White House resident.

For more specifics, check this story at Black Box Voting.

Sunday, March 4, 2007

Best Buy's website practices scrutinized

Consumer groups and state attorneys general are looking into allegations that Best Buy sales associates have sometimes used a corporate intranet site, a look-alike of their public website, to decieve customers looking for sales that were promoted online.

The news has generated a great deal of interesting discussion, much of it in support of Best Buy's ethics, at Slashdot and at TechDirt. My goal here is neither to criticize or defend Best Buy, but to look at a deeper issue: the unreliability of web documents.

If I were ever to shop at Best Buy (something I studiously avoid doing anyway) and bring a printed flier from that Sunday paper's supplement with me, it's unlikely the adolescent sales associate would whip out a rival flier, listing the price of the plasma display at $995 instead of $855.

A printed document is an objective reality, a "thing" in the original sense of that word -- something two separate minds can meet over and agree to its existence. The text on the page cannot be edited, censored or deleted without leaving a mark of the alteration.

In the incidents under investigation, the associates produced an alternative web page with different prices, a page with greater claim to accuracy because it was, supposedly, more recent than the one the shopper had seen at home. There was no physical record of a change, or even evidence that this wasn't the same page the shopper had read earlier.

Hypertext is mutable, quicksilver, evanescent. The short history of the Web is already full of cases where a corporation or government agency posted information online that later proved embarassing to it and that was hastily deleted, with denials that the material had ever existed at all.

Print is tangible, permanent, agreed upon. It points an accusing finger at whoever dares tamper with its meaning or its existence. That's why, whenever important matters are at stake, we need the assurance of ink and paper, rather than hypertext, to defend the truth.

Corporations plagued by online rumors

Back in 1973, a rumor spread through the little southern college town where I lived that the United States had only one week's supply of toilet paper remaining. The townspeople descended on the bewildered manager and staff of the local Jitney Jungle, exhausting the stock of four-ply in about half an hour.

It was a small, tight-knit community where reports -- especially false ones -- spread with amazing speed, and seemed to gain greater credibility as they grew more outlandish. The Internet has many of the social dynamics of a village, which makes it a vital breeding ground for rumors.

Red Orbit is reporting on the efforts by several corporations (including McDonalds, Procter & Gamble, Coca-Cola, and Starbucks) to address false reports about their products and policies, mostly by way of their own websites.

In most cases, it's impossible to trace a rumor back to its original source. Recently, though, Starbucks was able to identify an email from a Marine sergeant in Iraq as the cause of a widely-spread tale that Starbucks refuses to support American troops overseas.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Huffington Post fires back over hate accusations

Tuesday, after the assassination attempt on Vice President Cheney in Afghanistan, a few anonymous writers posted comments on the Huffington Post lamenting that the attempt failed.

Site administrators spotted the abusive remarks and immediately deleted them.

Rude, inappropriate commentary is part of the price for the internet's freedom of speech, and Huffington Post acted correctly in removing it as soon as it appeared. However, the right-wing spin machine seized on the incident and characterized the episode as proof that all liberals are "people who would celebrate a successful attack on the life of the vice president."

As Arianna Huffington points out in her trenchant response to charges from Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity,Dean Barnett and others, hate speech occurs on both extremes of the political spectrum, and finds platforms where it can express itself all across the Internet.

For the right to characterize it as the exclusive expression of the left is especially hypocritical, in light of odious pundits like Ann Coulter, who has "humorously" called for the murder of Bill Clinton and Justice Stevens.

Talk on the Internet can be extraordinarily vulgar, violent and inexcusable. Talk on the mainstream media can be equally so. The difference is that the anonymous posters lack the infrastructure of major publishes and cable networks to legitimize their hatred.

Friday, March 2, 2007

Berners-Lee argues for Net neutrality

Tim Berners-Lee testified yesterday before a U.S. House panel on "The Future of the World Wide Web," presenting a persuasive case for maintaining a "nondiscriminatory Internet." (See full account at C/Net News.)

While refusing to back any specific bill on Net neutrality, he clearly opposed the concept of Digital Rights Management prioritization, and sparred with Representative Mary Bono of California over the issue.

What would Sonny think?

Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.

Two bright lights of my world have been extinguished this winter. The first was Molly Ivins, who passed away in January. The second is Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who died February 28.

Arianna Huffington has posted a tribute to him on the Huffington Post, recalling how Schlesinger was one of the first notables whom she approached to serve as a columnist blogger on her new site:

"What is a blog?" he asked. "And what is blogging?"

So in this bastion of the Old Guard, I found myself explaining to a man who didn't do e-mail, and who considered his fax machine a revolutionary way to communicate, what blogging is. Of course, he got it instantly -- and almost as quickly agreed. With one proviso: "Can I fax you my blogs?" he said.

One of the qualities of the intellectual, and of the liberal mind, is this ability to grasp new forms of communication and this willingness to experiment with them.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Universities post course materials for free

The Wall Street Journal reports that MIT, Notre Dame, Yale, Bryn Mawr and other schools are making coursework available online to the public.

MIT's program has been in place since 2003, with syllabi and class notes for over 1500 courses. It and other colleges also employ videos, audio files, and podcasts, much of the work supported by $68 million in grants from the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

Reporter Anne Marie Chaker says that offering materials online helps to "democratize" education, but that there is a return on investment to the schools as well: "Schools say that offering materials online can draw in potential applicants curious about what an actual course looks like. An MIT survey of users showed that about a third of freshmen who were aware of the site before attending the university said it made a significant impact on their decision to enroll."

Consumer revolts, via the Internet

Slashdot links to a story from The Independent's online edition about how the Internet is enabling British consumers to rally forces against businesses and government agencies, demanding reform in everything from road projects to overpriced football tickets.

A website campaign against British Gas, for example, cost the company 4 million customers before it cut its gas rates by 17 per cent. Environmental activists organized a boycott against air travel because of its impact on the climate. "An estimated 3 per cent of people have stopped flying to help the environment, while 10 per cent are cutting back on flights," The Independent reports.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Middlebury College prohibits Wikipedia research

A story from C/Net News, referencing an orginal article from the New York Times, reports that the History Department at Middlebury College has decided to prohibit students from "using Wikipedia as a research source in tests & essays."

The core issue at Middlebury appears to be questions regarding Wikipedia's reliability as a source for academic work, and whether college students should even be using encyclopedias (online or not) in research projects. Of course, they shouldn't.

As a writing instructor, I worry that my students who use Wikipedia (despite my warnings not to) aren't receiving the kind of fact-checked, professionally-vetted material available from more traditional print or electronic sources. I'm even more concerned over plagiarism, however.

I encounter an increasing volume of papers each quarter that either quote directly from Wikipedia without quotation marks, or borrow information from it freely without citation. Most of these papers come from students who understand what plagiarism is and would not deliberately commit it. It seems that because Wikipedia articles are "authorless" communal projects, students don't regard wholesale borrowing of information and language from them as plagiarism.

Online research tools, especially Wikipedia, challenge long-standing academic ideas regarding the authority, authorship and ownership of ideas and information. That is a much deeper issue than reliability, one that won't be resolved by a simple ban on students using the encyclopedia.

Blogging for Edwards

Lindsay Beyerstein of Majikthise has an article on Salon about the blogging problems of the Edwards' campaign. She was herself approached to blog for John Edwards, but declined, because she anticipated the political backlash that Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan encountered for their outspoken views.

Beyerstein was surprised that the campaign failed to understand that the "blogosphere isn't just 'The Situation Room' with swear words, it's a space for writers to explore ideas that are outside the bounds of mainstream discourse." It's, in part, the domain of "independent polemicists" who can better serve their chosen causes and candidates from "outside the campaign." She distinguishes polemicists from the "party activist" bloggers, who avoid outrageous statements and opinions.

Politicians who fail to grasp the blogosphere's cultural standards of discourse, in their haste to capitalize on the its potential for grassroots organizing, are setting themselves up for the kind of trouble the Edwards campaign has suffered.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Social network emerges on a book site

Colette Bancroft of the St. Petersburg Times has reported a story, "Bibliophiles, Unite!" about, a web service for cataloging private libraries that has surprised its creator.

Tim Spaulding, a grad student and web publisher, created a site that "allows users to enter the title, author or ISBN number of a book they own. The site retrieves information about the specific edition of the book, often complete with an image of the cover. Users can display their libraries as a list or as a virtual shelf with an array of covers." He didn't anticipate that it would transform into a complex social network of book lovers.

Bancroft reports that with 9 million books in its catalog, "would be the ninth largest [library] in the United States," if it were a physical structure. But numbers don't suggest the essence of this site, its vibrant life in book clubs and chat areas.

This is another example of a increasingly common web phenomenon: even when developers haven't planned for them, communities of interest often emerge spontaneously when a critical mass of traffic occurs on certain sites.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Anna, Robert and Jimmy

The recent, sudden death of Anna Nicole Smith produced a telling exchange of viewpoints last week, when National Public Radio's Robert Siegel interviewed Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia.

The issue at hand was speculation that Wikipedia had beaten traditional journalistic outlets to the story about Smith's passing. An anonymous editor had promptly posted the time of her death on her biography page, supposedly before any other news source. Wales corrected the rumor, claiming that the source had, in fact, been an announcement on CBS.

I enjoy Siegel's calm equanimity on All Things Considered in the afternoon, even if his delivery exemplifies what Camille Paglia once called the "repressed mellifluousness of National Public Radio." So it was especially interesting to hear him growing a bit nettled over Wikipedia's reported coup, and over the encyclopedia’s editorial policies. Transcripts are available from NPR and on LexisNexis, but they don't convey the edginess of his conversation with Wales. For that, you need to listen to the audio on NPR's site.

Siegel suggested that Wikipedia had based its report on a "slimmer basis for confirmation" than a news organization would have used, but Wales countered that it was "pretty much exactly the same" in that Wikipedia had acted on "a citation to what was being reported at another outlet." Siegel questioned the "hierarchy of editors" who had made the decision to remove the story from the site for a short time. Wales replied that Wikipedia instead acts through a "social hierarchy" of "experienced editors," and then admitted that by "experienced" he meant anyone with an account over four days old.

Siegel called four days a "pretty low bar." The interview maintained a veneer of civility, but Siegel attempted to cast the episode as a case of reckless amateur journalism, downplaying Wales' point that Wikipedia had simply posted information that had been already been broadcast by a major news organization, CBS.

The greater significance of this episode is the speed and adaptability of Wikipedia's social network in catching and disseminating news. Siegel groused, politely, about the absence of a "hierarchy," pointing out that the site's editors were "members of an online community" rather than professionals meeting together in a room somewhere. Wales' reply was a simple "Exactly!" What Siegel addressed as a flaw, Wales clearly recognized as Wikipedia's distinct advantage.

It was especially interesting that Siegel didn't react to Wales' referring to CBS as "another outlet." This raises an interesting question. Is Wikipedia an encyclopedia, or a news outlet? Or are the distinctions between those two functions beginning to blur?

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hypertext Nation: A mission statement

Hypertext Nation will post news and commentary on the social, cultural, political, economic, educational, psychological, linguistic, artistic, and technological effects of hypertext on contemporary life.