Monday, July 25, 2005

Free Mickey!

I'm not a radical.

Lessig's tone rubs me the wrong way, as does his narrow fundraising pitch at the close of his lecture. But Lessig gets it.

It's big versus small and power vs. powerless today, but the future has always been on the little guy's side. Modern technology breathes hope into this fight, streamlining creativity and bringing about a convergence of minds that should yield something worthy of being called a renaissance. The past has always fought the loss of its creations, but every past has been built on by the creative minds of today.

Think about it: Would there be a Locke without an Aristotle? Would there be a United States without a Locke?

He's right. As long as corporate interests prevent their creations from entering the public domain (or patents restrict the public use of a product, as in the case of the documentarian whose film was ruined because the Simpsons lawyer threatened legislation if the film didn't pay $25,000 for the rights to use a few seconds in the background of the film, barely recognizable to viewers), the creative forces of the future are hindered.

The terrible reality is that Lessig is not the only one who gets it. Disney gets it. Bill Gates gets it. They all reaped the benefits of a free society when their careers were budding, but it's in their best business interest to stifle competition.

I believe in artists' rights. I believe in reaping the benefits of what you created. But there needs to be a point at which we acknowledge that our culture needs to be ours -- all of ours. There needs to be a point that, just like Aristotle, Mickey Mouse will belong to all of us, as the cultural icon that he is.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

The Fate of the Commons

Don't get me wrong: I have the utmost respect for people's creations. Whether it's a song, a chair, a book, a logo, I understand that copyrights protect the artists' rights to get credit and earn a profit from their works.

But our society, as depicted by Lawrence Lessig in an excerpt from The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, has lost its mind on this issue. While protecting the rights of those who have freely created, we're making it harder to create freely. In safeguarding one artist's work, we're stifling creativity in another.

Ten years ago, Lessig writes, permission had to be granted and royalties paid to use a work (whether it be a song on the soundtrack or a Pepsi logo on a soda can in the background) if it could be "recognized by a common person." Now virtually everything, even the seemingly nondescript props in the background, must be accounted for.

Big farming corporations have even found a way to patent seeds -- life! -- and then proceeded to take over smaller farms by suing for copyright infringement when the seed naturally spreads.

If we continue down this path offline, what can be said of creative freedom online? Right now, many websites use copyrighted photos without paying or permission; people download music through Limewire, MP3 blogs and the like; even major campaigns, as our guest in class said today, use popular songs without permission in their online ads.

I think we can all agree that downright stealing is probably bad. But the line isn't always so clear. From what I've read so far (and I'm looking forward to reading more) of Lessig, he seems to be right on: We need to err on the side of freedom and artistic license and go easy on all the copyrighting.

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

Recurring Theme: Cell Phones Are Good for People

Now that cell phones and SMS might save Africa, save your life, take down Estrada and cost a fortune (thanks, Peter), I'm finding a theme:

There's a lot of power in that little pocket machine.

In the OpenNet Initiative's study on China's Internet filtering, we learn once again of China's overall scary censorship of the Internet. [Of course, the class blogged a lot on China's friendly government-registration policy for websites earlier this semester, so I won't pile on the hate.] The little detail that the government forgot to take a stab at: the cell phone and SMS.

When SARS broke out worse than new lines of Coke products, the ONI report says that the government tried to quell the panic by simply lying to its people: "Oh, that's not an epidemic...that's the weather changing!" Well, you know the saying: 1 billion can't be (collectively) stupid. SMS technology spread the truth and preserved a tiny bit of freedom for the Chinese people.

The (Chinese) Man might win most of those battles over freedom, but I -- for once -- am heartened by the hope that perhaps technology won't allow technology to stifle technology (and humanity).

Let's keep our figners crossed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005

OK: Let's Draw a Few Lines (with Erasable Pen)

Carol Darr made one thing very clear last night:

The line needs to be drawn. Or else.

Or else we can say goodbye to preventing corporate influence over our electoral system (well, not really -- more like, we'd be giving them more potential areas in which they can corrupt us all).

In my interpretation, here are the two conclusions I come to:

1) Political activism blogs deserve to exist freely. The First Amendment preserves our right to assemble freely, discuss whatever we choose, etc. The FEC steps in to say, "OK, if you're going to assemble and do political stuff, you can't advocate someone's election or defeat and spend more than $X." The problem is, the big blogs need to spend more than that to operate -- and "to operate" often means to advocate the election or defeat of the candidates they discuss, sometimes explicitly fundraising for candidates.

2) The big political blog aren't mainstream media entities and shouldn't be treated as such for one main reason: a lack of accountability. The New York Times can editorialize against Bush all year long, but in the end, they can't liberal fundraising links on their website and advocate you donate to them. The Nation, for one, is very explicitly liberal. But their journalistic integrity keeps them off the campaign payrolls. Daily Kos, on the other hand, is unabashedly liberal, advocates regularly the election or defeat of candidates, organizes political activism (including fundraising for candidates), and has been on candidate's payroll. In many ways, it is no different than a political action committee with people power.

3) The media exemption has been abused to a great extent, making the line that would keep blogs from receiving it very blurry.

In the end, I fall somewhere between what Carol Darr says and what Kos says. First things first: either make the media exemption mean something and keep people like Paul Begala from acting as both a paid campaign consultant and news commentator and corporate investors from influencing the editorial decision making (which would seem incredibly hard to do, much less enforce); or, just give up already and give it to the blogs, too. Perhaps you can ask blogs to register as PACs or PAC-lites if they're going to engage in spending money to influence elections. Perhaps you could just have the big ones disclose their funding.

Where Darr is right is that the real solution comes in the rewriting of campaign law to catch it up to speed with the times.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Preserving our Demographic Boundaries Online

Sometimes you have to read the comments.

I was clueless about the wordy, convoluted point Antigone was trying to make in the African American Blogging Thing until I read in a comment that this was apparently a pretty obvious satire of a similar post on another blog, called "The Woman Blogging Thing," which bemoans the lack of prominent women political bloggers and even attributes it to the "male"-style writing that dominates blogs and the top-down structure of the feminist movement.

What Antigone does is prove that, sometimes, you have to take a step back.

The Internet, as a candidate for savior of the world, has been given the burden of erasing racial lines and tearing down demographic boundaries that have characterized the offline world for centuries. When the apparent racial disparities persist online (such as the alleged lack of diversity among prominent bloggers), the believers have started to question this barrier-breaking premise and decry this lack of immediate social upheaval.

And then they get caught making sweeping generalizations as the "Woman Blogging Thing" author did. I'll try not to make that mistake.

Sure, the Internet has changed so much about life. It has created a form of human interaction that is faceless, nameless, raceless, gender-less, etc. Online, the spread of ideas need not necessarily be connected to the demographic boundaries that divide us offline. The hope should not be that there will be more women or black bloggers to balance out all the white men (One could say, "How do we know there aren't already many non-white males out there?"). Rather, the hope should be that these demographic factors never even enter the equation. That, after all, is within the realistic abilities of the Internet.

What posts like the "Woman Blogging Thing" do is perpetuate this mindset of breaking the online community into demographics, which might help us figure out where the need is in funding to bridge the digital divide, but help us little in assessing the debate going on in the blogosphere.

If it's online diversity we're after, the movement might have to begin offline.

Sunday, July 10, 2005

A Bit Off-Topic: World Maps on the Internets

While Google has a new program, Google Earth, which proves once and for all that it has conquered the world by inviting you to "fly from space to your neighborhood," a competing view of the world has emerged at

Both are well worth your time and consideration. Trust me.

Friday, July 08, 2005

ReadThis Video

For a minute, I wondered if there was a way if I could turn those blasted captions off. I guess you could say the bread was in the slots, but the Toaster wasn't plugged in.

We've all learned from Jakob that web designers should think about usability before they think about nifty tricks and glitzy design. It takes watching these three interviews with students for whom navigating a website can be more than a challenge to really drive his point home.

Technology is intended to make lives easier. Tools like the Internet have the potential to bring ease to the lives of people with disabilities. While your website certainly doesn't need to embody the austerity that Jakob's usability bible has chosen, it needs to be designed in a way that shows you do things "on purpose."

There's a middle ground between Mr. Nielsen's world of white space and large-sized Verdana and that new supercool indie band's Flash-heavy homepage with the cartoon intro that leads to a bunch of un-navigable pages of graphic links. Some things I've learned:

1) Slick videos are great: Give them captions.
B) Innnovative design with neato links looks cool. Make sure your screen can be read by a screen-reader program.
4) Oh, and don't ever design a page that can't be navigated with a keyboard. (I know enough about mice problems to sympathize deeply with this one.)
ix) Don't use text that is indecipherable from the background of your page.
AND) Don't use fixed-size tiny fonts. (On another personal note: my father is hard of seeing, and he will beat you up if you do it.)

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Look! Jakob's Looking Out for Everyone

Well, you can't keep a man like Jakob Nielsen down, and he advocates you shouldn't keep Web users of lower literacy down either.

If you didn't have enough reason already to cut out the superfluous graphics, text blocks and design frills, Jakob gives you a really easy one: an estimated 30 percent of Web users can't handle it.

Campaign websites, just like those of our favorite pharmaceutical corporation, Pfizer, benefit from making text short, priortizing information and getting right to the point on their sites. What's fascinating, but not surprising, about the study Nielsen sites is that easier, more usable sites lead to happier, more successful users. And that means happier, more successful clients.

But, when everyone's happy and successful, nobody's happier or more successful than Jakob.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Pt. 2: The Bad, The Ugly

When it comes down to it, the Connaughton4LtGov site simply didn’t perform in the way it needed to in order to compete statewide.

Starting with main layout, the page is cluttered and clunky, which makes me, someone who is unnaturally obsessed with political campaign websites, want to navigate away fast. The in-site navigation links follow no logical arrangement whatsoever, instead leaving me with repetitive options such as "Biography," "Education" and "Military Service," all of which could have been compiled into one section. "Press Coverage," "Press Releases," "Newsletters" and "TV Ads" could have benefited from a similar organizational heading. Other links that read "Click for More" yield pages with nothing more to see, an obvious result of careless web design or lazy upkeep. Embarrassingly, the list of navigation links, which should remain consistent throughout the site, changes depending on which portion of the site you happened to be.

But the worst offense the Connaughton site commits is its lack of an e-mail sign-up and less-than-eye-catching "Voluntneer" and "Donate" buttons. Though I praised modesty above, there is absolutely no reason to be shy about letting your supporters support you. If that’s a problem for Connaughton, perhaps statewide politics aren’t his field. The site needed to adapt to the needs of prospective supporters and clearly lay out what that race was about. While we all know Sean Connaughton may be a nice, local guy, we unfortunately have no idea why he thinks he deserves to be Virginia’s lieutenant governor.

Connaughton4LtGov: An In-Depth Look Pt. 1

Now that Sean Connaughton'’s campaign for Virginia's lieutenant governor has come to an early end in a loss to State Senator Bill Bolling in the June 7 primary, hindsight becomes a campaign manager'’s best enemy. This analysis of his web campaign will attempt to point out one area in which Connaughton showed promise and another in which his weaknesses were fully exposed.
[Note: The Connaughton website was taken down the night of the primary, but the infrastructure of the site remains online. Please go to to navigate. Unfortunately, the home page is forever changed.]

>>The Good
What Connaughton needed to do was break away from Bolling'’s issues and define the race on his terms, perhaps on veterans affairs or job creation. The site's strengths were few and far between, heavily outweighed by its clunky, cluttered, disorganized, amateur negatives. The result is that I couldn'’t help but think that the campaign was doomed. If the website isn't competing properly, how can I expect any other aspect of the campaign to be doing so?

But there is silver lining in the Connaughton site. In wanting to portray himself as a down-to-earth, small-time local guy who gets the job done, the candidate established an excellent tone on his website. While it is hard to quantify the concept of tone, I feel that the tone of a campaign site can make it or break it for a lot of voters. If it strays too deeply into the negative or desperate, an undecided visitor can see that and will be turned off. If it sounds too good to be true, a voter’'s cynicism will be topping out the meters.

Connaughton opted out of the slick layout and graphics that his opponent used well, instead using a very rudimentary design that looks, feels and operates as if it'’s homemade. Without a doubt, this modesty is necessary for Connaughton'’s image. In essence, the site is politely saying, "Hey, our guy isn'’t a Richmond big-talker. He'’s a Prince William big-doer." Had the content of the site and the layout evoked a consistency with this tone, the sky could have been the limit for Connaughton, promoting and defending his record while serving primarily as a community tool by which Virginia Republicans can come and spread the word about Connaughton, make a public endorsement, and be persuaded to volunteer and donate.

Monday, July 04, 2005

Freedom Isn't Free

Finally free from the Brits!

This may or may not have been a piñata my freedom-fighting friends and I constructed last year to symbolize our independence. [Note: Blue is wearing a T-shirt with the Union Jack on it...we did not desecrate an actual flag. We may, however, have desecrated the history and mystique surrounding the American Revolution by reducing it to Tootsie Rolls inside a papier-mâché Nick, Jr. character.]

Friday, July 01, 2005

Fasten Your Seat Belts

If you don't think you've witnessed new media change politics yet, this is the time to start paying attention.

Within an hour of the announcement of Justice O'Connor's retirement, the blogs (namely, Daily Kos) were filled with speculation that -- all in all -- had the mainstream media beat in its depth. Keep in mind that the media have been preparing for this day for years -- note that all the slick graphics reading "A Change on the Supreme Court" were ready to go. And yet their analysis was still very easy, even weak (I'm saying this having witnessed CNN's coverage and perused the sites of some major newspapers). While the MSM seem to be a bit caught a bit off-guard by an O'Connor retirement (and not a Rehnquist retirement, as was expected by everyone including some prominent senators and the White House, according to Red State), the blogs were able to adapt quickly and with depth. See Kos or Red State.

And action on the blogs is the least of what we're about to see...

I know People for the American Way have a myriad of ways people can "act now" before there's even a nominee to fight (I'm all for preparedness, but doesn't this exacerbate the perception of Dems as obstructionists). Currently, they're using a $10 and 10 pitch, asking for $10 donations and the names of 10 friends. At the very least, they should be boosting their mailing list quite a bit during the impending battle.

More interestingly, though, they have set up a Mass Immediate Response system that will send breaking news and action alerts to your cell phone and e-mail. I'm sure the other side of the aisle has some similar programs. If you're passionate about this stuff, or if you're just interested in seeing what strategy these groups have developed, I'd recommend signing up.

On a related note, Bush has said there will be no nominee announcement before July 8. So, this has a lot of time to stew around in the blogs. This is sure to spark some fun conversation around the BBQ this weekend. There will be fireworks, indeed.

UPDATE: I tried to post this around 1 p.m., but Blogger was down for some reason...could it be an overload of people weighing in? Yeah, probably not. But wouldn't that have been an interesting piece of trivia.