Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Distinction Between 'Writing' and 'Communication'...

Is electronic communication killing the English language and hindering children's development of "real" writing skills?

This is the question that a just-released Pew Internet Survey sought to answer. Most teenagers spend a considerable amount of time sending text messages, emails, and instant messages - usually filled with fragmented sentences and abbreviated acronyms like LOL (for "laugh out loud"). The survey showed that parents believe that their teenage children are actually writing more than they had at any point in their own lives. Yet should these types of digital communications be considered "real" writing? And for that matter, do they help or harm the development of writing skills that will one day be essential for them to hold a professional job?

Perhaps the central finding of the survey is that 60% of teenagers themselves, to their credit, do see the "important distinction between the 'writing' they do for school and outside of school for personal reasons, and the 'communication' they enjoy via instant messaging, phone text messaging, email and social networking sites."

However, 64% also acknowledge that their informal communication styles do often filter into their school work. 50% admit they often substitute their informal styles for proper capitalization and punctuation; 38% say they have used text shortcuts like LOL and BTW; and 25% have used emoticons (symbols like smiley faces ☺) in school work.

Is this a sign of the coming apocalypse? Not at all, and any overzealous reactionaries ought to be ignored. The fact is that kids are writing more than they have maybe at any other time in history, and enhanced communication between people is always positive.

Educators and traditionalists may cringe at the thought of LOLs and smileys becoming acceptable in formal writing submissions, but their fears are largely unfounded. After all, the kids themselves recognize that their informal styles are not acceptable. As an educator myself, the very fact that kids are writing more, and, most importantly, learning to better communicate their ideas, is encouraging enough to trump any fear I might have of grading papers where full sentences are nowhere to be found.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Obama Angers the Liberal Blogs...

To date, Barack Obama has received far more netroots political support than any other presidential candidate this side of Ron Paul. However, he now seems to be angering those very supporters who have been his staunchest advocates.

As Sarah Lai Stirland describes, Obama's appearance this weekend on the Fox News cable channel has liberal bloggers up-in-arms. Many liberal bloggers had been calling for a boycott of Fox News as a way of de-legitimizing the network perceived to be a right-wing media outlet. Obama initially agreed to a self-imposed boycott (which lasted two years), but after weeks of criticism over his association with the controversial Reverend Wright, expressed his desire to directly combat this criticism. Apparently, he was not combative enough in the eyes of his most ardent supporters.

Matt Stoler of OpenLeft flatly states, "It was a mistake for us to endorse Obama". On the DailyKos, one diarist speaking of the appearance on Fox News states, "Simply put, I cannot vote or support anyone who participates in this medium". Comments like this abound in the blogosphere today.

Will this cyber-liberal anger have any significant effect on the outcome of the primaries? Probably not. Liberal bloggers have been highly critical of Hillary Clinton for months, and that is unlikely to change. If anything, it only tarnishes the unreasonably idyllic, heroic image that the Left harbored for their still-favorite candidate.

In the meantime, something must be said for the hypocrisy of these liberal blogs who have been insisting on a boycott of Fox News. Regardless of to what extent you think Fox News has a right-wing bias, bloggers, perhaps above all, ought to realize 1) the value of an open and expansive marketplace of ideas filled with diverse viewpoints and comprehensive dialogue, and 2) that suppressing political speech is inherently counter-productive. For these liberal bloggers to boycott a major media outlet, and insist on their candidates following their lead, simply because they disagree with a perspective different from their own, makes them no better than their perceived right-wing enemy and concedes any claim to the moral high ground.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Why is Ebay Suing Craigslist?

The world of online auctions and classified ads is getting awfully contentious. Yesterday, Ebay filed a lawsuit against Craigslist despite the fact that Ebay actually owns a 25% stake in the website. They claim that the Craigslist's board, consisting of founder Craig Newmark and Chief Executive Jim Buckmaster, acted unilaterally in January to dilute Ebay's economic stake in the website by more than 10 percent.

While the blogosphere is all abuzz about this lawsuit (and the conspiracy-theorists are relishing the prospect of a hostile takeover), the truth is that no one really knows what Craigslist's supposed unilateral actions were that are the focus of the dispute. "The complaint is under seal because of confidentiality restrictions, according to a company statement".

So what can we make of this story?

Perhaps the most acute observations come from "Drhamad", who posted the following comment on Slashdot:

1) Craigslist is a closely held company not traded on the open market.

2) This is a dilution suit. This means that basically, in a closely held company, it's easy for a majority shareholder to screw a minority shareholder, since the minority shareholder can't outvote them and can't get other shareholders to support it. Therefore, we have a lot of laws protecting minority shareholders. In this case, it seems that eBay has issued extra stock, which means that eBay no longer really has 28%, but rather less, effectively. This CAN be legal, but there has to be a solid, nonpredatory reason for it.

3) Ebay managed to get its share [in the website] because Craigslist had issued some shares to close employees, on the assumption that it didn't matter and was just to feel nice. One of those employees decided to sell his stake publicly, and eBay bought it. Normally, no one would have been able to get access to Craigslist stock.

In the end, this case is more about juicy gossip than it is about anything too substantial. Because Ebay owns a quarter of Craigslist, it's not going to sue it out of existence. And a hostile takeover is going to be be nearly impossible for Ebay to pull off because Craigslist stock is so closely held. If our goal here is to make sense of what's happening with this story, then we can simply state that Ebay is miffed because they feel they were treated unfairly and are lashing back publicly to vent their displeasure. But it will lead to nothing except a therapeutic catharsis.

Don't listen to the hype. The gossip mongers love a public, in-house squabble, and that's really all this is.

Favorites of the Blogosphere...

One of the most common grievances uttered by readers of The Nerfherder is that they often feel like Web 2.0 bystanders; that despite all the hype about blogs, podcasts, and the rest of their ilk, nobody knows where to start looking.

So I'm throwing out here my own personal list, not necessarily of the best or most popular blogs on the Web, but simply my own personal favorites. They are more apt to fit the categories of fun and unusual than they are self-important.

(Descriptions from
  • PostSecret - This blog is an ongoing community art project in which ordinary people mail in a personal secret written by hand on one side of a homemade postcard. The cards are then posted anonymously on the blog exactly as received, presented without comment.

  • Indexed - This blog reduces the rich pageantry of life to small Venn Diagrams and bar graphs that graphically and (often hilariously) highlight life's profundities and absurdities.

  • The Consumerist - Ever get the feeling you're being ripped off? The Consumerist is the blog where shoppers can bite back and sometimes even leave deep teeth marks. As the editors put it: "We're not anti-capitalist; we're anti-stupid-capitalist."

  • Reverse Cowgirl - Writer, photographer, and artist Susannah Breslin's blog supplies a rare commodity online: smart writing about sex and sexuality... Perhaps best of all, The Reverse Cowgirl consists mostly of sex-related writing, not pictures or photographs, making it just barely suitable for viewing at work unless your boss is really nosey.

  • The Sartorialist - All about fashion as seen on the on the street. It's a daily repository of shared photos of ordinary people wearing kick-ass clothes, accompanied by sharp, sometimes stinging commentary.

  • Gawker - Its relentlessly critical, headache-inducing cynicism about, oh, practically everything, would seem downright mean it weren't for its usual juicy targets: the self-important boobs that rule Manhattan media and high society.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

NJ Supreme Court Rules for Internet Privacy...

Are people entitled to a reasonable expectation of privacy when surfing online?

The skeptical side of many of us tend to think that we don't have much privacy online, and that someone - whether government agencies or private companies - are probably tracking our activities. As Sun Microsystems CEO famously declared years ago, "You already have no privacy. Get over it".

However, the question is whether people are ENTITLED to internet privacy, and in addressing that question, the New Jersey Supreme Court has just ruled that surfers do have a right to privacy online.

Writing for the court, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner said: "We now hold that citizens have a reasonable expectation of privacy protected by Article I ... of the New Jersey Constitution, in the subscriber information they provide to Internet service providers -- just as New Jersey citizens have a privacy interest in their bank records stored by banks and telephone billing records kept by phone companies."

Barber said most people use the internet like a phone, making personal -- sometimes sensitive -- transactions that they don't believe the police will be able to access.

The bottom line is that law enforcement officials will need a grand jury warrant to obtain access to people's private information. "The unanimous seven-member court held that police do have the right to seek a user's private information when investigating a crime involving a computer, but must follow legal procedures. The court said authorities do not have to warn a suspect that they have a grand jury subpoena to obtain the information."

This ruling is a highly positive, and desperately needed, development in the movement to strengthen individual privacy rights. It is also very reasonable, recognizing that law enforcement will still reserve the right to fully investigate cybercrime allegations. They will just need a warrant to access people's private information, rather than having a blanket, unfettered ability to do so.

Repercussions of this decision could potentially be far-reaching, as it may affect everything from the enforcement of digital copyright laws to IP-tracking software to individual Google searches.

At least in principle, the Supreme Court of the great state of New Jersey ought to be applauded for its even-handed, thoughtful approach.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Can Blogging Be a Tax Write-Off?

Wired's Steve Friess has a great article just in time for April 15th. He profiles how New Media participants such as bloggers and podcasters are increasingly seeking to write-off personal purchases as a tax deduction. For example, the podcaster known as Soccergirl Incorporated, the self-described "podcasting librarian with big tits", who muses about all things sexual and earned a healthy $22,000 doing it last year, has listed "podcaster" as her occupation on her IRS tax forms, and is listing the purchase of condoms as a deduction.

"In an age when bloggers and podcasters are making a living - or trying to - by blogging and podcasting about their personal lives, what exactly is legitimate? And if writing off your personal life is as easy as writing about it online and getting some Google ads, why doesn't everybody do it?"

In other words, it might be possible that someone could buy a pair of shoes and then simply blog about them in order to write those shoes off as a deduction. You could conceivably do that for every dinner you eat out, every beer you every drink, and every fantasy baseball league you ever join. The possibilities are endless.

The real issue here is whether the broadcasting of one's personal life can be considered a legitimate business venture. Many bloggers and podcasters do, in fact, make money off of their efforts, and certainly most of them try. But how should these activities be properly classified under the tax code?

The IRS posts on its website that a deduction is legitimate when "'an activity is carried on for profit if it makes a profit during at least three of the last five tax years, including the current year'. Broadly, the notion is you have to make some money. But there's no further details concerning the IRS' views on how living one's life in public apply to expenses that are 'common and accepted in the taxpayer's trade or business.'"

These types of questions are certainly re-defining traditional classifications, and the truth is that even most experts don't yet know the answers.

While this saga continues to play out over the next few years, The Nerfherder is going to hesitate, at least for a while longer, on writing-off everything that he does in his personal life under the guise of "contributing towards my blogging venture". However, he anxiously awaits the day when the law finally affords him the opportunity to get a nice tax break on all those baseball cards he's been eye-ing on eBay :-)

Monday, April 14, 2008

Solving Crime Through Crowdsourcing...

Although it is often harshly criticized, the herd mentality that persists in many internet discussion forums can also apparently serve as a decidedly positive force.

As the New York Times describes, a handful of online forum users have helped find a stolen car and their efforts led directly to the arrest of the alleged criminal.

A car dealer named Shaun Ironside reported his Nissan Skyline stolen to the local police department. However, deciding to be pro-active, he then posted a message on, a Web site for Canadian auto enthusiasts, to spread the word.

The forum posting went on to describe the afternoon’s events, repeating information that was included in the police report. He described the driver as a white male in his early 20s, heavy-set, around 5-foot-6, with a distinguishing feature: missing ring and middle fingers on his left hand.

The post included several photos of the missing car and offered a cash reward, though as he typed, Mr. Ironside had little expectation of getting the car back, he said later. But his post set off a cyberworld dragnet...

The very next day, after seeing the photo, one of the online forum's moderators named James Lynch recognized the car at a shopping mall in Calgary. He pulled up alongside the car, gave the driver a "rock-out" sign with his fingers, and, as Lynch explains, the driver was dumb enough to do the "rock-out" sign back to him - and Lynch took a picture with his camera. After posting that photo back to the online forum, Shaun Ironside recognized the individual, called the police, and the perpetrator was quickly arrested.

One of the most striking images from this fascinating story is the picture which the NY Times is displaying with this article. It's a shot of Ironside, Lynch, and two other assisting members of this internet forum, all meeting in person for the first time in order to take the photograph.

Community policing is not a new idea, but harnessing the power of the internet to allow anonymous individuals from around the world to collectively contribute towards crime fighting is novel indeed. Integrating the volunteer efforts of "the crowd" - also known as "crowdsourcing" - is most often visible in things like Wikipedia. But if you take that Wikipedia model and apply it to a socially beneficial purpose like fighting crime, then we're clearly in midst of a whole new ballgame.

So long as these cyber efforts are used to aid and supplement, rather than replace, official police efforts, and so long as they do not stray into vigilantism, crowdsourcing may ultimately demonstrate that the "wisdom of the crowds" is an incomplete moniker. The true power of the crowds may go far beyond that of wisdom. It is the power of action.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Flickr Users Protest Against Video...

Earlier this week, the popular photo-sharing website, Flickr, announced that it would be rolling out video-sharing for its "pro" (a.k.a. - "paying") users. This seemed like a logical arena for Flickr to extend into. Its wildly popular photo-sharing service has a cult-like devoted following, so offering its core base of users the ability to share videos was expected to be seen as a welcome addition.

So why have Flickr users been protesting against it?

As Jenna Wortham reports, groups such as "We Say No to Video on Flickr" and "No Video on Flickr" have organized to protest the move and have mobilized over 34,000 people since Tuesday. These protesters are primarily upset because there was no public beta testing (everyone's settings were just reset, and there was little community consultation), they perceive the videos to be significantly slowing down the entire website, and they believe that the inclusion of video dilutes Flickr's photo-centric purpose.

Besides spreading an online petition, the anti-video crusaders are also labeling their photos with a "novideo" tag and, ironically, posting still-photos that depict violence against video hardware.

This isn't exactly a new precedent that's being set. "Flickr purists have an affinity for protesting any changes related to the site. In 2005, some Flickr users threatened a 'mass suicide' in response to Yahoo's purchase of the photo site. And this February, Flickr users staged online protests amidst swirling reports of a Microsoft acquisition of Yahoo."

What this fascinating case demonstrates is that even Web 2.0 aficionados on the cyber front-lines can be equally conservative and adverse to change as the stereotypical crotchedy old man trying to return soup at a deli. Furthermore, community-based websites are increasingly proving to be a hotbed for lightning-fast mobilization and collective action, as recent cases with Facebook also demonstrate. Finally, on the supply-side of the equation, service providers ought to take note that "improvement" doesn't necessarily mean more services, but may be defined simply as enhancing existing ones.

If nothing else, this is clearly a triumph for the unexpected.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Why Some Technologies Never Catch On...

A post on Slashdot today raises an intriguing question: Will Twitter join podcasting on the internet sidelines?

Twitter has established itself in some quarters as a must-have communications tool, and its power to connect and even incite people is hard to deny. But does Twitter have long-term, mainstream potential? Or does a poor revenue model and strong competition mean that it's destined to be a sideline Internet technology, much like podcasting has failed to live up to early hype

Whether it be Twitter, Podcasts, Linux, RSS, Joost, or other technological marvels that were once hyped as "the next big thing", there is a fundamental question that technologists need to start addressing: Why do some promising technologies succeed in penetrating the mainstream markets while others fail to ever quite catch on?

On the surface, many of the upstarts seem poised for success, at least in theory. Sharing and downloading music files remains a national pastime for the under-30 crowd, yet podcasts - which are essentially downloadable radio shows - can't quite gain a footing. Meanwhile, every new release of Linux is accompanied by hype that this time it's finally ready to compete with and even replace Microsoft Windows, yet has never cracked a 15% market share. Joost was supposed to revolutionize the way we watched television over the internet, but after months of being the "It" thing in the blogosphere, it's practically nowhere to be found.

RSS might be the most disturbing case of all. It is a fantastic technology that allows people to subscribe to internet feeds, ultimately making their surfing lives easier, more efficient, and more comprehensive. The Nerfherder uses it himself daily with Netvibes and swears by it. So why hasn't the non-wired populace started to adopt this transformative and (at least to its zealously loyal users) irreplaceable technology?

It's not because of failed business models. After all, most podcasts, like blogs, are actually produced by passionate hobbyists rather than commercial firms. And RSS is a technical standard, not a proprietary entity whose owner has simply failed to capitalize on. When you think about it, the history of the internet itself reads like a list of non-revenue-producing services that caught on big, such as Napster, BitTorrent, Email, Instant Messaging, etc.

It's also not because the technologies themselves were inferior. Quite the opposite, in fact. For example, Linux is generally recognized by the computing world as being far superior in technical terms to Microsoft Windows. To put this in perspective, does Vista really even compare to Ubuntu?

It's quite obvious that none of these promising technologies has reached, what Malcolm Gladwell famously called, a "tipping point". But his has always been a more descriptive statement, rather than a prescriptive argument that can be usefully applied to other cases. In other words, it may be true, but it's also quite useless in explaining why these technologies have failed to catch on, and what can be done about it moving forward.

The question of why some technologies succeed while others fail, therefore, cannot be adequately answered by market forces, business models, cultural and behavioral patterns, nor technical prowess. Thus, short of citing Cosmic Zen or the Greek goddess Athena as the reason for RSS's limited popularity, it remains a question in desperate need of an answer.

And a billion-dollar answer, at that.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Anti-Koran Film Taken Down Following Threats...

Last Thursday, Dutch politician Geert Wilders posted a video to The film, titled "Fitna", juxtaposes passages from the Koran with graphic images of terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe. Its stated purpose was to demonstrate that Islam poses a threat to the Netherlands, and it "includes newspaper headlines about terror attacks, graphic images of beheadings at the hands of Islamic radicals, and a riot-provoking Danish cartoon from 2005 that depicts the prophet Muhammad with a bomb in his turban."

After the video received over 3 million page views in a day, LiveLeak took down the film. In its place, the following message appeared on-screen: "Following threats to our staff of a very serious nature.... LiveLeak has been left with no choice but to remove Fitna from our servers."

One can only imagine the nature of these very serious threats.

Watch the film and decide for yourself (it has since been re-posted at Google Video). It is unquestionably a piece of propaganda, and most reasonably-minded individuals would recognize it as such. However, it's no different than any of the pro-Islamic fundamentalist pieces of propaganda that are regularly uploaded to the internet everyday. In fact, even at this very moment, the LiveLeak front page has a prominently featured video of "a children’s show broadcasted on the Hamas Al Aksa television on Monday show[ing] a child stabbing President George W. Bush to death in revenge for the death of his parents and sisters".

Defining "hate speech" is always problematic, but at the very least there has to be fairness and equity in its determination. LiveLeak isn't to blame - after all, it's hard to get too critical of people who are receiving death threats. The real problem, (surprise, surprise) is with the extremists who use intimidation to terrorize others... for doing exactly what they do themselves.

The principle of free speech requires that either all of these types of propaganda films should be permissible, or none of them should be. Either it's Constitutionally protected, or it's a form of hate speech and is not. But it's beyond hypocritical for the extremists to suggest that they're allowed to produce such material while no one else is. And their tactics of intimidation are despicable.