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May 25th, 2007

Female bloggers turn on glossy women's magazines

Female bloggers turn on glossy women's magazines

One of the myths propounded by the mainstream media about the blogosphere is that it is populated exclusively by men.

Last summer, for example, the Independent and the Guardian both ran articles claiming that women don’t blog, and, in the case of the Independent, explaining why.

(It’s because women are too busy cooking and looking after the kids, apparently. Go figure.)

Unfortunately for the opinion leaders on the UK’s national broadsheets, it was later revealed that women do, in fact, blog in copious numbers. No fewer than 46% of bloggers are women, according to a Pew Internet survey published last July.

But this is old news, so why mention it now? Well, one of the reasons for the antagonism between the mainstream media and the blogosphere is that bloggers are increasingly calling their professional counterparts to account. And in 2007, it seems to be the turn of the glossy women’s press to come under fire.

This week saw the launch of NYC-based Jezebel, a new blog from the Gawker Media stable. Jezebel’s manifesto lists the ‘five lies’ that glossy magazines tell women, and says it aims to be “the sort of…magazine that would never actually see glossy paper because big-name advertisers and the publishers who kowtow to them don’t much like it when you point out the vulgarity of a $2000 handbag.”

But while Jezebel purports to undermine glossy magazines, it still buys into the myth that all women are fascinated with celebrity gossip and expensive clothing. I see more to admire in the UK’s defiantly un-glamorous Observer Woman Makes Me Spit blog, whose entire raison d’etre is shooting down the self-serving female stereotyping evident in the Observer’s monthly women’s supplement.

Until recently presumed to be non-existent, female bloggers are starting to bare their teeth – at the very magazines that claim to be on their side, but which are in fact anything but. I like it.

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May 21st, 2007

Beermat vision to sober Vista in a click?

Beermat vision to sober Vista in a click?

Browsing New Scientist I was grabbed my one of the smaller items, which rounded-up patents applied for in the last few weeks. I suppose the ‘singing golf swing’ and new impact protection ideas for cars are all well and good, but what really caught my eye was a framework for a software application that promised to transform hand drawn sketches scribbled with some basic notion of perspective, into convincing 3D computer models. A brilliant piece of trickery and one that I’d definitely install on my own machine.

Being a bit geeky in my spare time as well as for a living means I often wake up after a night at the pub to find notes and scrawlings on the back of beermats, serviettes or hands reminding me how to build gadgets and things. In the past these have ranged from turning an old desk into a water-cooled PC housing to a sonic cat scarer for the garden. Sad huh?

Fortunately I’m not too sad to be a customer of Microsoft’s, as this latest patent application proves. Called ‘Sketching Reality’ the proposed piece of software magic might just be able to turn damp drunken doodlings into usable Illustrator or Powerpoint files.

Microsoft has undoubtedly got a more sophisticated use up its sleeve but I haven’t.

Yet.

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May 18th, 2007

Do judges understand the internet?

Do judges understand the internet?

The papers are scoffing at a judge who asked what a website was in the middle of a trial about alleged terrorism offences. The Register reports that the judge said: “I don’t really understand what a website is… I haven’t quite grasped the concepts… We’ve got to start from basics.”

“How absurd,” journalists say, “that a judge who’s on a case about the internet doesn’t even know what it is!”

It’s possible Judge Peter Openshaw has never used the internet. That certainly fits with the stereotype of judges as fusty old men, saying ‘eh?’ and holding an ear trumpet.

It’s much more likely, though, that he was pressing for a definition that would stand up in law. There is the famous case of a judge who is said to have asked who the Beatles were in court. It wasn’t because he had never heard of them – it was because he needed a clear definition for the avoidance of any doubt later on. You can imagine the mess a case can get in if you start talking about a group of people, but don’t define who’s in it.

Everybody uses websites, but I’d be surprised if most people could give a robust definition of what one is. It’s the judge’s job to make sure that concepts are clearly understood before there’s any debate about who’s done what. Otherwise, you can spend all day arguing about the difference between a website and a webpage, whether something is published if it’s online and so on.

Objection sustained.

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May 18th, 2007

US Army bans, promotes YouTube

US Army bans, promotes YouTube

If Vietnam was the world’s first media war, Iraq is our first social media war. But developments this week highlight the US Army’s deeply divided view of the suitability of social media platforms to communicate the conflict in Iraq.

On Monday, the US Department of Defense informed soldiers that they would no longer be able to access YouTube, MySpace or nine other social-networking sites from DoD computers. The Pentagon said the block was necessary in order to free up network bandwidth, but there is a widespread belief that the US military fears the loss of control that comes from allowing troops to publish their own words, videos and photographs online without supervision.

It’s not difficult to understand the army’s concerns – unmonitored blogging, social networking, and video and photo sharing can easily compromise military secrets, whether intentionally or not. Few people would have been surprised last month when the US Army ordered military personnel to stop posting to blogs, message boards and chat forums without clearing the content first with a superior officer.

But there is more at stake than military secrets. With the growing unpopularity of the Iraq war, the army is fighting to maintain its reputation as much as anything else. On this score, it sees social media platforms as a useful ally – as a means to portray the ‘reality’ of the conflict independently of mainstream media bias. So even as it bars troops from accessing YouTube, it continues to promote its own YouTube channel showing footage of military life in Iraq. And while some in the military believe that social network sites represent a threat to security, others are aware that banning online contact with friends and loved ones will further knock the morale of an already beleaguered army.

The sheer newness of social media means that for the US Army – as for many companies trying to get to grips with the new landscape – the relationship between risk and reward is still very unclear. Expect to see more deeply contradictory behaviour before the Iraq conflict draws to a close.

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May 11th, 2007

When animals attack

When animals attack

While all the best-selling games are about killing people and smashing up cars, there’s a growing segment of the market that goes for something a bit softer. Like Animal Crossing, a leading game on the Nintendo DS handheld, in which you make friends with animals living in a village near you. If you deliver a present to another animal, you might be rewarded with a roll of wallpaper or some pretty stationery. If you write the animals letters, they’ll write back and maybe even invite you to their birthday parties. It’s that kind of game.

Most of it is based around mock conversations, where the animals spout some nonsense and you let them.

So imagine the horror of a mother who found her daughter subjected to a tirade of abuse from a wolf-like creature called Whitney. “I think calling someone a fucking cow is pretty harsh,” said Whitney as part of her playful banter. Eleven year old schoolgirl Khloe Leslie called out: “Muuuuuum!

This has almost certainly happened because Whitney was taught those words by another player, either before Whitney moved in near Khloe or afterwards by a human visitor to Khloe’s town. One of the great things about Animal Crossing is that you can visit other players’ towns using the wi-fi connection. Over the internet, you can even have players from all over the world come and visit your town and bring you gifts. Players can interact with the animals in other towns, and sometimes the animals move between towns that the player has visited or had visitors from.

Nintendo, a company that’s famous for being child-friendly, has included controls to keep it safe. Visits between towns are only possible if both players know each other and exchange friend codes. But many players exchange codes with strangers on the internet. Perhaps Khloe invited potty-mouthed visitors to her town who have been talking to Whitney, or maybe she visited other towns where the owners have been a bit liberal with the vernacular when chatting to their virtual neighbours. This might even have come from a communal game at school.

As regards the news story, it looks like a mother has given her daughter an internet-capable communications device without thinking through the implications of that. This is pretty minor stuff (yes, the children are our future but it’s only a few words and Khloe’s probably come across that language elsewhere before). There is a browser available for the Nintendo DS now, which enables email and chatting and obviously exposes children to greater risks. Just because it looks like a toy, it doesn’t mean the Nintendo DS is inherently safe.

There might be other games in Khloe’s collection which are wi-fi or internet-enabled so I’m not convinced that banning Khloe from playing Animal Crossing is the best solution. Parents must take responsibility for how their children use communications devices, and for educating them to use them safely.

It would also help if they were less sensationalist about things like this when they do occur. It doesn’t reflect well on the players or the parents. Nintendo’s spokesman said: ‘It is either a pirate copy or it is user-inputted text.’ That amounts to ‘either you stole the game, or you haven’t learned to use it properly’. Having played the game for months and found the animals including Whitney to be nothing but charming, I believe him.

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May 11th, 2007

News Corp. in two minds about internet frenzy

News Corp. in two minds about internet frenzy

As debate continues about the implications of News Corp.’s shock bid for Dow Jones, a couple of under-the-radar pieces this week illustrated the deeply divided attitude towards the shifting media landscape among top executives in the Murdoch empire.

Firstly, Jeff Jarvis provided a rare insight into Rupert Murdoch’s mindset in a blog post recounting a dinner held for News Corp. execs at the chairman’s Monterey ranch. It’s clear from the post that Murdoch continues to embrace the world of Web 2.0 wholeheartedly. Not only had he invited uber-bloggers Jarvis and Nick Denton to explain the new media landscape to his generals, but he also spent the entire dinner deep in conversation with Mark Zuckerberg, the precocious 22 year-old CEO of social networking site Facebook. At a meeting earlier in the day, Murdoch had also encouraged his executives to ‘make a huge leap in a completely different world.’

While Murdoch clearly grasps the importance of embracing the new dynamics of the participatory Web, not all of his executives are so enthusiastic. A Reuters report from the National Cable and Telecommunications Conference revealed deep reservations among the ‘old media’ about the importance of the internet. Among those calling for restraint was News Corp. COO Peter Chernin, who said ‘the amount of money we get from those [internet companies] are a fraction of those we get from the cable industry. We must be careful not to disaggregate.’

Reuters suggests that a siege mentality has set in among mainstream media providers, with Time Warner chief exec Richard Parsons comparing big media to native Americans besieged by colonial forces in the Indian Wars. Whatever you think of this extraordinary analogy, it seems that YouTube and its ilk have got the established media very rattled. But as Apple demonstrated in the music industry, joining them, rather than trying to beat them, will probably prove to be the better strategy.

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May 10th, 2007

Stop, Look & Listen

Stop, Look & Listen

In late 2005 we wrote a review in our newsletter of a fascinating field recording project called SoundTransit. This collaborative online community dedicated to phonography and unusual soundscapes allowed vistors to plan ‘sonic journeys’ around the world, stopping off to listen to snow walking in Lapland, sandfleas in California, a Tuk-Tuk ride in Chennai, skateboarders in Strasbourg – that kind of thing. Anyway, it’s still going strong and the archive is now massive, and well worth a visit on a stressful afternoon.

Well, it now seems SoundTransit was way ahead of its time. This week Google has announced it will add audio clips to its Google Earth geolocation application, in some sort of Web 2.0 audio epiphany. To be fair though, it actually appears very well thought through indeed, and we’re expecting great things.

According to New Scientist, Google has recruited the talents of Bernie Krause, one-time Moog player in The Weavers and a bit of a legend in ambient sound recording circles. He has spent over 40 years collecting thousands of sounds from all over the world, which he has previously made available online through his own company Wild Sanctuary. Bernie’s sounds will form the professional backbone of the Google Earth sound library which will then be supplemented in time in true Web 2.0 style with contributions from mere punters, who will be able to send their own noises through the Freesound project (which is also rather brilliant in its own right).

We still think SoundTransit will have an edge for a little while yet, especially when it comes down to really quirky and mundane soundscapes in other climes, but once the public grab the ears of Google Earth, well, we won’t hear the end of it..!

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May 4th, 2007

Culture and anarchy

Culture and anarchy

Grand political themes swept the Web 2.0 world this week, as two stories reignited age-old debates about anarchy and cultural debasement.

In a major article in Sunday’s Observer, Web 2.0 critic Andrew Keen called for an end to the tidal wave of amateur online content, which he claims is ‘killing our culture’. Keen says that the vast number of blogs and other user-generated content is destroying our ability to distinguish the significant from the trivial. He believes that we need a professional creative class – including journalists, writers and film-makers – to act as cultural arbiters and to tell us what’s important and what isn’t.

Much as I disagree with Keen’s hyper-elitist stance on who should and should not be allowed to express themselves online (I notice that at least three of the blogs that are supposedly ‘killing our culture’ are written by the man himself, and are therefore, presumably, exempt), his concerns may not be entirely fanciful. This week’s other big Web 2.0 story was the ‘Great Digg Revolt‘, in which users of the popular citizen media site flooded it with articles revealing HD-DVD decryption codes in protest at the removal of earlier posts of this nature by the site’s owners.

In the end, Digg founder Kevin Rose decided he had no option but to give in to the mob, even if it means his site gets shut down by lawsuit or law enforcement. Depending on what happens next, this may prove to be an interesting cautionary tale for anyone who thinks that cultural anarchy in cyberspace is a viable model.

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May 2nd, 2007

This Is What You Get When You Mess With Digg

This Is What You Get When You Mess With Digg

Know the famous line from “Network” – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!”?

When consumers got mad at traditional media outlets in the past, their options consisted of the sternly worded letter to the editor or simply not supporting the product any further. Well, in the exciting moment of time we currently live in, a third solution has popped up: take over the outlet.

Recently, the decryption code for HD-DVD discs was found and disseminated throughout the Internet. Well, except for popular web portal digg.com, which not only axed postings containing the decryption code, but actually deleted the accounts of users posting the information.

The result? Users took over. Using Digg’s system of voting to make stories and/or users more or less popular, dozens of stories discussing the topic and posting the code have become the top stories on the site (sample topic: “I want to share my new favorite numbers with everyone!”), all pushed to the top by Digg voters automatically giving topics the thumbs up. Meanwhile, posts by Digg administrator Kevin Rose have been given the thumbs down by countless readers, making his score dramatically lower and unreadable. The result: Rose has his website, but any credibility it has is currently being managed by its readers. Let the [insert color and/or flower] Revolution begin!

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