Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large
ISSN 1534-0937
Libraries · Policy · Technology · Media


Selection from Cites & Insights 9, Number 3: March 2009


Trends & Quick Takes

Every Hundred Years

Setting the Wayback Machine (popcult reference, not Internet Archive) to November 6, 2007, we see “The social graft” on Nicholas Carr’s Rough type (www.rough­type.com). The post is based on Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his announcement of big advertising initiatives, but that’s not the heart of this discussion.

Here’s the key quotation (taken from Erick Schonfeld’s TechCrunch post on the presentation—there’s a layer of indirection here):

Once every hundred years media changes. The last hundred years have been defined by the mass media. The way to advertise was to get into the mass media and push out your content. That was the last hundred years. In the next hundred years information won’t be just pushed out to people, it will be shared among the millions of connections people have. Advertising will change. You will need to get into these connections.

And some of Carr’s commentary:

And it’s true. Look back over the last millennium or two, and you’ll see that every century, like clockwork, there’s been a big change in media. Cave painting lasted a hundred years, and then there was smoke signaling, which also lasted a hundred years, and of course there was the hundred years of yodeling, and then there was the printing press, which was invented almost precisely 100 years ago, and so forth and so on up to the present day—the day that Facebook picked up the 100-year torch and ran with it.

If Schonfeld’s notes are trustworthy, Zuckerberg’s making a broader claim: “mass media” was a century old in 2007. That’s an odd claim. Either it’s way too late (magazines and newspapers came a lot earlier) or it’s too early (network radio came considerably later, to say nothing of network TV). Mostly, it’s way too silly. Then comes the part that gets me—and Zuckerberg’s neither the first nor the last to make this connection:

I like the way that Zuckerberg considers “media” and “advertising” to be synonymous. It cuts through the bullshit. It simplifies. Get over your MSM hangups, granddads. Editorial is advertorial. The medium is the message from our sponsor.

I don’t believe I’ve seen a quarter go by in which someone didn’t pontificate on the basis of (a) all media (not just mass) being, essentially, advertising surrounded by content or (b) all media being primarily paid for by advertising. My usual response is to cite sound recordings, DVDs, books and suggest that excluding them is an awfully narrow definition of “media.”

Carr’s on a roll here, though:

Marketing is conversational, says Zuckerberg, and advertising is social. There is no intimacy that is not a branding opportunity, no friendship that can’t be monetized, no kiss that doesn’t carry an exchange of value. The cluetrain has reached its last stop, its terminus, the end of the line. From the Facebook press release: “Facebook’s ad system serves Social Ads that combine social actions from your friends–such as a purchase of a product or review of a restaurant–with an advertiser’s message.” The social graph, it turns out, is a platform for social graft.

He quotes a Coca-Cola sponsorship encouraging people to add “Sprite Sips” to their pages. Unclear why you’d want to do that, but much of Facebook is a little unclear to me. (Between the time I wrote that sentence and the time I’m editing it, I joined Facebook. The sentence still stands.) Carr closes:

Facebook, which distinguished itself by being the anti-MySpace, is now determined to out-MySpace MySpace. It’s a nifty system: First you get your users to entrust their personal data to you, and then you not only sell that data to advertisers but you get the users to be the vector for the ads. And what do the users get in return? An animated Sprite Sips character to interact with.

Comments are amusing, as usual. One, defending Zuckerberg, cites “the unwillingness of media consumers to pay for media,” which explains why no DVDs or books were sold last year (and why nobody pays for cable TV).

The specific technology involved here is Facebook’s Beacon, a tracking system that not only tracks your activities within Facebook but also on other websites. It’s been controversial, to say the least, but that’s another story other people are writing. I just continue to be flabbergasted by the number of knowledgeable people who seem to think all media are ad-centered and ad-supported.

The Death of Lists (& Other Nonsense)

Remember email lists (typically called Listservs™, but that’s L-Soft’s trademark)? Once upon a time, they were widely used to communicate ideas among related groups of people—but, you know, that was so twentieth century.

Or not. Abigail Goben, the Hedgehog Librarian, wrote “Are email lists phasing out? Responding to KS” on November 7, 2007 (hedgehoglibrarian.blogspot.com). She’s responding to an odd post on another blog saying “I’m getting the distinct impression that many newer librarians don’t care for email discussion lists.” The comment stream on that post is interesting, with some (younger?) librarians wanting email lists to die, others noting just how widely they’re being used and so on.

Goben notes that she hasn’t seen less traffic on the lists she subscribes to—and she subscribes to what I regard as a typical number (six plus some low-traffic organizational lists). She’s not ready to discount lists in favor of—what? Twitter? blogs? online fora?

For me, it’s education well beyond the classroom. I’m still shy of thirty and right now—some of these voices are like having an extra set of mentors. I get to see the opinions not only of the people doing library service in a public library, but also in highly specialized libraries. I get to follow along on discussions of where our future insofar as new catalogs are going (although a lot of it is right over my head...which annoys me some days). I get to have an opinion right up there with the movers and shakers.

There’s more sensible commentary in this post.

Personally, I don’t see myself leaving many of the lists soon. Certainly topics are repeated and occasionally beaten to death or point of ulcer. Of course there will be the one person who takes any post I make the wrong way and proceeds to completely spoil my afternoon (at least until I can find chocolate) but for me, it’s a great way to find a discussion between people who are doing this stuff daily. Who aren’t even professional writers. These are places I’m less hesitant to ask questions. And it’s easier to watch from the sidelines than many of our other social networking tools, I think, where joining may restrict us to only those we know and can “friend.”

I’ve used email lists for a very long time, but of course I’m not a younger librarian. It seems fairly clear that some lists still reach many more people than most blogs and certainly allow a more level playing field for conversation than any blog. So far, I haven’t found many online forums that seem to do much for me. Twitter as a list replacement? Please. (As others have noted, Gmail’s clustering methodology makes it easy to go through a set of related list posts as long as nobody changes the subject heading.)

Lists must die?

What I found oddest about some of the comments on the other post, and similar comments I’ve seen elsewhere, is people saying email lists should die. I always wonder why someone would be so emphatic about something that, in most cases, is entirely voluntary.

There are several genres of literature that have never appealed to me. Somehow, I’ve never seen a reason to wish that these genres would go away. Their existence doesn’t bother me (and may help keep some publishers going).

I don’t use Twitter at the moment. I’ve never seen much reason to say “Twitter must die!” After all, if I’m not using it, why do I care who is?

So why do some people feel the need to wish death on lists—even while other people clearly find them useful? The only answer I can come up with is that these people don’t like lists, but also don’t want to miss out on useful information. “Lists should die” seems to equate to “You should all be required to use my preferred method of communication.” At which point, the natural response is “Who died and made you Supreme Ruler?”

Don’t like blogs? Fine. Don’t look at them—and don’t bitch about missing good stuff on blogs. The same for lists, or wikis, or online fora, or Facebook, or Twitter, or chat rooms or FriendFeed. (If I hadn’t compromised on HTML, I’d say “Don’t like PDF? Fine, but don’t bitch about missing good stuff in Cites & Insights.”) The world does not owe you universal use of your preferred communication technique. Nobody can keep up with everything (particularly not if they expect to do anything). We make choices and live with the consequences. If library people in general stop using lists, lists will disappear. I wouldn’t bet on that happening any time soon, although some lists will certainly shrivel.

It’s interesting to see how different people view lists—and the decision to leave a list. For lislemck at Biblioblather (biblioblather.blogspot.com), it’s a very personal decision after you’ve been on a list for a long time. As noted in “Unsubscribe web4lib” (posted July 13, 2008), lislemck joined the list a long time ago—1995 or 1996.

The last time I was prime audience was when I was working on the digital collections at MFPOW around 1997-2001. I learned a lot from w4l then. The discussions were always interesting, and some of the best minds on the many related topics were there. They still are. In the last two years as a branch librarian, I’d let them pile up in my gmail. I’d drop in on threads when I saw familiar names, or really hot topics, or things that seemed really cogent for a branch librarian. That got less and less. I was far removed from that world…

For perfectly appropriate reasons, lislemck is pulling back on many “virtual” communities “to concentrate on the people who are right in front of me.” Unsubscribing seems clearly the right thing to do in this case. But the extent to which active participants become an extended family, even on a “dying” medium, is clear:

All these years, I have loved web4lib, in that most abstract version of agape. I have not been an active participant ever, but I have followed countless links and arguments. Many of them taught me, or gave me food for thought, and I am grateful. Some gave me good laughs, or good sig files. Some exasperated or made me mad. But that’s why it is such a human endeavor, and I have to be thankful for the chance to participate…. It is always wonderful to be part of something wondrous, something put together by the free will and labor of a group of people who want to share ideas. So farewell Roy, Thomas, Dan, Karen, Karen, Blake, Gerry, Walt, and all the countless other names that have graced all my various in boxes over the years. This may seem like navel-gazing, or inexplicable nostalgia, but I had to note my transition.

I don’t consider myself an active web4lib participant, but I’ve been there almost since the beginning and do speak up from time to time…and I understand what lislemck is saying.

Listservs™ and students

Goben posted this on November 12, 2007. (She gets full credit for not using the trademarked term the first time around.) It’s only related to the extent that, well, if Kids These Days didn’t use lists the issue really wouldn’t arise. An incident happened on a specialty library list:

Within the span of a couple of days, two library students posted—verbatim—the same assignment and asked for help. The assignment was about current resources being used by said specialty librarians, what they subscribe to, what kinds of issues they are facing, and other general questions. I’ve seen student requests that were basic details about the listserv that should have come up during the most rudimentary of search engine search too. This was slightly more specific than that but not much.

A little later, one student posted a thank you—and a discussion got started on how librarians should deal with “cold calls” like this. Most people felt that if people on the list had the time and had the information, they could and should provide it.

Overall a firm opinion was not really declared—there were a few “just ignore it if you don’t have time” and a few “but we’re here to help” although I think the majority of the responses I saw fell in the middle in a category of—please student, identify yourself, ask if you could interview a few of us off list for a class assignment, and go from there. I think it sounds fair.

There’s the parental aspect: At what point is helping really doing the assignment? And, these being library students and a library list, there’s a twist:

The final amusing touch to all of this came this evening. Someone tracked down the professor and said professor has already been speaking to these students because this was apparently not how the professor intended for them to go about this. His rather terse email was almost immediately followed by a lengthy explanation from the student with the more memorable name.

I suspect almost every open list has situations like this. I’ve seen posts that really do seem like someone asking the rest of us to do their research for them—and rarely have to wonder about the ethics because I’m rarely the target audience. My own instinct is to provide a response if I have one (and it’s not an enormous amount of work), and I suspect that’s not only the instinct of most librarians but an appropriate one. And I think the “middle ground” noted above makes a lot of sense.

Everything else is dead

Jumping forward a year (and, oh look, lists are still very much alive), Daniel Cornwall posted “Death watches worth reading” on November 23, 2008 at Alaskan librarian. It’s mostly a summary link to Shel Holtz’ “Death watch” on a shel of my former self (blog.holtz.com). Apparently, Dave Winer suggested “online advertising is dead,” which will come as a fatal shock to Google. Quoting Holtz:

I’ve caught no wind of Google scrambling to identify a new business model. That is, no doubt, because online advertising isn’t dead. It is, however, just one of the many targets of such proclamations, many of which crop up every so often when somebody revisits the meme. According to the oh-so-prescient pundits among us…

Holtz missed “Libraries are dead” (Cornwall says “replaced by the internet,” but some would say “because everybody just buys all the books they want” or “because books are dead”), but here’s his list—noting that he has links to pundits stating each “death” (except for “Blogs are dead,” and I think Wired nailed that one):

   PR is dead (killed by social media)

   Blogs are dead (replaced by Twitter and other channels)

   Press releases are dead (replaced by blogs—but wait, aren’t blogs dead?)

   Journalism is dead (replaced by user-generated content)

   Encyclopedias are dead (replaced by Wikipedia)

   Newspapers are dead (replaced by citizen journalism and, um, online newspapers)

   Print is dead (people will page through the paintings of Michelangelo on their laptops instead of high-quality coffee table books)

   Terrestrial radio is dead (whew! I won’t have to listen to any more Raiders debacles in my car)

   Anything not digital is dead (replaced by, well, everything digital)

   Microsoft Office is dead (everyone’s switching to SaaS and OpenOffice)

A few of the links lead to supposedly intelligent commentary (well, you get Jeff Jarvis on print being dead, so “supposedly” is a relative term). Some are typical “I don’t do X, therefore nobody does X” universalist crap. Some are leavings of another sort.

Holtz’ immediate take:

Of course, none of these things are dead, or even dying. Some are scaling back as alternatives enter the marketplace. Some are struggling to identify a new business model. But none of these will have completely vanished by 2012, or even by 2018. Or 2100.

Well…blogs may have disappeared by 2100, replaced by something with similar features but a different name. Other than that, I think I’m with Holtz on this one. (Big surprise, right?)

The first comment nails it: “‘death’ is nearly as magnetic as ‘free’ in a headline…Good copy, but only a fool would believe that we will give up on something that works.”

The first in the “Death Watch Case File” series appeared November 26, 2008: “Tangible Media.” It works from a pundit’s claim that by January 2014 in the US “almost all forms of tangible media will either be in sharp decline or completely extinct,” specifically listing books, magazines, newspapers and others.

Holtz doesn’t buy the notion that print books will die in the next six years—and Holtz has a Kindle and likes it a lot, but uses it primarily when traveling.

But there’s more to printed books. I can make notes in the margin. I can put it on a shelf and refer to it (and my margin notes) later. If the book has graphics, they are sharp and clear. Artwork—such as Gilbert Stuart’s oil painting of John Adams appearing in a biography of America’s second president—are reproduced with brilliant four-color process printing that simply cannot be duplicated with the limited palette of colors built into web browser technology.

In fact, coffee table books featuring photography and artwork still display the images with far better fidelity than you can get on the Web.

So at least these forms of books will survive because they are better at what they do than their digital counterparts. But print is also finding new life as a channel for creative expression through print-on-demand (POD) services like Blurb and Lulu… According to a friend who works there, POD’s popularity is largely attributable to the ease with which people can channel their creativity into print without incurring the costs that once kept it off limits…

As to the pundit’s claim on the death of magazines, it’s a typical “since I don’t” case: The pundit hasn’t bought a magazine in a couple of years, therefore magazines are dead… Holtz notes that many popular magazines continue to grow in circulation. “The secret here is knowing your audience, producing compelling content, and creating a total package between the front and back covers that offers a self-contained experience you just can’t get on the Web.”

Apparently, this pundit really does mean all tangible media will be going digital—and Holtz notes that this would include artwork, billboards, direct mail, brochures… “[T]he point should be clear. The notion that tangible media will be gone by 2014—or even 2054—is ridiculous.”

Holtz’ series may be worth watching.

Shuffling Off to Online

It’s a sad story, but one I should have seen coming. The January 2009 PC Magazine was the final issue. PC says it’s the final print issue, marking a “monumental transition” to purely digital publication. “[T]his is not the end, but the beginning of something exciting and new.” For me, it feels like the end—and a sad end it is.

The magazine grew slimmer over the years, then dropped from 22 issues a year to a monthly schedule. It started offering fewer and fewer words, more and bigger pictures, and for a while was omitting technical summaries for products being reviewed. Want to know more? The constant drumbeat: Go to PC’s website. Which is now all that’s left. (I canceled my subscription, which had an autorenew feature; otherwise, I’m sure they’d keep charging me for the “digital magazine.”)

The December 2008 issue was, as usual for December, the annual Technical Excellence awards. That’s usually something to look forward to: A set of interesting essays on products and ideas that really are interesting, even if they’re not always as wonderful as PC suggests.

This year? The article is two pages long, and half of the first page is that big Technical Excellence medal. You get a simple listing of fourteen products, with pictures of six—and about half a page of copy. (The bottom third of the second page is “Technology’s top unsolved cybercrimes.”) The great award essay of the year is a pathetic little feature with less than a full page of copy. I found nothing else in the issue worth commenting on—also pathetic, when I used to find three to ten items in each issue.

But surely for the final print edition, they did a big, blockbuster issue, right?

Wrong. It’s a “special Windows report” featuring hands-on experience with Windows 7. There’s the usual degree of columnist nonsense (Lance Ulanoff assumes anybody who likes Windows Vista “obviously” has SP1, John Dvorak continues to be John Dvorak).

The reality of that final print issue comes on page 84, where the required annual USPS ownership and circulation statement appears (in larger form than most magazines use). Remembering that PC used to have way more than a million paid circulation, we see that the average paid distribution for the last year was 670,925 copies—and for the most recent issue, it’s down to 595,230 copies, which means PC can’t even guarantee a 600,000-copy base rate for advertising.

It was a good run while it lasted, or at least the first 25 years were pretty solid. I believe I read every issue of PC Magazine since its inception. At one point, that could take a week of evenings. The last year or so, a good 90-minute slot was enough. I’ll miss it. I think it’s a shame it went out with such a whimper.

The HD Watch

When I was at PALINET08, staying in Sheraton University City in Philadelphia, I finally watched network TV in high-definition on what I suspect was a relatively inexpensive LCD widescreen (LG brand). Because the TV got digital input on network channels, the picture was presented properly (unlike an earlier dismal experience). I was watching from fairly close up because of the room’s layout. And I was impressed. Some day soon…

Meanwhile, more notes along the way:

   Name-brand Blu-ray player prices are now at or below $299 as a starting point, with off-brand units considerably lower. The day after Thanksgiving did, predictably, see brief $150 prices. The cost of a Blu-ray player for someone buying a Sony or similar name-brand big-screen TV these days is frequently $0, since chains are bundling the players with the TVs for no extra cost.

   If you care, most of those off-brand players costing less than $250 (e.g., Magnavox, Insignia, Sylvania, Emerson) are made by Funai.

   The Criterion Collection, makers of the definitive laserdisc releases and DVDs, is starting to release Blu-ray discs—and Neil Young fans will be able to get all of his stuff on Blu-ray, with Reprise releasing the first ten discs (1963-1972) this fall. Neil Young always hated CD as having inadequate sound quality, and he’s now releasing a lot of stuff he held back. (Blu-ray potentially offers much better sound quality than either regular DVD or CD.)

   Some studios are now releasing Blu-ray discs with one of two extras: Either a plain DVD copy on an extra disc or, interestingly enough, a “digital copy” you can legally copy to your iPod or other portable video player. To me, that represents a refreshing and unusual spurt of initiative and flexibility among studios.

   For a little while, it looked as though Toshiba was trying to challenge Blu-ray with its claim that the XD-E500 upscaling DVD player, $150, gives you a picture almost as good as real high-def thanks to Toshiba’s new XDE (“Extended Detail Enhancement”) technology. Joshua Zyber’s “Zyberspace” column in the December 2008 Home Theater considers the claim—and the player. He found “there was absolutely no mistaking the upconverted SD picture for real high definition. It was a night-and-day difference… In terms of quality, XDE seems to be more hype than substance at this point.” The only possible exception is Pixar animated movies—but, as he says, “how difficult is it to make a Pixar disc look good?” The player doesn’t (can’t) actually generate extended detail, and the processing, while making the picture apparently crisper, also results in visible artifacts (“edge ringing”). It’s not a great player in other respects. Unlike the free (or $20) DVD player we’re using at the moment, the player won’t pick up where you left off if you shut it off in the middle of a disc. It insists on stretching TV and other non-widescreen pictures if you’re watching on a widescreen TV. And if you turn off XDE to avoid the ringing, you’re left with a “very soft picture, even for standard def.”

   That same December 2008 Home Theater includes reviews of three Blu-ray players at “the magic price point,” which is to say under $500—or under $300. Two Panasonic players, the $299 DMP-BD35 and $399 DMP-BD55, get the magazine’s “top pick” award for performance and feature set. What’s the difference? The $399 unit will decode surround sound and export up to 7.1 analog channels; the cheaper one will only export surround as a digital stream for your receiver to decode.

Quicker Takes

Think online video’s overtaking DVD purchase and rental? Not so fast. As reported in Media Life on September 18, 2008, based on NPD Group’s “Entertainment Trends in America” study, a mere 0.5 percent of movie and video budgets is being spent on renting or buying movies or TV shows online. Where’s the money going? 41% to DVD movie purchases; 29% to DVD rentals (including Netflix); 18% to movie tickets; 11% to purchases of TV on DVD.

   The USPS has a test service I’d love to see expanded: Special envelopes you can use to pack and return your old MP3 player or printer cartridge. You pay nothing and a recycler with a “zero waste to landfill” policy handles the stuff.

   Sascha Segan offers a frank and disturbing column in the October 2008 PC Magazine: “Product reviews: the problem.” He notes that his review of the iPhone 3G “was wrong.” As were others—and nobody yet knows just how wrong. Why? Quality control. The unit he got was great—but apparently lots of people are getting iPhones that have “freaky-deaky reception problems on 3G networks.” Apple says there’s no problem, but a support board has more than 600 messages on the topic. Segan mentions other examples of products that were well reviewed but had clear quality-control issues.

   Always interesting to see an “expert” respond to a question by answering some other question entirely. A reader asked a PC World expert about printing a photo onto a label sticker for a CD—”is that possible, and do I need to buy a special program?” The right answers: Absolutely, if you buy the right labels—and the software will probably be downloadable if you don’t have it already. But The Expert wasn’t having any of that. She nattered on about buying a “dedicated inkjet labeling system” or an inkjet printer that will print directly to expensive printable CD-Rs. “The printed output looks far more professional and attractive than a glued-on printed label would look; and the direct-printing approach is more reliable, too.” OK, lady, we know your prejudices (the second half of the statement is Common Wisdom that may or may not be true; the first is simply nonsense, as my dozens of CD-R labels with photos will demonstrate)—but couldn’t you also answer the question?

   Sometimes, the anti-Vista bias among PC journalists gets tiresome. The October 2008 PC World has an article on specs that matter and those that don’t, and the article might be interesting—if it didn’t have these two statements in graphical callouts in the first two pages: “Beware of ads that fail to identify the included GPU (you shouldn’t try to run Vista without a good one)” and “Considering how power-hungry Vista is, having a discrete GPU for the laptop is almost mandatory.” This is just plain nonsense, as my wife and I—both happily running Windows Vista Home Premium on budget notebooks with no separate graphics processor—can attest. Then on the next page, talking about TVs, a note on refresh rate says “Plasma sets don’t list refresh rates because they can handle fast-paced content.” While that may be true, it’s a wildly misleading statement. By that time, I’d pretty much given up on the article. (Later in that same issue, a “here’s how” piece talks about being “stuck with” Vista and how you can make it look like XP…with nary a nod to the possibility that you might find Vista preferable.) For that matter, we have Stephen Manes’ use of the word “dictatorial” for Office 2007’s ribbon mechanism…

   It’s frequently fun to look at survey results, reverse the cited percentages and see what new message we may get from that. Take a Pew Internet & American Life report on daily internet activities. The touted results: 49% of all internet users use search engines daily—and 60% use email. But consider the flip side: That means that more than half of internet users don’t use search engines on any given day—not even as a shortcut to the sites they want. And 40% don’t check email on a given day. Hmm.

   So you say you have an HDTV, but also an upscaling DVD player and maybe even a receiver with video scaling capabilities? Al Griffith answers a reader’s question in the December 2008 Sound & Vision, suggesting a path to decide which upscaler of the two or three you have available you should use. Assuming you have a full HDTV (1080p), first set your DVD player and your receiver (if you use one in the middle) to output 1080p; look carefully at some tough DVD scenes (not animated: those are too easy). Then set the player to output 480i and view the same scenes. Finally, set the receiver to 480i and view the same scenes. (If you don’t use a receiver or “prepro” for video processing, there’s no “finally” step.) If the best-quality deinterlacer/upscaler is in your TV, you’ll get the best picture with the last test; conversely, if things look best with the DVD player set to do the upscaling, then it has better upscaling circuitry than the TV. Griffin says “it’s almost a sure bet that not all the components in your system [upscale and deinterlace] at the same quality level.”

Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large, Volume 9, Number 3, Whole Issue 113, ISSN 1534-0937, a journal of libraries, policy, technology and media, is written and produced by Walt Crawford, Director and Managing Editor of the PALINET Leadership Network.

Cites & Insights is sponsored by YBP Library Services, http://www.ybp.com.

Opinions herein may not represent those of PALINET or YBP Library Services.

Comments should be sent to waltcrawford@gmail.com. Cites & Insights: Crawford at Large is copyright © 2009 by Walt Crawford: Some rights reserved.

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