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How not to deal with commenters

I had an interesting though short Twitter conversation with a former student last night. In the interest of not embarrassing her or her employers, I’m going to keep her name out of this; I’ll just call her “@student.” She works at a midsize paper in Texas, and frequently posts frustrations with the commenters the site attracts.

Here’s the conversation from last night:

student: We disabled comments on a story about a suicide because commenters gave an incorrect ID on the victim. You can bet they’re up in arms.

robweir: did you tell them that’s why you did it?

student: We don’t reply to commenters. The (redacted) are real big about precedent: If we do it now we have to do it again.

robweir: What? No. They are people who spend a significant amount of time on your site and deserve an explanation.

I could leave it at that, but this bears repeating: People who visit your site and post comments are attempting to engage you in conversation. If you don’t engage, the only way you can direct the conversation is by nuking comments. That’s not a very effective way to manage any conversation — it would be better to simply not allow any comments at all. On the other hand, if you engage, you can set social norms, direct and steer the conversation, and give people what they want, which is attention and a forum to discuss things.

Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing the student in question. I think she’s following the line of her corporate masters here. But it’s the wrong line.

Posted in New media, Twitter, Web site.

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Mizzou journalism school access for students

Huh. Apparently associate dean Brian Brooks e-mailed students today reminding them that access to the journalism school buildings is closed after hours, and that students working in the building after doors were locked would could be removed by MU police. Things got odd after that, especially on Twitter … but here’s Brian’s response. I’ll keep updating this post.

Faculty and Staff,

This is a reminder that we need to keep the buildings secured and locked
after hours. We have recently had HORRIBLE problems with homeless people
living in our buildings, rancid meat being left around the buildings and
similar problems.

There is a real safety issue here. I am not comfortable with students being
here all night under such circumstances. Recently, custodians have found
students sleeping in Smith Forum and in other places. Still others are
working in labs at 4 a.m. That probably would not be so bad if street people
were not also in the building.

I have sent students a note telling them that it is not acceptable to prop
open exterior doors. That’s exactly how homeless people and others who have
no business here enter the building in the first place. Still, it’s
happening.

At the same time, I fully realize that students are coming to labs and
working on final projects and the like. We can do two things to facilitate
this:

1. We can give students in a class that needs access the ability to enter
the building with card swipe. We will do this ONLY if you give us a list of
the names and student numbers, and we will remove access at the end of
finals week for those students. A student whose ID card opens the doors is
obviously legit. If it doesn’t work, the MU Police have been asked to remove
them.

2. We can extend the hours the exterior doors are open during the next two
weeks. We are happy to do that if that helps. But the ONLY door we will
leave open late is the one designated for that purpose between the Old
Sociology Building and the new building. Once in that door, you can go
anywhere. We DO NOT want to leave doors on Ninth Street open.

When I sent out the note, one student responded that the building was locked
one night last week at 6 p.m. Yes, it was. But what nobody had told him is
that CERTAIN doors are still open as long as the library is open. In
particular, the exterior door on the outside of RJI between the old
Sociology Building and the new building is open at all times the library is
open. The student told me he propped open the Ninth Street entrance so his
friends could come in. Wrong solution. Please let your students know which
exterior door is open late.

What we CANNOT tolerate is allowing students to prop open external doors.
That simply is unacceptable. This opens us to great liability if someone
were raped or otherwise harmed in our buildings. In particular, propping
open a Ninth Street door just invites outsiders into the building after
hours. If you see a door that is propped open, please correct the situation
at night and on weekends.

Please communicate this to your students.

Brian

Couple of quick thoughts:

1. Props to MU students for quickly organizing a “study-in” on Facebook. Reminds me of the 1960s. (OK, I wasn’t alive then, but a relative was working for the Dean of Students at the time and I’ve heard stories.)

2. Not sure the best thing to do is to be outraged via Twitter, but props to students also for e-mailing Dean Brooks their concerns.

3. I’ve known Dean Brooks for a long time, and I know that he’s always had students’ welfare as a main concern. Might have been better for him to structure his e-mail to students along the line of the one he sent to faculty (the one I quoted above). I’m afraid he’s going to take some heat for this that’s not entirely deserved.

4. Also, I think his e-mail to students was likely meant as a reminder of an existing policy, but that policy has been ignored for a long time (I pulled all-nighters in Lee Hills once or twice during the late 1990s). Also, we do give some students (I’m thinking of Vox editors) key access to LHH. (On that note, I changed “would” to “could” above b/c there are some students explictly granted access to the J-school).

Posted in Missourian.

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Apple vs. Adobe explainer

I’m a couple weeks late getting to this, but here is a great post from Daring Fireball on why Apple changed section 3.3.1 of its developer agreements. It goes beyond the “Apple hates Adobe” explanation with some thoughtful discussion:

So from Apple’s perspective, changing the iPhone Developer Program License Agreement to prohibit the use of things like Flash CS5 and MonoTouch to create iPhone apps makes complete sense. I’m not saying you have to like this. I’m not arguing that it’s anything other than ruthless competitiveness. I’m not arguing (up to this point) that it benefits anyone other than Apple itself. I’m just arguing that it makes sense from Apple’s perspective — and it was Apple’s decision to make.

Flash CS5 and MonoTouch aren’t so much cross-platform as meta-platforms. Adobe’s goal isn’t to help developers write iPhone apps. Adobe’s goal is to encourage developers to write Flash apps that run on the iPhone (and elsewhere) instead of writing iPhone-specific apps. Apple isn’t just ambivalent about Adobe’s goals in this regard — it is in Apple’s direct interest to thwart them.

The post goes on to count up the winners and losers among developers, systems and users. It’s well worth a read.

Posted in Computers, New media.

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Take a break from the “Apple is a closed system” meme

For just a second, anyhow.

This post was sparked by a discussion on an online group I belong to. Said discussion was itself sparked by this piece in Gawker, which trots out the predictable anti-Apple arguments (Apple is creating a closed ecosystem for its products, etc.) The discussion turned to journalism and the fear that Steve Jobs somehow has media “under his thumb.”

Warning: post has rant-like qualities.

Ahem.

1. Apple is a device company, not a media company. There’s a large misperception that iTunes and the App Store are the major way Apple makes money. And while the company does make money off the iTunes store ($1.1 billion in the last quarter), they made more than $5.3 billion in revenue in the same quarter from selling iPhones (which are hardware devices).

2. iPhones and iPads are a tiny fraction of their respective markets (if you count the iPad as a computer, that is, not as a new class of tablet device). The iPhone has captured about 25% of the U.S. smartphone market, which is about 20% of the overall cell phone market in the U.S. So about 5% of cell phones in the U.S. are iPhones. It’s very hard to argue monopolistic power when a company is leveraging such a tiny portion of the market.

3. Is Apple actually trying to create its own proprietary network where it’s a curator of content? Sure, to an extent. But this is highly overstated — if you’re smart enough to open a Web browser on your iThing (either Safari or Opera), you get the entire Internet.

The iBooks store will feature books from the Apple store … but you can already get Kindle, Nook, Stanza and Olive e-reader apps for the iPad and iPhone (plus a few others that I’m forgetting now). The iPod app on the iPhone and iPad features music from your iTunes library … which you can either buy through iTunes or by importing .mp3 downloads or even music from CDs. (I hear a few people still have those.) And, on the books front, Apple supports the ePub format … which the Kindle does not.

(If you’re looking for a completely closed format, the Kindle is an excellent villain … but no one seems to be going after Amazon.)

4. Even if Apple were to preapprove every bit of content that appeared on an iThing — down to individual news stories — it would probably still have a market for its devices. Which is the entire point. Demand for the iPod/iPad/iPhone operates in an open market. If people don’t want their stuff, they won’t buy it.

Linux is a completely open and free system for desktops. It has about a 2% adoption rate in the U.S.

In my job, I use or have recently used computers running Mac OS 10.5, Mac OS 10.6, iPhone OS 3.1.1, Windows 7, Windows XP, Debian Lenny, Debian Etch, and Ubuntu Jaunty Jackalope. None of them seem to have a monopoly on the market.

Look, there are plenty of threats to journalism out there. You can read about some here.

But I have a hard time thinking Apple is one of them.

OK, end rant. For a cool look at the future of tablet computing, check out this piece from Wired magazine. I especially like this quote (emphasis mine)

Compared to other kinds of information that computers process today, text has an exceptionally small footprint. With the arrival of the tablet, we have crossed a critical threshold: Where text is concerned, we effectively have infinite computational resources, connectivity, and portability. For decades, futurists have dreamed of the “universal book”: a handheld reading device that would give you instant access to every book in the Library of Congress. In the tablet era, it’s no longer technology holding us back from realizing that vision; it’s the copyright holders.

Posted in Computers, New media.

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Some thoughts on a crowdsourced movie

A few months ago, I posted a link to the trailer for the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, calling it possibly the world’s first crowdsourced movie. (I have no data to suggest that is either true or untrue, btw.) Now io9 has done a long, interesting interview with the director and three producers of the movie. I think it’s worth a read if you’re in the media business.

To me, the meat of the piece is in this question and response, which I’m going to quote at length:

This documentary really explores the social contract between artist and audience, what did you learn about this contract, what has it become today because of the internet? Has it changed?

This is a difficult question because you can approach this question legally or morally. I’ll approach it from a moral perspective. I think we live in a age where culture is rising. The fans are rising in a powerful way, perhaps also in some dangerous ways. But also in ways that reflect where culture is now. In recent years the fans have been expressing this sense that George these are not just your movies, these are also our movies. They belong to our culture. The fan editing movement as a whole is an embodiment of that. Henry Jenkins talks about Alice In Wonderland and how Lewis Carroll, by [the author] giving it to the people made and allowing them to remix it, allowing people to play in that sandbox, was precisely what made Alice one of the most popular texts around. Even considering the resistance that Lucas Film has had, the fans have remixed made fan films it and continue to play with it. It’s a shared thing. I understand that there is legal ramifications and copyright laws and that is all fair. But when something, like Star Wars transcends, it’s not just a story it’s something that touches most of us in a very profound way. It’s a reflection of culture, of our own selves. Therefore I believe that culture is entitled to it. I feel very strongly about this, that the fans are entitled to a restored, pristine trilogy the way we saw it.

(Italics are mine)

I think one of the reasons why people feel so strongly about Star Wars is that it’s participatory. You can make all the snarky comments you want about consumerism, but in my generation, getting Star Wars toys and recreating the events of the movies (or, more importantly, creating our own) creates a powerful sense of ownership. You are using the characters of his narrative to create meta-stories out of what’s given to you on screen, and you’re essentially starting the remixing process on a small scale. Not that kids realize they’re doing that, of course, but it creates a sense of connection to the characters and their character.

To make an analogy which I’ll freely admit might be strained, Lucas’ treatment of the people who remix his movies or clamor passionately for the original edit reminds me a lot of how media traditionalists look at commenters, citizen journalists, bloggers, and the like. Instead of viewing them as people who want to participate in the creative process, he’s basically saying ALL YOU KIDS GET OFF MY LAWN. Obviously, he’s got money involved in Star Wars, but it’s not like he’s going begging here.

Similarly, publishers seem not to realize that the people posting comments or linking to their work are folks who have a stake in the news (even in an unofficial way) and who are giving you a very valuable resource: attention. You can lock the doors, or you can invite them to participate … and if you invite them in, strange and unexpected things can happen.

There’s probably more to be said, but spring break looms. Check out the io9 article and also the trailer below. Looking forward to seeing this when it’s in wider release!

Posted in New media.

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