Michael B. Duff

Lubbock's answer to a question no one asked

Archive for January 2008

Duff: Emotion is the key to good blogging

Duff: Ready to start a blog? The key is expressing your emotion
Ready to start a blog? Ask yourself some questions first.

Tired of lurking in the shadows, reading without participating, like the Internet is just a big book? Tired of confining your rants to forums and comment sections? Do you crave attention and feedback?

These aren’t the best reasons to start a blog, but they’re certainly the most common. Before you jump into the murky waters of Internet publishing, you should probably ask yourself some questions.

First, do you really have something to say? The best blogs are written by passionate people. Whether the subject is politics, knitting or photoshop, the key to a good blog is emotion. Enthusiasm is contagious.

I’d say the best bloggers are actually a little crazy. They’re driven, almost obsessive about their chosen subject. The best blogs are written by people who just can’t wait to get home and rant about their favorite topic. If you’re writing because you have to, because you made a resolution or listened to some friend who said you should, your blog will feel like a job, and that’s no fun for anybody.

Readers can tell when you’re passionate about something, and they can tell when you’re not. The day your blog starts to feel like a job is the day you should give it up. Above all, blogs are supposed to be fun.

A lot of people try to start blogs when what they really want is an online journal. Maybe you don’t want to rant about knitting or politics for 300 words a day, maybe you just want to talk about work or school or the movie you went to last night.

I recommend personal blogs for people who want to write but aren’t sure what they should write about. Why not take a couple weeks and write whatever pops into your head? No one’s judging you, no one’s grading you. Just talk about your life, talk about what interests you, and over time you may find your journal leaning to a particular topic or series of topics.

Don’t worry if you don’t know anything about publishing or Web design. The days of custom design and hand coding are over. Now you can sign up for a free account on one of a dozen services and be sharing your thoughts with the world in minutes.

Most of the social networking sites have a blogging component now. MySpace and Facebook make it easy to publish and subscribe to personal journals, but if you’re looking for something with a little more polish, try blogger.com or livejournal.com.

Blogger offers outstanding tools for new bloggers, and Livejournal is great for personal journals. If you’re going to post about pets, knitting or Star Wars, try Blogger. If you want to write personal tidbits about your life, try Livejournal.

I recommend LiveJournal for personal writing because it lets you control who gets to read about you. If you’re worried about privacy, you can make your journal friends-only, so only people you invite into your circle can read what you write.

You can even control the status of individual posts, mixing public and private writing in the same space. The authoring tools are robust and well-designed, and the friends list mechanic makes it easy to keep up with dozens of friends at once.

If you want to share your writing with the world, try Blogger. If you want to share a journal with friends, get a Livejournal account.

Both sites are easy to read and easy to use, but Blogger accounts get covered by search engines, while Livejournal accounts are a bit easier to hide.

Written by Not Jaffo

January 25, 2008 at 13:38

Posted in Columns

Duff: Can you trust MySpace to protect your child? Texas official says no

Duff: Can you trust MySpace to protect your child? Texas official says no

Internet hot spot MySpace is implementing a series of measures designed to help protect kids from online predators. These steps have been accepted by every state but Texas.

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott said, “We cannot endorse any initiative that fails to implement a reliable age verification system. Doing so would give Texas parents and their children a false sense of security.”

The MySpace proposal includes an impressive list of protective measures, but none of them can protect a child who lies about his age. MySpace is creating a database that will allow parents to submit e-mail addresses to prevent their children from establishing MySpace profiles, but even having a database can be risky.

A database of kids could be abused by unscrupulous people who have access to that information, but when you consider the full spectrum of risks involved, I think the database is still worth doing.

Under the agreement, profiles for users under age 16 will be set to private so no strangers can get information from their profile, users can block anyone over 18 from contacting them, and people over 18 cannot add anyone under 16 as a friend in their network unless they have their last name or their e-mail address.

The MySpace measures are very smart, but they only work if you put in a correct age. Kids routinely lie about their ages so they can access adult material, and predators frequently pose as children so they can get closer to their victims.

I like the steps MySpace has taken to protect kids, but I’m concerned that this whole arrangement shifts responsibility to the wrong party.

I’m uncomfortable with the assumption that service providers should be held responsible for the actions of their users. MySpace is getting out in front of this trend, not simply out of concern for kids, but because they’re trying to stem the tide of public outrage that will eventually lead to government regulation of their industry.

Pleas for parental responsibility have become a libertarian cliche, but I’m going to use one anyway. I’m glad to see MySpace taking steps to protect kids, but there is no substitute for active and involved parents.

If you’re concerned about your kids visiting MySpace, there are a number of excellent net nanny programs on the market. These programs can fill the gap to some extent, but the best remedies are still old-fasioned and low-tech.

Keep the family computer in a public space where you can watch what your kids do and monitor who they interact with. Turn the computer off and lock it, so it can’t be used when you’re not around. And frequently check your computer’s browser history to see where your kids are going on the Web.

If your child has a blog or a MySpace account you need to find it and you need to read it. Educate yourself about how the Internet works and learn to use the tools that your kids are using.

Kids are sneaky, and they know how to exploit your ignorance. The learning curve can be intimidating, but ultimately, you need to be as picky about your child’s online friends as you are about the ones who come to the house.

Written by Not Jaffo

January 18, 2008 at 13:39

Posted in Columns

Duff: Gossip blog could redefine Web journalism, if it survives

Duff: Gossip blog could redefine Web journalism, if it survives
Back in November, I made a special effort to praise Nick Denton’s Gawker site and the suite of publications that sprang up around it.

I praised Gawker for having an outsider ethic, for showcasing sharp writing and for spawning a vibrant community of commenters. I said Gawker was the antidote to traditional entertainment journalism, and before the ink on my column was dry, Denton started a chain of events that unraveled everything I had just praised.

On Nov. 30, two of Gawker’s editors, Emily Gould and Choire Sicha, announced their resignation. A day later, Josh Stein followed.

Gawker lost half its staff in 48 hours. The list of possible reasons goes on and on: the tone of the site had gotten meaner, the pace of work was brutal, commenters had taken the spotlight off the main content and Denton was getting ready to change the entire direction of the site.

From 2002-2007, Gawker’s popularity came from the quality of its writing – a witty, acid tone inspired by the old Spy magazine.

Gawker may have been a gossip site, but it was also a blog. It used an intimate first-person style that put readers and contributors on the same level – as if the editors were just another set of spurned media wannabes, making fun of elites on the inside.

It didn’t sound like a news site, it sounded like a personal journal. In the beginning, that’s exactly what it was. Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers arrived in New York as a complete novice and took her audience on a real time tour of New York – taking the audience step by step through her New York education.

Gawker editors kept their outsider tone all the way through 2007, when fan-favorite Alex Balk gave Gawker a taste of its own medicine. It seemed like fair play at the time. Gawker cut its teeth chewing on arrogant media personalities, so on Sept. 5, Balk took a bite out of his boss.

Denton was considering a new pay system that would reward writers based on the raw popularity of their posts. Where they used to get paid by the post, now they would be paid by the page view. Gawker critics (myself included) fear that system will create a “race for the bottom” as hungry editors replace witty commentary with YouTube videos of babies getting kicked in the face.

Balk posted some internal chatter between himself and Denton and got roasted for it in public. Balk quit soon after, and the fans have been pining for him ever since.

Now it’s a new year and Nick Denton has taken personal control of his site. With the flip of a switch, Gawker lost its sense of humor and became a rather ordinary blog.

The army of commenters, courted so carefully by Denton in 2007, have been marginalized and insulted by this change in tone. A group of frequent posters have launched a rebellion against the new site, boycotting new threads and staging protests in old ones. Last week they started moving high-traffic events off site, beyond the reach of Denton and his advertisers.

It’s a classic underdog story, but Gawker is a real business, and it’s hard to measure how much power these commenters have. Gawker is still a dominant presence on the Web, still a vital part of New York. Regular visitors may be repelled by YouTube videos and Julia Allison guest posts, but a dozen new readers are waiting to take their place, clicking in from email forwards and social networking sites. These visitors won’t care about the tone of Gawker or the culture that it came from. They won’t be as loyal or as clever as the old readership, but there’s more of them, and advertisers won’t care where the hits come from.

I’m afraid Gawker ’08 will look more like a ghetto than a dinner party, as the masses take over and smart young writers leave for greener pastures. I hope readers will rebel against Denton’s new model and force him to bring the old Gawker back, but the Web tends to reward quantity over quality, and nobody ever lost money appealing to the lowest common denominator.

You don’t have to live in New York to care about this. Gawker is an industry leader. If Denton’s experiment works, hundreds of publications will follow his example. Paying writers by the page view could change the whole structure of Internet journalism, crowding out quality writing as everybody races to post pictures of Britney in her underwear.

Written by Not Jaffo

January 11, 2008 at 13:41

Posted in Columns

Gawker commenters rebel against new direction

Back in November, I made a special effort to praise Nick Denton's Gawker site and the suite of publications that sprang up around it.

I praised Gawker for having an outsider ethic, for showcasing sharp writing and for spawning a vibrant community of commenters. I said Gawker was the antidote to traditional entertainment journalism, and before the ink on my column was dry, Denton started a chain of events that unraveled everything I had just praised.

On Nov. 30, two of Gawker's editors, Emily Gould and Choire Sicha, announced their resignation. A day later, Josh Stein followed.

Gawker lost half its staff in 48 hours. The list of possible reasons goes on and on: the tone of the site had gotten meaner, the pace of work was brutal, commenters had taken the spotlight off the main content and Denton was getting ready to change the entire direction of the site.

From 2002-2007, Gawker's popularity came from the quality of its writing – a witty, acid tone inspired by the old Spy magazine.

Gawker may have been a gossip site, but it was also a blog. It used an intimate first-person style that put readers and contributors on the same level – as if the editors were just another set of spurned media wannabes, making fun of elites on the inside.

It didn't sound like a news site, it sounded like a personal journal. In the beginning, that's exactly what it was. Gawker editor Elizabeth Spiers arrived in New York as a complete novice and took her audience on a real time tour of New York – taking the audience step by step through her New York education.

Gawker editors kept their outsider tone all the way through 2007, when fan-favorite Alex Balk gave Gawker a taste of its own medicine. It seemed like fair play at the time. Gawker cut its teeth chewing on arrogant media personalities, so on Sept. 5, Balk took a bite out of his boss.

Denton was considering a new pay system that would reward writers based on the raw popularity of their posts. Where they used to get paid by the post, now they would be paid by the page view. Gawker critics (myself included) fear that system will create a “race for the bottom” as hungry editors replace witty commentary with YouTube videos of babies getting kicked in the face.

Balk posted some internal chatter between himself and Denton and got roasted for it in public. Balk quit soon after, and the fans have been pining for him ever since.

Now it's a new year and Nick Denton has taken personal control of his site. With the flip of a switch, Gawker lost its sense of humor and became a rather ordinary blog.

The army of commenters, courted so carefully by Denton in 2007, have been marginalized and insulted by this change in tone. A group of frequent posters have launched a rebellion against the new site, boycotting new threads and staging protests in old ones. Last week they started moving high-traffic events off site, beyond the reach of Denton and his advertisers.

It's a classic underdog story, but Gawker is a real business, and it's hard to measure how much power these commenters have. Gawker is still a dominant presence on the Web, still a vital part of New York. Regular visitors may be repelled by YouTube videos and Julia Allison guest posts, but a dozen new readers are waiting to take their place, clicking in from email forwards and social networking sites. These visitors won't care about the tone of Gawker or the culture that it came from. They won't be as loyal or as clever as the old readership, but there's more of them, and advertisers won't care where the hits come from.

I'm afraid Gawker '08 will look more like a ghetto than a dinner party, as the masses take over and smart young writers leave for greener pastures. I hope readers will rebel against Denton's new model and force him to bring the old Gawker back, but the Web tends to reward quantity over quality, and nobody ever lost money appealing to the lowest common denominator.

You don't have to live in New York to care about this. Gawker is an industry leader. If Denton's experiment works, hundreds of publications will follow his example. Paying writers by the page view could change the whole structure of Internet journalism, crowding out quality writing as everybody races to post pictures of Britney in her underwear.

Written by Not Jaffo

January 11, 2008 at 10:29

Posted in Gawker

Duff: I have to admit the Internet is not for everyone

Duff: I have to admit the Internet is not for everyone

Spent the holidays with my family, as most of you probably did. I learned that, for an Internet columnist, there is nothing quite so humbling as sharing a day with people who don’t know what the Internet is.

The media likes to make noises about how great the Internet is, but fundamentally there’s still something odd and alien about it. The Internet is cool in certain circles, but Internet culture is still not mainstream.

Older generations fear the Internet, but they also hold it in contempt, as if nothing that happens in cyberspace could be real. I wonder if people had this same trouble with the telephone a century ago.

People who grew up in the age before computers face a tremendous learning curve now. My generation doesn’t think twice about navigating a commercial computer interface or driving a keyboard and mouse, but there are actually a hundred little skills involved here, dozens of unspoken conventions that the rest of us take for granted.

I’m reminded of a story told about a corporate CEO. The CEO was doing a demo of some Internet product, trying to prove how hip and cutting edge his company was. But the hapless exec had never used a Web browser before.

He fumbled around the screen for a bit, then someone in the audience shouted, “Click on the blue words!”

That’s funny to us today, when just about everybody knows what a Web link looks like, but how do you explain that concept to someone who’s never used a computer before? How can a novice tell the difference between the words you read and the words that can take you somewhere?

During Christmas dinner, my aunt turned to me and asked, “What is a blog?” There was a hint of desperation in her voice – an undercurrent of frustration and hostility. There are whole generations of people in our world who feel like they should understand this stuff and are angry that they don’t.

There’s a legitimate inter-generational conflict brewing here, and the hostility goes both ways. Older folks turn their noses up at the Internet, and younger ones make unfair judgments about people who don’t get it.

There’s a feeling that people who don’t understand computers are lacking intelligence, as if human beings should come out of the womb knowing how to operate Windows XP.

My dad is a smart guy, but he hates (and fears) computers. My aunt gave him a machine a few years ago, and he actually had to pay somebody to box it up and take it away.

During Christmas dinner, we discussed whether my dad should have a computer at all. It put me in a tough position. I write a column that celebrates the Internet and all the things it can bring to us. I’m fascinated by this technology, and I spend my life working with it.

People expect me to be some kind of evangelist, but after confronting the question over the holidays, I’ve decided that the Internet, for all its virtues, may not be for everybody.

Sure, my dad could learn to use a computer, but he would be starting from square one, and tutoring him would be a full-time job. He could buy a printer and start using spreadsheets, but at the end of the day, would computerized record-keeping really be that much faster than using a ledger and a No. 2 pencil?

He could surf the Web and buy things online, but would that really improve his life more than a phone line and printed copy of the yellow pages?

If computer software really was as simple as it pretends to be, I would encourage him to make the jump. But as someone who works with software every day, I know just how cantankerous and complicated these machines can be.

Microsoft and Apple like to brag about pretty interfaces and ease of use, but if you look at it like a novice, you’ll realize that a computer operating system is still a hundred times more complicated than a microwave or a VCR.

I think eventually someone will make a computer that is a genuine “information appliance” but no one has made it yet.

You can do a lot of cool things on the Internet. It’s great for answering questions and communicating with people. But when I think of my dad enduring months of frustration and bad design to perform tasks he can do faster by hand, I’m forced to admit that it’s not for everyone.

Whether they choose to join the revolution or not, I hope previous generations will stop turning their noses up at the digital world, and I hope the kids will cut their parents some slack and consider how hard it is to learn this stuff when you grew up in a world run by pencils and paper.

Written by Not Jaffo

January 4, 2008 at 13:43

Posted in Columns

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