Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Meditation on the Personal Nature of American Art

The other day, I met up with Patrice Lamothe, CEO of Pearltrees. It was an interesting meeting, and I mentioned to him that I'd gone to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art earlier that day. Funny thing is, Patrice is from Paris. So, there's something of an irony there, if you think about it....

I tend to fall into ironic conversations with people quite often. Guess that could be because I'm unassuming and don't necessarily pass value judgements--esp. when it comes to art. It's not that I don't know anything about classical art: I started my college career as a Fine Art major, and had to take art history. So, I get the basic gist of the importance of art in the culture of countries like France.

But to say that is not to value the importance of art to American culture as well. Our art, however, doesn't have quite the same long history, nor does have quite the same affect....

I loved the study of art history: how art reached a height during what we commonly call the "ancient" world of Greece and Rome, only to be lost during the Dark Ages. How it took forever for artists to figure out to sculpt a figure in a natural pose. How it took the Reformation to bring about a change in subject matter....and so forth.

American art, though, is different. We haven't had to contend with kings and clergy dukeing it out for power. We haven't had the same kind of upbringing, so to say, that would make it shocking to see someone we know posed provocatively in a picture.
We, however, have a problem with understanding the difference between advertising and metaphor, with understanding religious symbols and imagery, with keeping words out of our art...

Ever notice how American art is kind of wordy? From Roy Lichtenstein to Barbara Kruger, so much of our art has words in in. Or it is a single color canvas, European art, even modern European art, just isn't as wordy nor as monochromatic.

American art is also deeply personal. For the centuries that European art has been produced, it often wasn't particularly with the sense of art as personal expression--perhaps not until the Renassance. That's not to say there wasn't personal expression in European art--it's just that, well, American art seems so heavy with it..

In American art, it's always been there. Maybe because America as a state of creativity comes about way after those struggles for creativity and self-expression in European art....

I don't know, I'm just speculating...

But American art isn't necessarily there to get us to think about God, or to admire our monarchs, or to express some religious or mythical allegory. These things bleed through from time to time--but our sense of what is allegory and mythical, of who our kings are (elected, not born) and what God is to us is drastically different.

We also have a thing about abstraction. Most of the American art I've viewed over the past two days--in San Francisco and in San Jose--has been abstract. If not abstract, surreal or hyperreal. It seems to me that we have more of that than we do of classical art (although, yes, there's the Hudson River School and all that) And even what looks something akin to classical art--works by Thomas Eakins or John Singer Sargent--are still shockingly American in their subject matter and style.

In other words, American art, just doesn't look, nor does it feel like the art of France or Italy or Spain or anywhere else in the world. It is a strange amalgam of nothingness and being, of the future with a very immediate past that blends and makes up what is present and today. To understand some of our artists you have to understand so much of the past, while with others, you need to know nothing other than the at-that-moment images they are giving you from one slice of their lives or just of their psyches.

So maybe, in some sense, it's not all that ironic nor strange to discuss art from an American viewpoint with someone who is from Paris, where some of the world's masterpieces reside. We do occupy the same world today, a world where imagination shapes technology, and, to some, technology is itself a form of art.....

Think about it...

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Four aspects that could make AOL's local "white spaces" work

Yesterday, I wrote about how AOL's new "white spaces" for local journalism might not work. There are, however, a couple of ways they might work:

1. Proprietary alogrithms. If AOL has a proprietary alogrithm (like Demand Media) that will tweak headlines to hit on the proper keywords. However, on a local level, this will still have to be connected to some sort of geo-located search capability. If AOL develops an algorithm that partners geo-tagged ads with geo-tagged headlines, there might be something to it.

2. Watch what Foursquare is doing with geo-location and geo-tagging. Foursquare had made some huge, prestigious deals with major media companies that are going to make it a real player in semantic advertising--and could either hurt or help newspapers (What does Foursquare mean for Which means it could also help/hurt local independent news sites with geo-location. Also see How to Make Your Small Business Geo-Ready on Mashable.

3. Semantic advertising gets better-- Google and others are working on algorithms that will match the right local ads with the right local content. There was lots of talk and lots of interest in this at the recent SIIA Information Industry Summit, as the algorithms are getting better, and Google's local search is getting better.

4. Paying reporters. People can't afford not to be paid in this economy. Sites like Demand Media, Examiner, and Newser--and other kinds of "content mills" (a contentious term)--are paying their reporters. Some of them don't pay much, but they pay. If AOL sets up some way for those who want to report on local to be paid something, then they might attract some of the local reporters who have lost their jobs, or local citizens who want to get paid something for their writing. Or they might not. Think: entrepreneurial spirit--and that some folks would rather do their own thing if they're not going to get paid. Then again, some journalists/reporters aren't entrepreneurs either and would just like a steady paycheck, no matter how low the paycheck is. Still, don't know how this might work for breaking stories. What might the pay scale/pay rate be for breaking stories, and would there be some sort of editorial oversight as there is for the evergreen content at Demand Media? Note: Jay Rosen has a new project starting between NYU and The New York Times that may pay citizen reporters. The editor will have a "war chest" at his/her discretion. Will be interesting to see what happens there, what the pay rate ends up as, etc.

So, if people give up on the entrepreneurial thing, and they're able to get paid, and there's some sort of geo-tagging that will link local ads with local content, where AOL's properties can push out other local content, then they might make money--

But if people don't like the product, then it still might not work. The social aspect has to be worked in somehow, beyond the engineering. After all, the Internet is full of people: people talk and people share things. That could also be what makes or even breaks AOL's planned content dominance in local space.

Think about it...

Saturday, February 20, 2010

AOL Revisits the Citizen Shovelware concept with (and why it won't work)

Some time back I wrote a scathing post about "citizen shovelware": that's when an "if you build it, they will come" philosophy is applied to the idea of citizen journalism, and some wise corporate dude puts up a site and expects the citizenry to populate it. It appears now that AOL is taking on the idea of citizen shovelware as it plans to expand to "hundreds" of sites, as was reported yesterday in Silicon Alley Business Insider.

As the more-or-less press release-y report notes, there are going to be bunches and bunches of empty pages put into Patch for local, probably citizen-generated, journalism--but where's the journalism going to come from? Are they going to pick up local blog feeds (as did?) and then are they going to ask the local bloggers if they can do this? or are they just going to scrape and aggregate the content (as did?) Are they going to then simply expect people to use their site because it's too-cool-for-school? or are they going to take the press releases and public announcements and other minutia from communities, slap the "citizen journalism" label on it, shove it into their CMS, and call their site a form of citizen journalism??

And I can't believe that the internal communication quoted in the SAI story said that AOL is planning to be "To be leaders in one of the most promising 'white spaces' on the Internet."

Honestly, given the ways in which people use social networking sites to communicate with one another and pass around hyperlocal news in the form of tweets and status updates, and given how hyperlocal sites are starting to pop up more frequently (mostly because of the downsizing of journalists and other news producers who actually liked their jobs and want to keep doing them) I have a hard time believing that this "white space" is going to get populated at all....

Oh, but there's a strategy! Recruit journalism grad students!! I wonder what the pay's going to be? Wonder how the grad students are going do the reporting, or if they're going to go around to Chamber of Commerce and BNI meetings to try to recruit local businesspeople? are they going to try to find the "superstars"--as did in the early days of their online news sites (going way, way back to about 2004...long history, won't get into it.)

The thing about hyperlocal journalism is that it seems to grow best when people who are rooted in the communities get the projects going. I've been watching this with both the Springfield Intruder and the new Northampton Media. I know both Bill Dusty of the Intruder and Mary Serreze of No'Media, and know their deep connections to their respective communities. One doesn't grow those kinds of connections by showing up one day and announcing that you're going to be building a local news site.

The thing that gets me about all these corporate sites getting into the local journalism space and some of the folks who write so glowingly about how corporate projects might work,is that they don't know too many people who've actually put together local sites, esp. local sites in SmallTown USA. Life in SmallTown is very different from life in or near large urban areas. There's less of an acceptance of "outsiders"--that doesn't mean that it's like the movie Deliverance. What it means (if you've never lived in a small town) is that people don't warm up to you because you have a bright idea to fix their local news problems...

But when it comes to the folks that are indeed connected--well, they are really, really connected. And I don't envision too many of them working to prop up corporate run sites--or at least for all that long. Corporate owned news organizations, whether online or not, are seen as something that should be toppled. The reasons for that vary as much as the people who start the sites and the regions where they are started. But corporate news in small towns is seen as inept and slanted. Oftentimes it is. People who start local journalism sites are looking for fresh, new, independent perspectives. They're not looking for a corporate home to host their work, because that would represent another level of "the man..."

Sure, some local businessfolks might be persuaded to contribute to a new corporate site--as some of the local businessfolks have done at they don't stay over the long haul. Their commitments are more to their businesses, and if the citizen journalism interferes with their business, they have to decide which is more important.

Another aspect of having businessfolks as citizen journalists is that use might their citizen columns to, essentially, promote their businesses rather than actually report. A citizen column in a local newspaper may be seen as a form of business promotion rather than as a service to their fellow citizens. So, readers then get what might be called "sponsored content" rather than news.

Apparently, my sentiment is that AOL's idea is wrongheadded, and whether or not it has the Patch label isn't going to make a difference. I'm not surprised that they think this--one of Patch's advisors (advisory-only role) has been Jeff Jarvis, who designed Advance's pioneering "citizen" blogging efforts, and Jeff's had lots and lots to say over the years about citizens helping corporations to keep afloat (a point he and I vehemently disagree on.) Sure, there are a few citizens who want to help the newspaper stay afloat, but the ones who have the real commitment to reporting in their regions aren't going to be contributing to corporate sites: at least that's what I've seen here in Western Mass. The citizens are apt to want to topple the ailing newspapers. The sentiment is that the newspapers have fallen down on their jobs: they do not report accurately, and that there is bias in some of the reporting on important community issues. There is a feeling that the newspaper is disconnected from the people, and might be serving other interests.

And why should one corporate entity replace another in a local region? Because they can make money because they are a corporation? That's not necessarily true. I've seen a number of independent projects make good money. (but that's a topic I won't get into in depth here--that's another post....)

One of the tactics that corporate sites have taken with folks who want to start community sites is to tell them that their sites won't get found in search. Well, there's a grain of truth in that: Google's local search hasn't been all that good. Yet that was before the advent of social networking sites--where links are passed around quicker than a joint at a concert in the 1970's. And let's not forget that Google's actually working on improving geo-located search as it improves real-time search.

More than what Google's doing is what people are going to do on social sites--traffic will happen for local sites because links are posted and passed around among the people who need to read them. Local sites can also take advantage of syndication through e-readers: which they can do independently! Amazon's Kindle welcomes them, with just a working RSS feed! So the avenues for getting out there are not limited to Google search.

So, perhaps AOL should think a little further about putting up all that white space, as much as they think about what their brand, and what the Patch brand, might represent to people in a local area. Chances are that the local newspaper's brand is probably better than theirs. And that the independent local site's brand is even better.

Just a thought....

So while some folks might be

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Could Google's focus on real-time search screw up finding older news?

I recently wrote a piece for on Google's new focus on real-time search--which, if you're looking for the most up-to-date news, esp. on an emergency, is probably a good thing. But today, as I looked for articles on the 2008 comments controversy at the Hartford Courant (which had Mayor Eddie Perez standing on the steps of the Courant giving the publisher hell) I found zip, zero, nada....

I was looking for that info so that I could put it in a piece I was working on about Engadget closing off comments due to incivility (which it had also done in 2005.) I figured it'd be good to reference both the 2008 Courant controversy, as well as the 2006 WaPo controversy that had newspaper commenters all up in arms about their First Amendment Rights (which they really don't have when they foul-mouth any publication's comments section.)

But if I can't find the articles on the previous incidents, then I can't really have a coherent article now, can I? All I'm really doing then is parroting back information on what Engadget's doing without giving any context to a discussion about how it might be different for newspapers, and how newspapers haven't had as easy a time of handling their comment boards as Engadget has...

I think I tried every single permutation of search terms I could think of, and I got all sorts of unrelated junk. Seriously unrelated junk. Junk about Tiger Woods --which for the life of me I couldn't figure out how that got into a search on "hartfor courant turns off comments."

Maybe it was the "turned off" that did it? who knows.

I tried the search in quotes, and Google found nothing. I tried it without quotes, and came up with a whole bunch more junk on what the new Miss America said about turning off TV, and something about Obama saying something about Democrats turning off TV news...

But my search had nothing to do with TV. It had to do with comments.

Even when I tried "news forum comment controversy" I got nothing.

Oh, but I did get something about a guy being shot by a cop. I have no idea what that had to do with my search, but I will say it's a timely article.

Even Wikipedia was no help: it had links only to the most recent controversies at the Courant.

It's bad enough that the collective memory of people who use the Internet is fairly short: lord knows so many don't even get that there have been huge debates going on her regarding "online civility" for around 7 or 8 years now. The issue seems to go nowhere because no one seems to recall the old conversations and that those conversations were built on....

When we are unable to access information from the past, we lose context. If we lose context, we eventually will repeat the same stupid stuff from the past. Even for the Internet, as it is evolving mores and codes and such, there needs to be context. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Not even choices to close of comments sections.

Monday, February 01, 2010

On Writing, Wanting to be Heard, and Gratitude for Editors

When we are young, the images we get of the writing life are somewhat peculiar--the image is of the writer who toils in isolation most of the time, who, almost by magic, has an editor and is then transported into the world of publishing. We are so busy studying style and so forth that we aren't taught about the process that got the book from a bunch of typed pages to a bound first edition. And, the excessive study of guys like J.D. Salinger only seem to enforce to us that writing should be solitary, done for oneself, and that someone will magically find us and publish us...oh, bullshit...

Reading Jennifer Finney Boylan's essay on J.D. Salinger, attitudes about writing, and how a writer's life isn't one of isolation at all-- that the P.R. machine helps writers to be read. Boylan's seen what I have: how the study of literature doesn't prepare one for the realities of book promotion--what she sees as a necessity in today's downward-trending publishing industry.

Boylan also considers readers "an unbelievable gift." And, indeed, she's right. It's something that so many bloggers, esp. personal bloggers, yearn for. Stories want to be told, and the telling doesn't exist in a vacuum--writing isn't just about exorcising one's soul. It's also about being read.

In being read, we are heard. Being heard is sometimes the one thing that we've yearn for our whole lives. Some of us took to blogging simply to be heard--not particularly as a form of shameless self-promotion.

Yet in the world of blogging, I'm finding that, for me, being heard just isn't enough. I have been writing most of my life as a form of self-expression, with a desire that, someday, it might be heard by others. Self-publishing has helped, but after a time it gets to be a lot of work for little return. It's not that I don't appreciate those who are reading (and yes, you know who you are) it's that, after a lifetime of writing, I want more...

Over the years, I've taken several writing classes and seminars. In those classes and seminars, it was always pointed out how editors wanted to see perfection before publication. Being well aware of my imperfections--my lack of knowledge of AP Style, my spelling problems-- I felt for the longest time that I could never find an editor who would be there for me.

So, for me, blogging was almost a way of giving up on the idea of ever making money from anything I wrote in exchange for being heard.

I've always wondered what I would need to do to be perfect enough for editors: Do I need a Master's degree? Or do I just need a bit more confidence and a lot more luck? Yet it always seemed that there was no way I'd ever be able to reach that level of perfection that would enable me to get in front of an editor....

Lately, I have been lucky enough to work with editors--and to receive pay for my writing. I am grateful for this opportunity in a way that I've never felt before. It as if I'm really being heard now. The changes to my work have not damaged my voice--rather, they've made clearer the information I've wanted to get out to others. The writing I've done hasn't been about self-expression. I have a lot of that. It's been about information--the way of getting that out to people in a way that's understandable...

Because when one spends a great deal of time writing just for oneself, the head becomes an echo chamber. Everything makes sense because one knows deeply about what is being written. But do others understand what's being written? To me, the editorial process is a way that someone else helps bring forth what's in my head so others can better understand it.

Many of us who write--well, we're not literary giants. We're also not going to be literary giants. Even then, literary giants have editors. If an editor pays attention to what I'm trying to say, and is willing to help me say it better (not change me or my expression or anything like that) then, at this point in my writing life, I couldn't have asked for a more wonderful gift.

And as much as I have gratitude for those who read, I have gratitude for those who edit. At this point in time, it's those editors that are going to help me the most...