Comments on Government Blogs

Government agencies have been slow to embrace blogs.  The reason, IMHO, as a gov’t web site manager, is that government’s approach to content is different.  Government sites are held to a higher standard and subject to more reviews and requirements than commercial sites are.  Agencies are nervous about unmediated communication from official government sites.

For example, the site I work on, NOAA Ocean Explorer, has a YouTube channel.  On the channel we post cool videos of underwater exploration.  One early issue that came up was – what should we do about comments?  We didn’t want our videos to be swamped with comments filled with curses, links to porn sites and other inappropriate material.  However, we didn’t want to be accused of censorship (which has been an issue when it comes to science at NOAA).  Also, unfortunately, we don’t have the staff time to respond to comments.

So, we decided to turn off the comments.  This against my personal ethos of web 2.0 inclusion but in government, the rules are different.

There was an interesting article about DipNote, the State Department’s blog.  They allow comments and there’s been an interesting discussion about the role of women in Saudi Arabia.

Another leader in the field is the Library of Congress’s blog.  They have a very common-sense policy when it comes to comments from readers:

 “This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user’s privilege to post content on the Library site.”

So, government web sites are slowly coming around to the brave new world of blogging, which is really encouraging.

Eurabia Makes to Austin Second Round

My latest screenplay, EURABIA, made it to the secound round of the 2007 Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition.

EURABIA is a disturbing look at a possible future.  The year is 2027. America has lost the war on terror. Europe is controlled by radical Islam.  From the abandoned streets of New York to a Paris ruled by imams, we follow an unwilling hero as he’s forced into a plot to change the world.

Read the first ten pages online.

I'm Socially Conscious and Stuff

DCist used the photo above to illustrate a story on upcoming anti-war demonstrations. It’s from a couple years ago, during a previous anti-war march. I spied this fellow, and his nervous happiness, in the crowd. Funny – no one else seemed to notice what was actually on his sign. The important thing to the crowd, I guess, was that he was carrying a sign.

Ironically, if you read the comments to the DCist story, no one else saw the words on the sign either. There’s a message here somewhere. Are protests on signs like ads that we tune out?

Bike Theft – It's Personal

fall biker

A crazy story in The Washington Post about victims of bike thefts turning into vigilantes. Like the article says, people take this common type of theft very personally. I certainly did.

I wrote about my experience for the Post back in 2002. After my bike was stolen, I was pissed, and was sure that my bike was still somewhere in the neighborhood. I kept my eyes open and several months later, I spotted my bike leaning against a tree. Here’s my story.

What Do You Write With?

powerbooks at SXSW
People writing (maybe) at SXSW 2007.

This poll got me thinking about the endless debate (among writers and techies, that is) about the best word processing tool. As a writer, you think I would have a strong and absolute preference for one software program over another. After all, an easy to use writing tool is vitally important to my trade.

However, like most writers, I’ll write with whatever’s available, whether that’s a clay tablet, pen and paper, or software program outfitted with the latest features. Here’s what I’m using now:

Word 2004 for the Mac – you really can’t escape Word if you work in an office these days. Like Starbucks, it’s ubiquitous. I use it because it’s on my computer at work and I have to. I hate its constant, distracting whirr of activity, the noisy autosaves, the stupid autocompletes, the aggravating formatting issues.

TextEdit – a lovely little program, ideal for short bits of text to dump into web pages, email messages, Word docs and Scrivener (see below). It’s a perfect word processor for laptops because it’s not a resource hog. With it, I’ll write text for my novel that I then paste into Scrivener.

Google Docs – the successor to Word. Google is the company that will dominate our work lives like Microsoft once did. Deal with it. I use Google Docs for things I want access from home and work and to share with others. For example, I have a doc of furniture I want to buy, complete with links and photos.

Scrivener – a program that causes well-deserved spasms of joy among Mac novelists. Though it was created by a non-programmer, it’s a nearly perfect example of a Mac program. It keeps you organized and gets out of your way when you want to work. It’s doubled my productivity through it’s ease of use. I spend every weekend in it, working on my novel.

Pages – my next love. I took the first couple chapters out of my novel and dropped them into Pages. I quickly created a book cover and, my god, it looked like a real book! That’s inspiring.

For me at least, my workflow would go TextEdit -> Scrivener -> Pages.

However, all this debate over the perfect word-processing tool is a distraction, like discussions among photographers over lenses. In the past, I’ve written with incredibly primitive tools, like manual typewriters. What matters most is writing.

DC Shorts in September!

Mark your calendars.  DC Shorts is returning September 13-20.  Like last year, the action will take place downtown at E Street Cinema.  This year, we will present 89 films and 7 live script performances, culled from 14 countries.  I say “we” because I was one of the script judges.

Also check out Rough Cut, the City Paper’s blog covering the event.

Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement

Yesterday, I attended the Web Managers Roundtable at the Grosvener Auditorium at National Geographic.  The Roundtable is a monthly get together of web managers from around Washington, sponsored by Aquent, Omniture and other companies.  The subject of the talk was “Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement.”

Betsy Scolnik, President of National Geographic Digital Media, provided the introduction to the main speaker, Jim Sterne. had 73 million visitors last year.  They overhauled all their sites in the last two years, investing in major hardware and software upgrades.

Jim Sterne then presented on “Marketing Optimization: The Holy Grail of Continuous Improvement.”  Sterne has written six books on Internet advertising, marketing and customer service.  He is also is the producer of the annual Emetrics Summit  (in DC, Oct 14-17) and is the founder of the Web Analytics Association.  He’s been involved in web marketing since the beginning – I saw him speak way back in 1998.

He defined marketing optimization as measured, incremental improvement.  You examine the data, see what’s working, and adjust your site accordingly.  “If you treasure it, measure it,” in his words.  With web analytics, you can test strategy and messaging on your site.

He believes that we’re just at the beginning of the web analytics evolution.  Web sites are swimming in data on visits, page views, click-throughs, etc…  And now, with services like Omniture, Web Trends and Google Analytics, that data is easier than ever to access and present.  But the question is, what questions do we want answered?  Which numbers matter and what actions do we take based upon them?

The good thing is that this data eliminates decisions made in a smoke-filled room or by the whim of a CEO (“I want a red button.”)  Everything can be measured now.  With A/B testing, you can try two different versions of the same web page and see which performs better.  With multivariate testing, you can try multiple elements on the same web page in several different versions and examine the results.  Companies are also adjusting their offers based upon user behavior – think how Amazon changes their home page based upon what you buy or look at.
Smart companies are using this information to gain insight into consumer behavior.  There’s a marked difference between what people say they do (“I exercise regularly.”) versus what they actually do (“I never miss a happy hour.”)

Why does this matter?  Because the Internet is where people learn about your organization, it’s where you’re defined.  Consumers don’t know the different parts of your organization.  They expect messaging to be coordinated across all media – web, print, call center, etc… And they want you to speak to them in their language.

Brendan Hart and Ted McDonald from then discussed their marketing analytics efforts.  Sterne was theory; they were reality.  In their view, marketing optimization is an art and a science, since consumer behavior is constantly changing.  They’ve focused on a set of Key Performance Indicators.  Out of the wealth of data available, they suggest following the numbers that are most relevant to you – visitors, page views, time spent on site, newsletter signups, orders, etc…  To do so, they use Omniture with an Excel plugin to produce weekly traffic reports.  These reports are distributed across the organization and people are trained in how to understand the data.  Content is adjusted accordingly.  For example, they expanded a section on the “Seven Wonders of the World” that proved to be popular.

Overall, the philosophy they’ve followed is Strategize, Optimize, Monetize.  For example, they tried out a “subscribe” button on their home page and then changed the color and made it bold, because it performed better this way, and led to more subscriptions.

What was interesting was the divergence between theory and practice.  Sterne is right – web analytics are a powerful tool.  However, these tools still require humans to examine the data and take action based upon their interpretations of that information.

Schmap and Photo Rights

My favorite Pebble Beach pic was included in a Schmap guide.

I’ve let Schmap use several of my photos. Here’s how the describe themselves:

Schmap is a leading publisher of digital travel guides for 200 destinations throughout the United States, Europe, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The innovative technology behind Schmap Guides is also used by clients, partners and bloggers to power schmapplets – a range of fully customizable map mashups and map widgets.

They found my pics through Flickr. On Flickr, you can choose to make your photos available though a Creative Commons license… or not. I have my photos listed under a Attribution-NoDerivs license. This is a pretty broad license – I’m saying that other people (even for-profit companies) can use my photos as long as they attribute the picture to me (by running my name under it) and that they can’t remix it into other works of art.

There’s been periodic discussion on Flickr and elsewhere on Schmap and other services and the ethics of sharing photos. Some take the perspective that the photographer always must be paid for use of their photos. I, however, am not a professional. I take pictures because I enjoy them. If some little magazine or web site wants to use them, and can’t pay, that’s OK. I’m more interested in getting my pictures out there, sharing them with the world, than with making a profit.

A similar debate took place in the early years of the Internet. Shouldn’t writers get paid for their online content? As a writer, I think they should. Early attempts at renumeration for writers, like “micro-payment” schemes and putting things in “walled gardens” have largely failed. Why? Because the web is awash in written content. Nobody (and that means you and me) wants to pay. And now, for better or worse, the web is awash in free photos.

If you’re not going to get paid, why take pictures and put them online? Or, for that matter, why write? If you enjoy these activities, you’re going to do them, and not care about the value the market assigns your efforts. That, in my view, is the mark of the true artist.

Blogging Under Your Real Name

An excellent post by Penelope Trunk on blogging under your real name. As someone who’s been online in one form of another since 1996, I couldn’t agree more with her advice.

As I said in my comment, blogging is a great way to increase your visibility online through that arbitrer of importance these days, Google. If Google can’t find you, do you really exist? We’ll leave that philosophical question for another time. In practical terms, being online has greatly helped me find jobs, expands my network and allow old friends to track me down.

Why did I initially decide to go online? Vanity. I was a writer of short stories who felt that I should be more widely known. My stories had been accepted in some very very small literary publications with circulations of less than a thousand subscribers. The process of your story being accepted by one of these journals is to snail mail it to an editor and wait 3-12 months for them to get back to you. This ancient process still exists today.

After AOL announced that they would provide space on the Web for their users, I taught myself HTML and published several pages online. (Unbelievably, they are still there.) I was not a computer person or a geek, just a frustrated writer who wanted to publish his short stories online. I’m not sure how much the world was interested in my tales of adolescent longing but my vanity led me to a whole new career as a web person.

Salman Rushdie: 1989 and Now

Salman Rushdie was recently awarded a knighthood by Britain, an act which caused more than one anti-Western rant from the medieval ayotollahs of Iran and Pakistan. The usual threats of violence from the usual dark quarter of the world. This honor by Britain reminded these hateful clerics that Rushdie is the author of The Satanic Verses, a novel considered blasphemous (by some) to Islam.

Rushdie has been under a sentence of death since 1989, when the book was first published and the clerics of Iran took offense. Only recently has he felt safe enough to emerge from hiding.

What’s been forgotten over the years is that the hostage-taking Ayotollah Khomeini wasn’t the only one outraged by The Satanic Verses. This excellent article in the International Herald Tribune reminds us that the book was published to great controversy. Like the recent cartoon conflagration in Denmark, not everyone stood behind the right of free speech in an open society.

In a March 1989 Op-Ed article in The New York Times titled “Rushdie’s Book Is an Insult,” Jimmy Carter argued that “The Satanic Verses” was guilty of “vilifying” Muhammad and “defaming” the Koran. “The author, a well-versed analyst of Moslem beliefs, must have anticipated a horrified reaction throughout the Islamic world,” Carter wrote. While condemning the death sentence and affirming Rushdie’s right to free speech, the former president argued that “we have tended to promote him and his book with little acknowledgment that it is a direct insult to those millions of Moslems whose sacred beliefs have been violated and are suffering in restrained silence the added embarrassment of the Ayatollah’s irresponsibility.”

It’s just a novel, words printed on the page, a novel that billions of people will never see or even bother reading. A novel cannot violate a religion. A basic tenet of Western civilization is the right to offend people – we must not go backwards on this.

I had heard of Rushdie in 1989, after reading his book Shame in a modern literature class. The fatwa by Khomeini made The Satanic Verses a bestseller. I remember racing through book stores in DC, looking for a copy. I wanted to buy it to show my support of free speech, to show the Ayatollah that we wouldn’t be intimidated. Your religion doesn’t dictate what I can read.

I couldn’t find one anywhere – it was the iPhone of its day 😉 After I got a copy from a friend who worked in the publishing industry, I started the book and found it incomprehensible, a wild magic realism narrative that I couldn’t understand. All this trouble for a book?

Since then, I’ve gone on to enjoy other Rushdie novels, especially the brilliant Shalimar the Clown.

Looking back, it’s tempting to believe that America and Europe supported the absolute right of free speech. However, when faced with the very real threat of violence, people don’t always live up to their ideals and seek to justify censorship.

What will we do when the next of these conflicts arise?  Will we stand firm or compromise our values?