SnagFilms Rocks

Ted Leonsis, rich with AOL money has been plowing his considerable fortune into the documentary business.  Today, he launched a new web site called SnagFilms that allows you to watch great documentaries for free online. One of the first docs available is DIG! This should be required watching for anyone who thought it would be cool to be in a band. It follows the Dandy Warhols and the Brian Jonestown Massacre as they fight it out for indie music success. One band makes it, the other collapses into drug-fueled insanity. And while it may not be pretty, both bands created some great music.

Leonsis has always been tech-savvy and his site features tools that allow you to easily embed links to your favorite docs, whether you’re on Myspace, Facebook, iGoogle, Blogger or have your own web site.  Like so:

Should Government Employees Blog?

This is 2008.  Everyone these days has a blog.  Yet, within some sectors of government, there is resistance to using this not-so-new communications tool.  Why?  What are the “perceived risks”?

We don’t trust our employees.  This comes across in two ways.  

First, some federal agencies block all social networking sites (YouTube, MySpace) and this includes any blog with a or address.  While there are acceptable use policies on using government computers which spell out, basically, don’t screw around at work, some IT managers take things a step further and ban all social networking sites.  

This prevents inflows and outflows of communication. How does this effect government employees charged with communicating with the public?  Let’s say you’re a climatologist within a government agency. You need to write a report on the Arctic but you can’t get information on a recent mission there because it’s on a Blogger site.  Conversely, you can’t communicate to an audience who would be interested in your work because they’re a Facebook group.

Second, some unenlightened communications departments don’t trust ordinary employees with communications.  Talking to the public requires highly skilled professionals, in their view.  When they learn that non-communicators are communicating without permission, their first instinct is to shut things down. After all, these people may be off-message and may describe their work without the appropriate context.

Yet, these fears are really just “perceived risks” – they’re not actually risks.  Fear of Facebook is unwarranted.  An appropriate use policy and occasional monitoring will prevent the abuse of social media privileges.

And communicators in government must learn this is the Age of Authenticity.  Readers want unmediated information.  Gatekeepers and middlemen from every industry have given way to the masses, like it or not. Everyone is a communicator now. Communications departments should be training employees, not trying to censor them.

Blogging is just another communication tool, analogous to publishing a paper, giving a presentation, writing an email to a group or publishing a web page. It’s just another way to share knowledge with the tax-paying public.

Efforts within government to ban blogging and block social media do the public a disservice, because they prevent communication with the people who pay the bills.

Does the Novel Really Need Improvement?

Interesting story on ReadWriteWeb on an online novel in a new publishing format called “Quillr.”  The book is a supernatural thriller called Here Ends the Beginning.  The book is basically a mashup of text, video, photos and music.  How is this different than HTML? Do we need another format on the web to tell a story?

I think a blog, which is mostly just text, would make a much better novel. Blogs are also written in the first-person and are often very personal. You could read post by post as if they were chapters. I’m sure someone has done this before.

I’m a writer and a web person.  I love words, whether they’re on a printed page or a glowing screen. However, reading a novel is really an intimate experience that you create yourself, one that requires focused attention to enjoy. A web site with all sorts of bells and whistles detracts from that experience. I’m all in favor of the web but there’s a reason why novels have been with us for hundreds of years – it’s a format that works.

How I Learned to Love Twitter

I was at SXSW last year when Twitter launched.  They had monitors outside conference rooms showing “tweets” from users, little random bits of text unfurling on a screen.  I thought it was interesting, like a bad stream of consciousness novel, but didn’t see the point.  Why would I want to let the world know about the trivia of my life?

Twitter won a SXSW Web Award, in the blog category.  The founders gave a clever acceptance speech – in less than 140 characters.

Still, I was unconvinced until a few weeks ago when my buddy Neil suggested that I try it. He and his hard-working IT colleagues use it to keep track of one another across a busy college campus.

That seemed useful so I tried it out.  I found that several other of my friends and colleagues were already on Twitter and it’s been really interesting to discover the projects that they’re working on.  It’s helped me make connections and get good ideas.  For example, I found out that:

Despite the fact that Twitter is not 100% reliable (a real danger, one that doomed Friendster), its simplicity and utility make it a very attractive tool for web workers.  
Note: this post was inspired by the excellent 101 Uses for Twitter.


Government Web Managers Conference Presentations Online

The presentations from the Government Web Managers Conference are now online. There’s a wealth of useful information in these slides, relevant to all web managers, not just government ones. The highlights for me were:

  • Janice Nall from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, describing her risk-taking ways as the CDC tries everything from Second Life to “virtual viruses” to get the word out about health. Her point was not to be afraid of the lawyers and to get out there and experiment.
  • The EPA is very similar to NOAA, the agency I work for, and Jeff Levy from the EPA demonstrated some of the ways (Flickr photo contest) that they’re way ahead of us. Not that we’re jealous or anything.
  • Dan Herman, nGenera, introduced the audience to the “wikinomics” concept.  Command and control management is painfully yielding to mass collaboration.  The boomers had the Age of Aquarius.  We have Age of Participation. Not quite as catchy.

How Much Time Does Web 2.0 Take?

I twitter, post pictures on Flickr, comment on other people’s blogs and write my own blog postings. More than once, I’ve been asked, “How much time does that take?”

Really, not much.  5-10 hours a week at most, time that I’d otherwise spend watching TV, I’m sure. Museum 2.0 has a great post on how much time Web 2.0 really takes and includes a handy chart showing how much time each tactic can take.

And how did I find this article?  Twitter.  The author, Nina Simon, is a Twitter friend of a friend of a friend.

2008 Government Web Managers Best Practice Award Winners

Congratulations to…
The Centers for Disease Control have really been a leader when it comes to adopting new technologies to reach out to the public.  They use email updates, RSS, podcasts, blogs, Second Life, Whyville and other tools to get their message out.  Their site is attractive, easy to use and almost makes it fun to learn about the latest pandemics.

VA MidSouth Healthcare Network
Navigating and obtaining government benefits can be an onerous assignment.  This network of six VA Medical Centers and 32 community-based outpatient clinics has made this vital task easier by surveying their users and then adapting the site to their needs.  The use of the “I Want To” box on the home page provides quick access to medical benefits for patients.

This year’s winners and finalists were recognized by their peers as federal websites that had done an outstanding job of making it easy for their customers to complete their most important task online.

Government Web Managers Conference

On Monday and Tuesday, I attended the Government Web Managers Conference held in Arlington, VA.  This two-day conference brought together federal, local and state web folks from around the country to listen to expert speakers, hear about the latest web tools and discuss how to improve government websites.  

A major focus of this year’s conference was Web 2.0, meaning the new set of participatory web sites like Flickr, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube and blogs.  Web 1.0 was the static publishing of information; Web 2.0 is everyone publishing and commenting on everything.  There is broad agreement among government web folks that government sites should use these tools because that’s what the public expects.  There are two major barriers to government adopting Web 2.0:

1.  Lawyers.  Regulations for government web sites were designed for a pre-Web 2.0 age and have not been consistently applied across the federal government.  For example, on NOAA Ocean Explorer, we’re allowed to post our videos to YouTube but other agencies are not.  In some agencies, you can’t even view YouTube.

2.  IT Departments.  The principles of Web 2.0 are openness and sharing, which are a security administrator’s worst nightmare.  IT departments these days are often about locking things while we want to open up and share our information with the rest of the world.

It was interesting to hear that other government folks have the same challenges we do.  The organizers of the conference are getting together teams of people to try to develop a unified approach to these problems.  This cross-governmental cooperation will hopefully help agencies adopt these tools.  There’s value in having a critical mass of government web folks pushing to use Web 2.0.  The creation of this community of interest may be the best outcome of the conference. 

David Pogue's Three Megatrends

I attended FOSE (a government technology expo in DC) last week and saw David Pogue’s keynote.  He’s the technology columnist for the New York Times.  Here are my notes from the session with the three big “megatrends” Pogue sees with technology plus some interesting links to check out:

1. Phone and Internet will Merge

In the future, you’ll use voice over IP at home with a portable number, $20 month.   “Voice over IP” is using the internet to call people rather than Ma Bell. You might use Grandcentral, which provides a single phone number for all the phones in your life.  One number to rule them all…

Next time you’re looking for a phone number, check out Google 411 instead of dialing information.

Have lots of voice mail?  Try a voice to text service, like Jott, which converts your voicemail to text and emails it to you.

2. A La Carte Video

All TV shows will be available on demand, anytime you want, through iTunes, Hulu or similar services. Even Comcast is creating an on demand video service.

The DVD format war is over.  Blu-ray is the victor.

Movie downloads won’t kill DVD business, not enough people have broadband.  And there are still too many restrictions on downloads.  Why do I only have 24 hours to watch a movie?

People in college and younger do not understand nor recognize copyright.

3. Web 2.0

According to Pogue, we’re still early in this cycle of innovation.  He provided a nice definition of web 2.0, which I’m paraphrasing as, “We the people, providing the content, and connecting with others.”

Blogs are a new channel of communication for government agencies.  After all, Microsoft used blogs to put a face on a faceless org, getting beyond their fear of openness.  It’s not PR, it’s authentic.

Cool examples of web 2.0:

  • TripAdvisor (reviews of hotels and more)
  • Kiva  (microlending)
  • e-petitions  (petition the Prime Minister)
  • whoissick (find out what virus is floating around your neighborhood)

And, at the end of his talk, Pogue amused the audience with a song about the lawsuit-happy RIAA, to the tune of the Village People’s “YMCA”.  Guess you had to be there.

Go Hollywood! What’s the Logline for Your Site?, April 1, 2002

“In the dizzying world of moviemaking, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king.”
–Jeffrey Katzenberg

I can hear the protests already. Creating a web site is not like creating a movie, we don’t need to go “high concept” or any of that other Hollywood marketing fluff. We will build the web site, its value will be obvious, and it will sell itself to the appropriate audience. End of story. FADE OUT.


Every year, around 300 movies get released into the crowded multiplexes of America. And they get encapsulated in a sentence or two to make it easier for moviegoers to find what they want.

Every year, thousands of web sites get launched into the disorderly, low-barrier world of the web. How will your site stand a chance among all these competitors for your customers’ most valuable asset, their time? How will you differentiate your site among this cacophony?

Just like a movie, you better be able to explain the purpose of your site in a sentence. For those who wish to look down on Tinseltown, you may refer to it as your “elevator speech.” If you can’t explain your site in 15 seconds to a customer, how are you going to get him to visit your site?

Unfortunately, web development frequently begins with only the vaguest notions of what a site should be about.


The CEO of Widgets, Inc., has ordered the construction of a new web site. It’s going to be filled with all sorts of fancy bells and whistles to impress his buddies at the country club. The MARKETING DIRECTOR is nervous.

And I want Java. I read about that.

I’ll get the techies to work on it. But, sir, who’s this site going to be for?


Well, yes, you, obviously. But who is the audience? Customers? Investors? The press? What are we trying to do here? Before we start spending money, shouldn’t we figure that out?

All of the above. And everything. Now get out.

The new web site for Widgets, Inc., has been launched to crushing silence. It’s another bland, corporate web site.

Can you explain to me why we have no traffic?

I’ve thought about that, sir. And I think it’s because our web site has no identity. Our press releases, brochures, banner ads, and emails just talked about the “online home of Widgets, Inc.” They provided no compelling reason for anyone to visit.

You better have a plan.

The most popular feature on the site is designing your own widgets.

It’s also the most profitable.

I propose rebranding the site to appeal to customers, highlighting our widget customization feature. Our logline will be, “Widgets lovers, design widgets in seconds at the Widgets web site!”

Why didn’t you think of that in the first place?


A good log line will help you focus your site around a single organizing principle. For example, eBay is “The World’s Online Marketplace.” provides news and viewpoints from the Internet marketing and advertising industry. The Onion is America’s Finest News Source. All these sites concentrate on one big idea which they do well.

Here’s a tool to help you get started.

Sample web site:

url: where’s the site going to be located?

title: what are you calling your site?

logline: what’s the elevator speech for the site?

audience: who’s the audience?

Think this is simplistic? It is, and necessarily so. Oftentimes, like in the example above, web sites get built with many different consituencies in mind and with many different purposes. The result is design by committee and a web site that pleases no one, especially visitors.

Creating a good log line is just the first step in marketing your web site. This first step is also the most important one. Taking the time to think about the unique benefits of your site will help focus the work of your web team on delivering a quality, unique site. It will also make later marketing efforts considerably easier and more effective.