Finding a way back through multimedia

7 05 2009

In my ongoing escapade with the Web site I am designing, I recently entered the realm of Flash and SlideShowPro. I am currently of the opinion that creating slideshows is neither as fun or as easy as it sounds — I’m sure my opinion will improve with added experience, but for the time being, the very mention of creating and embedding photo galleries makes me cringe.

While there is nothing like adding a slideshow or a video to complement a story, multimedia can also take on a role in which it becomes the main attraction. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Our society is driven by entertainment values. If it sparkles, flashes, bops or zings, we’re all eyes and ears.

However, in most cases, multimedia doesn’t stop after a few pictures and a video clip. There are audio files, interactive maps and info graphs, as well as a plethora of other possibilities to consider.

Multimedia draws those who lack the focus to sit down and read actual print, start to finish, minus all the bells and whistles.

Many news sites have done their utmost to embrace our love of all things interactive.

According to Marshall McLuhan in his book, “Understanding Media,” media can be either “hot” — passive, or “cool” — requires user interaction. Most multimedia falls under the “hot media” category. Users click on a link, sit back and are spoon fed information, rather than investing the brain cells required for reading.

I think specifically of news sites, where it seems no story is complete without visual aids, ranging from photos to video clips to idiot-proof graphics.

Multimedia is an adaptation that has been made for the here and now generation in which we live. Although it can have its drawbacks such as bandwidth issues and adding to the general chaos that has been known to reign in the Webosphere, any means of attracting and informing the public about what is going on in the world around them is worth the effort.





The joke’s on them

30 04 2009

My parents have been loyal subscribers to the Sac Bee for as long as I can remember. Now, after all these years, they are stopping delivery in the area. For many, this would result to a mad dash to the Web as a primary news source, but that probably won’t be the case for my parents — I still get calls for tech support on the DVD player.

Still, it made me wonder about others in the same situation: where will they turn for news?

Online news sites have become a fix-all for many who find themselves in a time crunch. You can skim headlines, watch a video or two, read about 15 seconds of a story — what more could you ask for?

However, things get very amusing when parody comes into play. Even the New York Times has had to deal with this.

Looking at the two pages, they seem almost identical, from the layout and page titles, to the fonts that are used — even the ads look the same.

Personally, I thought it was bordering on creepy.

In the article “How to recognize spoofed Web sites,” “The spoofed site is usually designed to look like the legitimate site, sometimes using components from the legitimate site. The best way to verify whether you are at a spoofed site is to verify the certificate.”
Users should not rely solely on the address bar as an indication that you are at the site you think you are. “There are several ways to get the address bar in a browser to display something other than the site you are on,” according to Microsoft.

The expression “The devil is in the details” can be applied to many areas in life, and URLs are no exception. You have to pay attention. Another perfect example is the difference between whitehouse.gov and whitehouse.org. Just a quick glance is enough to send almost anyone reeling.

For those “in the know,” these sites can be entertaining — just as they were intended to be. But for others, they can create confusion and a mistrust of other reliable Web sites.

In cases such as the New York Times parody site, it blurs the lines between fact and fiction so convincingly that it harms general credibility. The public is already jumpy enough when it comes to the Web and its reliableness. I think this comes down to yet another straw being added to an already breaking camel’s back.





Defining reality through the Web

24 04 2009

We get our news online, watch movie trailers — and entire movies for that matter, shop, download music, send and receive e-mails, do research, find that recipe for chicken castellina — virtually every aspect of or lives can be found on the Web. This brings up and interesting question: what about the things that aren’t online?

According to Tim Berners-Lee in his book, “Weaving the Web,” he states that “If it isn’t on the Web, it doesn’t exist.”

Is that really true? Well first of all, I had to try to think of something that can’t be found online — even my dad was appalled to find that he had a virtual footprint. And then it hit me: I can’t.

Now I’m not being completely naive by making that statement. I know that if I sat here long enough, I could probably think of a bunch of things that aren’t online — but who has time for that? However, having said that, almost everything in my sphere of being, everything that I need and usually want to access, is online. And yes, it would be nice if I could find those pesky family history records dating earlier that 1803, but I can’t really blame the Web for the fire that cleaned out all the records, can I?

The Internet is a wonderful tool for making even the most obscure information accessible, whether you’re stumbling upon random Web sites or looking for an inspirational essay from the Spanish American War. Sometimes it is not covered in great depth, but it is usually there none the less.

But when it is not available, for small town, insanely busy college students like myself, if it can’t be found on Google, it isn’t that important.

So I guess that makes Tim Berners-Lee right; If it’s not online it doesn’t exist — for me anyway.





From enigma to enabler

17 04 2009

Lately I have been exploring the wonders of HTML and Web design. I can still remember when I was first introduced to HTML “code writing.” I had signed up for a one unit weekend crash course in Web design. While the class itself barely skimmed over the basics, it whetted my appetite and unlocked the door to a new world of divs, hypertext and image tags.

For me, it is a new and exciting challenge. However, many other people suffer from an almost irrational — and completely unnecessary — fear of computers and especially the Web — even its most basic concepts.

There are different theories floating around about what computer literacy really means.

Some users are content with being able to turn it on and play a quick hand of solitaire or two. Others master Microsoft Word and can send and receive e-mails with the very best of them. And then there is the other group: the nerds. The ones who delve into the deepest recesses of HTML and pretend to (or even worse, actually do) understand everything that Tim Berners-Lee and the W3C are talking about. But what does it really mean to be computer literate and when is enough really enough?

In the BBC article, “Net-illiterate ‘failing children,’” a parent’s lack of Internet skills can have a very negative impact on their children in the future.

“Not knowing how to best use the Internet may have a negative impact on their education and employment opportunities,” said Sonia Livingstone, social psychology professor at the London School of Economics.

I don’t think the there is one level of computer and Web literacy that should be the goal across the board. I know that my dad, an independent contractor, will never need to write or understand hypertext and cascading style sheets, but he uses Quick Books to keep track of customer invoices and other transactions on an almost daily basis. He can do what he needs to without having to worry about going outside of his comfort level.

However, I think that we will soon be reaching the end of the era where those who are straddling the line between proficient and illiterate can sneak by under the radar. There is no telling what the next wave in technology will be, but sooner or later, they will have to get on board. Trust me, it’s really not all that scary.





Filling the gaps

10 04 2009

In the get it now and get it faster age in which we live, daily perusals — and I use the term loosely — of the news all too often is beginning to follow the same formula.

You see a list of headlines:

The … ship captain … held hostage by pirates … lifeboat bobbing in the Indian Ocean … unharmed… “The captain remains with the pirates on the lifeboat within full view of”— Oooh, glittery graphics!

And that’s the end of it.

It’s an increasingly disturbing trend but something that needs to be addressed; people have stopped reading.

Studies have shown that readers are skimming and skipping along to such a degree that more of the story is not read than is actually read.

Where once Dostoyevsky, Dickens, Tolstoy and Hemingway were conquered without blinking an eye, today it is considered a great feat of willpower and endurance to make it through a single article.

In the article, “Is Google Making Us Stupid,” Nicholas Carr makes the argument that the Internet has trained us and how we read. We are trained to look for headlines and skim for specific content.

“A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets’reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link.”

Apparently many people are experiencing this same problem. “The more they use the Web, the more they have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing,” Carr said.

I think a lot of the issue comes down to information overload. In a lot of ways, Internet access is a lot like setting a kid loose in a candy store; no sooner do they grab the Sour Patches and Skittles but they see the candy bars. With so much to choose from, it’s hard to make up your mind about what your really want to spend your oh so valuable time on.

Back in the days when dial-up reigned supreme, you didn’t spent 5 minutes waiting for a page to load if you didn’t intend to read it. High speed allows readers to be click-happy lunatics who receive information more quickly than they can absorb it.

I consider my time to be just as valuable as the next persons, but that doesn’t mean you should be afraid to slow it down and smell the roses — and try to cultivate an attention span that goes beyond four seconds.





Apathy and the printed word

2 04 2009

With the ever increasing struggle that is being faced by the print media industry, it has become necessary to examine the journalistic model that traditional media was founded upon.

Part of the solution for the struggling industry may be found within the ranks of the print journalist’s online counterpart: the blogger.

Blogs are often written in an informal, conversational tone that some readers find more engaging than other traditional news sources. Blogging has turned news into a conversation; it doesn’t end when the newspaper hits newsstands. “The story doesn’t end when it’s published, but rather just gets started as the public begins to do its part — discussing the story, adding to it, and correcting it,” said Steve Outing in his online article, “What journalists can learn from bloggers.”

The Internet has sped up the publishing cycle, making news immediate. This is something that bloggers have taken full advantage of. If you want the very latest in what is going on around the globe, don’t wait for tomorrow’s newspaper to be dropped on your doorstep — look online. The Web can be updated within seconds — something that isn’t possible with print media. A Web site can have a new story up faster than the newspaper delivery van can make it to the end of your street. According to David Meerman Scott, this shift to online has changed the way in which the news is dealt with.

“With Web-based access to information, consumers have real choices for how they learn about the world around them — alternatives to the filter of mainstream media,” he said.

Author David Weinberger takes the view that anyone and everyone should be able to participate and contribute to the general knowledge base; the more information that is out there, the better. Let readers decide for themselves what information is important and what isn’t.

Outing supports this argument by stating that, “publishing unpolished thoughts (written by smart people) can be valuable — that in the lightning-fast Internet era, unrefined commentary and analysis has a place.” You don’t have to be a paid professional to have a valuable opinion.

I don’t think I can point to any one thing that traditional media can do that would be a sure fix for its current dilemma. By and large, audiences have become apathetic — through no faulty of traditional media.

The problem is not newspapers. The problem is the public.

People want to be entertained and that is something that audiences get by going online. However, that being said, if newspapers were to “dumb down” the news, they will not be doing the public any favors.

According to William Fisher, in “The Downside of 24/7 Journalism,” “This dumbing down of news presents us with, at best, incomplete information. And incomplete information leads us to bad decisions.”

I think — or at least hope — that when people once again start caring enough to pay attention, readership and circulation will once again improve.





Where the past ends and the future begins

27 03 2009

And if all others accepted the lie which the Party imposed — if all records told the same tale — then the lie passed into history and became truth. ‘Who controls the past’ ran the Party slogan, ‘controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.’”
– George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 3

I’m in the process of reading “1984” for the first time. Perhaps because of this, my conspiratorial radar has been on high alert, and the idea of anyone being able to in essence “re-write history” is completely horrifying to me.

The truth is the truth and everyone should have an equal opportunity of accessing and expressing it.

That being said, I am now going to step down from my soap box and look at the issue of privacy and public record from the underdog’s point of view.

The balancing act between public record and privacy is an issue that journalists have had to deal with before, and the presence of the Internet has once again brought it to the forefront.

Things have come a long way since the days when old newspaper clippings were buried in the newspaper office, said Craig Whitney, standards editor for The New York Times in the article “Rewriting History.” In this case, one of the greatest strengths — availability — can also be the greatest weakness. “We’ve always had a sense that the archive is historical,” Whitney said. “What’s changed is now anybody can consult it from home.”

For those who have nothing to hide, there is no problem. But still, public record has a funny way of including a lot of personal detail. According to The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, this can include anything from child custody, to bankruptcy, to medical conditions, as well as a raft of other issues. Even if you are wrongly arrested and the charges are later dropped, your arrest is something that will go into public record and will be there to stay.

With the Web, a person’s biggest mistake is never more than a few key-strokes away. Even after you’ve done your time and paid your fines — or sorted things out with the pesky neighbor who still has your leaf blower — you still must answer for your mistakes. When does it stop? Well, the short answer is that it doesn’t.

Should the content be changed? No. Fact is fact and the past is just that — the past. Saying that it didn’t happen doesn’t change anything. Yes, some of it may be unpleasant to deal with, but I think that ultimately it is how you move on from the speed bumps in your life that truly matters. There are always two sides to every story. I’m not saying this to give people a free pass for their stupidity, but sometimes there is more to a story than meets the eye — and hopefully that is something that the rest of the public (and especially future employers) will remember. Don’t discount someone just because their Google search results have a few “smudges” on them.

“If the Party could thrust its hand into the past and say this or that even, it never happened—that, surely, was more terrifying than mere torture and death.”
– George Orwell, 1984, Book 1, Chapter 3








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