Friday, September 24, 2010

The Rise of Digital Media

For the people and by the people...The digital revolution is dynamically changing how we interpret our world.

Individuals now broadcast personal stories, angles, and opinions from all corners of the world in real-time. The balance of power in media has shifted away from print and to digital content. The flow of advertising dollars confirms this trend. The old print behemoths are giving way to, and in many ways relying on, more nimble, localized outlets to better serve Upton Sinclair's “fair body of truth.” The new media, with sparse editing and oversight, relies on self-policing to judge its merit. It requires a more self-reliant reader.

The large, traditional print outlets are evolving from paper behemoths to online broadcasting machines…employing a heavy dose of pictures and video to add power and titillation to their stories. In the digital world, the ability to use headlines and pictures to grab eyeballs is as important as the stories. The larger media outlets are well positioned to take advantage of this new medium because they already have the journalistic resources in place, as well as a brand and reputation.

Consider this headlining article from today, September 24th, 2010.
It reports on an 18 yr old Sengalese immigrant who was stabbed to death on the campus of Regis College. The post contains details of the family’s back story, reactions, quotes and a surreal photo of the grieving mother holding a computer showing an image of her now deceased son on the screen. He was found dead at 5:00 in the morning and seven hours later the site had a full report on it, complete with pictures. This isn’t national news or even impacting Bostonians day-to-day lives, but it’s headlining…because it’s local and compelling. This is the old media outlets niche, and where they can succeed online. now features many “neighborhood” sites within its main site. It’s nothing new. Since its inception, news publishers understood that “the subject of deepest interest to an average human being is himself; next to that he is most concerned about his neighbors.” (Walter Lippman, Public Opinion, p. 210). This old idea is now being applied in the digital arena.

Most online publishers don’t have an editorial staff like the major media outlets. Even the most irresponsible and erroneous material can be broadcast by rogue publishers. The obvious danger here is that an uninformed reader may have trouble deciphering fact from fiction. The positive side to this same coin is that we are able to access unfiltered news and gain a broader perspective. We can look at a story from more than one side and avoid being lulled into the naively comfortable notion that only one true version of an event exists.

WikiLeaks is spearheading this new form of psuedo-journalism. They operate under the belief that “the best way to truly determine if a story is authentic, is not just our expertise, but to provide the full source document to the broader community.” They are willing to publish material that other traditional media outlets won’t. It allows us to more deeply investigate major stories, reported on by established media outlets, but lacking some ugly truths. The current Wiki reports on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq affords us a rare glimpse into the realities of the situation on the ground. These are written by soldiers and intelligence officers who witnessed these accounts first hand. There’s no editorial angle.

In the wild world of digital publishing, it is up to the reader to make intelligent, independent judgments. Are we up to the task?

Friday, September 17, 2010

Techically Speaking

Creating compelling content is only one part of managing a successful blog. Brilliant writing is useless unless it finds an audience, and a wise blogger will employ a number tools to attract readers.

After your guests have arrived, it is critical that you engage them in a way that ensures a future visit. A blog should be easy to navigate and match the tone of the content. You don’t want to make it hard to use your site. This can negatively impact the quality of the work and increase the chance that a reader bails. The tools and technology used to design a blog may change over time, but human nature remains the same… we will always be less likely to use something that is difficult to navigate.

I discovered
The Daily Beast a year ago. It’s a site that I visit often and have grown to love, but initially the tools employed by the site had a negative impact on the work, and my first visit only lasted thirty seconds. The homepage prominently displays pictures and captions of their lead stories. The pictures change automatically every few seconds from one story to the next in a slideshow. I wasn’t able to stop the slide from changing and this annoyed me. I’m sure there’s a way to stop these, but I couldn’t figure it out, and that's all that mattered.

I managed to get by my initial frustration and eventually jumped back to the site. I’m glad I did.
The Beast uses a lot of tools that also positively impact the work. The first I noticed, and used, was the ability to increase and decrease the font size. The biography link next to the author’s name, which displays as a small pop up, makes it a more intimate experience.The Facebook widget and engaging comment sections makes it dynamic. It feels alive and communal.

It’s not necessary to use a ton of tools to produce a site that “does” what you want and positively impact the work. The
Bookslut blog is simple in design and only uses an RSS feed widget, inconspicuously placed on the left hand side of the page. The design of the site is subtle, as it should be. It felt relaxed, content is king.

It's not the amount of tools used that makes the technological side positvely impact a blog. The tools just need to be used in away that make the site most effectivley communicate with the reader.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Spontaneous Elbert

After graduating college,  myself and a few college friends made the move from small mountain Vermont to big mountain West. The idea was to ski a lot and work a live the dream. The reality of nine to five adulthood would be put on the shelf for a couple more years. It was procrastination at its finest.

I had always dreaded the thought of the vanilla, corporate lifestyle. It seemed so ordinary. I was young, invincible, and extraordinary. I wouldn't allow myself to get old.

Despite my best intentions, time marched on. The two years spent in the mountains whirled by like a breathtaking landscape viewed from a speeding car's window. The best things always seem to go by fast and setting the e-brake would just send you careening off the road.

I spent my last month in Breckenridge alone. My friends had already made the lonely trek back East and I was couped up in a small efficiency room at the hotel I worked at. It was a slow time of the year in a ski town--the summer vacationers had returned to their post-labor day realities and the snow had yet to fly. It felt like perpetually waking up after a party and realizing you're hungover and there's cleaning up to do.

I read a lot during this time and one of my books was Louis Dawson's Guide to Colorado's Fourteeners. It was a hiking and mountaineering guide to all of Colorado's fourteen thousand-foot peaks. I was reading about Mount Elbert, Colorado's highest peak, on an especially somber afternoon when I was hit with a jolt of inspiration and I had to go climb that One last hurrah. One final wail before succumbing to the eastern corporate pull.

I quickly grabbed what I needed and left behind a note that stated my plans "just in case I become bear food." Driving towards the trailhead, I felt hyper-aware of my surroundings. It was early fall and the sun shined with a crisp brightness only found in the high mountain air. The landscape was illuminated and I felt as if I were looking through polarized lenses.

I arrived at 2 o'clock and started down the path at a quick pace. Darting birds encouraged me to step faster. The smell of pine was intoxicating. As the sun dropped more in the sky and the light of the forest softened, I felt like I had stumbled into a John Muir dream. I wanted to stop and linger in that moment but it was getting late and I was running out of daylight. After pushing on for another hour, I was just about to call it when the trail suddenly led out beyond the veil of trees. It was as though a curtain had dropped before me--the great peak was visible on center stage. Mount Elbert.

It was the top of the Rocky Mountains and the Continental Divide. It was massive and majestic. I had made it to treeline and this is where I would set up camp (which consisted of a mat and sleeping bag, no tent).

The ecstasy of the view quickly gave way to a feeling of anxiousness. It was almost dark and I was alone, on the side of a mountain. I was scared but I felt alive, like I was really doing SOMETHING. I need those moments.

Quickly I began gathering wood for a fire and wound up running into something else. I found what looked like a six shooter cap gun from my childhood days. I pointed it at the ground and pulled the trigger. Boom! A bright orange burst shot out and smell the of gun powder lingered in the air. It was real and it was loaded.

The wild west! I cooked hot dogs and baked beans on an open fire that night, thinking about where the gun had come from. An outlaw on the run? Whatever its story, having it by my side gave me comfort.

After dinner, my belly was full and I was feeling high so I decided to make the quick hike up past treeline. It got dark and cold as I moved away from the fire. I scurried along until I was beyond the canopy of the trees. Here the sky was big, with countless stars; diamond reminders of the laughable mystery. The Cheshire Cat Moon was in on the joke as well, wryly smiling as I stood shivering in the cold, mountain night.

I returned to my fire and I tried to sleep. But it was colder and darker than I expected. And there were noises. My tongue in cheek note about becoming bear food didn't seem as cute now. Being an outlaw was scary business...maybe the corporate world wouldn't be so bad. I didn't sleep that night and the gun was always within reach. The sun's arrival was announced by the birds a few minutes before I felt it's comforting beams on my face. I was relieved and felt ridiculous for being scared of the mischievous night.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Open Up

Most intimate writing is safeguarded by the insulated pages of a closely guarded journal. A personal blog is essentially like a journal that the whole world could potentially read. Yikes. But a successful blog must have the nuggets of truth that are part of the unrefined and sometimes unflattering human experience. Readers crave something to relate to. It doesn't matter if you're blogging for a corporate giant like JetBlue (love their shtick) or keeping a running commentary of your life. There needs to be something human about the material.

Writers have a tendency to "live behind the pen," and prefer to tell a story about others. But a personal blog requires the writer to pull back the veil and expose a Self to world. And not a boring Self. We want to feel intimately connected with a writer who isn't afraid to take risks. It's the thought provoking risks that force the reader to think deeper about a topic and raise their blood pressure a little. Phillip Lopate humorously describes how the purpose of the personal essay is not to "win a writer points in heaven" but instead to "quicken the reader's pulse." (The Art of the Personal Essay)

Titillating your readers while not offending them to the point that they leave can be a tricky endeavor. There's no reset button in the blogosphere. Once the publish button is pushed, your ideas are out there. The good, the bad, the all gets published. There's no editorial staff required to post a blog. Luckily, the ability to quickly self-publish allows the blogger to broadcast a timely defense if pulses were ever quickened to the point of outrage. Penelope Trunk, a widely followed author and truth warrior extraordinaire, used her blog to defend a controversial post she ran on Twitter about having a miscarriage at work. A disturbingly light way to handle a topic, which rattled even her biggest fans. But because she was able to quickly post a well argued response, she was able to explain herself and put out the fire. This wouldn't have been possible only a decade ago. Of course, stirring up controversy with a Tweet wouldn't have been possible either.

Penelope's blog is the bravest and best use of this new medium. She's unashamed and willing to expose herself in order to further difficult conversations. We live in a modern world where there are an innumerable number of outlets vying for our attention, including the approximately 110 million different blogs. We can very easily become swept up in a world of "busyness" that the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard described as a "state of constant distraction that allows people to avoid difficult realities and maintain self-deceptions." The best personal blogs provide content in a manner that engages the reader and is easy to digest, even if the subject matter isn't.

There are plenty of safer personal blogs that specialize in every niche imaginable. In fact most blogs are about trivial matters like car repair, sports, cooking, etc. These can be equally successful, as long as the blog is able to give the reader something. Anyone need a tasty new recipe for gazpacho?

There are other types blogs for the less adventuresome. Corporate blogs are an important part of promoting a company's image. And advocacy blogs serve the important role of, well, advocating for a cause or message. These are useful, thank you, but I get the most out of reading about how someone else sees the world and themselves. I want an honest look into the mind and soul of a fellow human being.