Let's Get This Straight: July 1997 archives

By Scott Rosenberg

Published July 31, 1997 10:50AM (EDT)

Chunnel vision

The notion of "channels" on the Net continues to fascinate and befuddle reporters covering new media. Never mind that online "channels" as they exist today don't resemble TV in any way besides their choice of label. Never mind that the various "push" technologies that hold the potential to create true Net-based "channels" are all still in their infancy. There's an insatiable demand for articles about the convergence of the Web and TV, and discussing "channels" provides the perfect hook for a thumb-sucking analysis -- like, say, the New York Times business section's Monday technology
by Regina Joseph.

Under the headline, "Trying to make computer channel surfing as attractive as the couch potato variety," Joseph rambles through an inconclusive series of quotes, observations and rhetorical questions. She points out, accurately, that online companies use the channel metaphor at the risk of unrealistically raising users' expectations that they're going to receive TV-quality video and audio. But beyond that, her argument plunges into a murk so deep even expert readers are going to have a hard time figuring out where it's going.

There's so much nonsense being spouted in the new-media industry about "channels" that it's worth trying to decipher such a column, line by line:

These prototypical interactive channels do dangle an alluring prospect. As the online world converges with the cable medium, channels will be more than merely the places where communities of interest congregate.

Wait a second -- most of the time channels are described as a means for online services to group content and deliver it efficiently to audiences. Now they're "places where communities of interest congregate"?

Interactivity and its attendant technology is supposed to allow audiences to watch what they want, when they want.

Well, actually, interactivity is supposed to do a lot more than that; people with TVs and VCRs today can already pretty much watch what they want when they want.

In fact, some industry executives contend that online audiences are already beginning to think of channels in a new way.

OK. What's the new way?

"The very concept of the channel has changed," said Bob Friedman, who was a founding executive of the MTV cable network. He is now president of New Line Television and co-founder of an online channel-based entertainment service known as the Hub, which is a joint venture with America Online.

The very concept, indeed! But how?

"People now associate channel with a place where they can go and create their own identity, and choose what they want to make of it," he said.

So the "new way" of thinking about channels is that they're a "place" to "create identity"? But this passage began by telling us that "channels will be more than merely the places where communities of interest congregate."

Mark Mooradian, an analyst and group director at a New York new media research firm, Jupiter Communications, essentially agrees with Mr. Friedman.

Good -- maybe he can explain it better.

The channel metaphor that interactive services now employ is not merely an attempt to emulate television. "It's simply the easiest way consumers can find info," he said. "In the future, assuming that you finally do have a broad-band cable pipe, the challenge will be in making something that's better than TV."

So: the new "channels" of cyberspace will (a) help consumers find "info" better and (b) face the challenge of trying to be better than TV? Is that it? Isn't that what the Net was trying to do long before anyone started mentioning "channels"?

You could fill many hours unproductively trying to sort out the logic of this kind of writing. It's the sign of an Internet industry all too ready to embrace marketing-speak in place of solid thinking -- and media coverage ready to match the industry, buzzword for meaningless buzzword.

July 31, 1997

The games People plays

Print media critics of online journalism often complain about the murkiness of the Web -- how hard it is for people to know where they are or why one piece of information happens to be juxtaposed with, or linked to, another.

These critics are, of course, right. But once you start asking questions like, "Why is this fact here?" you realize that the print world has its own layers of confusion, too.

Take People, for instance. This week's issue features an interview with Electronic Frontier Foundation executive director Lori Fena on the subject of privacy online. And a fine interview it is, with solid information for readers about why they need to be careful about revealing personal information online and how to watch for over-aggressive marketers.

The article isn't a typical People profile of Fena herself; it doesn't talk about who she is or what she likes to do in her spare time. But it is accompanied by a photo of Fena and her boyfriend with the following caption: "'My opposite number,' Fena calls boyfriend Edward Zyszkowski, a noted data miner."

Now, one of the essential formulas of People's publishing success is to run lots of pictures of featured interviewees with their spouses or lovers or pets. This device can be somehow humanizing (at best), irrelevant or trivializing (at worst).

But in this case, it's positively bizarre. Most readers are unlikely to have much of a clue as to what a "data miner" is and does. The only reference to the term in the People article comes in a sinister context: The magazine asks Fena, "How does an Internet spy operate?" and she answers, "Experts in data mining typically combine information offered either voluntarily or unwittingly with public records from the motor-vehicles database, the marriage database, birth records as well as property records and mailing lists. And they end up with a pretty complete profile of you."

In other words, data miners -- like Fena's "opposite number" -- are the people who are enabling all of those aggressive, privacy-invading marketing efforts Fena is warning us against. Next on "Geraldo": I Dated a Web Spy!

Now, maybe Zyszkowski doesn't do that kind of data mining at all; or maybe he does and he and Fena have spirited debates about it over the dinner table -- no matter. But why is People so content to leave its readers scratching their heads?

The Web is where magazines are supposed to confuse readers with partial information, missing contexts and inexplicable links between images and text. Print is supposed to have this stuff down.

Or maybe neither medium, print or online, has a monopoly on murk -- and clarity, far from being an intrinsic quality of paper, is just a byproduct of careful editing.

July 24, 1997

Apple follies and the Mac media

Gil Amelio's departure from Apple occasioned waves of the usual Apple deathwatch coverage -- perfectly understandable and utterly conventional. There were a few exceptions -- like Denise Caruso's excellent New York Times column directing our attention to how much money Amelio walked off with, and how much responsibility for the company's problems really lies with its board of directors. But mostly the press played the old personality game of speculating about what went wrong for Amelio, why he had been the wrong man for the job all along and who might be in the wings to replace him. Never mind that these same papers mostly ran stories about why Amelio was the right man for the job when he was hired.

The focus on Apple's executive follies is inevitable but short-sighted. Virtually no one expects Apple to survive in its present form anymore; the only question that matters is, how will the manner of Apple's breakup, sale or final decline affect the survival and prospects for the Macintosh platform?

The Mac operating system (MacOS) is the only thing about Apple that people care about anymore. And millions of users do still care about it. The real question the press ought to be addressing isn't "What's Apple's future?" or "Who's Apple's next leader?" but rather "What's the future for Mac users?"

One way to find an answer to that issue is in the continued vitality of the online press devoted to the Mac. There's a teeming Mac subculture on the Net, and some longtime media presences devoted to it. One of these resources, Ric Ford's Macintouch page, provides daily updates of key stories of interest to Mac users -- breaking news, product announcements, software updates and bug notices. On July 10, the day the Amelio story broke, Macintouch provided links to MacWeek, Apple's press release and Amelio's statement. It also touched on about a dozen other Mac stories and announcements, everything from Apple's plans to introduce new high-speed Macs at next month's Boston MacWorld to the release of a new version of a shareware utility called DragThing.

Similarly, over at Tidbits, Adam Engst's venerable newsletter about the Mac and the Net, the Amelio news was played big -- but before covering it, there was important new information about the popular anti-virus software Disinfectant: "On the heels of last week's Disinfectant 3.7, John Norstad has released Disinfectant 3.7.1, which corrects an error that could cause a crash while scanning some rare types of large resource files."

These Mac-obsessed news outlets weren't ignoring the Amelio story or trying to downplay it out of some partisan wish to cover up Apple's troubles. Rather, they understand what the mass media -- still tracking last year's (and decade's) story of Apple vs. Microsoft -- don't. The world of loyal Mac users is far less interested in the corporate future of Apple than in the continued dependability and technological future of the software they rely on every day.

CEOs come and go, as Apple followers know better than anyone. The day to write "RIP" over the Mac will be the day when the likes of Macintouch and Tidbits no longer have many stories about software updates -- or readers to eat them up.

July 17, 1997

Mag editors' muddled manifesto

The American Society of Magazine Editors (ASME) wants Web sites to be clearer about the distinction between editorial content and advertising material. It's a good cause, to be sure: Many Internet users remain in a state of great confusion about where they are on the Web, who created a particular page and who paid for it. The more information sites provide, the better.

But the "voluntary guidelines" the ASME recently issued betray a deep ignorance of the nature of the Web -- and a kind of self-righteous complacency about the quality of editorial/ad distinctions in print magazines.

The full guidelines don't appear to be available online (as far as I've been able to tell, using six major search engines, the ASME does not have its own Web site), but here's a summary of them as posted on MSNBC:

  • The publication's home page should display its name and logo to identify who controls the content.

  • Online pages should make a clear distinction -- through words, design or placement -- between editorial and advertising content.

  • Special ad sections should be labeled as advertising along with the sponsor's name.

  • No ad links, no ad section references in the table of contents.

  • Editors shall not create content for special ad sections or other ads.

From the first words we can see where ASME is going to get into trouble: Not every Web site is a "publication" -- some are catalogs, or stores, or reference resources, or personal pages. A lot of Web users get confused as to the nature of the site they're reading when they hop links from site to site. It's certainly a fair argument to expect a Web site to identify itself on its home page, but lots of links don't go through a home page at all, but rather deep into a site.

In any case, telling sites to "identify who controls the content" is a lot more complex than it sounds. Are we talking about the name of the company that publishes the site? The individuals in charge? Or the financial backers who make it all possible? In print, ownership information is rarely provided on covers but traditionally buried in a publication, in fine print at the bottom of some boilerplate page.

A simple exercise in trying to apply this guideline to existing print publications reveals how arbitrary it is: Does the New York Times Magazine cover announce that it is owned and operated by the Sulzberger family? Or, to comply with this guideline, would it put the editor's name on the cover, the person who "controls the content"? Right now, in fact, the New York Times Magazine provides no information whatsoever as to its editor's name. Yet it retains plenty of credibility. (One wonders why ASME isn't issuing similar guidelines for TV networks. Shouldn't ABC prominently identify its connection with Disney before it runs another special report promoting the latest Disney film?)

The other guidelines are just as inconsistent. Most of the print magazines I receive have entries on their tables of contents for "marketplace" or "reader service" pages that are really just lists of advertisers -- pretty similar to "ad links" or "ad section" references on Web sites' "tables of contents," for those sites that even have tables of contents. Why is it OK for print magazines to do this, but not Web sites?

Worse than these inconsistencies is the deeper level of incomprehension of the Web that the guidelines display. ASME takes the existing categories and terminology of print magazines -- like "section" and "table of contents" -- and wants to apply them across the board to all Web sites. Yet, though there are plenty of Web sites that have borrowed a great deal from the magazine model (Salon is one of them), there are plenty of others that are modeled on TV shows or radio programs, mail-order catalogs or performance-art exhibits.

ASME's goal -- urging Web site operators to be up front about who's paying for what -- is laudable. But it's not going to get very far by trying to import print-style guidelines that aren't even well-honored by print publications into an electronic medium where they're barely applicable. Surely it would be wiser, and more effective, for ASME just to ask Web site operators to indicate, clearly and prominently, the nature of their site (magazine or mall?) -- and to answer questions like "Who paid for this?" promptly and accurately (this is, after all, an interactive medium).

Even more important, ASME could help Web users understand that links may carry them instantly from a publisher's turf to an advertiser's. The organization could launch an educational campaign (it may need to start with its own membership). In the end, the only real guarantee of editorial credibility, online or off, is a readership with sharp antennae tuned to catch and complain about aggressive blurring of the line between editorial material and ads.

July 10, 1997

Indecent exposure

This year the Federal courts took a crash course in the Net. From the three-court appeals panel that first ruled against the Communications Decency Act last winter to the U.S. Supreme Court's declaration of that law's unconstitutionality last week, it was clear that our judges had taken the time to study the Internet, plumb its nature and understand why broad Net censorship laws like the CDA don't make sense.

Many occasions of bad coverage over the past year suggested that U.S. journalists badly need a similar course. But the coverage of the CDA defeat was mostly pretty solid. First of all, the press loves winners, so that cut down on the gratuitous Net-bashing that's so often fueled by misinformation. The online media helped keep the offline media honest, too (CNET's News.com turned in a particularly fast and thorough performance). Finally, newspapers and magazines increasingly employ journalists who know the online world reasonably well -- so that the worst Net stories, like the New York Times' recent Net drug-scare piece, come from a left field of reporters who wander off their beats and onto an Internet they barely understand.

The CDA story was covered responsibly by newspapers like the Times and the Washington Post; Newsweek's piece by Net veteran Steven Levy was a veritable "three cheers for Net freedom." Answering conservative Sen. Dan Coats' complaint, "I'm at a loss to see how the court makes the distinction between a TV and a computer screen," Levy scolded, "Read the decision, Senator," and proceeded to quote the Supreme Court's declaration that the Net is less "invasive" than radio and TV.

With some exceptions, TV coverage, as usual, wasn't nearly as smart. But at least it was left to CDA supporters like Cathy Cleaver of the Family Research Council to make the dire comments like, "Today we're going to see the floodgates of pornography open on the Internet. This is not a good time to be a child." Fewer broadcast news operations felt as comfortable making such statements themselves once the Supremes had spoken.

What was clear from the CDA coverage was that media outlets of every stripe cannot resist any opportunity to illustrate stories about Net censorship with the very images -- scantily clad bodies, nude silhouettes and flesh, flesh, flesh -- that so incensed the would-be censors. TV news shows across the country indulged in an orgy of screen-shots from adult sites. Even the staid New York Times ran the image of a browser window from a "Video Fantasy" Web site, though the female flesh displayed was facial only.

I wish one could argue that such displays represent a kind of media solidarity, in which the print and broadcast media show their support for their online cousins by boldly portraying the "indecent" content so nearly banned from the Net. But of course the motivation is far more venal than that. Media outlets everywhere, online and off (Salon certainly included), know that sexual images snare reader attention. If you can jazz up a dry legal story with some titillating pictures, who cares where they come from or whether they're relevant?

In truth, the commercial pornography used to illustrate the CDA stories was never what the CDA was about: Commercial adult Web sites already control the availability of their sites to minors as much as is practicable via warning pages, "adult check" services and, most effectively, the requirement of credit-card numbers. The CDA's "indecency" rule covered much more than pay-for-porn -- including, as the court noted, private e-mail between a parent and teenage child about birth control, or public online discussions of rape. But the press can't seem to pass up any chance to feed its readers cheesecake -- even when that choice undercuts the reporters who are trying to explain a complex issue.

July 3, 1997

Scott Rosenberg

Salon co-founder Scott Rosenberg is director of MediaBugs.org. He is the author of "Say Everything" and Dreaming in Code and blogs at Wordyard.com.

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