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November 14, 2009

Rest In Laughter, David Lloyd

David Lloyd, who not only wrote some of the greatest single episodes in TV sitcom history [Chuckles the Clown youtube], but consistently wrote hilariously, has died at 75. I especially loved a lot of his work on Frasier. With the death of Larry Gelbart (best known for M*A*S*H, but also a writer for the original Sid Caesar show, and of the movie Tootsie), a generation is passing.

It’ll be time soon for someone to do a retrospective on The Funniest Generation that assesses the effect of its sitcoms on our culture. And you can remind us all you want of how awful most sitcoms were and are, but there has almost always been at least one really funny sitcom running throughout American TV’s history. Usually on a Thursday night on NBC, by the way.

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October 20, 2009

Radio Berkman on Forgetting, and Remembering the Media

There are two new-ish Radio Berkman interviews up: Me talking with Viktor Mayer-Schönberger about his book that argues that we are in danger of forgetting how to forget, and Russell Neuman on learning from the past of the media.

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September 29, 2009

Herkko Hietanen: Network Recorders and Social Enrichment of Television

Herkko Hietanen, a Berkman Fellow, is giving a talk about TV. “Television is really broken.” It’s not providing what consumers want: programs when we want them, where we want them. It lacks interaction with other viewers and with broadcasters. It has ads. It’s geographically limited. If you had to pitch TV to a venture capitalist, it would have a hard time getting funding.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

Herkko gives a brief history of the highlights. VCRs were an early attempt to fix tv. This frightened the broadcasters, who took it to court, where — in Sony vs. Betamax — they lost. The court said the manufacturers were not responsible for infringing uses because the devices had non-infringing uses, and personal use was declared a fair use. Satellites extend over-the-air (OTA) broadcast. Community antennas were first set up by stores selling TV sets. Now cable is dominant. But contracts limit core innovation. “If you’re afraid you’ll piss off your content provider, you’re not going to do something that’s good for the consumer.”

There has been some innovation in the core. On-demand video. Time-Warner “LookBack” lets you view any show on the day it’s broadcast at any time during that day. Cable also provides a whole lot of channels. But, “Intelligence in the middle stops innovation at the edge.” The industry has litigated against just about everything innovative. E.g., Cablevision want to launch a service that would centralize storage rather than putting it in the set-top boxes. Just about everyone sued Cablevision for copyright infringement. The court saw that every user would have their own copy of a saved show. The court decided it doesn’t matter where the copies are stored. Herkko says it’s too bad it didn’t go to the Supreme Court so we’d have a definitive decision.

The problem with mythtv, Herkko says, is that it’s not user-friendly. [I spent 1.5 yrs trying to get MythTV to work, and failed :( Wendy Seltzer, seated across the table, has been using MythTV for years.] Tivo is easy but not all that easily hackable. You can’t share TiVo’ed shows, you can modify the code in the box. ReplayTV got sued for having a skip commercials feature, and went bankrupt.

Herkko points to living room clutter as another problem with TV today.

Herkko looks forward to PVRs getting connected to the Internet, because connected users create social networks, and they start to innovate. “We want stupid networked records and intelligent open client-players.” We want connected and tagged shows. We’ll have interactive TV for real, including gambling. Social groups could recommend what to watch.

This all creates privacy problems. E.g., an MIT study discovered they could identify gays by analyzing their social networks, with a high degree of accuracy.

At some point, users will probably start sharing their resources, cluster their recorders. Why should everyone record the same show over and over? Why get it from a central recorder when your neighbors have a copy? Of course, this is what got Replay TV into trouble, Herkko notes. He thinks that the social interaction around shows will happen before and after the show, because people won’t sit with a keyboard in their laps. [Since I’m on the backchannel as I listen to him, I guess I disagree.]

What about ads? Adding social networks would mean that people could watch ads they actually want to watch.

Overall: TV can be fixed. Social networks. Socially-oriented recorders.

Q: This is a compelling vision of the opposite of the Net. The Net is smart at the edges and dumb in the middle. TV has been the opposite. You seem to hope that the future will invert so consumers can get what they want. But consumers have never gotten what they wanted. What will change it?
A: We need brave entrepreneurs to test it in the courts. Having network recorders isn’t that different from having a VCR.

Q: When you were talking about the keyboard in your lap, I think that’s wrong generationally.
A: Voice works while watching tv. But typing and sharing the screen doesn’t.

Q: You’re talking about what the cable companies will do. But then there’s the stuff in the IP world: mythTV, Boxee, etc. That’s where the exciting stuff is.
A: Innovation at the core is very slow, while innovation at the edge is happens very fast.

Q: If the Internet arises to bypass the core, will the quality decline? Will it be more like YouTube style?
A: That’s a real concern. If everyone skips the ads, then there won’t be profit in producing high quality shows. Although there are also premium channels. And in Finland we pay an annual fee and get 4 channels.

Q: There are a lot of forces driving the centralization of TV. With that comes control against innovation at the edges. Is TV going to change or be changed by people sharing content from the edges?
A: If we force a change on TV, the broadcast flag will be re-introduced. Big audiences still demand the lay-back experience.
Q: The sitting back phenomenon has persisted for 50 yrs. Why will it continue?

Q: What is your main research question?
A: When recorders get connected, what sort of innovation are we going to get?

Q: Don’t we need non-Net neutrality to ensure that the video experience over the Net is good enough to inspire innovation in that space?
A: It can be done in other ways. You don’t need immediate delivery of all packets if you’re downloading for viewing late. E.g., in Finland I have a box that records 2 weeks of all 10 channels.

Q: The picture you’re painting is not very TV-like. It’s not broadcast, not one-directional, the business model doesn’t work, we’ll be using our computers…So, it seems like you’re dissolving what TV is. Rather talking about the “social enrichment of TV” [the title of Herkko’s talk], we should be talking about the visual enrichment of the Internet. E.g., how do you see Hulu, which has some community features.
A: I defined TV at the outset: It’s geographically bounded, it’s broadcast, it’s scheduled, etc. And Hulu takes some of the edge approach, but it’s very much a core app. We’re going to see a big shift of control from the rights owners to consumers.

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May 19, 2009

“The Daily Show”: a fanboy’s notes from the audience

Our thoughtful and inventive children gave us tickets to “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” for Chanukah. Yesterday was the day.

We had an easy ride from Boston to NYC on the MegaBus, which was clean and on time. But, although they promised free wifi, it was actually wifi-free once we left Boston. (Word order makes such a difference!) Nevertheless, for $15 each way per person, it’s hard to muster a good head of complaint.

We stayed at the Blakely Hotel, which was excellent, especially since they let us put four in a room. The rate included a continental breakfast. Put a few of those together on a plate and you’ve got yourself a breakfast.

We spent the morning and early afternoon walking around lower Manhattan, then subwayed up to the Museum of Natural History — oh those bones still amaze, plus, unlike today’s fancy-dancy science centers, you can actually learn stuff there — and then walked through Central Park to the Daily Show studios on 11th Ave., between 51st and 52nd.

When you get the tickets (an email), you’re told that the line starts to form at 3:30. So, some of us got there at 2:30. Sure enough, there were ten people ahead of us already. At 5:15, they actually let you into the building. So, it’s a looong time on line, or, as some of you say, in line. While you are waiting, you are read a long proclamation of restrictions: No large bags, no weapons, no drugs, no food, no gum. All phones off. Be prepared to go through the metal detector. Show your drivers license. (No one under 18 is allowed in.) No twittering or blogging, especially since your electronic devices have to be switched off. No flash photos. Don’t ask Jon to hug you, kiss you, sign autographs, or “anything else creepy.” There are bathrooms downstairs, but once they let you in, they will not let you out.

Once we seated, there was another hour of waiting, much of it with punkish rock music blaring, not quite loudly enough to drown out the 18 year olds behind us who thought they were very witty indeed. After a while, the warm-up comedian came out. No set jokes, just audience interaction. The audience seemed to love him. He was a little too much of a humiliate-the-audience sort of guy for my taste, but I’m old and easily made to squirm.

Then Jon Stewart came out and took questions. Because the show was running late — during rehearsals they discovered some of the material, “how you say, sucked,” JS explained, and it had to be rewritten — he only took four or five questions, which he used for riffing. When someone responded that it was his first time in the city, JS explained why NYC “is a city that works” compared to DC, which irrationally has four “Eighth Streets,” and therefore is a “shithole.” (As you might imagine, it was way funnier in JS’s hands). Some kid started to ask whether he should go to the funeral of his best-friend’s fiance’s dad, and JS cut him off and said, “Yes! You go to the funeral” even though you don’t know the dead guy, because your best friend asked you to. And you try not to make the funeral all about you. It was moral-stance-as-humor, which we love JS for (and, I suppose, some hate him for).

Anyway, JS’s warm-up was great. He’s smart, funny, and a mensch, which is why we came down from Boston to see him.

The show was pretty good, but you can judge for yourself here. I loved the opening segment, about Obama at Notre Dame. The Wyatt Cenac at-desk interview was pretty funny, but I am not his biggest fan; our kids loved it.

While waiting, we had speculated about who the guest would be. Might it be Will Ferrell, who was in town for SNL and has a movie opening? Might it be Joss Whedon, simply because we love him? How about Dick Cheney, and if so, would it be appropriate for me to yell “War criminal!” from the audience? As it turned out, the guest was Indianapolis 500 driver Sarah Fisher.

By the way, throughout the taping, it was odd to hear JS swear. I think it actually works better with the bleeps; the swear are jarring. At least until we get used to them.

At the end, Stephen Colbert came on the monitor and they chit-chatted. It went on for an unusually long time, and it was only after JS said something like, “Ok, let’s do this,” that we realized that they were really just chit-chatting; the official, on-air promo started after that. It was actually pretty charming. When Colbert said what he’d done that weekend, it took JS’s prompting to get him to say that not only had he received an honorary degree, the university named a building after his father, who had been a provost (or something) there; Colbert’s reticence to brag was, of course, at odds with his persona.

Then it was over. We walked to 9th Ave, twittered for vegetarian restaurant suggestions, and ended up having a terrific meal at Zen Palate. Then, onto the MegaBush for a 2AM arrival.

Was it worth doing? Absolutely. We all love the show. If anything, we admire JS more than ever. It’s a long wait, and you are merely a prop for the show, but there Jon Stewart was, right in front of us! Being all Jon Stewart-y!

Our one regret: At the very beginning, JS made some comment about something weird happening in the audience. We always wonder what he’s going on when he makes these audiences references. But we couldn’t see what weird thing had happened! Nooooo! [Tags: ]

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April 17, 2009

[ugc3] Understanding evolving online behavior

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Over-emphasizing small points. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are hereby warned.

John Horrigan of Pew Internet and American Life, gives a “non-Koolaid” presentation. He says that about 12% of Internet users have a blog. The percentage of people doing some form of content sharing is not increasing much at all. The demographics says that 18-24 do the most sharing, and then it goes down in pretty much a straight line. The change over time is not distributed evenly across age groups. Younger adults are turning away from the 6 core UGC behaviors, the 24-35s are increasing. The rest: not much change.

But people are increasingly going to social networkingIf UGC is migrating to rules-based environments, is it a good bargain? On the one hand, good governance can build sustainable mechanisms. OTOH, bad governance is a risk, so you want an open Internet.

Q: A decrease in activity among younger folk? Because they were so heavily involved initially?
John: They’re going to social networking sites instead of maintaining their own sites. But UGC is still an important activity to them.

Q: The changing behaviors as people age and how that will effect UGC?
John: Impossible to answer because we don’t know how the tech will change.


Mainak Mazumdar of The Nieslen Company begins by looking at blogging topics. It’s quite diverse he says. Next: size. Wikipedia has many more topics than Britannica. Also, social networking is very big: Member communities are #4 on most visited lists, after search, portals, and software manufacturers. #5 is email. Social media is big everywhere. (Biggest: 80% of Brazil. 67% in US.) The US is showing comparatively slower growth in “active reach of member communities.” Time spent in CGM has been increasing. So is the time spent on social networking. 35-49 years are the fastest growing audience for social networking sites. Teen consumption of SNS is going down, because they’re going more and more mobile. Mobile will be huge. TV will be big. People are watching more TV. Big media companies are doing well. “Becoming a mother is a dramatic inflectin point and drives women to the Web in search of advice and a desire to connect with others in her shoes” (from the slide).

Is the Net a game-changer for research companies? He compares it to scanner data in the 90s and online surveys in 1990s. In 2000s, perhaps [perhaps??] social networking will once again change the game. Reasons to think the Net is a game-changer overall [i.e., exceptionalism] : Pervasive, sticky, generational.

Q: Is TV watching growing on all screens or just on the living room screen?
Mainak: Time spent watching TV content on a TV.

Q: Maybe SNS have surpassed email because email was used to listserves to serve the social function.
Mainak: We’re talking about how long you spend in Outlook + Web mail. We install monitors that report on how long you spend in each application.

Russ Neuman: Be careful of projecting out from the current tech. It can be disrupted easily.

Q: Older people are entering SNSs. I call them “parents.” To what extent will that change what started out as a youth movement? Is the move to mobile a move out of the SNS as they become mom and dad’s spots? [Oprah is on twitter.]
A: Yes. Some younger teens are going straight to mobile and circumventing the Internet.


Eszter Hargittai talks about the role of skill in Internet use. Yes, young people use digital media and spend a lot of time online, but it’s true that they engage in lots of online activities or that they’re particularly savvy about the Net and Web tools. So, the idea of “digital natives” is often misguided.

She’s particularly interested in the skills people have and need. Her methodology: Paper and pencil surveys to avoid biasing towards those comfortable with using Web tools. 1,060 first year students at U of Illinois. Most of the data comes from 2007, although she has some pre-pub data from 2009. The question is: What explains variation in skill? Gender, education and income predict skill. “The Web offers lots of opportunities but those who can take advantage of them are those who are already privileged.”

This has an effect on how we intervene to equalize matters. You can’t change socio-economic status. And it turns out that motivation doesn’t seem to make much of an effect. You can only be motivated to do something that you already know is a possibility. She shows new data, not ready for blogging, that show that very small percentages of users have actually created content, voted on reviews, edited Wikipedia pages, etc. The number of teenagers who have heard of Twitter is quite low. [Sorry for the lack of numbers. I’m not sure I’m supposed to be reporting even these trends.]

Mainstream media remain strong. Eszter points to the media story about Facebook users having lower grades. Eszter looked at the study and finds it to be of poor quality. Yet it got huge mainstream play. Eszter tweeted about it. She blogged about it. The tweet led to a co-authored paper. Even so, the mainstream probably won’t care, and most of the tweets are still simply retweeting the bad data. The Net is a huge opportunity, but it’s not evenly distributed.

Q: A study found that people online are lonely. It was picked up by the media. The researcher revised to say that it’s the other way around. It wasn’t picked up. The media pick up on the dystopic.

Q: Your data reflects my experience with my students. They don’t blog, they don’t tweet. There’s a class component to this.
Eszter: We measure socio-economic status. Why does it correlate? We’re exploring this. We now ask about parental support of technology use, rules at home about tech use, etc. So far we’re finding (tentatively!) that lower-educated parents tend to have more rules for their kids.

Q: What happens when there’s universal wireline connection?
Eszter: As the tech changes, the skill sets change. The privileged stay ahead, according to my 8 years of studies.

Q: What skills should we be teaching?
A: Complicated. Crucial issue: The evaluation of the credibility of sources. There’s an extreme amount of trust in search engines. That’s one place we need to do more work. And librarians are highly relevant here.

Q: How do people use the Net to learn informally, e.g., WebMD?
Eszter: There are lots of ways and types to do this. But, first you need to know what’s on the Web. You need good search skills, good credibility-evaluation skills.


Cliff Lampe talks about how Mich State U students use Facebook. He presents a study just completed yesterday, so the data isn’t yet perfect. 97% of his sample are FB users (although Cliff expresses some discomfort with this number). Mean average of 441 friends; median = 381. Ninety percent of these they consider to be “actual” friends. 73% only accept friend requests from people they know in real life. Most spend just a little time (under 30mins) at FB per day. About half lets their friends (but not everyone in their network) to see everything in their profile. Almost everyone puts a photo of themselves up. Vast majority have a photo album. About a third think their parents are looking at their page. Overall they think they’re posting for their college and high school friends.

He talks about Everything2.com, a user-generated encyclopedia/compendium that is 11 years old. Why have people exited? Research shows they left because other sites came along that do the same thing better. Also, changes in life circumstances. Also, conflict with administration of the site. There’s a corporitization of some of the UGC sites. He also has looked into why new users don’t stick: They don’t glom onto the norms of the site.

Q: Are reasons for exiting a negative network effect? More than 150 and the network deteriorates?
Cliff: We see that in Usenet. But not so much at Facebook where you’re just dealing with your friends.

Q: Any sites that have tried to drive away new users?
Cliff: Metafilter has a bit of that. Slashdot has a “earn your bullshit” tagline.

Q: Are your students alone or with others when they are online? Are they aware of the technology?
Cliff: The rise of the netbook has had an effect. Most of my students experience social media as a group activity. But a lot of them are not that savvy. They generally don’t know how Wikipedia operates. [Tags: ]

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April 12, 2009

Onion parody game more satisfying than Oliver Stone’s combined work

Last night I watched two things on TV.

First, I caught up with some of The Onion’s news clips. One was a report about a video game — “Close Range — that consists of nothing but shooting people in the face. Although the “news” item wasn’t The Onion at its hilarious best, it was at least brief.

Then we watched Oliver Stone’s “W.”

When will I learn? Stone continues to be the worst major director of his generation. Perhaps we can quantify this by saying that he’s the worst Academy Award-winning director in my lifetime. That’s not to say that everything about every movie he makes is awful. But it doesn’t matter, for all of those good moments put together are washed away by the mighty river of awfulness that goes by the name of “Alexander” [My review and followup]. So, yes, “W” has some ok moments. Well, actually it doesn’t. It has a good vocal impersonation of Bush, and the humorous revelation that Richard Dreyfuss actually sort of looks like Cheney. But otherwise it’s made out of 100% cliche and cardboard. It also has two more of Stone’s signature qualities: It goes on too long (it should have stopped when Bush wins the presidency) and it uses embarrassingly failed tropes that Stone thinks are arty. (In “W,” he cuts to Bush alone in a baseball field, as if in a dream. Or something.)

My conclusion: The four minutes parody news report from The Onion, of average quality, is far superior to all of Oliver Stone’s work put together. Especially if you were to put all that Stonage together and actually watch it.

PS: The Onion lets you play “Close Range” for free.

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