The You in User

A professor once told us, “Only two industries call their customers users: IT people and drug dealers,” I had to get that out of the way. The internet has been alive with debate this week about “user-generated content” and I am happy to report that the name itself has been debated. As a content-creating user (is that what we’re calling it), I figured I could chime in on this subject.

Talking about a YouTube-esque video sharing site Lee Gomes of the Wall Street Journal writes today, ” The short cinematic pastiche we saw is an example of what has come to be called a “mash-up,” and for a big part of the tech world, these sorts of mash-ups are becoming the highest form of cultural production.” Ouch. Besides the fact that most user-generated content on the web is not a “mash-up”, is being derivative that shocking. One only needs to take a look at Google News to see the echo chamber that is the mainstream media. Hip-hop music is an entire art form based around building something new out of old tunes. And Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of “mash-ups”, be they sequels or remakes.

Most user-generated content, however, I think is “organic” content that comes out of people’s daily lives. SixApart’s new Vox service seems to be trying to cultivate people’s lives into interesting content. Flickr, for example, features lots of great original photography from a large group of users. There are plenty of worthwhile pictures for the public, but the others also are special because they mean something to someone. User-generated content is also helping to grow the “knowledge” of the Internet in exciting ways. The Wikipedia is a great example, there is a lot of stuff in there you could never find anywhere else.

I think the debate on books has triggered a lot of this backlash. I do not think books are dead, but I think there are certainly some that could be improved. A hyperlinked (even wiki-fied) textbook would be much more helpful than a printed one. Likewise, print encyclopedias are useful to no one. Still I think there is an audience for printed media. Coffee table books should not be done digitally. And I don’t think hyperlinking and commenting would do very much to improve literature. And I still think there’s something nice about a tangible object in your hands. I do think there is plenty of room for change though.

The Internet has enabled more opportunities for value creation than ever before. People can continue to complain about this or they can accept change and move forward.

Lexicology of Stupid

I'm no English major, but this type of stuff interests me. Over the last couple years I have heard a lot of comments about the dumbing down of the English language. Many have blamed political spin masters, especially the Bush administration, for reducing important issues into catchphrases. Stephen Colbert and Neil Young have done a good job mocking this recently. They're not the only ones who sum things into simple language. Jason Kottke recently blogged about derivative news headlines. A quick sampling of Google News showed 11 "vows", 7 "urges", 6 "slams", 8 "smacks", and 7 "blasts". So apparently even the "liberal media" bows to the stupid.

On the other hand there is at least one organization that values language, although its pretty unnecessary. Jim Emerson examined the "poetry" of the MPAA's movie ratings in two posts this week. Mission: Impossible III was rated PG-13 for "intense sequences of frenetic violence & menace, disturbing images & some sensuality." It's tough to pick favorites but I like Schindler's List, rated R for "language, some sexuality and actuality violence." The funny part about this is that extra description probably only confuses the parents who are trying to make decisions about what their children watch.

The Not So Comic Cartoon

A controversy is growing in Europe over cartoons of the prophet Muhammad and I imagine it could spill over into America soon. It begins with the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, which ran a series of cartoons caricaturing the prophet Muhammad this fall, protesting self-censorship and celebrating free speech. Illustrating or imagining Muhammad’s physical appearance is a major taboo in Muslim culture. The images erupted in a wave of controversy throughout the country. The issue became larger this week when a French paper republished them, followed by other European news outlets, as a sign of solidarity with the right to free speech. Tonight there are protests and riots erupting throughout Europe and the Middle East in response to the cartoons.

The Jyllands-Posten and the other publications are correct in asserting that the freedom of speech entitles them the right to publish these images. With great power comes great responsibility though, and it is on the second half of this equation where the papers fail. Imagine if the NY Times organized a public flag-burning ceremony as an expression of their freedom of speech. They would be within their rights to do so, but it would be beyond poor taste. Even more disappointing is the fact that many of these pictures were filled with hateful stereotypes like suicide bombers or covered women.

I will note that at this point, news organizations choosing to republish these images is somewhat more justified. The initial republications were done intentionally as an opinion piece celebrating free speech. The French paper printed it with a caption “Yes, we have the right to caricature God.᾿ However, if an organization prints the pictures now simply because the images themselves have become news, that is more acceptable. It is for that reason I will link to a Wikipedia entry with the pictures, for those who are curious. It is regrettable that in the act of doing this, the editor of a Jordanian newspaper was fired.

Almost a year ago today I wrote about the nature of free speech and this is clearly disappointing to see it at its worst on display today. I am actually ashamed of my Western culture and values. That’s not to say I don’t agree with free speech – it is something I believe strongly in. It is just disturbing that people are using it as an excuse to publicly ridicule a religion. I encourage those who are feeling angry and frustrated about these cartoons to use free speech, not violence, right back at those who support these cartoons. Here’s a start – a cartoon from Jordanian cartoonist Emad Hajjaj, by way of Naseem.

Response Cartoon

Civilizing the Wild Internet

It’s nice when I can just repurpose school stuff into a blog post. Tonight I had to find an article on cyberstalking for class, so I located one from a couple weeks ago about how it is technically illegal to annoy someone online. Basically the law suggests that someone can be charged with a crime for anonymously publishing something with the intent to annoy. Many people are concerned about the laws implications and how it could threaten our first amendment rights.

The notion of being arrested for being annoying seems ridiculous upon first glance and it seems unlikely that anyone would actually pursue a case like this. Anonymity on the Internet has led to some very interesting discussion that could not come out any other way. Speaking publicly on the Internet can also become annoying. I don’t try to hide my identity on this site and as a result a tribute to my dad is being shared with dozens of football fans. This is an example of how public blogging led to mild public embarrassment. Now, imagine if I wrote something damaging about my dad or the football program elsewhere on the site – I would be in a ton of trouble.

Still, one could see some upsides to a law like this. I imagine John Seigenthaler could use this law to press criminal charges against the man who kept editing his Wikipeida entry. I would argue he would be justified in doing so too. Likewise, restricting Internet anonymity could prevent tragedies like that of Amy Boyer, who was killed by a young man who used Internet tools to anonymously locate her.

This specific law is stupid in a lot of ways and will probably be struck down by the courts in a year or two. The larger issue of regulating the Internet is still largely unanswered, however. While many have talked about space as a new frontier, cyberspace in many ways reflects our conceptions of the “Wild West”. So far we have been able to keep the Internet open and allow a free flow of information. I fear that as more and more people “move” into the world of cyberspace, laws will be created to protect people from this freedom.