Media

Yes, the movie (by Sally Potter) gets a blogger's advance screening

Sunday, I was invited, along with a crowd of other local friends and bloggers, to a preview screening of the new art film “Yes” by Sally Potter. I’ll review Yes, but what was interesting was the idea of Sony Pictures doing free screenings of movies for the “blogger” demographic. As I noted earlier, I’m also in this group called the “Silicon Valley 100” where they send us free stuff in the hopes we’ll generate buzz and useful feedback. (The last few products they sent have not been exciting enough to inspire me to write about them, though.)

It makes some sense. Advance screenings to create buzz have been around for a while, and now that you can have an audience of writers whose influence goes beyond their circle of friends, they are a good target to place. Though I also went in part because it was a social event, seeing a movie with a group of folks including friends. It was arranged by Mark Pincus, who loved the movie when he saw it at Telluride and suggested the screening to Sony. Equally important was going out to a bar after the movie.

As for “Yes”, I did find it quite good. It was, however the most “arthouse” style movie I have seen in years, so I doubt it will get great commercial success. Yes is done in verse, a la Shakespeare, but with modern phrasing and perhaps a touch too much rhyme. Though the Bard never had a Scottish dishwasher apply metre as he repeated the word “motherfucker.” But it’s also a good story, with good performances and good music. It has Bergmanesque stylings, and includes a lot of “inner thoughts” voice overs, which normally turns me right off, but at least in a few places, the voice-overs work. Notably when a dying woman gets to tell her story through her thoughts even though she can’t speak them.

Of course, they have picked a terrible title for a movie if they want people to be able to find writing about it on the web. (Drupal doesn’t have explicit tagging yet, and Mark went so far as to push people to use the pre-chosen tag “yes movie” if they wrote about the film.) However, the title makes artistic sense for the film so I can’t fault it for that.

The battle between open source and DRM

I’m writing a larger essay on this topic, but I recently posted the following to Interesting People and it was requested to put it here. It relates to the theme of “light” DRM.

I used to wonder if you made a DRM system that was so well designed that only a serious pirate would notice it was there, if this might be a workable system.

But now I have come to realize that there’s one very important community which a DRM system can’t avoid harming, and that’s the open source
community, who as a largely philanthropic effort build linux, the bsds and much of the software that runs the internet and is thus used by everybody.

One of the pillars of the open source community, written into several of its most common licences, is that the end user must be able to modify the software, both for their own use and to give away to others. Of course, most end-users don’t recompile their tools, but a sizeable number do, and they provide innovations, fixes and improvements that get used by all the users.

There is a fundamental incompatability between this ability to modify and any DRM that has a software element to its enforcement. You simply can’t have them both.

That leaves DRM where all the enforcement (ie. decryption and display/presentation) takes place within physically secured devices. This is not easy to do, and even if done, it bars the open source software from any useful features that might be thought up which require access to the media — only what the hardware permits can be done.

The end result is to largely shut open source software out of the media playing arena, and thus, if you believe in the convergence of media playing devices and computing devices, out of the general purpose home computer arena.

To those who use the open source software, the trouble with this is obvious. But in fact, all must be concerned, as the open source software, aside from being one of the few competitors to forces like Microsoft, is also becoming a source of significant innovation. That old style, garage-based innovation, where a loner or small team develop something new on the cheap which changes the world. DRM systems can be architected to allow a Tivo, but they bar the “next Tivo” which is a loss to all.

So the conclusion is that, as suggested, you can’t pull off the “make everybody happy” DRM. Instead, you get DRM which mostly sits as a barrier not to pirates or users, but to the small innovators of the world, and what a tragedy that would be.

Mailing list wiki combo?

I've written before about the dichotomies between serial and browseable, between writer-friendly and reader-friendly.

One idea that now seems obvious is to integrate wiki functions into a mailing list manager (particularly one that does a web interface to the mailng list.)

In particular, one should be able to "cc" a message to sections of the wiki and have it added. For example, to an FAQ section. In addition, readers of a message should be able to promote it into sections of the wiki either by clicking links in the HTML version of the message, or by forwarding the message back to some magic addresses at the mailing list manager.

Thus when sombody on a mailing list makes a useful answer to a question, it could go quickly into a wiki style knowledge base, for easier browsing and searching. Many mailing lists today allow you to search the list archives, but unless you know your vocabulary, you may not find the answer to problems you are trying to solve, even though they exist there.

We strike down the broadcast flag!

On both a personal and professional note, I am happy to report that the federal courts have unanimously ruled to strike down the FCC's broadcast flag (that's a PDF) due to our lawsuit against them.

I participated directly in this lawsuit, filing an affadavit on how, as a builder of a MythTV system and writer of software for MythTV, I would be personally harmed if the flag rule went into effect. The thrust of the case was that the FCC, which is empowered to regulated interstate communications, had no authority to regulate what goes on inside your PC. The court bought that, but we had to show that the actual plaintiffs in the case would be harmed, not simply the general public, thus the declarations by myself and various other members of EFF and other plaintiffs.

The broadcast flag was an insidious rule because, as I like to put it, it didn't prohibit Tivo from making a Tivo (as long as they got it certified as having pledged allegiance to the flag.) It stopped somebody from designing the next Tivo, the metaphorical Tivo, meaning bold new innovation in recording TV.

I would like to particularly thank Public Knowledge, which spearheaded this effort and funded most of it.

Here's an AP Interview with me on the issue.

Annotated TV with a DVR

When people watch TV with a hard disk video recorder, they always watch the show delayed, often by hours or many days. They all watch it at a different time.

It occurs to me it would be amusing to generate a system to allow the collaborative annotation of TV programs and DVD movies using the net, and DVRs like the open source MythTV, which would be a natural initial platform. Users watching a show would be able to make comments at various points in it. Either text comments, along the lines of "Pop-up Video" or even voice comments and jokes, along the lines of "Mystery Science Theatre 3000."

And indeed, people already do this real time. Just about every popular show generates a chat-room for people who watch it live near a computer. However, these are usually quite inane as they are done in real time with no filtering.

Thanks to delayed watching, we could change that. Each suggested annotation would be uploaded quickly to a server handling the particular TV show or movie. This would come with a pseudonym for the author, which would be tied to a reputation. All annotations would be sent out for viewing by a limited audience. For low-reputation contributors, a very limited audience. If that audience hits an "approve" button on their remote when they see the annotation, it would improve the score, and more and more early watchers would get to see and approve/disaprove of the annotation.

Eventually things would build up and you would have a series of highly approved comments for those who want to see a show with comments. I expect most comments would be jokes, but some would also be pointers to useful information or reasoned criticism. Authors might indicate what their goal is so that viewers could tune what sort of annotations they want to see. Viewers could also tune a threshold for how good the annotations have to be to see them.

Authors would indicate if their pop-up should show in a particular place on the screen (so that. like pop-up video, it doesn't block things.) Some viewers, especially those with big screen TVs, would shrink the image and redirect pop-ups outside the show.

However, there are some interesting problems to solve...  read more »

More on Peerflix experiences

Earlier I reported on Peerflix, which is implementing a P2P DVD sharing system with similarities to some of my own ideas. I have tried it out a bit now, and learned a bit more. I also have updated experiences with Peerflix.

The web site is marked beta and still very buggy, which is bad, but my first try on the service was first-rate. I mailed off my first DVD, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, on Wednesday to somebody in San Jose (who almost surely got it today) and got the replacement for it — by strange coincidence another memory-related movie called Memento in the mail today. That is faster than most of the services, though people like Netflix could be this fast if they decided to take the same step and trust you when you said you mailed a disk, rather than waiting for it to arrive.

All this is good, but there’s still a killer flaw in the idea of actually selling the DVDs. All DVDs will have a limited lifetime of high-demand. As demand drops below supply, somebody holding the DVD at that time will get “stuck” with it, though you can fix that by being fast on the draw in agreeing to be the one to mail any new requesters that do come along.  read more »

P2P DVD Exchange

For the past couple of years, I've been mulling over an idea for a different kind of DVD "rental" company, similar in ways to the popular NetFlix. Now I have encountered a new company called Peerflix which is doing something similar. Is it annoying or vindicating to see somebody else run with something? :-)

So instead I will comment on Peerflix, which I am going to try out, and what I planned to do differently.

The rough idea is a movie network that doesn't own the movies. The members do. The members declare what disks they have that are available to go out (key in or scan UPC codes or just put disks in drives) and, just like netflix, they also browse the list of DVDs and pick what they would like to rent. For each disk you have out, you are entitled to one in (approximately), and somebody close to you, who has the disk you want, is told to mail it to you.

Once scaled up, it's faster than netflix (the disk is mailed to you directly from the last person to have it, rather than going through the warehouse) but mainly it's vastly cheaper. In theory it could even run for free, with postage and mailers being the only cost -- plus of course the initial disks you introduce into the system. Netflix 3-at-a-time is $216/year, the one at a time is $120 per year.

There are, however, a number of interesting problems to solve in doing this, and some special factors you may not know about Netflix.  read more »

Non-live channel surfing

Ok, it's strange because I think one of the whole points of the hard disk video recorder / PVR is that you are not supposed to watch live TV any more, not supposed to channel surf -- but I keep coming up with ideas relating to it. Maybe I have a secret desire to surf again.

As many people know, with digital recording, the no-surf rule is enforced because it's harder to do. The digital delay introduces a long channel change delay, intolerable when combined with another delay (satellite/cable box).

Here's a surfing algorithm that could give instant channel change. Surf slightly delayed TV. It works particularly well if the box has multiple tuners.

Using the spare tuner, grab short snippets of every other show that's on right now, or at least everything in the surf list/favourite channels. Just a few seconds of each. As available, update these snippets, with focus on the adjacent channels. If the program changes, you need to grab a new snippet as you must always have the current program.

When the viewer wants to surf, surf not the current live TV but the saved snippets, which will be anwhere from a few seconds to a few minutes old. You will be able to move through them instantly, like the old instant-channel change from an analog TV. You will see the program guide info as well, but the visual clues that we draw upon in surfing will still work fine.

If the user dwells on a channel for longer than the usual surf interval, you will switch the tuner to that channel. You will need to do a nice graphic transition from the surf buffer to the live TV.

Now admittedly, that will sometimes frustrate. It may be the particular scene that attracts your interest -- the bad guy is holding a gun on the good guy, about to shoot, and suddenly it disolves to something a minute later. However, the alternative, which is what we currently get, is that you get black screen for 3 seconds, and then it shows you the later (live) scene. Instead of black screen you get some sample video from an earlier time in the show. The key thing is that the viewer should be aware they are surfing old snippets.

One could also keep snippets of varying lengths from different times, depending on the surfing speed desired. Though usually you would play the longest. You could also develop "smart snippets" which tried to grab the action after coming back from the first commercial break etc. (Problem is those happen on a lot of stations at once.)  read more »

Superbowl CPMs take a giant jump

I notice from this chart in advertising age (which requires an annoying complex if free registration form) that there's been a giant jump in the CPM (cost per thousand viewers) of a 30 second Superbowl ad. From 1968 to 1998 it hovered close to $10 in constant dollars -- or about a penny per impression.

Then there's a big jump (thanks in part to Fox and the dot-com boom) and now it's up to $25. But they're still paying, even though the $10 figure is more common for regular TV.

As I have noted elsewhere, part of the revolt against TV advertising is that it's a terrible deal for the viewer. They get a penny (2.5 cents in the superbowl) to show you an ad. So if you watch a full hour of ads (ie. almost 4 hours of TV) you get in return $1.20 worth of programming (wholesale price.) $1.20/hour is an illegally low wage. Even with superbowl ads it's still below minimum wage but we watch them because they are more entertaining.

This increase I think comes from several factors. First of all these ads have a cachet -- the fact that you advertised in the superbowl expands your reputation more than an ordinary ad does.

But mostly, because these ads have a reputation for being above average and less repetitive, many go out of their way to see them rather than go out of their way to avoid them. And that certainly seems to be worth the premium. It is another pointer to the prediction I made earlier this week that we might eventually see TV shows that demand better quality from their advertisers.

That pays off because if all the ads on a show are filtered for how useful or entertaining they are, it improves the odds the viewer will watch all of them. Google surprised everybody by demanding that its adwords customers do good ads that get clicked on. The idea of a publisher refusing an advertisers money was shocking (though it makes perfect sense here, because they are charging per click, and if you aren't getting clicks, they aren't getting good revenue from their space -- effectively enforcing a CPM while calling it pay per click.)

I keep waiting for adcritic to return using bittorrent.

Tales of the HDTV Superbowl Commercials Party

For the third year in a row, I held a "superbowl commercials" party. In this case, we used MythTV to record the game in HDTV for a while, then sat down to fast forward through the football and slow down to watch the commercials.

I've written a page about the Superbowl Commercials Party here, including fun stories from the party and a bit about the MythTV software that did the recording and playback on two different floors in HDTV.

Also included is a discussion of how the equipment I used will become illegal in just a few months, and what we're doing to try and stop that. It's an interesting lesson in how regulation can stop innovation and what's really happening in the future of TV.

Closed caption history on demand

One thing I've noticed when you get a TV broadcast that has 5-channel sound, it that you get the voices on the center channel. Particularly with things like voice-overs, sportscasters etc. If you can mute the center channel, you can watch a game, for example, with no commentators.

But sometimes you do want to hear what they said, if there is something on the field you don't understand. If you have a PVR, you can rewind and turn on the center channel audio (though rarely is there a good UI to do this) but here's another idea.

If the center channel is muted, offer a button that shrinks the display and puts up the last minute or two of history of the closed captions. Of course if there are already bars on the screen use those to display this. You can read quickly (let one of the scrolling controls let you move around) and figure out what was going on, faster than you could through replaying.

Changing the nature of TV again

I love hard disk video recorders because they surprised me by being much more than super-fancy VCRs. They changed the nature of the way people watched TV in ways I didn't expect.

Now I've been working with MythTV which is an open source PVR. I have a new program in development, and if any of the readers out there are using MythTV I wouldn't mind some folks to test it out before I announce it to the Myth community.

This program does many things, including two things that I think could change the nature of how TV is chosen.

The system, called TVWish is in general a wishlist program. It lets you build large lists of TV you're looking to see. If the shows you want come on anywhere on your TV schedule, even years later, it will record them.

For example, I have gathered a list of hundreds of top movies, trimmed to what I have not seen and put it in my wishlist. Now if one of those movies shows up, I will see it. Reminds one of netflix perhaps.

The two big changes however are not this, though it's handy.

First, you can import your wishlist from a web URL. That lets you trust somebody else to program what TV your box will record. I call this a "critic" function because you could name the URL of a TV critic who recommends shows. I anticpate one day the same critics who get advanced tapes of shows and write newspaper columns about tonight's TV might create a list so that your box records it.

But it can mean much more than this. A "critic" can be a friend who recommends shows to you. It can be people on the east coast telling west coasters what was good in the lineup. It can be thousands of fans watching shows and rating them on their remote control, causing people to record and not record shows that night or in reruns. It can be people amalgamating the opinions of viewers and professional critics to redirect how you hear about TV.

The second element reflects something I wrote about before in my essays on the future of TV. I now call it Abridging a TV Series

Here, you take a series that is in reruns or syndication. You get a list of the episodes, ranked in order of quality. You put this list into my program and set a quality level. And you only watch the best. You skip the turkeys. Life is too short to watch bad TV. Already many TV show fan sites have episode lists with ratings, either critical or based on fan votes. I've been using these lists to manually abridge series and it's amazingly producitve. A mediocre series turns into a shorter, excellent one.  read more »

Revealing you get stuff for free

Dan Gilmor notes that he is concerned about a new program called the “Silicon Valley 100” in which a marketing company identified 100 influentical silicon valley folks with plans to give us stuff in the hope of generating buzz. Dan worries whether people will disclose they got the stuff for free as part of this venture.

I certainly never had any thought of keeping it secret, and having my name in Newsweek certainly wouldn’t make it easy to do so. Slashdot called it an “elitist club” but in fact, all it amounted to for me was getting an E-mail from Auren Hoffman asking if I could be put on the list and if I would mind being sent free stuff with no strings attached.

I actually at first wondered if it was a particularly clever phishing attempt. My brain is trained to be wary at notes from strangers saying, “We’ll send you lots of free suff, just give us your address.” :-) Back at the dawn of the internet, my e-mail address got put in a book called “E-mail addresses of the rich and famous.” I was flattered for about 10 seconds until I saw all the bizarre spam I ended up getting because of it.

But I couldn’t see any reason not to let them send me the stuff. My opinion certainly can’t be bought so easily, and most of the people on the list are well off enough that the same applies.

So while I was planning on disclosing the background — I am naturally skeptical and assume the people I talk to should be as well — I don’t even really have Dan’s reservations about those who don’t go out of their way to disclose this. As he says, the press get most of the stuff they review for free and it’s just assumed. (To the credit of his arguments, this is not true of Consumer Reports, which is indeed very high integrity.)

Will this program get us to talk about products we would not have gone out and bought on our own, or talked about if we did buy them? Quite possibly. I just don’t see it as so sinister, or novel. So, once I figured it wasn’t a phishing scheme, I said I would give it a whorl.

And oh yeah, I’m taking the toilet seat for a second bathroom, because I already have a different brand in my master bathroom, and think in general they’re cool. No idea about the one they’re sending yet. Now whether Hoffman will get people to blog about their hemorrhoid problems is a different question.

Make cheap ATSC (or DVB) RF-modulators

As I continue to play with HDTV, I found I had a horrendous time getting good output from my computer running the MythTV open source PVR into my TV. DVI, the uncompressed digital standard, just wouldn't work from the video card I had to the TV. The TV has Firewire/1394, which would allow me to stream mpeg-2 to it, and that would be really great, but as yet no software supports it because few TVs have such inputs.

Here's another idea, one that reverses old thinking. The earliest VCRs did their outut on an RF modulator to channel 3, the only way to get into older TVs. Now we of course recommend non-RF methods, such as composite video, S-video or best of all component video/VGA, or in the digital realm, DVI and HDMI.

But in fact with TVs being mandated to have ATSC tuners, could it make sense to go back to RF? This gives digital decoding in the TV, in theory the highest quality if the TV has a good decoder. The cables are easy and super cheap, and carry digital video and 6 channel sound -- something even DVI doesn't do. You can run them as long as you want.

Plus, you can have tons of multiple inputs, just on different channels. Put your cable box on channel 3, your PVR on channel 4, DVD player on channel 5 and so on -- no need for the plethora of inputs and mass of cables.

(Don't get me wrong, I think a single ethernet jack would be better than any of these methods, but the TVs don't have them and they do have the tuners now.)

There is one big issue, however, which is on-screen display and comptuer generated menus. The RF sends a compressed mpeg stream. On the
surface, that's great because the boxes handling the video can be slow and
cheap -- they are just slinging bits they don't understand. But once you want
to overlay text on the video, you suddenly have to decode the stream (hard enough) and then re-encode it, which is close to impossible with today's hardware. On the other hand, it should be possible to do non-transparent overlays, where you take over a region of the screen (perhaps the bottom is easiest) and replace it with your generated text.

The ideal solution to this would be to modify the protocols to allow sending a second stream to be overlayed, with an alpha channel, on the main one. This is true no matter how you send compressed video -- RF, ethernet or firewire. However, we don't get to change the protocols, the idea here is to make use of something already out there.

Generating Mpeg from computer menu displays on the other hand is something that should be within the capabilities of today's CPUs. They can do it at smaller resolution (720x480 DVD res is fine) but more to the point unless there are fancy animations, it's static and machine generated and easy to set up for quick conversion.

There's no encryption, which might cause pressure to balk at this but it has a lot of advantages worth considering as kludges go.

HDTV wishlist for MythTV

I have been building an HDTV PVR with MythTV and the pcHDTV tuner
card. It's been a major adventure, not yet ready for prime time, but
it's lead me to have some thoughts about things you want to think about
in a PVR that particularly relate to HDTV.

Suggesting new features is of course a somewhat futile activity. In open
source, the usually and appropriate answer is "why don't you go code up
this feature and add it?" In commercial products, most people feel
even the Tivo is too complex and they are correctly loathe to add
new features that complicate the user interface. So I make a priority
note on all of these.

If you are not familiar with certain linux video issues, some of this
will sound like gibberish.  read more »

Let's re-see history in HDTV

For people of my generation, a great deal of history was seen on regular low-resolution TV. But a lot of it, up to the 70s or so (and often after) was shot on film, at higher resolution. Older generations saw some of this (once or twice) in newsreels at the movies.

So as HD sets become common, it would be great to see this old film footage of events like the wars, the Olympics, famous speeches, the moon landing and other space program material in high definition. I saw a DVD of the 1936 Olympics on a good screen and even that was surprising.

Some of this is already happening. HDNet is digitizing old sitcoms like Hogan’s Heroes, which was shot on film. Fun, but I think the life-changing events we’ve never truly seen (or rarely seen) at full resolution would be more important, and would also leave a legacy for education. And yes, that even includes that bad news, like the Challenger and the WTC.

Update: Discovery channel has an upcoming series of NASA footage coming up in HD. Now if only I could get discovery channel HD in a way that I can record without buying their proprietary box.

Olympics on the Tivo

As I watch the Olympics on my Tivo, I'm having a hard time understanding how anybody could watch them without one. The number of events has become immense, and the coverage is 24 hour -- more than that, because I have both CBC and NBC coverage. (Plus CNBC, MSNBC and others, and I could buy TSN and Country Canada if I were desperate.)

So my Tivo records a lot of it, and I use it extensively. Most long races are watched at high speed for the middle part. It silences the commentary too, though at times it would be nice if the Tivo, when in 3x mode, would decode the closed captioning and display it for me. Of course I zoom over the endless array of constantly repeated commercials, and the sports I don't care to see.

How long before we get what we really want, on either a bigger screen or two screens (one for the images and one for text.) Tell us the background facts in text, let us call them up when we want and browse them. Let us surf around all the video, be it the backgrounders on the athletes and locations, and the events themselves. This is what I'm trying to get close to with my Tivo. There are web sites with streaming video but that can't approach even NTSC television, let alone high-def TV.

They would learn what's popular and put money into it, and what's not popular. What's not too popular might get very minimal coverage (fixed cameras at the event or bloggers coming hi-def videocameras if the networks yield on a given event) but that's OK.

The local paper had a reporter try to watch all the coverage in a day, which was of course unbearable. But working people can't be watching even the 4 to 5 hours of primetime, not easily. This may be the last summer Olympics to be viewed this way, based on the pace of innovation, though all the regulation trying to interfere with TV innovation (Broadcast flag etc) may prove me wrong.

Use closed captions or SAP to blab over music at Olympics

2 years ago, I got so frustrated at Bob Costas blabbing over parts of the Olympic opening ceremonies that clearly were not meant to be blabbed over that I rush ordered a satellite dish to watch the rest of the Olympics on the CBC.

(Besides, you find out there are events at the Olympics in which Americans are not competing for medals!)

This year Costas was probably a little better, the CBC announcers a touch worse than before but still better than Costas. However, there's an obvious answer out there. Use more text. If you need to explain the symbolism of a piece of music or art, do it in text. Either put text on the main screen, or just put the text into the closed captioning but don't say it.

Another alternative, use the SAP. Have the announcer exercise some judgement, and create one audio stream with just the non-intrusive commentary (during applause and breaks) and add in the blabber on the other channel (probably the main channel since they think the bulk of their audience wants this blabber.)

For those watching in HD, there is much more potential to add text, since you have more screen real estate and can have smaller text and thus more of it.

How can the Scientific Atlanta HD-8000 suck so badly?

I've been a longtime user of the Tivo, and when my mother got an HDTV, I pushed her to get a PVR. In Canada, the only really workable option for her was to rent the HD-8000 HD PVR from Rogers, her cable company. No Tivo service in Canada, and she wasn't ready for a PC based PVR (And HD ones are still immature.)

Two things I learned from the process. The first was how amazed I was at how badly the HD-8000 was designed. It strikes me as a first generation unit, not something that was designed after people looked at the Tivo and the Replay. Trying to watch a show in the middle of recording it is possible, but really cumbersome. It's very easy to lose your buffer on a live program you were watcing, or to lose your place in a recorded program you were watching. Browsing shows is guide-based, requiring you to browse only a particular day at a time. I could go on.

The other remarkable thing was seeing my low-tech mother's reaction. In spite of all I tell her about the PVR, she still wants to watch TV live most of the time. As a retiree and caregiver, she's home most of the time, and while she intellectually understands what the box does, her habits are so-long set that she really doesn't "get" it.

Which may explain the poor UI on the HD-8000. They don't expect their users to get it either. They expect their users to see it as a fancy VCR, with the ability to pause live TV. (Tivo owners learn that pausing live TV is more of a gimmick feature, in that you almost never watch live TV.)

Watching the recorded HD does make me jealous, though. HD PVR choices here are limited. You can get DirecTV's HD-Tivo for $1000, or build a MythTV box for a similar amount of money. It is the need for the PVR that has stopped me from getting HDTV, which otherwise I want very much.

But my Mother doesn't remember that when called on the phone, she can pause it. Or that you should always record a show you see that you want to watch, to give you the freedom to switch from it and come back later without risk. She is happy with her old habit of switching channels when a commercial comes on, and coming back to the other show later, presumably missing some of it. She is even happy watching low def live, when PVRed hi-def is a few steps away. My mother helps me remember that all users are not like me, which is good.

Serial vs. Browsed, Reader-Friendly vs. Writer-Friendly

Online discussion and collaboration tools are old now, dating back almost 40 years to PLATO, 30 years for mailing lists, 25 years for BBSs and USENET. Yet somehow I don’t feel we’ve got it right yet, and in fact may be going in some wrong directions.

I beleive there are two central dichotomies that make the problem hard to solve.

The first is the distinction between “serial” material which is meant to be read as a stream (though perhaps referenced later) and “browsable” information meant to be read in a somewhat more random order.

E-mail, USENET, RSS feeds and message boards are largely serial. Blogs and web boards are attempts to be serial in a browsed medium, which the web largely is. Wikis are on the browseable side of the spectrum, though of course they contain serial aspects, like the ability to e-mail lists of recently changed pages. (Twitter is a somewhat interesting medium as it is serial but contains so much you simply sample the stream rather than read all of it.)

The second dichotomy is between reader-friendly and writer-friendly. Writer-friendly systems put as few burdens on the writer as possible in order to encourage participation. Reader friendly systems try to make it as easy as possible for a reader to get what she’s looking for out of the system. One of the central quests has been for automated software tools that let the writer not do much work but still let the reader get what they want. A search engine is an example of such a technology.

A professional publication will be highly reader-friendly. If you have a million readers, it’s worth every possible effort on the writer or publisher’s part to make it better for them, especially if they are your source of income. Writers will take the time to write well, organize, categorize and put in links to releated resources. They will create sidebars to deal with other topics or provide introductions to readers not as familiar with the subject matter.

Wikis are writer friendly. Anybody can just go in and edit any page any way they want. No other bounds (at least in the software) exist to encourage people to put material in the Wiki.

While I know the value of browsing, I think serial presentations are more reader-friendly, or at least can be. I don’t have to go looking for what’s new for me if the serial stream is decently managed. But this is not a universal rule.

What is missing, however, is the right marriage of the serial and the browsable. For discussions, and for breaking news, we want a serial presentation. We don’t want to go to a newspaper web site and figure out for ourselves what stories we already saw, or what parts of the stories we already know. We would like the system to know what’s new for us. At the same time, serial streams (including blogs) leave behind worthwhile trails that are meant to be browsed or searched later. But we don’t tend to fill our serial streams with things to help in that department, like links. Nor do we even have mechanisms in mailing lists or USENET to easily update items from the past that will be read by newcomers (either serially or through browsing.)

The marriage, when we find it, will allow people to have productive discussions online, like in a mailing list, but leave behind a useful information resource, with the tangents removed to tagged to be easily avoided, the useful and popular information highlighted, the past cleaned up and edited (though with the truth available.) Perhaps a marriage of Wiki techniques and newsgroups.

It should be able to balance reader and writer friendliness depending on how many there are of each. For example, a system with 10,000 readers and one writer should push the writer to do more, since if 2 minutes work by the writer can save a second for 10,000 people it’s a good trade-off. However, in small systems with few readers you want to encourage participation and not put demands on writers. Ideally you have a quest for fancy tools to get the most of both where you can have it.

I know people want this marriage. People are excited about products like GMail which let them get a better grasp of all the E-mail conversations they participate in. But there is so much more that has to be done. I don’t have the answer right now, but I want to encourage debate and innovation on the topic.

Update: I have added thoughts about how some media are “sampled” (you only dip into them from time to time and see what’s current) and some are subscribed (you read it all, or at least scan it all most of the time) in thinking about Twitter.

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