Thursday, February 26, 2009

Adequate & Fair Compensation for Bloggers

Edward Champion reported this afternoon the monthly blog subscription service Amazon sells for its Kindle hasn’t been paying these bloggers a reasonable cut of the revenue. In fact, it appears that in some cases Amazon did not even ask permission from the various writers of these blogs. These are legitimate concerns. For one, a person writing n the internet holds a copyright over their work. That someone could make money off my writing without my knowledge is frankly unconscionable.

Champion’s report reminded me of a conversation I had with my sister this afternoon during lunch, where the topic of a blog-consolidation site was briefly broached. Called Bloglines, this site allows one to subscribe to their usual blogs and then presents the posts from all sorts of blogs in one place. Therefore, one doesn’t have to actually visit a dozen (or more) blogs with the hope of getting any fresh content; the merely need to log onto Bloglines.

However, the easiest way to earn revenue on a blog is through advertising, and a service like Bloglines removes these posts from their natural home, thus no hit is recorded and the producers of content are not compensated for their material. And I would imagine that Bloglines has their own advertising, siphoning money away from producers and into the hands of the aggregators. (Disclaimer: this could also be the case with RSS feeds, something with which I am woefully inexperienced.)

Perhaps on the face, this doesn’t seem as egregious to you as Amazon’s Kindle issue, but these sorts of issues are going to be of great concern as a larger and larger slice of our economy exists in cyberspace. The democratization of production is one of the best things about the internet, but this may prevent some from ever taking the plunge due to legitimate fears. Aggregators may be popular and useful, but there has to be a way for producers to receive at least a fair portion of the advertising revenue a site like Bloglines takes in on advertising run with their content.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Long Tail by Chris Anderson

As I discussed yesterday, my recent reading of Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail provided me with a lens through which to critique my own blog, something I broke off from my earlier piece due to length. Though much of Anderson’s argument involves the different nature of mass media, especially the difference between broadcasting and narrowcasting, I will use the outline of his theory based upon the original article in Wired, supplementing that with observations from my reading.

First though, I want to summarize a bit of his argument so it is understandable for those who are unfamiliar with the book. A medium like television is ideally suited to gather large audiences for a purpose, usually to sell advertising. But with such a large audience, the advertisements used must have a wide appeal to somehow capture the varied and general demographics of such a large audience. There are only so many channels available to broadcast, and only so many hours in the day with which to broadcast.

The internet, on the other hand, has no such restrictions. All the content is available at anytime, and since webspace is theoretically infinite, nothing is competing with anything else in order to be slotted for viewing. This allows much more specific audiences to be sought in order to deliver them to niche advertisers. As with Anderson’s analogy of the music industry sales, the ability to offer a near unlimited amount of tracks enables the consumer to get more and more specific with their interests. Rather than broad genres like rock, rap, and country, we see genres emerge out of genres that themselves have emerged out of genres. So we tend to see categories like: Country/1940s/Oklahoma/Tulsa/African American. An advertiser who wants to target an incredibly specific market now knows that they can penetrate that deeply without wasting their budget on less than ideal consumers.

How does this affect my blog, or rather blogs in general? For one, the most successful blogs tend to be focused around a niche interest, be it Stephen King books, soup, or gladiolas. Blogs like mine, which tend to be more general, may receive attention, but from a more general readership; in other words, an audience that it might be hard to sell to niche advertisers.

That said, I’m not looking to sell anything in this space, nor am I seeking advertisement. But I do think drawing a specific audience, for me one that shares my research interests and would enjoy discussing them in this sort of forum, can be accomplished by the same sort of focused appeal that has worked in more specific concepts. Whether I change content here is yet to be determined, but I do find the exercise of thinking about such a situation intriguing.

What I haven’t touched on here thus far is the third step in Anderson’s Long Tail theory: ‘Help me find it.’ Perhaps the largest problem this blog has right now is a limited, albeit dedicated, readership. Gaining greater traffic and thus more opportunities for input, I believe the space itself would begin to shape into something that the audience and I both want. In order to increase this population though, what can be done? I already link every presence I have on the internet to this site, yet that hasn’t been helping. But I do read a dozen or so blogs each day which primarily are based around similar interests. By being a more active member of this community—linking to other sites, commenting on interesting topics, asking to be put in the blogrolls of more popular sites—perhaps some traffic might be generated that way. Several blogs also are open to guest posters, and this is another tool I could exploit in order to increase traffic.

Anderson’s The Long Tail has certainly changed the way I think about marketing oneself or one’s product online. The next few months will serve as a personal evaluation of my ability to put these new ideas into practice on something that is important to me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Future of this Blog

Note to readers: This post is intended to serve two audiences, both regular readers and also colleagues of mine in the graduate program in Rhetoric & Composition. To regular readers, I would ask that if a choice phrase or lengthy explanation seems out of character, it is due to an attempt to bridge the two audiences and nothing more. For my academic colleagues, the latter sections of this post may seem more relevant if you briefly familiarize yourself with the content on this blog over the past six months or so. I also apologize for the lengthiness of this post, but would appreciate your time and responses on this topic.

While I began reading Steven Shaviro’s Connected, I ultimately abandoned it not because it was uninteresting, but due to the way the book is constructed. Rather than having his arguments broken into chapters to help unify his ideas, he instead has incomplete arguments set apart by bold heading at about every 400 words. Shaviro’s use of science fiction as a lens through which to view the posthuman age in which we live is not only a nice conceit, but also an effective way to demonstrate the length between literary culture and technology, an argument that is seldom done well.

Yet I was and am unable to take in the work due to the short structure of passages, often which seem to merely be blog posts that Shaviro has just strung together to make a book. He has kept a fairly regular blog since 2002, and though I have thus far been unsuccessful in making a firm link between it and the book, it would be my guess that his scholarly book started on his blog and then was sold to the University of Minnesota Press as a scholarly work that would be eligible for gaining tenure, if Shaviro doesn’t already have it.

This process has started me thinking bout the process of turning a blog into a book and different ways that authors have done this successfully (or not so much), both in the realm of academia and the popular market. Of special interest to me would of course be the scholarly side for one day I hope myself to be seeking tenure, yet I also wonder at how my own blog here measures up to the types of blogs that have been successful. Therefore, this post will attempt to critique my own work with that of others, and perhaps inform changes I may want to make as I move into the future.

This week I read Chris Anderson’s acclaimed book, The Long Tail, essentially a piece about the changing nature of supply and demand (read scarcity) in a world in which there is a nearly infinite amount of shelf space on the internet. While Anderson’s book is targeted at the popular market and was published by Hyperion, a division of the Walt Disney Company, his argument is strong and likely could with slight modifications have been published by an academic press.

In the course of my reading, I learned that the book began with an article in Wired magazine, where Anderson if the editor. After its publication, the article became the most linked-to piece in the history of the magazine. As Anderson did research to expand it to book length, he used a blog to record his thoughts on his research as he completed it
, causing thousands of comments from intelligent readers expanding his arguments and enriching his research by providing information that they knew. Anderson wrote his book almost entirely offline, but the community that formed around his blog helped inform the writing and was a nontraditional resource for someone publishing such a book.

Where The Long Tail and Shaviro’s work differ in construction is easy to see. Whereas one gets the feeling that with little editing Shaviro stitched together 250 pages of blog entries, Anderson has taken all the arguments and research that he shared with on his blog and arranged them in a more typical book structure, with different arguments being separated by chapters, chapters whose average length is about twenty pages. Such a book is much easier to read that the pastiche of Shaviro’s Connected. What I am getting at is that Anderson’s model for turning a blog into a book was more effective for this reader and should likely be emulated by those trying to do the same.

As one might expect, I have begun to brainstorm ways I can use this space to advance my academic interests, perhaps not to the point where I try and assemble a book from various posts, but to stimulate discussions with others on topics that I find interesting. It’s widely known that one develops a clearer argument when another challenges him or her; I feel that I have not been challenged by the readers of this blog. That is no condemnation on them (these are some of my best friends), just an observation that either I am not writing for my current audience and/or the audience that would be interested in my output doesn’t know about it. I have begun to question my scattershot approach here, wondering if a more dedicated topic might help me attract a greater readership and provoke more discussion.

Though books like Connected and The Long Tail concern themes of great interest to me, there are many other blogs that have been turned into books as well. Blogs with a focused but consistent product have been the source of good transitions, most notably for me the work of Will Leitch in God Save the Fan, a collection of his content from Deadspin. Yet Leitch’s work focuses almost exclusively on the new wa
ve of sports journalism that rejects the assumptions of the old guard, most notably that being in the locker room before and after games gives a reporter more insight than someone sitting on their couch at home. His collection combines humor with his observations, and while his pieces may not fall within the normal restrictions of journalism, when compared with columnists he is better than most.

So what it seems like I am seeing over and over is that a blog with more consistent content may play better to the niche audiences that the internet of which the internet is made up. My approach on this site, blending commentary on the digitalization of traditional print with reviews of books, movies, and comics, may be too scattershot to draw the sort of audience I am really looking for. And like I will detail in a post tomorrow, this blog is violating one of the central tenets of Anderson’s thesis: ‘help me find it.’

Perhaps rather than worrying about unifying content, I should first be concerned with making this space known and available to a wider range of readers. That would likely be the first step to forming a community in which debate could be held with the intention of advancing my knowledge and as a result my academic career. Had I used this forum to post about my thesis ideas and received feedback, I might have been able to do more with it. As I move on in academia, I believe this will be worthy of consideration and the current climate should be moderated for changes. It is quite possible that rather than stitch together a string of posts like Shaviro or reorganize content from a blog into a traditional book format like Anderson, merely hosting and maintaining
a blog concerning my research interests will be of enough academic merit to count towards tenure in and of itself.

As this post suggests again and again, I urge all readers to add to their thoughts about this topic as well as suggest another platform that might help me achieve these goals easier than Google’s Blogspot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Money (Basket) Ball

In this week’s New York Times Magazine, Michael Lewis writes about the art of Moneyball in the NBA. Lewis wrote a fantastic and revolutionary book about Major League Baseball in 2002, titled Moneyball, where he outlines the search for undervalued talents and the recruitment of such talent by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s (if you are even a moderate fan of baseball, you must read this book immediately if not sooner). While I am a big fan of using statistics in unorthodox ways to find greater truths about a sport, I do not like basketball much at all. I occasionally get interested in the final rounds of the playoffs if the San Antonio Spurs or Houston Rockets are in contention, but I generally find the games to be fairly dull.

Lewis however is able to expose the NBA’s use of statistics in interesting ways, notably with the Rockets acquisition of Shane Battier. Praised as a star in high school and college, Battier has been seen as a failure at the NBA level by most ‘experts.’ He doesn’t have the traditional stats that stand out, like scoring or rebounds. Facing a situation similar to Beane in Oakland, the Rocket’s GM Daryl Morey had to find good players to round out hi
s team without spending a lot of money.

But Battier can play defense. He routinely guards some of the biggest players in the game, people such as Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobli. What he does best is render these players much less effective than they are normally, when they are guarded by just about anyone else. Basketball, like all sports, is a game of percentages. For example, Kobe is just as likely to go to his left as his right, but he has a dramatically better shooting percentage when he goes to his right. Battier and the Rockets analysts know this, so rather than shut Kobe down, Battier tries to force him to go left.

Lewis’s article mainly works because Battier is such an interesting person aside form basketball. His mixed-race ancestry and intelligence makes a comparison with President Obama fairly apt. And he's a gut who hung up on Rick Pitino when he was being recruited out of high school for calling outside his scheduled time. But this is also where the main flaw in the article appears. Stating that Battier, unlike all other players on his team, memorizes the stats before a game and uses them to his advantage says a lot more about Shane Battier than it does the statistical methods. Sure they seem sound, but few NBA caliber players would be able to internalize all that information and recall it so effortlessly while on the floor.

Narrating the story over an account of a Rockets/Lakers game played last month, Lewis as always writes a story like the best of long form journalists. He’s a thinking man’s sportswriter, a fresh take in a world where I’ve turned off the television or radio just to stop the blathering noise from the ‘experts’ who know less than I do. A fantastic article about basketball being recommended by someone who pretty much hates the sport. If that’s not a recommendation, I don’t know what is.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Comics on the iPhone

Having just discovered the blog io9, usually about science fiction television and movies that I couldn’t care less about, I was surprised and excited to read a report there form New York City’s Comicon, which took place over the weekend, concerning the transmission of comics as applications available on iPhones and other PDA devices. Companies like UClick are providing individual issues as applications that can be downloaded for about a dollar.

While such distribution methods have the potential to revolutionize the dissemination of comics, especially when one considers that independent publishers could make their content available to a wider audience, ever more important since Diamond Comic Distributors raised their minimums recently, I am unconvinced that this is going to work. Presented in individual panels rather than pages, the comics solve the previous problems of too much info being presented at once. This will likely work with a lot of comics, especially traditional ones, like this Superman comic drawn by Curt Swan.
But many layouts rely on a reader being able to view a whole page at once. For example, this spread in Brian Michael Bendis’s Powers is constructed in a way that necessitates viewing as a whole in order to understand the greater meaning being conveyed. (Sorry I couldn’t render this more effectively, but I only have a run of the mill scanner.)
Here we see Detective Walker interviewing a murder victim’s girlfriend while his partner Deena interviews all the students in a dorm across the street from the murder. Deena’s interviews are rendered only with images, each box being a different person facing her, and these boxes extend around the pages. All these panels are colored prominently in the dark blue used to connote nighttime. Meanwhile, the center panels that depict Walker’s interview of the girlfriend are cast in a greenish-yellow light, meant to evoke the feeling of an interrogation room. These panels contain both image and dialogue, but the success of these pages is the way that it depicts the police work going on simultaneously without having a bunch of cross talk between the two scenes. (I talk about this comic in slightly more detail here.)

It just doesn’t seem to me that relating this information to an audience would be possible using UClick’s format. Sure you can see it ‘panel-by-panel—just like the artists created it,’ but sometimes creators intend for a reader to view the page as a whole instead. How can a page like the one displayed above be shown on a device with such a small screen.

Shena Wolf, UClick’s comics producer, ‘manages this process by basically, moving speech bubbles around, adding letterboxing and providing other tweaks to the non-artwork areas of the panels to make them fit the constraints of the iPhone.’ I’d be interested to understand this process in more detail, but one thing jumps out at me right away: there usually isn’t art drawn under the speech balloons. So moving one to another place in a panel might suit the needs of the iPhone’s limitations, but distract from the product being viewed.

All this said, I haven’t seen the final material and thus must withhold final judgment. However, we hope to upgrade to iPhones soon and I will surely check out a few comics to see what it looks like. And as I said earlier, this provides independent creators with a way to disseminate their content much easier than before, perhaps even being able to earn a living through new readership and the selling of merchandise based on their creations. And new innovators will create forms that exploit the iPhone’s limitations and turn them into positives. Though I can’t envision what it might look like, I do believe that there is room for a comic that couldn’t exist successfully in another form the same way I think traditional comics might not work in this one.

This process is one that I will be watching closely here, and probably will revisit this time next week in comparing it with a similar phenomena in Japan.

Friday, February 6, 2009

A Singular Destiny by Keith R.A. DeCandido

Following up on the events of Destiny, Keith R.A. DeCandido does an excellent job in A Singular Destiny describing and contextualizing the events of that trilogy on the broader populace of the Federation and surrounding powers. That said, I was a bit disappointed by one aspect of the novel while simultaneously being cautiously optimistic about the future direction of the fiction line. In discussing these two points, I will be spoiling the book to some degree, so readers beware.

The novel is told primarily through the perspective of Sonek Pran, a history professor from Mars whose four grandparents are from different species, something that is brought up constantly. Pran previously worked for a Federation president and is called back into service by President Bacco’s chief of staff. Ferried around by Captain Ezri Dax in the Aventine, Pran is surprisingly successful in not only completing his assignments but also in just about everything else he attempts, whether it be cheering up the crew by starting a jam session on his banjo to talking a Romulan into laying down his disruptor against orders.

In all, I felt Pran was presented as a man who is good at anything and never screws up. His only real mistake, violating orders from Dax, ends up providing a crucial clue to solving the great mystery of the novel. Without that action, the characters never would have been led to the climax. As a result, his presentation failed to really resonate with me because he didn’t seem like a real person, only a collection of interesting habits and traits. His character was a refreshing change, and the focus on galactic politics somewhat separate from Starfleet was much appreciated, but it just wasn’t enough to take a good novel, which this certainly is, to the next level.

However, I was surprised and a bit excited for the future of the fiction line with the introduction of the Typhon Pact at this novel’s conclusion. With the Federation and Klingon Empire both decimated in the aftermath of Destiny, a Pact of several space-faring nations assemble into a government that seems to be akin to the European Union to some extent. Made up of the Gorn, Kinshaya, Romulan Empire, Tholians, and others, the Pact at the end of this novel is said to be bigger and more powerful that either the Federation or Klingons, and perhaps bigger than the two combined.

This is the sort of galactic shakeup that to be honest something like Destiny would probably create. In the face of dominating control form one or several groups, why would it take so long for a group of somewhat like-minded nations to join together to increase their power and influence. In fact, as the Federation loses the ability to protect some of its outlying worlds, it would make sense that they might align with such a power. The development of the Typhon Pact very well could provide the changed atmosphere and ability to tell broader more consequential stories that were promised before Destiny debuted.

That said, with the entities making up the Pact coming from so-called ‘evil’ worlds that really only have their distaste for the Federation in common, I am afraid that what we will end up seeing is the sort of corny ‘evil for evil’s sake’ group that one would expect from a 1970s comic book. I’m not all that interested in reading about a group that is the antithesis of the Federation, but about a group that has its own agendas that may be contrary often to what our heroes believe, but for good reasons.

A Singular Destiny is an entertaining if slightly flawed novel that goes a long way to making something worthwhile after the mess that was David Mack’s Destiny trilogy. Keith DeCandido did what I thought was near impossible: get me interested in the future of the Star Trek novel line.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Batman: Hush by Jeph Loeb & Jim Lee

In a response to my reading list for last month, my good friend Allyn Gibson asked my opinion of Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s work on Batman: Hush. At the time I read it, I seriously thought of writing an extended review, yet I never got around to doing it. However, I decided to use his query as a springboard to a longer post.

I’ve never been a reader of Batman comics, aside from the occasional issue, but I bought into the hype when Hush was announced (in fact, I believe I have some issues that are worth a fair amount of money). I thought then and still think now that Jim Lee is an incredible artist and his posters of Batman and Superman will one day soon be
displayed prominently in my office. Yet I agree with Allyn to some extent when he notes that he didn’t feel the art and writing in the series ‘clicked.’

Hush begins with Bruce Wayne’s childhood friend Tommy Elliot coming back into his life. Meanwhile, his rogue’s gallery is acting all out of character and a new eponymous villain may be pulli
ng the strings. As the story progresses, we see Batman smack around Superman with the famous Kryptonite ring, fight every nemesis from the Joker to Clayface, and witness the possible return of Batman’s greatest tragedy (save his parents), the long dead second Robin, Jason Todd. Loeb’s storyline moves along with boring regularity. Batman fights and dispatches one of the villains only to move onto the next one.

Allyn is right; Loeb squeezed too many characters into the story for it to really work. As awesome as it is to see Lee draw the Superman/Batman fight or the sexy figures of Catwoman and Poison Ivy, their inclusion makes the story strain credulity. Characters and situations seem to be included for the sake of inclusion only, not because it leads to a more satisfying story. At the conclusion we find out the identity of Hush, and guess what? It’s the most obvious person.

What is supposed to be an epic Batman story fails to make any significant changes to the character. It a decent enough story enhanced greatly by Lee’s art. If you want to admire great artwork, this is the collection for you; if you want a satisfying Batman story, look elsewhere.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Reading List: January 2009

Beginning a new job and starting a new semester have taken up nearly all my time over the past two weeks. Thus, there has been little content here in that time. In fact, I really just haven't felt all that inspired to write. Nothing has seemed compelling enough to make me want to sit here and bang out a few hundred words.

I have resisted posting a collection of links to stories I find interesting; though I find it occasionally fun on another blog, it often just seems like a scheme to cover up for a lack of original content. This may change over the next month, especially as I bookmark pages for my own interests and research. I may start to use this space as a place to respond to things in other forums, whether it be other blogs, newspapers, or books I read for class.

Frankly, I am exhausted. I've only had two days off in the past two and a half weeks, and I am constantly living with sense of dread hanging over me because I never seem to have enough time to get as much research and writing in as I need to. This should balance out a bit over the next few weeks, especially as I knocked out a major project for one of my classes already.

Of particular interest to me over the next six weeks: the effects of film noir on comic book
architecture, and vice versa. If you know of examples I could use, I would appreciate the heads up. I'm thinking that I may be able to tie film theory into the graphic adaptation of Paul Auster's City of Glass; I just haven't done the research yet.

Anyway, as to the point of this post. I never seemed to be without a graphic novel on the nightstand, and as a result I managed to complete 32 books and graphic novels. As always, here is what they were:
Perhaps this next month will see me branch back into nonfiction, something I am missing quite a bit. Not that anyone ever does, but comments and questions are appreciated.