Archive for April, 2012

Neologism Wanted: What Do We Call Sites Like Failblog, Anyway?

Failblog.

Accidental Dong.

I Can Has Cheezburger?

There’s a family of website that predated (and in most ways anticipated) tumblr. They rely on a single-image post, sometimes with a short explanatory caption, that follows a general humorous theme. Most are driven by user-submitted content and update several times a day.

Is there a name for these things? Can I call them prototumblrsaurs? (Prototumblrcephalous? Prototumblrtops?)

I mostly ask because I saw something on a trip to the Badlands that made me think there might be room on the internet for one more:

What do we think? With enough of these (and enough sharp-eyed readers) could we have a “Handicapped Inaccessible” prototumblrsaurus in the making? Better to just post it straight to Failblog and forget about it? Make it as a tumblr instead?

I’m genuinely curious. My familiarity with photo-driven blogs and content is limited. I’ve been selling myself as a writer all these years, and MA101 remains stubbornly word-driven despite the upswing in visual aids.

Leave me your thoughts! And maybe a photo of a badly-placed “handicapped” sign while you’re at it?

 

Shameless Pony Filler

I debated for a while whether this one counted as a “fuzzy ponies” post or not — when you come right down to it, ponies of the My Little variety aren’t actually all that fuzzy. Fuzz doesn’t animate into nice, clean lines, I suppose.

But I figure fans of fuzzy ponies are probably also susceptible to the My Little Pony craze and I had to schedule something, since I’m actually a couple hundred miles north of here in a very flimsy canoe, paddling down a very high river. Wish me luck.

And in the meantime, trek on over to General Zoi’s art page and try out the highly addictive My Little Pony creator there. I won’t judge you.

 

2012: Year of the Forced Upgrade – Facebook Timeline, Gmail, Etc.

I’m not the biggest fan in the world of Gmail’s new look, as discussed yesterday, and I have to say I’m not in love with Facebook’s timeline either. But the internet doesn’t really need one more blog post bitching about either of those changes, and neither one actually makes that much difference in my life. So let’s not dwell on whether or why either of those two new interfaces sucks. You can get that on Reddit if you really want to (tip: you don’t).

Far more interesting (to me, at least) is thinking about why either company would bother. The original interfaces, after all, were both wildly successful. This was not a wheel in urgent need of reinventing — people were clearly more than content to use both Facebook and Gmail as they were.

When a company makes major changes in a popular product it’s worth thinking about why. Someone, at some level, has to have made the deicision that this change will bring in even more money. How do the changes in Facebook and Gmail do that?

Well, they don’t do it by enticing more people to join. You can like Timeline or hate it, but it’s not likely to be the thing that makes Facebook virgins decide that now, at last, is the time to get in on this thing. The product is well past the point where they need to try cosmetic changes to make people like it better. Ditto Gmail, which has made itself indispensable as basically everyone’s private e-mail client.

The websites are not forthcoming themselves. Facebook and Google both have “About” pages that will take you on very splashy video tours of the new looks, but neither one offers any thoughts on why the parent company decided you might like these features.

Much of it likely comes down to usefulness for other companies rather than usefulness for you the consumer. Timeline is vastly more integrated with third-party apps than the already-aggressive Facebook was. If you give anything permission, it will move into your Timeline forever. Good luck getting it out of there. And letting users stay indefinitely on the old interface would keep lazy curmudgeons like me from ever being able to use that new revenue-generating content, which the app manufacturers wouldn’t care for one bit.

Hence the mandatory upgrade — you might not actually be likely to ever use the fancy new super-integrated Timeline apps, but you’re more likely than if you stayed on a platform that couldn’t use them at all.

In Google’s case, the changes seem more to be the product of deliberate homogenization than anything else. The Google empire has had a lot of pet projects over the last decade, some more successful than others and each with its own vaguely Googleish graphic interface. In the last year or so Google’s been shuttering the failed ones (anybody ever write a Google Knol? I did) and bringing the winners more tightly into the fold. A unified look is part of that, so Gmail got a facelift to be more identical to Google+

The idea (and this is why you have that taskbar up at the top that takes you instantly from one Google-family platform to the next) is that you can do more and more of your web browsing without ever leaving Google’s virtual property. Think of it like WalMart, but for social networking, news articles, and LOLcats.

All of which is a bit rambling, and really comes down to one basic idea: actual user experience and satisfaction is less and less of what web design is about.

You aren’t the customer anymore. The guys making add-ons, apps, and ads are the customers. You’re just part of the product they’re being sold.

Welcome to the year of the forced upgrade.

New Gmail: Thanks, But It Was Faster to Read Words than Figure Out Pictograms

New themes occasionally creep into MA101 without me noticing it.

I’ve been dwelling on the idea of our growing illiteracy and shrinking attention spans, in a not-very-scientific and highly-anecdotal sort of way, I realize as I look back on some recent posts, and this will be another one in that theme:

Do you remember your old Gmail interface? I should have grabbed a screenshot while it was still an option, but I got forcibly upgraded a few weeks back and didn’t think about making an MA101 post out of it until later. Here’s a smaller screenshot taken from an article on how to make your new Gmail look more like the old one instead:

So that should be pretty familiar to all of us; we used it for years. And now here’s roughly the same segment of the new look, from Google’s own promotional material:

I’m  not a graphic designer, so I won’t criticize issues of white space, font, whatever. But I am a writer, and I feel totally qualified to say that figuring out Google’s stupid pictograph buttons takes way longer than reading the damn words did.

This is especially glaring when you pull up an individual e-mail:

(You can click to enlarge any of these; it helps with this one.)

Seriously, the pictograms? There’s a little cardboard-box-with-an-arrow-in-it, which is apparently “Archive.” The stop-sign-with-an-exclamation-point is “Spam,” and the trash can at least is pretty self-explanatory. Are those really making our user experience more streamlined than reading the words “Archive,” “Report Spam,” and “Delete”?

Looking at them side-by-side, the big difference between the old look and the new one (other than white space) really is the amount of words. Old Gmail is mostly words; new Gmail not so much.

In and of itself it’s neither a world-shaking change nor a particularly unacceptable administrative decision. But taken as part of a larger trend toward graphics and away from the written word, I wonder if there isn’t a little cause for alarm.

The “Could You Run for Political Office?” Twitter Game

Twitter, according to infallible resource Wikipedia, was launched on July 15, 2006, and as near as I can tell debuted as a way for politically-affiliated people to embarrass themselves in 2009 with Meghan McCain’s boobs:

(Mind you, I have nothing against Meghan McCain’s boobs, and honestly think the only people embarrassing themselves were the ones who criticized the photo — she’s holding a book about Andy Warhol, for crying out loud; clearly this is a post-modern critique of the constructionalist role of celebrity as art, using social media as both medium and message, and the Huffington Post’s eagerness to carry the story [so that they could use a boob shot as the page's default image] is simply part of the installation.

Or that’s what my thesis will say, anyway.)

But, if I can rip your eyes away from Ms. McCain for a moment, Twitter has since firmly (heh, firm) established itself as the way to end your political career for discriminating B-list talk show personalities. Most recently the Romney campaign is taking flak for hiring Richard Grenell and his legacy of misogynist tweets, but many were there before him and many will be there after him.

Which brings us to today’s game!

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The “Could You Run for Political Office?” Twitter Game

1) Pull up Twitter and view your own account (public posts only)

2) Scroll through the last six months or 1000 tweets, whichever comes first (even tabloid journalists get bored eventually, so anything before that is probably safe)

3) Score any posts, links, and retweets that could potentially become cable news fodder as follows:

  • 1 point for linking to hateful or scandalous third-party content with no comment
  • 2 points for linking to hateful/scandalous third-party content with an approving comment
  • 2 points for re-tweeting someone else’s hateful/scandalous tweet
  • 5 points for posting your own original hateful/scandalous tweet
  • 10 points for inappropriate videos/images of yourself
  • +5 points for anything honest-to-god shocking rather than just cable-news-shocking (racial slurs, admitting or alluding to serious crimes, etc.)
  • Multiply all the above by the amount of re-tweets they garnered

Thus, a hateful comment that you wrote (in reply to someone else’s link, perhaps) but that never got re-tweeted earns you 5 points total, while re-tweeting something awful from your favorite radio shock-jock that then gets retweeted by twelve of your followers earns 24 points.

Only score for retweets from your account (in other words, if you retweet something hateful from a third party, don’t score people who retweeted directly from the source or from someone else’s account)

Obviously, you do not need to score scandalous content that you were condemning in your tweet. Use half-points judiciously if you’re not sure something quite counts as scandalous (though in general, if you have to ask, it’s probably bad enough that a cable host with an axe to grind could use it).

Rate yourself:

0 – 10 points: You can clean that up in no time. Why are you even on Twitter?

11 – 100 points: You need to make your feed private and let your staff comb it before you announce, but you should be fine.

101 – 500 points: Your campaign has cause for concern. Delete your feed and lay low for a good long while before coming anywhere near the press. Let the staff make a new one for you eventually, and let them manage all the content.

501 – 1000 points: You should not be allowed anywhere near a political campaign. Even if you get rid of the tweets no PR consultant worth his/her salary will believe that you haven’t left other disasters-to-be floating around the internet somewhere. Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?

1000+ points: Typical GOP House freshman.

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And that’s the game. Give it a try and let us know how you did in the comments!

For my part, it’s mostly just links to MA101 dragging me down — take those out and I’ve only got 21 points in the last six months. If we count the links that shoots up to 61, still totally manageable but getting into dangerous territory if anyone starts retweeting the wrong links.

So…is your Twitter campaign-ready?

For the Nerds: Admiral Ackbar Gets His Drunk On

Now this is in the Special Edition DVDs, so I can’t swear that this is original canon. But it sure looks to me like the hero of the Battle of Endor and many an ASCII graphic is tying one on with the Ewoks at the end of Return of the Jedi:

I like to think he’s over there with Chewie being all “Imprisoned races? Your imprisoned races’s’sa buncha pussies. Lemme tell you ’bout exploitation hurrgh bleh arrrrgh.” But maybe they’re just talking starship engines or something, who knows. Either way, our finny friend definitely has some moves, and we’re not just talking about the Akbar Slash. (Apparently that’s a thing.)

For more nerdery, be sure to check out our startling explanation of the “twelve parsecs” debate. An MA101 classic!

Examiner.com: Sublime Journalistic Satire or Just Really Bad Writing, You Decide

I owe today’s post to a friend’s Facebook feed and to Examiner.com‘s incredibly low pay rates and journalistic standards, so thank you to both of those!

Examiner.com, for those that don’t know, is one of a sort of bottom-feeding subspecies of media outlets that outsource writing to “pro-am” bloggers (their term, not mine) in various cities and then slap it all together on hub sites. Theoretically this gets you the fresh, hot, local perspective at a fraction of the price of a traditional newsroom. In practice it gets you, well, about the same quality control as MA101, only you’re paying for it and labeling it “news.”

Ear-wrenching portmanteaus like “infotainment” were invented for, and by, sites like Examiner.com.

So imagine my delight when a friend’s Facebook feed popped up “50 horrible sources to get your news [caps. sic.]” from Examiner.com. I expected only the finest from a source that would be near the top of that list in most people’s minds, and they delivered:

You often hear the term “liberal bias” when the radicals on the right try to demonize anyone who is willing to tell the truth. The real truth however, is that majority [sic] of the media (TV, radio, internet, print) is owned by big corporations who try to protect the radical conservative agenda. From big news outlets to small time blogs, there are many places that you want to avoid when trying to get good news and information. This is simply a counter to the claim by the radical right wing that all media is liberal. Here is a list, in no particular order, of 50 of the worst places you could go to get your news. A simple “copy and paste” into Google and you can see for yourself.

That’s not the intro; that’s the article. The rest is just a list of 50 media outlets.

I am not entirely willing to write off the possibility of this being performance art. I think it’s the last line; something about using the phrase “copy and paste” into Google and you can see for yourself in an article complaining about journalistic standards seems just a little too pat even for bad journalism. I suspect very deadpan satire.

Or it’s possible that the author is just a blithering moron who hasn’t noticed the discrepency between the standards he wants the media to uphold and the standards he himself upholds. On Examiner.com, anything is possible!

So thank you again to their low pay-rates and standards, and also to the friend that posted the link. You know who you are!

When Old Posts Generate New Comments

One of the longest-running themes of MA101 is me not taking my own advice, so it should be no surprise to anyone that I do actually read the comments.

I mostly do this because it is very, very easy. If an e-mail with the whole comment in it didn’t pop up in my mailbox, I probably wouldn’t bother. But as long as it’s there, in between my various porn subscriptions and overdue bill notices, I usually take the time to check and see if someone has left me a brilliant ASCII portrait of a pony yet.

(To date, no one has.)

And every once in a while I get a comment out of the blue for something I wrote years ago.

I always wonder a bit about the people leaving them. Presumably they got to that post specifically through a search engine, or a content mining site like StumbleUpon, or some other roundabout way that did not include the MA101 main page. Are they checking to see that the site still updates, and has not vanished into the mass grave of untended blogs that clutters the internet? Is it known that I am still writing this thing and could respond if I felt like it? Or are these more in the way of prayers to a forgotten god, whispered into a candle and set afloat on a single green leaf as the cold rains beging to fall?

You can Google Image search fucking anything these days.

I never quite know if I should respond or not. It feels a bit odd, since none of the regular readers are checking back to year-old articles — any dialogue would basically be a closed circuit between the new poster and myself. Occasionally I repost a link to the article in question on Facebook or Twitter, just to try and find someone for the latest commenter to talk to.

I did that yesterday for perennial favorite “The Top 10 Most Absolutely Overrated Books You’ve Probably Had to Read,” prompting a few responses to the older comments from back in its heyday. Maybe that was a worthwhile endeavor on my part? I’m all for dialogue and discussion, though that particular post might have drawn the most “never read the comments” sorts of comments I’ve seen on the normally-benign MA101. (People take books very seriously, apparently. Defeats the whole point of reading for fun, if you ask me…)

So — new comments on old posts? Thoughts? Have you left ‘em on other blogs, do you respond to ‘em on yours; are you a person years from this post’s date leaving a comment for the delicious irony of it? Hello from the past if you are! Share your thoughts in the comments section…not below, anymore, I don’t think. Think this new theme has the comment link up on the left side, below the tags. So up there.

 

 

Fuzzy Ponies Run in the Family

A little while back I asked for reader advice on posting categories here at MA101; the overwhelming response was that everyone wants more “Fuzzy Ponies” posts. And while this isn’t technically a pony, and I’m not sure he’s going to grow up all that fuzzy, he is my little cousin’s new summer project, and I thought we could all take a moment to recognize how much better her summer is than ours:

And here he is on his feet with mom:

So there’s your “fuzzy ponies” post for the day, albeit a little fast and loose on the definitions. And in accordance with popular request I’ve added the “Fuzzy Ponies” category to the menu at the top, allowing you to browse our collection of adorable equines at leisure.

Enjoy!

There’s a Reason Your Netflix Subscription Sucks

People who trade pretend-money for a living have always liked talking about Netflix.

Mostly that’s because it had been one of the stabler internet ventures of the 21st century. But in late 2011 the company changed its pricing plans, false-started a spin-off venture that quickly got reeled back in, and in general stopped doing what it had been doing well and consistently for the last decade or so, which is to say taking income from its DVD-by-mail operation and turning it into ever-expanding streaming video service.

Lately, as you may have noticed if you’re a subscriber, the streaming options have started to suck.

I say that non-subjectively, less with the “they don’t stream my favorite movies!” and more with the “any movie from the last 20 years or so that you can think up off the top of your head is available on DVD only.” Major blockbusters are permanently relegated to the DVD collection, with the much-vaunted “recommendations” engine pointing you toward sequels and imitators for your streaming content.

Discussion of the recent changes has centered around the cost of licensing movies from the companies that own the rights, presumably because those are the abstract terms that play-money types of people like to think in. Mostly ignored are the practical realities that people who run real businesses think about:

Netflix’s biggest investment is a distribution network for physical products. That’s mailing centers, warehouses, shipping services, cataloging employees, and more, all of which are nothing but negatives on the balance sheet of a streaming video provider. The faster they make their hard-copy business obsolete, the faster those expenses bleed them.

And there aren’t a lot of good ways out of that. Short of getting out of the business in one leap and selling all the infrastructure off to a second-string competitor like Blockbuster, Netflix can’t do much cutting. As long as they offer the DVD-by-mail option, they’ve got to keep the service good enough that people don’t bail on their brand entirely. And that means keeping the distribution network in place, and that means forcing it to pay for itself by keeping as many people as possible on both the streaming and the mail subscriptions.

So if you want to watch Lord of the Rings, mail subscription. Avatar, mail subscription. Titanic, mail. Harry Potter (any of them), Transformers (ditto), Pirates of the Caribbean (again), Toy Story (you get the point) — if it’s a top-grossing blockbuster, forget it. The most popular movies in America are not going to be available to stream.

This won’t get better. There’s no incentive for it to get better. Streaming content on Netflix is going to remain the territory of second-stringers and older “classics” (but not the good ones). And in the meantime Netflix is desperately pushing ads and first-time offers on the baby boomers, counting on a generation that doesn’t think of a three-day mailing period as interminable to keep their senescencing business model alive for a few more years.

Combine that with a freshly-formed FLIXPAC, which we can safely count on to support anti-piracy legislation (Netflix spent money hand over fist last year on lobbyists for things like SOPA and PIPA, but has apparently decided to pay its bribes a little more directly this year), and you’re looking at one of the first really successful Internet ventures fighting desperately to slow the progress of online content.

Sad.

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