What Does the Internet Look Like?

Often, pictures communicate more eloquently than words or numbers. This is the case with Barry Lyon’s Opte Project, which uses traceroute data to generate a visual “map” of the Internet. (For a brief overview, see this Nov. 28, 2003 New Scientist article.)

The images are extraordinary – beautiful, detailed, and ethereal. They are also useful. Lyon writes, “Mapping the Internet weekly will allow us to see major disasters in different parts of the world. The Internet is a huge disaster sensor. If I had maps of pre-war Iraq and then compared them to today, one could see how badly Iraq was destroyed.”

Online Free Speech Case Shows Need for Thick Skin

In the US, the right to free speech guaranteed by the Bill of Rights is widely touted as a source of national strength and pride. However, this right includes many tangents and implications that are profoundly murky. Sometimes whether to take action about someone else’s words depends not so much on legality, but rather on perception and context.

Today, a Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press article reports on a free-speech question unique to the online age: Should anonymous political criticism posted online be protected as free speech?

It’s not such a simple question, really.

THE CASE: On Nov. 20, 2003, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled to protect the identities of anonymous Internet authors in a defamation lawsuit brought by a public official. Joan Orie Melvin, a PA judge, believed she was defamed by allegations that she’d engaged in misconduct that were published on the now-defunct Web site Grant Street ’99. She initiated legal discovery to find out exactly who she wanted to sue. A state Superior Court denied the anonymous authors’ initial motion for summary judgment and a protective order. The authors then appealed to the state Supreme Court, which has now issued a very strong opinion, Melvin v. Doe et al, protecting their identities and supporting the larger principle of online political free speech.

Sounds good – but it’s not that clear-cut, once you look into the details. In this case, we’re not just talking about someone spouting opinions of politics or politicians. We’re talking about specific allegations of fact. That’s where this case gets murky. Is this anonymous author a genuine “whistleblower” or a capricious political saboteur? And in the bigger picture for Melvin, does the distinction really matter? Should she have gone to court over this?

I think not, and here’s why…

(UPDATE: Read my related article on media credibility)
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CONTENTIOUS RSS Survey: Final Results

Over the last month, I’ve been surveying CONTENTIOUS readers about whether and how they use my RSS feed. Here are the final results, updated Nov. 28, 2003.

I received 101 responses – that’s the mazimum accepted by the SurveyMonkey service demo I used.

Based on the results so far, it seems that RSS feeds are popular among CONTENTIOUS readers. More than a third of respondents prefer to receive news and alerts by RSS, and nearly another fifth use RSS but do not always prefer it. Many CONTENTIOUS readers, represented by nearly a third of respndents, have only recently begun to explore the world of RSS feeds.

Only two respondents have tried RSS and did not like it, which I think demonstrates the true strength of this new publishing channel: People who try RSS tend to like it. Many even come to prefer it.

Here are the hard numbers from the survey…
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Corporate Blogging: Good Resource

Following on my recent discussion of corporate weblogs, I’d like to point out a white paper I spotted recently: “Using RSS for Corporate Communications,” by Philip Gomes of G2B Group.

This paper is short and pretty basic. However, if you’re trying to convince your company’s management of the value of weblogs – maybe even to start a company blog, or at least have them not freak out that your run your own private blog – this paper would be a good thing to give to the boss.

RSS: Pointcast Remembered

Remember Pointcast? You know, the allegedly killer “push” technology of the mid-1990s? The one that was supposed to replace Web browsers in terms of delivering online information, but which then disappeared in 2000?

A Nov. 19, 2003 entry by Neil McIntosh in the weblog of UK newspaper The Guardian, “Top 10 Internet Fads,” makes an interesting observation about an entry and discussion of the same title happening at Kuro5hin. Pointcast made the #1 spot on Kuro5hin’s list of dead Net fads.

McIntosh notes, “Well, I’ve got one word for you: RSS. In tandem with apps like NetNewsWire, it bears more than a passing resemblance to PointCast. Push (whisper it) isn’t just still alive, it’s thriving, so healthy it’s cool.”

I think it’s worth remembering what killed Pointcast….
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Persuading Bosses to Allow Blogs

Apparently, last month Microsoft fired “long-term temporary” employee Michael Hanscom for an entry Hanscom made to his personal weblog about some new Macintosh computers arriving at Microsoft, and that also mentioned some information about the layout of the Microsoft campus. Microsoft deemed the campus information to be some kind of security breach, and let Hanscom go. (Here’s Hanscom’s entry describing his firing.)

In response to this, the folks at Blogger have posted some pretty good advice on How Not to Get Fired Because of Your Blog.

My only quibble with Blogger’s advice is their suggestion to modify an anti-blog corporate culture by distributing The Cluetrain Manifesto. I know this book and site are very popular in some segments of the business world, but I honestly think Cluetrain is not the best choice to try to persuade fiercely anti-blog, total-control-over-all-communication types of managers and executives. It’s way too flip and rabid for their tastes.

I’ve got a better idea, I think….
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Bizarre: Slides Instead of Reports?

Yesterday, as Congress began to debate a highly controversial and fast-moving energy bill, the General Accounting Office published a timely and highly relevant report, “Electricity Restructuring: 2003 Blackout Identifies Crisis and Opportunity for the Electricity Sector.”

Usually GAO reports are packed with rich information and detail. However, this time the body of this “report” is presented as a series of PowerPoint-type slides! I kid you not – check out the report after the first few pages (which are a letter of introduction).

Here’s GAO’s explanation of the format…
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Yes, Online PowerPoints Really ARE a Bad Idea

In response to my recent article in which I begged people to please stop posting PowerPoint and other kinds of electronic slide presentations online, Heather Davis of John Snow, Inc. (which offers research and training on healthcare issues), commented:

“I don’t agree that PowerPoints online are a bad idea. The audience of the website I manage benefits from many of the graphs and charts that are included in our PowerPoints. Often these files contain the meat of massive studies done in the field and that users want to know about in shortened form. Also, when you are targeting a particular group of users, PowerPoints can be useful because you are already speaking within a defined context. Our users can read the shorthand of PowerPoints that have to do with the burning issues in our industry.”

…That sounds like a good argument, and I do appreciate that Heather stood up to voice a contrary opinion. I wanted to see what she was talking about, so I looked at some of the presentations available on JSI.com. (They’re not indexed in any one place, but you can find a lot of them by searching Google for: powerpoint site:jsi.com. You can actually do that in the CONTENTIOUS search engine on this page – just enter that search string, select the “WWW” option, and click “Google Search.”)

Now that I’ve looked through a few JSI.com online PowerPoint presentations, I must reconfirm my earlier point: I just don’t think PowerPoint presentations work well on the Web. The JSI.com presentations do contain a great deal of valuable information, and I agree that with complex topics such as healthcare it helps to have “shorthand” references. But PowerPoint slides are definitely not the best format choice.

I’d like to ask Heather whether her company has considered repackaging the information from those slides into formats that are (a) less awkward for Web users to access and read, and (b) less dependent on the live talk for clarity…
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PowerPoint Presentations Online: NO! STOP! DON’T!!!!

(UPDATE FEB. 25, 2004: This article was highlighted in a column in ClickZ, a popular online marketing publication.)

Here is one of my major online content peeves: Why are some people compelled to put their PowerPoint slides on the Web? The vast majority of slide presentations are intended to support a live talk, and they make little or no sense out of that context!

When content is so cryptic as to be frustrating, it’s anti-content. It undermines the goals of both the author and the reader.

I would like to beg – to plead, in fact – that all presenters everywhere please refrain from ever posting another slide presentation to the Web! Unless, of course, it was designed specifically to be used on its own, perhaps as a distance-learning or customer-support tool. That’s the only time this option makes sense.

I don’t care what your boss tells you. I don’t care what all your colleagues are doing. It’s up to you to make the Web a better place. There are far better ways to make your point….
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A Few Weblog Enhancements

Over the weekend I made a few upgrades to the CONTENTIOUS weblog that I’d like to note briefly.

NEW SITE SEARCH ENGINE: I’ve decided to implement a different site search engine – a bit of Google plug-in code. (See box at right of this page.) The nice thing about this engine, compared to this weblog’s original search engine, is that it searches everything at the contentious.com domain. This includes the complete archives of the original CONTENTIOUS, dating back to 1998.

SECTION (CATEGORY) ARCHIVES My entries to the CONTENTIOUS weblog fall under several categories. If you’re interested in a particular category, you can click on the relevant category archive link to read other similar articles.

Here’s a brief description of each category…
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