Zombie signs & how public officials can act human

Run for your lives!  Zombies want to eat your brain!

…Gotta admit, I was tickled to hear on MSNBC and elsewhere about this bit of creative hackery:

TX DOT was not amused... But I was...

TX DOT was not amused... But I was... (Photo courtesy Lucas Cobb)

In Austin, KXAN reported:

“[Austin Public Works spokesperson] Sara Hartley said though it was a locked sign, the padlock for it was cut. Signs such as these have a computer inside that is password-protected. ‘And so they had to break in and hack into the computer to do it, so they were pretty determined.'”

OK, yeah, I know there’s a serious potential public safety issue here. Apparently the Austin police are trying to catch the sign hackers, who may face a class C misdemeanor charge.

But I think Queer Cincinnati nailed the opportunity here for public officials to turn this to their advantage by responding with a sense of humor:

“Does anyone else think, perhaps, the PD should have just taken it as the joke it was, and posted ‘Zombie Threat Eliminated, Road Construction Ahead’? I think that would have shown a great, human side to the government. And we wouldn’t have these silly threats to go after college pranksters.”

Amen! After all, as Queer Cincinnati also noted, instructions on how to hack road signs have been posted on Neatorama and elsewhere. This is definitely going to keep happening. Probably responding with humor — while improving security of road signs — would generate the most public goodwill.

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Fun interactive visual tools: Why should journalists care?

Last week I wrote a lot about various interactive visual tools that can help people connect differently or more deeply with news and information. This was for a session I led at a Knight Digital Media Center seminar for the leaders of the News21 project.

Yeah, so what? Why should journalists and news organizations care about these tools? How can this help their communities, journalism, and (most critical right now) business opportunities? What’s in it for journos and news brands?

That’s what Meabh Ritchie, a reporter for the U.K. Press Gazette asked me to clarify. She’s writing a story on this, and I’ll link to it when it’s up in February 2009. The short answer is: This stuff is effective and (more importantly) FUN! — for journalists and news audiences.

But here’s the full version of my answer…

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Skype: Why you should at least learn to use it

Recently, like many people, I ditched my landline (which I rarely used, and the most basic service I could get still cost me about $35/month). Now my cell phone is my only telephone.

This is a better deal for me, since generally I don’t talk on the phone much — except last month. I was working on a magazine feature story that required many interviews. And also, since I got known as a source on the role of Twitter in covering the Mumbai terrorist attacks, I was called by several reporters (including ABCnews.com) to give interviews on that topic.

Last night I got my cell phone bill. It was about $70 more than I expected — because I’d exceeded my allotted minutes. Ouch.

That’s the trouble with being in the media business, and many other fields: You can’t always control how much time you’ll have to spend on the phone in a given month. Which means you can’t always control the number or timing of the minutes you’ll use. Which is why cell-only folks need other options for making and taking calls that allow you to control costs.

Enter Skype…

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Tracking a Rumor: Indian Government, Twitter, and Common Sense

This morning, as I check in on the still-unfolding news about yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Mumbai, I noticed a widely repeated rumor: allegedly, the Indian government asked Twitter users to stop tweeting info about the location and activities of police and military, out of concern that this could aid the terrorists.

For example, see Inquisitr.com: Indian Government trying to block Twitter as Terrorists may be reading it.

Rumors — even fairly innocuous ones — really bug me. Mainly because they’re so easy to prevent!

I’m trying to track this particular rumor down, but haven’t been able to confirm anything yet. At this point I’m skeptical of this claim. Here’s what I’ve found so far…

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How to start a Twitter hashtag

More and more people are covering live events and breaking news via Twitter — and usually there are several Twitter users covering the same event. Hashtags are a handy tool for pulling together such disparate coverage.

A hashtag is just a short character string preceded by a hash sign (#). This effectively tags your tweets — allowing people to easily find and aggregate tweets related to the event being covered.

If you’re live-tweeting, you’ll want to know and use an appropriate hashtag. Earlier I explained why it’s important to propose and promote an event hashtag well before the event starts. But where do event hashtags come from?…

Doyle Albee, maven of the miniskirt theory of writing, asked me:

“I’ve used hashtags a bunch, but never started one. If, by some chance, there are two events (or whatever) using the same hashtag, does everyone searching just see both until one changes, or is there some sort of registration or vetting process?”

Here’s my take on this…

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Live-tweeting an event? Set your hashtag UP FRONT!

I do a lot of live event coverage via Twitter, and I also follow a lot of events (especially conferences) via Twitter. One thing I’ve learned: It helps your Twitter audience immensely if, before the event (or at the start) the people tweeting it develop a consensus on the hashtag for the event.

That’s what Horn Group VP Susan Etlinger did earlier, for the PR/Blogger panel her company is hosting tonight. She’s one of several Twitter users who helped launch this hashtag simply by adopting and promoting it:

Susan Etlinger helps launch a hashtag by using it.

Susan Etlinger helps launch a hashtag by using it.

And here’s the fruit that this kind of coordination can bear: Check out the #PRblog hashtag

…So: what’s a hashtag, and why is this so important?…

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Working with Journalists: What’s in It for Geeks?

NOTE: This post originally appeared on Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits, and there are some comments over there. I’m reposting this here because, frankly, this site poses fewer hurdles to commenters, and I’d like to get some diverse discussion happening.

Earlier this week I wrote about the internal and external obstacles journalism schools face when trying to achieve collaboration with other academic departments (such as computer science). That spurred a pretty interesting discussion in the comments.

This discussion got me thinking: Right now, it’s becoming obvious to many journalists that our field sorely needs lots of top-notch, creative technologists. Developers for whom software is a medium, and an art form. Developers with a deep passion for information, credibility, fairness, usefulness, and free speech.

However, my impression is that, so far, it’s not nearly so obvious to most “geeks” (and I use that term with the utmost affection and respect, as do many geeks themselves) how they might benefit from collaborating with journalists, j-schools, and news organizations.

So if journalists need geeks, but right now they don’t need (or even necessarily want) us as much, the question becomes: What’s in this for the geeks? Why might they want to work with us? Where’s their incentive?… Continue reading

Twitter Basics for Journalists & Recovering Journos

On Saturday, at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, I gave a talk to an audience of mostly journalists explaining the basics of blogs, social media, and search visibility. People had lots of questions, more than I could get to in the session. I was getting stopped in halls, at parties, and even in bathrooms, to be asked things like, “Does it really make that big a difference if I blog under my own domain?” (Answer: Yes!)

OK, I don’t mind answering those questions. That’s really why I went to this conference — because I know that journalists (many of whom are facing potential layoffs, or who have already been laid off) are in dire need of online media awareness and skills.

So I’m going to do a bunch of posts answering questions, because it’s more efficient to do that via blogging. This is one of those posts.

By now you’ve probably heard about Twitter, the social media service that allows you to publish posts of 140 characters max.

What Twitter does, in a nutshell: This service allows you to receive posts (“tweets”) from other Twitter users whom you choose to “follow.” Likewise, other Twitter users can choose to follow you. When you follow someone on Twitter, their tweets show up in reverse chronological order in the “tweetstream” that scrolls down the Twitter home page when you’re logged in. The effect is somewhat like an ongoing Headline News version of what’s happening in the minds and worlds of people you know or find interesting.

Twitter also supports rudimentary public and private conversation between users.

THE VALUE OF TWITTER

In my experience, Twitter’s biggest payoff is that it allows you to gather a personal posse who can support you in powerful, flexible, speedy ways.

Also, if you’re choosy about the people you follow, Twitter can be quite an effective radar screen for news or relevant issues.

But there are many other potential benefits, especially for journos…

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The Stereogram Approach to Finding the Meaning of Life

Gary W. Priester (Click image to enlarge.)
Often, the first challenge in life is simply to see the target.

I really used to hate stereograms.

When they became popular in the early 1990s, they often reduced me to serious frustration and headaches. I would stare at them — glare at them, really — trying to will their embedded 3D images to leap out. Everyone else seemed to enjoy these hidden illusions with ease. But my eyes and brain stubbornly refused to do the trick.

Then one day, I realized that I was looking at a dolphin. I just glanced at the cover of a book of stereogram art, and there it was. I was delighted to discover that the image wasn’t “leaping out” at me — rather, I was “seeing into” it. I wasn’t even sure how I’d started to see the hidden picture. All of the sudden, and quietly, it just worked.

Years later, I’ve come to realize that whenever I’ve identified a key mission or purpose I should pursue, it’s emerged (very much like that dolphin) from the background of the world around me. I get a sense that some vision is waiting to be seen, and I prepare my mind to be open to it. Then eventually I see it, and it feels like I always should have seen it.

In contrast, whenever I’ve tried the top-down, primarily rational (rather than intuitive) approach to choosing a course in life, I usually end up not really wanting what I’ve been working for, or liking what I’ve done — which is frustrating and demoralizing on many levels.

I’ve been quiet on this blog lately, mostly because I’ve been spending more time conversing, research, reading, and journaling. To be honest, I’ve been searching for purpose. For a couple of years now — although I’ve been doing a lot of interesting work, meeting a lot of interesting people, and learning a lot of interesting things — privately I’ve been feeling like I’ve been flailing around, seeking direction and purpose.

Finally, I feel like the picture is starting to emerge. Here is the outline so far…
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David Cohn: Pushing journalism frontiers

At the NewsTools 2008 conference last week, I had a chance to sit down with one of the emerging luminaries of entrepreneurial, experimental journalism. David Cohn runs the BeatBlogging project for NewAssignment.net, and he also works with NewsTrust . Plus, he runs a great blog of his own and is a constant presence on Twitter. Busy guy. I’m glad I got a few miinutes of his time.

Here’s what Dave has to say about where he thinks journalism might be heading, and what he wants to do to help it get there:

…Oh, and in this interview, Dave called me a "force of nature." I’ll assume that’s a compliment:

Thanks, Dave 🙂