Let’s see more context-aware design touches

I hope, and I predict, that we’ll start to see more of a trend in web and software development in the coming months and years that probably already has a great name, but since I don’t know it, for now I’m giving it my own name: context-aware design.

Loosely, I define context-aware design as a principle where an interface offers up specific information geared to that particular unique situation — either some customized data, navigation, or other existing element that’s loaded up at just the right time when it might benefit the user most.

I noticed a subtle but great example of it today when looking for a post on 37signals’ blog Signals vs. Noise. It was hidden in an often-overlooked and under-designed area that most blogs have: category archive pages. On Signals vs. Noise, if you click a category archive link (“Business”, in this example), you don’t just see what you’d expect from most blogs: the typical reverse-chronological list of blog posts from the Business category. Instead, you’re greeted with a nice bit of context-aware design right at the top of the screen:

A screenshot of the “Business” category of posts on the 37signals blog Signals vs. Noise

See the “Popular” box at the top right under the page title? It’s a simple concept: For folks browsing that category, why not show them the 10 most popular posts, right off the bat? If they’re deep diving for a particular item or topic (rather than searching), there’s a good chance one of the popular posts is the one they’re looking for — and if they’re just perusing, showing the most popular posts is a simple but effective approach to showing what types of content are in that category.

The “Popular” box shows off what makes context-aware design such a benefit for both developers and users: It’s simple to implement — most blog software will readily serve up popular content in a widget — and it’s the type of spontaneous experience that creates and builds trust. It adds up to less cost and more time spent with the interface.

Why the Bangor Daily News “ad frame” is bad for you, and what to do about it

Links should be free- and users are worth more than a few cents each. Why “ad frames” are bad business for news.

My local newspaper, the Bangor Daily News, has made some admirable improvements to its otherwise lackluster website over the past few months. To their credit, they’ve slowly integrated topic and people-based cross-links throughout their site, created “topic-centric” destination sections on health, sports, and politics, and appear to be slowly migrating their site from a vertical platform CMS to the world-class WordPress CMS.

An example of the ad frame used on the Bangor Daily News website (click image for full view)

 

Want an easy way to remove the BDN’s “ad frame” bar?

Firefox and Chrome users, install this Greasemonkey script I made. It will load the links to the sites as they intended, cutting out the BDN’s ad frame.

Install Zap BDN Frames

Firefox users need Greasemonkey first

All the goodwill engendered by those steps threatens to be undone with their most unethical and annoying update: A persistent top frame that sticks you with a BDN-hosted ad — even when you’ve clicked off their site to visit other links. (Here’s an example of the “ad frame” in action– what you’d see after clicking a link from the BDN website). Worse, the BDN ad frame give users no way to remove the frame- a feature that even the universally-derided “Diggbar” offered before being shut down due to overwhelming criticism.

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Portland Press Herald mention

Yes, I did return from my blog vacation just to post a self-referential link!

Seriously though- thanks to Justin Ellis, who wrote a great article introducing the citizen journalism landscape- not just in Maine but nationwide- for the Portland Press Herald a couple weeks back. I get a brief mention, along with a couple of other Maine bloggers including my friend Lance Dutson.

Exclusive: Bangor daily paper preps its entry into citizen’s journalism landscape

Following several recent efforts to create a more interactive website, the Bangor Daily News is on the verge of launching a new user-generated content section, jasonclarke.org has learned.

“We are launching a brand new community publishing platform”, Online Services Manager Tim Archambault said in an email interview. He gives the timetable for the launch as “the next couple of days.”

The new community section will replace the News’ soon-to-be-former community.bangornews.com, a collection of staff-written blogs presented as a separate website and promoted sparingly on the bangordailynews.com homepage. Archambault describes traffic for the outgoing community site as “not overly strong.”

emilyrockblogster1.gif

Rock Blogster, one of the current Bangor Daily News blogs

Though he won’t disclose specific plans for the new section, Archambault says that it will “hopefully [include] any and all content the public deems important.” Given this description, the News’ new “community” platform is likely to expand upon the current crop of staff-written blogs to invite contributions of text, photos, and potentially video from people in the News service area, which stretches from north of Bangor to the coastal regions and into central Maine towns like Newport.

The revamped section will be the third incarnation of blogs in some format for the paper since September 2005, when it launched blogs on Hurricane Katrina and energy issues. In its most recent incarnation, the community.bangornews.com domain features corporate-produced blogs on Maine politics, personal advice, area music, and the Red Sox spring training season, “all of [which]” will be carried over into the new community website, according to Archambault.

“This platform is all about
community involvement.”

-Tim Archambault, Bangor Daily News

If it opts to expand its interactive components beyonds blogs to accept user-generated content, the News will follow a trend many national newspapers are pursuing in the wake of falling advertising revenues and subscription counts. But it faces stiff competition from two other Maine papers that already have a head-start publishing a variety of content submitted by readers. Both the coastal region Village Soup website and Blethen Maine Newspapers’ My.MaineToday.com feature a variety of user-generated content ranging from comments on articles to local events listings to photographs of local happenings. Up-ending the traditional “top-down” model, content in the My.MaineToday.com site, for example, is not written by reporters or newspaper staff but rather uploaded and managed by website visitors.

Inviting local citizens to help create the content of a local or regional news site is a bold strategic move for media outlets struggling to grow readership, but it can also be a risky proposition. One of the emerging “citizen’s journalism” movement’s early leaders, Backfence.com, opened to great fanfare in 2006 only to struggle mightily throughout its early existence. Earlier this year, the Washington Post reported that one of the company’s founders had left amid struggles with investors over how best to expand the organization, which had struggled to attract contributions from people even in heavily-populated suburban areas such as Reston, Virginia.

That said, the Bangor Daily News is not dealing with the exact same challenges as Backfence.com. While the News readership is comprised of less population than the suburban areas targeted by Backfence.com, it covers a wider geographic footprint and competes amidst a less-crowded media marketplace. However, the News still faces other challenges inherent in launching any user-generated news venture, such as “will people care?” and perhaps more importantly, “will they even visit?”

To meet these challenges, Archambault says the BDN will “absolutely” give the new community section more visibility on the bangordailynews.com website. He also hints the News will “hopefully” cross-promote the people’s contributions by re-purposing online content for the printed paper. If that’s the case, Maine could be the home to a third major community-driven news venture as early as this summer.

The Maine Edge explains RSS

In this week’s issue of The Maine Edge, Tekk columnist Justin Russell explains RSS and how it can help you browse the web smarter:

If you’re a seasoned Web traveler, there’s a good chance you’ve developed a standard routine over time. Your daily site checks may lead you to your favorite news sites, stock quotes, online stores or comic strips. Staying on top of your favorites can quickly become a major task. What if the latest news and information from your favorite sites could come to you automatically as it is posted?

That’s the world of content syndication. Syndication pushes new content to viewers automatically wherever they are using a technology known as RSS feeds. Many popular sites use syndication to enhance their readership and make it easy for viewers to stay in touch with their site. Checking the latest news or sports scores can be as easy as checking for new e-mail.

Justin was kind enough to interview me for the article (though I’m still not sure why). Head over to The Maine Edge and check it out!

I’m testing a new Nikon D80

As mentioned by other bloggers, I am participating in a new blogger outreach program courtesy of Nikon USA and a PR firm, MWW Group. Nikon has loaned me a Nikon D80 digital SLR camera for a six month period beginning Thursday, when I received the camera and a lens (along with standard accessories and a 1GB memory card) in the mail.

What are the terms of the program?
At the end of the six-month loan period, I may purchase the camera (at an “editorial discount”), extend my loan for six months, or return the camera. To get me going, MWW Group has offered a 30-minute training session in person or on the phone.

In their welcome letter offering me to participate in the program, Nikon stated that they expect no explicit published mentions of my use of the camera; only that I disclose my participation in the program when mentioning my use of the camera, which of course is what they should require following last year’s Microsoft laptop PR debacle. Kudos to Nikon and MWW Group for a stated commitment to transparency (View a JPG of their invitation letter).

While we’re on the topic of disclosure, it’s important to note that I’ve had a previous working relationship with Tom Biro, Senior Director for New Media Strategies at MWW Group (the agency handling this outreach program). I’ve known Tom since 2004, when we both began serving on the Board of the Media Bloggers Association.

How am I going to use the camera?
If you check out my Flickr photostream, you’ll see that my wife Heidi and I are currently taking around 20 photos per week and uploading around 5-10 pictures a week to Flickr with our current camera, a Kodak EasyShare CX7430. For starters, we’ll attempt to switch over to the Nikon D80 almost exclusively for family and personal photos, about 40% of which make it up to our Flickr account (the rest live on our hard drive).

In addition, we’ll also be using the camera in conjunction with an as-yet-unfinished personal project that combines blogging and photography and will be launching within the next two weeks.

Finally, I may share comments and/or reviews of the camera here on this site. You should know that my perspective is as a technologist who is interested in trying and mastering tools, such as this camera, but that as a photographer I am squarely amateur. So at least in the early stages, my comments will likely revolve around making the shift from a mid-level consumer device to a power-user camera and whatever learning curve comes along with that.

If you have any questions or comments about the program or my and other bloggers’ participation in it, please share them in the comments.

New mobile version

Last fall, I released a mobile version of this very site. At the time, I wanted something quick, so I used a third-party RSS-to-HTML service, FeedDigest, to port my blog’s feed back into a stripped-down HTML page. As I wrote back then, I knew there was a better way. Here’s what I wanted to implement with an upgraded mobile edition of this site:

A simpler URL: My original mobile URL was http://mobile.jasonclarke.org. While this is something (and I stress something) of a standard, I felt the domain was too long too ‘disconnected’ from the brand of my main site. So I chose to go with jasonclarke.org/m (something else of a standard), as I hope it will be easier and quicker to type.

A better back-end: As I said, my initial implementation was lacking. Relying on (even a great) third-party service isn’t entirely optimal, especially with the excellent WordPress as my blog software. Now, the new version relies on WordPress’ native custom templates, and a doubling of the WordPress loop, to create a stripped-down, mobile page that automatically grabs posts directly from my database rather than porting them through a third-party. Even better, I have direct, integrated control of the page via my WordPress admin area, either via editing the page itself or editing my templates within the Presentation editor. This beats my old system, where I had to get at the separate mobile domain via straight FTP.

In addition to these WordPress hacks, I also made a variety of modifications to my theme files (header and footer, specifically), to detect via a variable whether or not a particular page is defined as “mobile” (as opposed to standard). This way, I can utilize single headers and footers for both types of sites without having to create nominally different versions of my theme’s headers and footers just for my mobile site.

So if you’re a mobile web user, check out http://jasonclarke.org/m and let me know what you think.

As blogging comes of age, growing pains persist

A few comments on the latest political/blog scandal. First, some background. This time around, liberal blogger Amanda Marcotte, recently hired to run presidential candidate John Edwards’ campaign blog, is being criticized for a variety of blog posts she’s written at her personal site, Pandagon.

As to be expected, liberal bloggers are rising to her defense, while conservatives are, without calling for her removal (and I count threeone who think she should stay), commenting on the issue and re-publishing her thoughts on issues from Hurricane Katrina to the Catholic church.

What was said?

So that we’re clear on some of those comments, and please note that the following contain graphic language that may not be suitable for all ages, here are some of Ms. Marcotte’s writings, as re-published at ABC News blog Pushback:

ON THE CATHOLIC TEACHINGS ON BIRTH CONTROL:

Last year, Marcotte blasted the Catholic Church’s position on birth control: “Q: What if Mary had taken Plan B after the Lord filled her with his hot, white, sticky Holy Spirit? A: You’d have to justify your misogyny with another ancient mythology.” (Side note: Would there be a different reaction if John Edwards “blogmaster” had insulted Islam to this degree? Is it “okay” to trash Catholicism–but not Islam?)

ON THE DUKE RAPE CASE:

“I had to listen to how the poor, dear lacrosse players at Duke are being persecuted just because they held someone down and f***** her against her will–not rape, of course, because the charges have been thrown out. Can’t a few white boys sexually assault a black woman anymore without people getting all wound up about it? So unfair.”

ON REPUBLICAN VOTERS:

“Voters who are motivated by misogyny, homophobia, and racism aren’t going to leave a racist, misogynist, homophobic party for one that is all those things but just less so.”

Clearly, these are not simply liberal opinions expressed with power or wit. Rather, they’re pretty disturbing, irrational comments that I would sincerely hope do not represent the general tone of the Edwards– or any other– campaign for president.

So…should she be fired?

But do these comments– as disturbing as they are– mean Ms. Marcotte should be fired?

With respect to the issue of a political campaign firing a blogger for controversial things he or she has written in the past, I don’t think a precedent should be set that any blogger should be fired for simply publishing any controversial thoughts- in fact, this should be obvious, that tends to be one of the reasons they’re hired in the first place.

However, to me that’s not the real issue here. The real issue is not that Ms. Marcotte published some controversial ideas, as some of the liberal bloggers on this case would have us believe. Rather, the issue to me is whether or not the particular things she’s said are in line with how the Edwards campaign wishes to portray itself.

If Ms. Marcotte’s published writings are not in line with the beliefs of the Edwards campaign, I think there can only be two reasonable courses of action going forward:

1) The Edwards campaign should immediately fire Ms. Marcotte and apologize for the decision to hire somebody whose writings are outside of the scope of rational political discourse.

2) OR, the Edwards campaign should immediately release a statement roughly along the lines of this:

It has recently come to our attention that Amanda Marcotte, a blogger we tapped to manage the John Edwards campaign blog, has published a number of comments on a personal blog that millions of Americans may find in poor taste.

While we do not agree with or condone Ms. Marcotte’s previous comments, we did not hire her based on them either. We will continue to welcome Ms. Marcotte as a member of the John Edwards campaign team, with the mutual understanding that she regrets offending people and plans to speak positively about political issues on the Edwards campaign website going forward.

Either way, this should happen soon, and decisively, and the campaign should then immediately announce some kind of “free beer for all Americans” program or something equally as earth-shattering.

That’s not the end of this issue though. Far from it.

The argument for failed hires- and for moving on.

A few bloggers have made the point that the Edwards team should have done a more thorough vetting of Ms. Marcotte’s blog and other public writings before bringing her on and placing themselves in the middle of such a difficult situation. Fair (and obvious) enough! But now at least one blogger is arguing that the campaign should live with their bad hire and carry on.

What?!!

Anybody who has even been remotely involved in the managing of a company or organization that aims to be successful has to understand that making the wrong hire does happen. You don’t want it to, but it will happen from time to time. And when you realize you’ve made a mistake, the best thing you can do is cut ties with the scandal as quickly and as completely as possible. Nothing short of that makes any sense for the ongoing success of your organization.

In fact, when the scandal becomes too big to manage, a decent person in Ms. Marcotte’s position, particularly if that person professes to support the organization in question (as Ms. Marcotte has expressed support for Edwards’ campaign), should take the responsibility and immediately recuse him or herself from that difficult position. That’s called honor, and it’s rare.

Mis-direction and revenge

Something else beyond Ms. Marcotte’s comments really bothers me here, and that is the way in which many liberal bloggers have chosen to defend Ms. Marcotte.

Without addressing her comments directly, Glenn Greenwald chose to talk about the rude comments of a conservative blogger.

Without addressing her comments directly, Daily Kos diarist Kagro X suggested that other Democratic candidates circle the wagons around Edwards.

Without addressing her comments directly, Shakespeare’s Sister blogger Waveflux commented on one of Ms. Marcotte’s critics.

And most disturbing of all in my opinion are the comments from Chris Bowers, writer at the popular liberal blog MyDD. Short of addressing the particulars of Ms. Marcotte’s comments– should we then assume he supports them?–Bowers instead launches a pretty bold threat directly at the Edwards campaign:

I have a pretty vicious rant and an important action alert lined up, but I am waiting to hear from the Edwards camp about the fate of Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan before doing anything…But like I said, I am waiting before letting loose.

Bowers goes on to reference a straw poll at liberal blog DailyKos, commenting that “Either way, [Edwards] won’t be tied with Barack Obama in Dailykos straw polls anymore. It will be hard in one direction or the other” (emphasis mine).

In a later post, Bowers continue to actively threaten the Edwards camp, writing that “If someone is willing to stand with us, that should mean something big, and should not go unrewarded.”

Bowers’ message here is loud and clear: We don’t care what she said, whether or not it’s offensive, or any effect it might have on “our” candidate– we only care that one of “our own” is being threatened.

Could Bowers be any more direct? Fire Ms. Marcotte, and he will “let loose” on the Edwards campaign with a “vicious rant” (the same kind that Marcotte writes, I wonder?). However, if Edwards does what Bowers wants, then that “should not go unrewarded”.

These are pretty direct, and audaciously arrogant, threats for a liberal blog to make at a presidential candidate. Particularly when they are accompanied by a deafening lack of comment about exactly what Ms. Marcotte has written and its potential effects on the electorate.

This is a soggy, pathetic affair, and it reflects poorly on the entire blogosphere. Sadly, it will also likely have a negative effect on the prospects of talented, intelligent, and reasonable bloggers being hired by not just political campaigns, but by organizations on the whole.

And like many things, the initial situation was unfortunate. But the cover-up is turning out to be much worse.

UPDATE: Welcome Michelle Malkin readers! Thanks to Michelle for the pointer.

My new short story: an experiment in self-publishing

A Hard Word to Pronounce coverAs you may have noticed, I have a new short story out, and I want to tell you all about it. It’s called “A Hard Word to Pronounce”, and it’s about a young twenty-ish guy on the day of his best friend’s wedding.

Because it’s a short story- and not a novel, or collection- I’m releasing it in e-book format, which basically means that it’s a great quality PDF. When you get it, you can either read it on your computer (or iPod or whatnot), or choose to print it out and take it with you. It’s $2 to own, and you can read an excerpt and purchase it right here:
http://jasonclarke.org/hardword

Whoah…a short story, in PDF download format, for two bucks? That sounds a bit crazy, no? But really, if you think about it, it’s kind of cool- because besides the fact that it gives you the option of saving some trees (and hasn’t it been a while since you had a chance to do that?), it’s also neat because it dramatically lowers the costs of production- savings which are passed directly on to you, dear reader.

Let me tell you just a bit more about this process, because I think it’s a direction that publishing is moving in. In this case, instead of packaging the story into a larger book– and that has to be done, because most printed books have set minimum page counts– you’re getting just one short story, but for much less than you’d pay for a typical book. That’s because it’s being delivered instantly (another benefit), without the interruption of a vast set of fixed costs such as printers, shippers, and even publicists and marketers.

That’s it for now. Even if you don’t care about the future of publishing, or saving a tree or two, please head over to my website, check out the story, and perhaps purchase it for yourself or a loved one. You can find all the info, plus order it, right here:

http://jasonclarke.org/hardword

And please do send me your thoughts and/or comments. I look forward to hearing from you, and I promise to keep you updated.