Shaking off the cobwebs

Hey, here I am!

When I started this blog, at PodCamp 4 in Pittsburgh back in 2009, I told myself I would never write one of those “Sorry I haven’t been posting” posts that include lots of excuses and promises to do better. And I haven’t done that – okay, once – but I haven’t been posting either. Sorry about that.

Today I’ll be presenting at PodCamp 2010. My 1 p.m. session is called “Tools, Not Toys:
Teaching Practical Social Media Use in Journalism and Beyond.” I’m pretty excited about this. The session is based on my experiences designing and teaching our Blogging and Interactive Journalism course here at WVU. This summer I presented a similar talk at AEJMC in Denver with Jeremy Littau, Carrie Brown-Smith and some others (.doc with the abstract here, if you’re interested), and it went over fairly well, so I’m hoping it’s of use to the Pittsburgh set as well.

Interested but can’t make it? The PodCamp site will be streaming sessions live with Vivo (though I’m not yet sure if my session will be so blessed). I’ll put up an outline too, after the session. I’ll also probably get some Chipotle and visit Phantom of the Attic (are those guys ever gonna update their damn website?), but that doesn’t so much concern you.

Update: Here’s that PodCamp 2010 handout as a PDF (sadly, it lacks my dulcet tones).

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Back to work!

Hello blog. It’s been a while. It’s been a February, really. Between taking care of an infant and keeping up with my class blog, you’ve fallen by the wayside. I am sorry about this, but things are gonna change.

That other blog? Means nothing to me – YOU’RE my one and only. Well, sure I’ll still post there. I mean, it’s my job, baby. You don’t want me to lose my job, do you?

In all seriousness, February functioned as a sort of mental health month in order for me to adapt to the new duties of, you know, having a kid and teaching a blog class. So essentially I haven’t been blogging because I’ve been blogging. But to get back on track, with the blog and things beyond, here’s what’s going to happen in March:

  • Updates on Monday, Wednesday and Friday (at least)
  • At least one comics and beer post (each) per week
  • Continued (and hopefully more focused) updates in the realms of social media, visual communication, and infant care in the sterling tones you’ve come to expect. Yes, YOU.

I’m also trying to get my physical act back together, so this March I’ll be running at least a mile every day. Which right now means A mile every day, but I was doing pretty well in 2009 so hopefully I don’t take long to bounce back. Finally, I’m undergoing a strict fast food embargo for the month. Why in March? Because it’s not January.

So that’s what I’m hoping to do. Won’t you join me as I fail in full view of the Internet?

Blogging class finalization: Readings

No baby yet, so I’m battening down the pre-semester hatches at work. I’ve mentioned before that I’ll be teaching a blogging and journalism class this semester (you can check out the as-yet sparsely populated course blog). Currently I’m finalizing the syllabus, which means currently I’m trying to fit 15 pounds of sausage into a ten-pound bag. Is it any wonder why I’m letting myself be distracted from the task to write a blog post?

In seriousness, I’m hoping a little bloggery will help me suss some things out (as well as clearing the cobwebs). Now’s the time when all those great ideas I had in the shower need to crystallize into something teachable, doable, and gradable. So maybe you, Internet, can help with a few things.

Today, I’ll talk about the course text. We’re using Dan Gillmor’s We the Media, which I realize is a little dated as social media texts go, but it’s also one of the seminal works in this area. I don’t want to use some “how to blog” book as the main text because I want students to also get at the history and philosophy behind what we in journalism and communications are currently grappling with.

Also, although it’s been colloquially known as “the blog class” around fair Martin Hall, the class is about more than that. To my mind, the “what can we do with this?’ tone of Gillmor’s book allows for a good first approach for students.

Finally, the class will be supplemented with a number of other readings (in addition to the actual blogs and feeds students will be following). Right now the list includes:

Some of these, like Gillmor, are activism-oriented (Beckett, Shirky), but others are here as texts that are practice-oriented (Huffington, Mathison), or context-oriented (Perlmutter), or just interesting artifacts (Ward; no Twitter handle that I can identify – heck, the website for his text is now just a link farm).

I am assigning groups of my 22 students to each of these texts (except Mathison, I think, which is more of a reference), and throughout the semester they will report as a panel on the text and how it applies to real-world examples. They’ll each be posting these to their personal blogs, and I’ll provide links on the main course page.

In addition to all this dead-tree media, the readings will be supplemented by readings from online; Jay Rosen‘s Pressthink, for example. But in this area, as well as the texts listed above, I’d love any suggestions you might have to offer.

That’s enough for today, I think. Tomorrow I’ll try to post more, perhaps on some of the projects I’m planning. For now, though, I’m going to get back to actually MAKING the syllabus.

Unlocking achievers

The events of the past week have conspired to shake this idea loose within my dusty innards. In fact, this post wouldn’t exist without a multistage chain of causality. Considering this post itself is about the interaction of links and commenting, it is in a sense shaped like itself. Observe:

To kick things off, my friend Carrie Brown reposted this story about World of Warcraft’s paywall approach as a potential model for newspapers to adapt (if not adopt). The points in brief:

  1. People will pay for interaction
  2. News as gaming: And gaming involves a hand in shaping content, much like Dan Gillmor’s idea of the read/write web.
  3. Reward readers via rewards and unlockables.

Another friend, Hans Meyer, followed up on Carrie’s post to build on the idea. Citing the original’s argument, that many news orgs ignore comments even while WoW users are paying in part for that interaction, Hans tosses out the suggestion of a system of medals or badges similar to what’s used in massively multiplayer gaming (and kindly cites my own argument about the collecting habit in the process). One might rack up achievements, he suggests, through posting, or through providing solid tips, or some other such system.

This idea got me thinking about how to reward those who participate while not creating barriers to those who are not yet on board. The ideal should be to encourage quality participation from all parties involved while at the same time remaining accessible to newcomers. In my gaming experience, the business of rewards takes two forms: Levels and achievements, so I’ll take a look at them as possible options.

This will not be you.

Option one: Levels, as in gaining levels through your accomplishments. To level (see noun #6 and verb #3) means the game has changed – you’re bigger, stronger now, but the challenges you face also tend to increase, so the level 5 gnome is playing a different game than the level 2 one.

The idea of levels seems interesting, but also harbors a potential problem: Levels give us something to aspire to, but they also may provide a reward to some at the cost of driving off others. Think about it: There are some who log in to WoW and see the level 70 necromancer with the epic mount and think “That’s what *I* want,” but there are others, perhaps many, who see that same guy and think “There’s no way I’ll have the time/resources/socks to do that” and head back to Bejeweled.

One more issue: What’s so special about that guy in the first place? Sure, in a game it makes perfect sense that those who pay their dues reap the rewards, but does it send the same message in news? Maybe the implication there is that this guy’s opinion is worth more than yours because he’s a regular. That’s not automatically bad, but it requires weighing rewards for the loyal with the potential of driving off newcomers.

You want this.

On the other hand, some people’s thoughts ARE better. Gawker’s starred commenter system – where the default is to hide the comments of commenters without stars – is an interesting example of this. Not only that, but starred commenters on sites like Gawker, Kotaku, and Deadspin can also boost the nonstarred by promoting them in the comment thread. Still feel bad for those unheard commenters? Go ahead and click the “show all comments” button – try it here – and start reading the unfiltered feed. You’ll shut it back off again, I promise; once you taste the nectar of a higher signal-to-noise ratio, forever will it dominate how you read.

If not levels, then, what? How about the Xbox alternative of achievements? Achievements are little things that are unlocked for little (and big) accomplishments – on Xbox they add to your Gamerscore. You rack them up, they show up on your profile, they make you feel good … and they have little to no influence on gameplay. Yet people pursue them, even sometimes cheat for them. What’s more, the achievement is an incentive for both the WoWer and the Bejeweler.

I GOT MY MERIT BADGE IN INTERNET.

That’s because there’s a difference between levels and achievements as incentives. Levels, as mentioned, mean your game has changed, and that your experience is no longer that of some others. Achievements, on the other hand, mean demonstrated proficiency, not privileges. An achiever may look good, and there will surely be competition to unlock achievements more and faster, but at the end of the day they are an incentive that are less likely to daunt the newcomer.

Maybe it’s my Boy Scout heritage, but Internet achievements could function like merit badges. The only advantage gained is braggin’ rights, so any boost would come from the actions of the community rather than from an administrator or other power. They could be just as much an incentive as levels, but more democratic and less divisive.

(As a final note: It’s also interesting that the WoW forums themselves are grappling with a similar question: How do we allow maximum participation with minimal shenanigans?)

Testmanship

It’s finals week! That means it’s finals designing week! Lift up your hearts and be glad!

I’ve put together a few exams in my day, but it’s always a thought-provoking experience. A good test should be a mix of the difficult and the basic. But how tricky is too tricky, and how easy is too easy? In addition, there’s the balancing act of divvying up the points into sections (multiple choice, T/F, short answer, essay), and making something that’s manageably gradable.

Some of my considerations – as always, your mileage may vary:

  • Essays: I like these because they emphasize ideas over list memorization, but my snail’s-pace grading style (and having 55 students in class) requires me to limit them. Usually I stick to a single 10-pointer, with about half of those points tied to a clear grading rubric (for my midterm, the essay was a Potter Box ethics case study, and identifying the four steps was a point each).
  • Multiple-choice: Four options seems about right. If you’re using three, you might as well just do true/false, and using more seems like an unreasonable time-sink. The exception is if you’re one of those who includes a clearly wrong, or, god help you, joke option (I like using “The Spanish Inquisition“). However, keep in mind that “clearly” wrong is subjective – there’s always someone.
  • Short answer: I like these, but they always get away from me in the scoring. What started off a simple “list and explain the three things” inevitably mutates into a cesspool of fractional points. “Well, he named the term but his description wasn’t right but it kinda was in places …” Bleh. I usually err on the side of giving points to the student in these cases, but I should probably toughen up.
  • True/false: These remind me of Mitch Hedberg: “Have you ever tried sugar … or PCP?” I tend to avoid these because I never liked them, but I was always intrigued by the variant that adds “If False, explain why.” Some day I’ll give it a shot.
  • Extra credit: There are two flavors of this for me, which emphasize either “extra” or “credit.” The former focuses on the fine details I try to avoid in the test proper; my thinking is that if you’re actually in touch with the material at that high a level, you deserve a few points.The latter focuses on giving credit where credit is due: If I’ve been talking about something since day one, but it’s not specifically on the study guide, then it’s something you SHOULD know – and if you DO, well then, have a point! (use sparingly)
  • Difficulty balance: I don’t like to make questions that are hard for the sake of being hard – I save my obscure references for extra credit questions (if you want something extra, you’ve got to DO something extra). “Difficult” for me tends to refer to questions that don’t have a clear answer, or that require some reflection to determine which answer is best.Hard questions should be so because they require thought, not just memory. A good gauge is when a test-taker stops and takes that long gaze up at the blackboard, seemingly willing the answers to appear upon its surface (granted, some students do this for every question, so focus on your high performers).
  • Overall harmony: I tend to write more questions than will actually be on the test, then prune the leafy ones and trim those that are good but don’t necessarily fit or are redundant. This has the added benefit of providing a well from which to draw for future exams (if you’re the kind of sneaky bastard who changes up your exams, which I am).

This particular 35-pointer is almost done. Right now I’m seeing a problem with that point count, as it seems too small to fit the amount of material I consider appropriate for a final exam, but that’s what I promised, so that’s the framework I’ll need to work within. Regardless of design, however, I know that come 10 a.m. tomorrow, I’ll be locked in my office talking to myself about how someone could have chosen B – “Seriously? B? It’s obviously not B. How could you think it was B? …”

Dis-Connections

I joined Fishville last week. Yesterday I removed the application. I quit because I didn’t care about it. It was something I needed, the realization that it didn’t matter to me if my virtual goby died. I’m grateful to the good people of Fishville for reminding me of something I need to be reminded of every now and then: I don’t care about any of these games.

When the baby gets here, I’m going to stop playing games.

That’s the plan, anyway. And like New Year’s resolutions, it’s got maybe a 0.001% chance of success. But every man needs a mission, and this is mine. Casual games like Farmville, Castle Age and Legends of Zork will all be left to lie fallow. No more haunting Jay Is Games when I get a free moment. Enough. For a while, anyway.

Maybe this is the Catholicism talking – we like to give things up for a few weeks every year, after all. Although I never made New Year’s resolutions, I’ve always kind of enjoyed Lent, even as the devoutly lapsed Catholic I am today. There’s something about the decision being out of your hands that makes the sacrifice satisfying. If I’ve got to give something up, I can look at the sacrifice as an experience, something with a reason, one that’s more significant than wanting to drop 20 pounds.

There’s a kind of fascination, for me, in observing what you do when you can’t do what you normally would do. I’ve failed lots of diets, but I always stuck with Lenten vows to avoid dessert, or french fries (harder than you might think), or profanity (yes, I succeeded at that). I imagine Muslims experience a similar sensation during their Ramadan fast. There’s a reason so many religions draw on fasting as a form of devotion: It makes the sacrifice seem significant precisely because it’s not merely personal – it’s in service of something larger than yourself.

To that end, I plan to renounce gaming in service of something smaller than myself: The little creature that’s due maybe a few weeks from today.

Just ... got to ... plant ... these ... squash ...

It’s not that there’s something wrong with gaming, nor is it that I play a lot of games (though my time has definitely increased). It’s more what I’ve started to notice about why I’m playing. I like the games I play, but there’s an uncomfortable compulsion to some of it. Gotta check the crops. Gotta fight the monster. Gotta maintain, update, and generally be in mind of what’s going on in this or that virtual universe. There’s enough “gotta” in faculty life, so why am I adding to that pile?

This isn’t just true of games, it’s true of Facebook, and much of the social media in which I’m engaged (including this blog). I’ve had the “gotta check email” bug since college, which I was first introduced to the internet (it didn’t help that this was while I was “courting” my wife – for a while I checked compulsively in the hopes of a note from her. see, Jess, it’s all your fault). The “gotta check” urge extends into today, and to me it suggests two things: I need to better manage my time online, and I need to rethink what I’m spending time with.

// Note: At this point I went off on a whole tangent about journalism,
// social media, and alienation, but this has mercifully been excised
// for a later date.

Do I stop all social media contact as well? No, or not yet, anyway. Please understand I’m not holding up games, or Web 2.0 as a whole, as incompatible with family life – I know plenty more involved than I am (in both areas) who manage it admirably. But it’s a new thing for me, and I want to experience it with as few distractions as possible.

Right now I’m considering how to go about streamlining my social media engagements, which I’ll discuss here at a later date, but the games are something clear that I can point to as fat that can be trimmed. Understand, too, that I fully intend for my Spawn to grow up with a healthy appreciation for gaming (I’ve already been dreaming up ways run D&D for six-year-olds). But some clarity of vision is necessary first, and that means some housecleaning.

So sorry, Fishville. But thanks.

Media ethics students vs. Tiger Woods

Today will be a bit of departure. In my media ethics class, one of the participation requirements is that students use the class discussion boards to apply class subjects to current topics. Just coming off weeks on privacy, online media, and entertainment, a board discussion on Tiger Woods’ current troubles got fairly lively. Presented here without too much of my blather are some of those comments, all of which should be treated as [sic]’d.

First, there was a broad range of discussion on public figures and what exactly their right to privacy should be:

I truly think once you reach a certain level of notoriety that you lose some of the privacy. You put your life out there for others to see. Tiger took away the curtain. He invited us in, and we saw things that we shouldn’t have. It’s the risk. If you’re a responsible journalist you had absolutely no choice but to delve further into the affair side of the story. Again, he put his life out there for us to see, and he has to live with the consequences. He voluntarily gave up some degree of privacy.

He deserves his right to privacy just as much as any of us. Tiger has every right to keep this a private matter. As much as people and the media wants to know what happened, its not there right. Tiger apologizes for his mistakes and that should be enough.

When people sign contracts to become public figures, they sign away much of their privacy. Unfortunately, it’s not illegal to follow these celebrities everywhere they go (malls, clubs, etc.) pelting them with useless questions, it just shows that there are jobs available for people who want to act like douchebags.

An interesting sub-section of this has to do with the perceived protection of a public figure’s home, with “home” being understood as both an abstract and as a physical place of dwelling:

Its not our right to know the intimate details of what goes on in a family’s home. However, if you become a multi millionaire by performing a skill in front of the whole world and have a whole team of professionals to protect your image and you slip up like Tiger has, you should disclose more information than he has up to this point. He doesn’t have a problem cashing those jumbo checks that we the people accumulate the money for, but when it comes time to be truthful, he shuns us? The whole situation is still behind a foggy curtain and I feel cheated.

Public figures such as Mr. Woods do deserve a degree of privacy. However, I do not believe they should reasonably be able to expect the media to leave them alone. Celebrities often expect to be able to make millions being in the public eye through their work, endorsements and other methods, but have trouble accepting that there is a trade off. […] I believe that anything that happens within his home should be left alone, however when Tiger decided to leave his home he placed himself in the spotlight. By leaving his home he forfeited his privacy in the matter.

Some (god bless ’em) went to the length of applying the ethical paradigms such as the Golden Mean:

At one extreme we would not be given any details about Tiger Wood’s situation. There would be no information about the car accident or his marital struggle. At the other extreme the public would learn every little detail, down to the woman’s name that Tiger Woods is supposedly having an affair with. In the middle of these to extremes is the best course of action. This would involve informing the public of the accident, Tiger Wood’s condition, and any other factual information. If Tiger Woods wanted to disclose any more information to the public it should come straight from him.

Several students described the media in terms of having no choice in the matter, almost like a force of nature:

History has shown us that if they do it to themselves we as journalists really have no major choice but to investigate. It’s in our job descriptions.

[H]e was in a car accident which is news. A lot of details regarding regular citizens in car accidents are reported on, so journalists have a right to report this story.

Finally, an interesting point on coverage of Woods’ wife:

[A] lot of people have been asking – what will his wife do now? And they have responded by saying “she’ll stay with him because what else can she do, she was a nanny before she met him.” This is despicable. So just because she wasn’t wealthy before she met him, she’s suddenly worth nothing?

Discussions like these have been the high point of the class – there was another good one on the ethics of using Kurt Cobain’s likeness to sing Three Doors Down tunes in Guitar Hero. While you can still see some conflating of the legal and the ethical above, I’m pleased to see these future media workers teasing out some distinctions between “wants” and “needs.” More importantly, I’m glad to see them starting to understand that the answers are often complicated, and thus deserving of discussion.

Finally, I find the frequent, and often thoughtful, use of “douchebag” in ethical discussion this year to be compelling. Perhaps douchebag ethics can be an addition to Patterson & Wilkins’ next edition.