The media and technology — by Mark Rogers

October 18, 2014

Sorry, folks: turns out crabzilla doesn't exist after all

Have you heard? The Nigerian government has a ceasefire deal with Boko Haram rebels that includes the release of hundreds of abducted schoolgirls.

Or have they? It depends on the source. Some news outlets would have you believe it’s a done deal, while others are more skeptical.

That’s the nature of the Internet. With so many sources for the news, it’s hard sometimes to know what to believe.

For really wild rumours, there is no better site than Snopes for separating the wheat from the chaff.

In recent days, the site has been feasting on the hysteria surrounding Ebola since a few cases cropped up in the U.S.

Among the Ebola urban legends they’ve debunked:

  • A Texas town was quarantined because a family of five tested positive for ebola.
  • Ebola can now be spread by airborne transmission.
  • Ebola victims have returned to life.

But what about stories like the one about the kidnapped schoolgirls? That one at least seems plausible.

To check on those stories, you can now turn to Emergent, a site created by Craig Silverman, who first gained fame by holding newspapers to account with Regret the Error.

(Coincidentally, the latest Regret the Error post is titled Top 5 falsehoods about Ebola.)

Over at Emergent, we learn that the Boko Haram story has been classified at Unverified. Only three sources are for the claim, while another 13 are playing it safe by observing the situation.

I’d say this is a story we can believe when we actually see pictures of the girls being welcomed home by their families.

In many cases, stories are considered Unverified — the claim, for example, that ISIS fighters are being trained to fly captured fighter jets. Or the claim that ISIS has executed two of its own fighters.

Both these claims certainly seem like they could be true. But as it stands, we simply don’t know for sure.

Some stories at Emergent, such as the one about the picture of a 50-foot crab, have been confirmed false.

You might wonder why anyone would believe such an outlandish story in the first place. But admit it: wouldn’t it be cool if crabzilla really did exist? And it’s kinda fun to read about it.

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October 11, 2014

When readers pay, journalism is the winner

The people have spoken loud and clear. They want their news on the Internet, but they don’t want to have to pay for it.

Sites like Huffington Post and Buzzfeed have responded by creating advertising vehicles thinly disguised in a veneer of journalism. But the clickbait journalism needed to bring in advertising revenue winds up lowering the bar and doing little for anyone hoping to become an informed citizen.

At the heart of two recent experiments is a complete ban on advertising in favour of reader support. The Dish, run by U.S. blogger Andrew Sullivan, and De Correspondent, created by a Dutch crowdfunding campaign, both promise substance in their reports, along with independence from advertising.

The Dish, which claims to be both “biased and balanced,” continues to bring in revenue of close to $1 million a year — all of it from about 30,000 subscribers, according to the publisher’s latest report.

Traffic to the site, on the other hand, can vary widely from month to month. Publishers of ad-driven sites would be worried about even a small drop in pageviews, but The Dish can ride them out, knowing that the business will be sustained by a strong base of subscribers.

The silver lining to these ups and downs in traffic is that they do not really have an impact on our finances — because, unlike almost everyone else in online journalism, we’re completely subscription based. That guides us away from the sirens of clickbait, and allows us to provide content that we think matters — even though we know it won’t rack up pageviews.

Meanwhile, back in November 2013, a group of Dutch journalists raised $1.7 million in a crowd funding campaign to create a platform that “focuses on background, analysis, investigative reporting, and the kinds of stories that tend to escape the radar of mainstream media because they do not conform to what is normally understood to be ‘news.’”

In other words, the opposite of popular ad-supported sites.

Like Sullivan, they keep their readers up to date on how the site is doing financially. In fact, they see explanations of how they spend their members’ money to be one of the keys to their success. Their latest report says the publication now has a sustainable membership of 28,000 members who pay €60 ($76 ) a year.

Among their innovations is the strategy of reaching out to the people who “like” them on Facebook. They figure those people are good prospects for memberships, and in many cases this turns out to be true.

The Internet has become so dominated by the likes of Google and Facebook — and their attempts to ram ads down our throats — that it’s hard to imagine even a small corner of it free of hucksterism.

Of all the business models I’ve seen for online journalism, the concept of readers paying to keep out ads is the most promising. Journalists working at these sites can exercise independence and respond to the needs of their readers — even build a relationship with them. And editors won’t have to worry about finding pictures of kittens to suck people into their site, only to leave them with the empty feeling that they’ve once again wasted their time.

OK, so De Correspondent did post one picture of a kitten. (See above.) But it was a good one, and they only did it once.

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September 27, 2014

As always, journalism students are signing up for an adventure

What should I say to a classroom full of journalism students looking for advice from an oldster about preparing for a career?

I do indeed have such a mission coming up, and I’ve been giving it a lot of thought. After all, what they’re going to see is someone whose journalism career crashed spectacularly with the failure of the Kamloops Daily News. My experience, which is sadly all too common, is not exactly a shining example for young people aspiring to a stable, well-paying vocation.

Likely, I’ll start off with some questions: First, who here is even contemplating a career in journalism? From what I understand, about half the students in the journalism program at Thompson Rivers University are actually looking forward to a career in public relations. For anyone wanting to make good money and eventually collect a pension, that would be the wise choice.

Still, when you’re young, you’re more likely to be idealistic, and that characteristic may enough to encourage many of them to try their luck with the perils of journalism. And, truth be told, things haven’t changed that much in the past 30 years or so.

I can still remember one of my journalism instructors in Vancouver telling us that we might be better off applying for jobs as “buggy boys” at Safeway. After all these years, you don’t hear about food stores going out of business very often. And you can still see employees gathering up shopping carts from the parking lots.

Meanwhile, three papers I’ve worked at — including The Daily News — have have gone down the tubes. The others were in Courtenay and Sechelt.

My next question for the students will be: who here is thinking about a career in newspapers? I’ll be surprised if even one hand goes up. I’m thinking that the really ambitious ones will be looking to the Internet and mobile apps. Exciting new ways of telling stories are coming up all the time. There may not be much money in journalism, but there’s plenty of innovation to support it.

In a sense, today’s journalism students will forever remain students. There will never be a time when they aren’t expected to learn new things. Social media and videos are just the beginning. Reporters who know some computer coding will have an edge. And they can presume that it won’t be long before the Internet is old hat. As I predicted last week, the reporters of the future will be giving guided tours from the scene of the news via virtual reality headsets.

And that might just be the point where journalism finds a new and sustainable business model. If virtual reality is half as big as I think it is going to be, people will be willing to pay a lot of money for the experience — money that can go toward paying journalists the decent salaries they deserve.

OK, so there’s the possibility I’m wrong about virtual reality. But if that doesn’t go anywhere, you can be sure that one of the other technologies bubbling below the surface will take its place. I’m thinking of artificial intelligence or augmented reality, for example.

So I’m going to tell the students that while things aren’t looking good right now, they should hold on to their idealism and believe in the future. It will be an adventure for sure, and they’ll be the ones helping to create it.

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September 20, 2014

Virtual reality will make the Internet seem old fashioned

Oculus Rift

The Internet is getting old. Here we are clicking on computer screens, tapping on pieces of glass — reading, looking at pictures, watching videos. This is supposed to be high tech? It’s just a new way of doing old stuff.

Luckily, some truly new stuff is coming our way. Soon, games, entertainment and the news will be a whole new experience.

I’m talking about Oculus Rift, a virtual reality system that was recently bought by Facebook and is being developed in partnership with Samsung. Facebook released a new prototype on Saturday with major audio advances. And Samsung has released Gear VR, a system powered by smartphones.

Oculus started out as an immersive way to play video games, but it turns out that may be just the tip of the iceberg.

How about strapping on the head gear and taking in a concert? You wouldn’t be stuck in a chair like an ordinary member of the audience. You could fly around the venue and look at it from multiple angles, maybe go on stage and get the view of the performer.

Rolling Stone imagined such a thing in an interview with Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab:

“Now, because cameras are so cheap and can be so tiny, you can flood a concert hall with them — imagine that every single person at the concert had these cameras on them. If they were networked, it could all be stitched into one unified 3D model of the concert.” So you could view the show from almost any angle. Add in haptic feedback (which the Rift doesn’t have), and you could even experience the sensation of slamming into someone in the pit.

A demonstration of a concert similar to this took place in April at the Sundance Film Festival.

I press a button, and suddenly I’m in the back of the audience, slowly revolving counterclockwise around this circuit. I’m free to turn in any direction so I can inspect the artists when I move past, or watch Beck on stage.

Or how about if you didn’t want to just watch a TV show, but actually be part of it. One fan has created a VR of Jerry’s apartment from Seinfeld. You can’t interact with the characters, but I predict that won’t be far off.

NBC went on the road earlier this month with an Oculus Rift experience that allows fans to sit in the judges’ chairs in The Voice. Imagine interacting with fellow judges Gwen Stefani, Pharrell Williams, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton.

And soon it will be possible for virtual reality to take us on virtual travels. Marriott Hotels is already offering something like it:

Suddenly, I’m drawn into the map. The terrain lines warp around me, creating a tunnel. With a whoosh, I shoot through the wormhole onto a black-sand beach. The sky is blue, the palms are swaying, the ocean laps at the shoreline. For a moment, everything is completely, utterly serene. I am in Maui.

Journalists had better pay attention to virtual reality because people will soon expect more than just being told about an event — they will want to be there and have the reporter give them a guided tour.

If it can be done with travel and concerts, why not with major events such as a royal wedding or the opening ceremonies at the Olympics. Many people would be willing to pay to be virtual spectators.

The next step might be to make it possible for sports fans to take the virtual seat of their choice at the Super Bowl or the World Cup final.

Something similar could be done with documentaries. We could walk among the penguins in Antarctica, run with the rebels in Syria, watch the votes being counted in the Scottish referendum. Or experience life as a prisoner at Guantanamo Bay. Oh wait — it’s already been done by Nonny de la Peña from USC School of Cinematic Arts:

With his hands tied behind his back and muffled sound deliberately made to sound like he had a hood over his head in his ears, one participant quickly ended up in a stress position.

In our times, people line up to buy an iPhone whose most amazing trick is the ability to swipe an image and make it seem like the wind is blowing through picture of trees. In the future, we’ll feel the chill of the wind on our bodies as we trek along on a virtual expedition at the North Pole.

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September 9, 2014

New technology all about making it effortless to spend our money

Spending is about to become more fun than ever.

Apple showed off its new iPhones and Watch on Tuesday, along with a new payment system called Apple Pay.

They prefaced the announcement by showing a video of how people currently pay for things. Oh, the tedium of digging in a purse to fish out a credit card only to have it not work the first time. If only someone would deliver us from this vexing problem.

Then they showed Apple Pay in action. A tap of the iPhone along with a satisfying beep — and that was it. Ahh, payment satisfaction at last.

iPhone and Watch

Well, that’s one way of looking at it. Another way might be: Holy cow! Money is going to be slipping through my fingers faster than ever!

Actually, that may a side effect that Apple is hoping you’ll overlook. They’ve partnered with all the major credit card companies plus most of the big U.S. banks to take a cut of every transaction. As CEO Tim Cook pointed out, the transaction business numbers in the trillions of dollars every year in the U.S. alone.

He also noted, of course, that Apple is working hard to bring its payment system to other countries. Hold onto your wallets, Canadians!

Oh, and by the way, one of the first things you could buy with Apple Pay is an Apple Watch, which also uses the new system. You won’t even have to bother pulling your phone out of your pocket. A simple flick of the wrist and you’re done.

And Apple’s not the only company coming up with innovative ways to rack up our credit bills. On Monday, Twitter started experimenting in the U.S with a Buy Now button.

If, for example, you see a T-shirt on Twitter that looks cool, there will be no need to ponder whether you actually have room in your drawer for yet another top that will hardly ever be worn.

Just tap a button and buy now!

According to The Associated Press, Twitter’s experiment will include partners such as the musical groups Soundgarden and Panic! At The Disco, retailers Home Depot and Burberry, and nonprofits The Nature Conservancy and GLAAD.

I have to wonder how these initiatives can possibly work. I don’t question the technology, but haven’t consumers already been sucked dry? Isn’t the middle class already up to its eyeballs in debt?

We’ll find out soon enough.

Image Credits: Twitter and Apple

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September 6, 2014

The battle for hearts and minds on social media has already begun

A political science professor at Thompson Rivers University called for a “war of ideas” during a forum last week looking at how an international terrorist organization managed to recruit a former student of the Kamloops institution.

Unfortunately, Derek Cook had few answers and managed to raise some wrong questions.

Social media was seen as a culprit by Cook and others who took part in the gathering on Thursday. The interconnectivity created by the Internet has brought about amazing things, but also terrible things.

It has helped bring together like-minded people from around the world, whether their interests are stamp collecting or barbaric acts of cruelty.

Groups such as Islamic State have used that connectivity to recruit new members, and persuade them to take part in battles in Syria and Iraq. They aim to carve out a new nation made up only of people who adhere to their specific brand of religion.

Cook says young men steered in that direction are being “conned,” and that it is up to the media and others to show them a different path.

“It has to be a fight about belief systems.”

Cook appeared to be unaware, though, that the battle has already begun. And there’s a lot more to it than the satire that he said he has seen.

For example, the U.S. State Department is turning the tables on Islamic State with a video on YouTube that aims to turn off potential recruits with scenes of decapitated heads, crucified corpses and public executions.

A voiceover in Arabic mocks IS recruiters by suggesting you can learn skills such as blowing up mosques, setting off suicide bombs and “crucifying and executing Muslims.”

It’s part of the State Department’s “Think Again Turn Away” campaign, which also makes use of a Twitter account and a Facebook page.

YouTube, of course, has taken down or blocked any videos from the terrorist group, just as Twitter has gone through a lot of trouble to delete the accounts of anyone associated with them.

In fact, Islamic State was forced to use a little-known social media alternative called Diaspora to publicize it beheading videos. They’ve since been booted off there as well.

Still that doesn’t mean they have been silenced. Supporters, for example, will sometimes hijack popular hashtags to get their message out on Twitter.

And ABC News has reported that a well-educated American may be behind the group’s social media campaign.

The FBI is quoted as saying his expertise includes a “college degree related to computer technology” and that he “was previously employed at a telecommunications company.”

Even so, if you were worried by revelations of social media snooping by the National Security Agency in the U.S., don’t forget that their primary targets are Islamic State and their sympathizers. The same social media tools used by IS for recruitment are also used by Western investigators to track them down.

“You can have a sense of actually knowing someone, a sense of intimacy with someone you’ve never met,” said J.M. Berger, a counterterrorism analyst who monitors the Islamic State’s online presence, in an article published by the Wall Street Journal.

So, yes, the battle for hearts and minds on social media has already begun, and there are major players taking part. It’s really not much different from the propaganda efforts that have been a part of every war.

Are these wars of words helpful in any way? Forums like the one held at TRU demonstrate that words are always important. And if they prevent even a few drops of blood from being shed, then the more the better.

Image credit: lacejones

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September 1, 2014

Countries with almost nothing in common but their flags

Before there were icons and logos, there were flags. For centuries, people have been devising simple shapes and colours to symbolize complex ideas.

With hundreds of countries in the world, there are bound to be some oddly coincidental similarities among their flags. Here are some that I found.

There are many others that also have similarities, but this is because they share histories, ethnicities or religions. I haven’t included them.

Thailand and Costa Rica are on opposite sides of the world, yet their flags are the same — with reversed colours.

flag of Thailand flag of Costa Rica

The flag of Poland is the reverse of Indonesia and Monaco, which are identical. Singapore is also the same except that it has a moon and stars.

flag of Poland flag of Indonesia flag of Monaco flag of Singapore

The flags of Italy and Mexico are almost the same except Mexico has a decoration in the middle. Ireland is also close except that it ends with orange instead of red. Côte d’Ivoire is the reverse of Ireland.

flag of Italy flag of Mexico flag of Ireland flag of Côte d'voire

India and Niger have close to the same colours with a round object in the middle. Hungary is also close, but with a plain centre.

flag of India flag of Niger flag of Hungary

The flags of Romania and Chad are the same. Andorra is also the same except it has an emblem in the middle. Belgium is close — starting with black, instead of blue.

flag of Romania flag of Chad flag of Andorra flag of Belgium

Netherlands and Paraguay are close to the same, with the addition of an emblem for Paraguay.

flag of Netherlands flag of Paraguay

Ghana and Bolivia have the same colour combination but different embellishments.

flag of Ghana flag of Bolivia

Austria and Latvia are red with a horizontal white stripe in the middle. Lebanon is similar but also has a cedar in the middle.

flag of Austria flag of Latvia flag of Lebanon

Bangladesh, Japan, Laos, Palau and Greenland all have a big dot.

flag of Bangladesh flag of Japan flag of Laos flag of Palau flag of Greenland

Somalia, Vietnam and Morocco have a big star on a one-colour background.

flag of Somalia flag of Vietnam flag of Morocco

Three flags use maps of their territory: Cyprus, Kosovo and Antarctica.

flag of Cyprus flag of Kosovo flag of Antarctica

Bhutan and Wales both have dragons.

flag of Bhutan flag of Wales

Basque Country and the United Kingdom have crosses on top of each other.

flag of Basque Country flag of United Kingdom

Malaysia and the United States both have a blue canton and stripes.

flag of Malaysia flag of United States

And finally we have Nigeria in west Africa and Norfolk Island — a territory of Australia in the direction of New Zealand — with nothing in common except, you guessed it, their flags. That’s an evergreen that distinguishes the Norfolk Island flag.

flag of Nigeria flag of Norfolk Island

Credit: Flag icons from GoSquared.


August 30, 2014

Basic coding is fast becoming a part of basic literacy

Host a Maker Party event

Moms and dads, if you were to advise your children to learn just one skill in order to have a successful career — what would it be?

It’s taken a while, but I’m finally convinced. The kids should learn as much computer programming as they can. Even if it just means figuring out the basics of marking up copy for a website, it’s the one thing they’re all going to need to know if they have any hope of holding on to a well-paying, stable job.

We’ve reached a point where pretty much every business and organization, large or small, has a website and a presence on social media. Many have their own apps.

Currently, it’s common to have someone on staff who specializes in taking care of this kind of stuff. But I predict that in the near future, nearly everyone will be expected to contribute in one way or another. If you’ve got an update for the website, you’ll just have to go ahead and do it. No one will do it for you.

And while many content management systems have evolved to the point where it’s easy to make updates without having to mess with code, there are still times when it helps to know some HTML. Are the paragraphs jammed together instead of having a space between them? Maybe there’s a <p> tag missing.

Knowing HTML will become as common as knowing your ABCs.

If this sounds daunting, it shouldn’t. Take a few lessons in HTML or CSS — the building blocks of web design — and you’ll wonder why you were ever scared of it.

Luckily, encouragement for web literacy abounds on the Internet. Firefox, for example, has modified its start page to show just how easy it is to do a bit of coding. Want an orange background? Just type in the word “orange.”

It’s part of an effort by Mozilla — the open source organization behind Firefox — to promote Maker Party, described as a “global campaign to teach the web.”

It consists of thousands of events taking place in virtually every nook and cranny of the world. An unfortunate exception is our hometown of Kamloops. There is still time to add events to the list, though, and there are many bright people in the city who could organize one.

Even if nothing formal is put together, there is no reason why web savvy people can’t take the time to show friends and family some of the basics. The Webmaker site also has plenty of online training and resources available. You can also check out the free lessons at W3Schools.

It won’t be long before special events like the Maker Party will seem archaic. Children in elementary school will be taught HTML soon after learning the alphabet. And they’ll consider it to be one of their easier subjects.

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August 21, 2014

What I know about Jim Foley gives me hope

Jim Foley

Before he was beheaded by extremists in Syria, I had never heard of journalist Jim Foley. But having worked with journalists most of my life, I feel like I know a little bit about him.

For example, most people might think he was crazy to risk his life reporting from a war zone, a place where barbarism has become the norm.

Maybe. More likely he was an idealist with a streak of eccentricity. I’m thinking he was someone who believed the world is a better place if we can act and live out our lives based on knowledge — as much as that’s possible — of what’s really going on. He was willing to go to great lengths to carry out that belief. Maybe he was a little bit crazy, but we owe a debt of gratitude to people crazy enough to help us better understand what’s happening around us.

It’s because of people like Foley that I have greater confidence than ever that journalism will survive and thrive well into the future.

This is in spite of recent articles like the one by U.S. writer Clay Shirky who again sounds the death knell for newspapers. And in spite of the fact he has some good points. For example, it’s only a matter of time before newspapers lose their flyer business to some Internet equivalent — just as they lost the bulk of classified ads.

This will be particularly hard on free-distribution newspapers that depend heavily on the selling point of blanket coverage. Even so, the death of newspapers will not mean the death of journalism.

Determined journalists will simply find new ways of funding their passions.

A case in point is the crowd funding partnership between Huffington Post and Beacon Reader to pay and train a citizen of Ferguson, Missouri, to be a journalist for a year in this city torn by racial strife after a police officer shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

From Huffington Post:

Local resident Mariah Stewart has been covering the Ferguson protests as a citizen journalist with the support of readers through Beacon’s platform. With HuffPost readers’ support, we can make sure Stewart can continue her work.

The Beacon Reader is itself a great idea. You pay $5 a month to support the writer of your choice and get access to all the content.

I’m not saying this is some sort of golden path forward for journalism, but it does demonstrate that innovation is by no means dead.

Of course, some journalists have pointed out that Huffington Post should go ahead and actually hire a full-time reporter (with benefits!), and is instead using a gimmick to cheap out.

But what did you expect? Idealists with a streak of eccentricity seldom agree.

Image Credit: The Associated Press

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August 18, 2014

Affiliate links bring credibility into question

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover

I was all set to dump on the Washington Post for inserting “Buy Now” buttons in the text of its articles. Turns out it was a mistake — but still scary.

A “Buy Now” button was spotted on the Post’s website last weekend in a story about the creepy new cover for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Not only did it appear to be endorsing a book exploiting a JonBenet Ramsey look-alike, but it also called into question the authenticity of the article. Did the writer really mean what he said, or was he just trying to sell a book?

Making things worse is that the “Buy Now” affiliate is Amazon — owned by Jeff Bezos, the new owner of the Post. Could this really be how Bezos was going to save journalism? With cheesy buttons that send a few pennies to the paper whenever someone buys a book?

The buttons only appeared briefly, and were misplaced, a Post spokesperson told Mashable. They should have been over on the side, where they have been for years.

But even over on the side, affiliate links raise questions. With the Washington Post there is a level of trust that keeps the articles credible despite the presence of these links.

A run-of-the-mill blog, on the other hand, doesn’t have that kind of reputation. I’ve seen glowing reviews of software, only to find an affiliate link at the bottom. This has been going on for so long that readers seem to have learned to accept it as the price they pay for a free-wheeling Internet.

It’s getting to the point where the entire web needs a giant “Buyer Beware” button on it.

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