I recently attended the Webvisions conference in Portland, Oregon. Blaise Aguera y Arcas and Douglas Rushkoff were a few of the well-known speakers. Many of the sessions were led by developers who were working with cutting-edge web technologies. Some of the main themes I heard at the conference were as follows:

HTML5, CS3, and JQuery

Dave McFarland from PSU framed this discussion well. Our own group at OSU has been leveraging jQuery more with every new project. jQuery is essentially a library of Javascript functions that can be called with simplified code. jQuery is frequently updated and is much more cross-browser compatible than using Javscript in the past. We’ve been using it in our e-learning course development and also with mobile projects—jQuery mobile and the new Dreamweaver CS5.5 with PhoneGap and jQuery mobile support. CS3 and HTML5 sessions were to a large extent focused on future web features, potential web TV usage, and multimedia presentation examples.

Digital ethnography, especially as it relates to user interface (UX) and mobility

Many of the sessions, including Blaise Aguera y Arcas’ talk focused on user interface and understanding user preference and technology usage on a contextualized level. Kelly Goto and Rachel Hinman were all-star UX proponents and offered numerous ideas for moving beyond analytics and demographics to how individuals use technology at various times of the day. It appears many companies have moved beyond seeking a “sticky” site to one that is addictive. And so, branding and product design were related to sensory activity (especially tacticle) and emotional connection. Hinman’s discussion about the new ecology of untethered mobile devices and how mobile devices can “unlock” place was inspiring.

Vision for future (the ecology of new devices)

Rachel Hinman and Douglas Rushkoff covered a large swathe of ideas related to future technology trends. Much of Rushkoff’s talk focused on corporate interests versus individual interests and how technology is being used to subvert individuality and free thinking by corporate interests. One of his more memorable claims was that Facebook’s product was not the software, but the child—more specifically, the child’s social graph that can be monetized. He suggested Portland was “our last hope”–whatever that meant…and, he believed technology is most effective in the hands of the youth and “stoners”–not sure he was trying to directly correlate a location with this claim…but, the two were said at various points of his talk. While some of this was tongue in cheek banter, his main goal was to encourage the individual user of technology to be more efficacious and aware of the underlying technologies enabling our daily usage of software and devices. Without such awareness and discretion, he believed that we would be beholden to corporate interests and those who would use technology to slowly devalue individual rights. He said so much more, but the core of his talk reminded me of some of Sherry Turkle’s writings.

When Rushkoff heard one of my colleagues worked with Blackboard, he seemed a bit disappointed, but then signed his book with the following, “Blackboard is intentional”—great sense of humor.

Hinman recommended several articles. I found the following very enlightening (The Coming Zombie Apocalypse).

Media queries, prototyping (Check out Axure), and WebM versus h.264.

Vimeo

Vimeo is optimized for HD video (default playback setting) and gives the user numerous ways to share and distribute video. However, Vimeo, like YouTube, works best when your video is exported and optimized for the compression settings Vimeo prefers. Keep in mind that these settings change sporadically, so it’s best to check the Vimeo website for the latest information if you are working on a high profile project. Vimeo is especially well suited for embedding higher quality video as there are numerous playback options and Vimeo sets their default values somewhat higher for video playback. This can be either an advantage or disadvantage depending on your audience.

Vimeo compression website:

http://www.vimeo.com/help/compression

If you are using Final Cut Pro to export your video, here are some helpful tips related to settings. Again, it’s wise to check the most current settings on the Vimeo site before moving into a large export project.

(1) Export Type
You can export your videos using File->Export-> Quicktime Conversion or File->Send To->Compressor. The compressor provides more settings and also allows you to save a profile such as “Vimeo Export Settings.”

(2) Format and User Type
Format: MP4
User: LAN/Intranet

(3) Specifications
Click on the Options Button->
Video format: H.264
Data rate: 4500-5000 kbits/sec (may need to drop this to 3000 if you expect “slower” systems playing this content
Image size: 1280×720
Frame rate: current / key frame = 30 fps

(4) Audio
Click on the Audio Button (on top)->
AAC-LC, 320 kbps, channels=stereo, output sample rate=44.100khz, encoding quality=better

YouTube
Technical requirements for uploading video to YouTube

http://www.google.com/support/youtube/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=165543|

You’ll notice that the recommended export settings are very similar to Vimeo although the data rate is “automatic,” which could drop your intended image and audio quality below desired thresholds.

So, should you use Vimeo or YouTube?

This is a difficult question. Ideally, you should use both. The platforms have become very similar in terms of technical features, but YouTube is still the preferred platform for reaching a larger audience. Vimeo plays video by default in HD (YouTube plays HD only when the user selects this option—assuming the video is available in HD format) and still seems to use slightly higher quality settings for playback. So, if you are sure your end users have slower connectivity speeds, i.e. dial up, or are primarily rural–YouTube is often the preferred choice to ensure quicker download. Both platforms allow videos to be embedded on remote websites and allow keywords, channel/album association, customized shells, etc.

Another visible difference concerns advertisements. Currently, even when using a Vimeo Plus account, your Vimeo videos will playback on webpages that contain advertisements—normally at the bottom of the page. YouTube does not push advertising alongside of video playback, but you must be careful when directing users outside of your dedicated channel or embedded pages as videos played outside of this can sometimes associate with “unsavory” or inappropriate videos that show up on the heels of your screen in the form of thumbnails.

I’ve had several recent discussions with colleagues about whether one’s blogging actually influences others in meaningful ways. And we’re not just talking about page views, comments, and pingbacks. Over the last several years of blogging, I’ve searched for articles or studies that examine blogging from a more rigorous social science perspective and have found very little. A group of us presented on the topic a year ago at a conference and shared some lessons learned.

There is of course a sizable amount of advice, like the Slideshare presentation referenced above, that covers blogging guidelines, how to convert readers into customers (marketing), understanding analytics (number of visitors, length of visit, etc.); but in terms of a more traditional longitudinal study that captures a group’s changed behavior over time, very little. I’ve been asking myself why this is the case while sporadically scanning the web for something new on the topic. My primary goal for this post is to generate some discussion. I don’t pretend to have the answers yet, just informed questions.

(1) Should blogging be viewed as a discrete activity with predictable input and output?

The most obvious challenge presents itself when simply trying to define blogging. For example, does micro-blogging justify inclusion (Twitter, etc.)? What is the difference between a webpage and a blog? How often does a blog require update for it to be a blog and do academic requirements apply if the hoped for output is scholarship? Even if we agree on a definition today, technology advances will quickly unravel our current conventions and approach.

There are some other challenges related to definition. While a sizable scholarship discusses the physiological and cognitive processes underlying the act of reading and writing, blogging is a different animal. Blogging is physiological and cognitive, but occurs within a more complex cultural web of competing influences. In many ways, blogging demonstrates some of the original objectives of the printing press in exaggerated fashion: mass distribution and democratization of knowledge creation.  Consequently, some of the more interesting discussions about blogging situate blogging against the larger and interconnected world of social media and personal knowledge creation and management (see Harold Jarche’s blog). While there are some interesting domain-specific discussions on how blogging impacts a discipline or industry (or more recently a country’s form of government), the social dimension of blogging must also explain how blogging contributes to the individual’s connection to the online community network that is the Internet. And that’s just for starters.

So, even the most informed current descriptive framework is at best a crude working model when applied to tomorrow’s usage. As mentioned, blogging in its current form happens across a spectrum of cognitive processes (reading, writing, scanning, categorizing), media, cultures, and conventions. Studying something this broad in scope is an obvious challenge.

(2) Is blogging really “epiphenomenal”?

Lawrence Solum wrote an interesting article entitled “Blogging and the Transformation of Legal Scholarship” (2006). It’s dense and the conclusions reached are based on anecdote and personal impression. However, Solum makes some important points. First, he suggests that blogging is “epiphenomenal,” or basically several layers removed from the more important underlying influences.  He also suggests that the value of blogging can be reduced to three main transitions or paradigm shifts:  the long form to short form, exclusive rights to open access, and mediation to disintermediation. Some of his rationale is specific to legal scholarship, but I find much of his reasoning applies to all forms of blogging, especially academic blogging.

He has much more to say, but he summarizes his paper with the following thoughts:

I have argued for the proposition that blogs are symptoms of the larger forces at work in the world of legal scholarship. The importance of blogs, if any, is as the medium (or technology) through which the incentives and institutional forces that are pushing legal scholarship toward the short form, open access, and disintermediation are doing their work. If it had not been blogs, it would have been something else. If someone invents a medium that provides a more effective or less costly mechanism through which the forces can operate, then blogs will recede and that medium will take their place. It’s not about the blogging…. But I do have an opinion: blogs will play only a modest supporting role in the future of legal scholarship. Scholarship is about ‘papers,’ not ‘posts.’

Imagine the early beneficiaries of the printing press holding their Gutenberg Bible in one hand and a list of printing press 2.0 features in the other. Our culture today participates in defining new technologies in ways that are unimaginable several hundred years ago but the inclusion of rapidly changing technologies make these waters both deep and opaque, especially if we are looking for predictive models that cut across industries, blog objectives, and fluctuating cultural influences.

(3) Is the “Long Tail” better than no tail?

The concept of the long tail is an important concept in understanding how blog impact can be measured relative to other communication approaches. Truth be told, I only find a tiny fraction of existing blogs worth following—perhaps 5-10 total. Sure, I peruse a longer list sporadically, but time is precious and I’m very picky about my syndicated reading activities. Thankfully, many online micro-communities are much larger than the local “macro” communities I rub shoulders with in my locale. So, even though my online audience may seem small compared to the total online community, I’m usually reaching a much larger audience (albeit more superficially) using blogging technology than I could ever reach using most other communication technologies—and, with a minimal ongoing effort. The “ROI” equation generally comes down favorably from this perspective and as mentioned, the Internet is filled with these types of testimonials.

(4) Is blogging truly equitable? Blogging nobility and the techno-peasants

While blogging is often described as a “leveling” communication technology, I’m convinced that there are clearly the “haves” and “have-nots” in terms of audience size. So, is it fair to say that the blogging nobility generally attract tremendous traffic and the rest of us find our place on the long tail? If so, how does one push through the strata and become blogging nobility? More importantly, is this even advisable? I’ve read books like “Crush It” by  Gary Vaynerchuk, but they often strike me as 8 parts reality TV and 2 parts substance. No disrespect to Gary as his efforts are laudable, but I struggle with leaning on examples that sell the process along with the product and rely primarily on personal branding. This approach excludes a vast number of bloggers in various institutional contexts who must be very careful about pushing their own personal brand alongside their university, company, or organizational branding.

While there are indeed some helpful tips in books like “Crush It,” I’ve found that common to all of these stories is that blogging superstars spend a tremendous amount of time “feeding the machine.” At some point, they have become “full-time” bloggers who build personal brand through a practiced Zen-like coordination of relationship building activity (much of which has nothing to do with a blog per se): conferences, guest writing, coalition building, workshop hosting, etc. There also seems to be a certain quelque chose that is often captured in their online persona and commitment to, or knowledge of a topic that attracts others. Blogging simply makes their voice more accessible to an already interested population.  Nevertheless, how do they keep an audience’s interest over time and grow that audience?

In the same way that an alumni office or insurance company depends on the health of their personal network, blogging heavyweights who outlast a single post of viral interest seem to have found the balance between the high time commitment their social media channels demand and their business or financial requirements. In short, they figure out how to make the commitment work for them. For the already famous, blogging is an extension of already established reputation (think of following Bill Gates via Twitter), but for the handful of bloggers who have made blogging their living or have entered the rarified air of the blogging elite, it would be fascinating to know whether any common principles can be derived between different domains, i.e. academic, business, political.

So, in the spirit of a level playing field that pulls in diverse viewpoints, I would like to hear your thoughts on these topics. I will also welcome some guest writers to the blog over the next month and ask for their opinions, especially around the questions asked in my post.

What would the ideal study or article examine if it were to adequately define this question of “do blogs change lives” and how can we measure our impact beyond statistics and comments?

How often and by how much does the “long tail” exceed the reach of our local audience? Is this justification enough for our blogging effort?

What principles or common approaches jettison some into the blogging nobility? Like Jim Collin’s profile study of successful CEOs, “Good to Great,” or the recent case study of the New York Times Interactive News Technology department, what do blogging superstars have in common and how do we measure our ROI relative to our career objectives?

I would particularly welcome a guest post from someone outside of academia. Please let me know if you’re interested.

Dec
24

Do you have the impulse to check your email or social network updates when you get up, throughout the day, between tasks, as an interruption in the middle of a task, in the evening, in the middle of the night, anytime? There might be a message you are interested in or something you “need” to respond to …

Not everyone suffers from the same intensity of message-checking addiction, but it is not hard to see it in our culture—look at the people staring and poking at their devices as they walk down the sidewalk or sit in a meeting.

As I left work for this holiday break, I thought to myself, I should turn off the automatic email notifications on my smart phone. This is a time when I don’t need to know there is a new message. I need a break. So as I walked down the sidewalk away from the office, I pulled out my phone and began to change the settings. This will help me be in the present, be aware of my surroundings, I thought. Then all of a sudden I experienced a crack to my head and I fell to the ground. I looked up and saw that I had walked straight into a piece of construction machinery.

This experience followed a number of conversations I had over the past few weeks that seemed to indicate a growing awareness among my colleagues that one can be “too connected,” that it is worthwhile to try to figure out the appropriate balance between being connected and being disconnected, that there is power and integrity in being able to personally manage the fine line between too much online life and too little.

By serendipity, on my holiday travels I read a book I’d been meaning to read, Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers, a former Washington Post reporter. Powers is not a luddite or reactionary to technology. Instead, he offers a rich, long-term perspective on how humans have benefited both by connecting using technology and by disconnecting in a variety of ways throughout history.

The book is a helpful guide in the search for a deep, meaningful life. Powers intelligently questions the current zeitgeist of “the more you connect, the better.”

He asks, why are we all so busy and yet spend so much time responding to electronic messages and tasks that don’t enrich our lives or add up to anything very important. He explores the seductive nature of “the screen” and offers ways to balance connected time with screen-free time. He provides examples from Plato, Seneca, Gutenberg, Shakespeare, Benjamin Franklin, Thoreau, and Marshall McLuhan in a context that is very relevant and helpful to our contemporary situation.

And with that I’ll get back to disconnecting so I can immerse in my own experience of the here and now. Or at least not walk into a piece of construction machinery. Happy holidays.

The Pew Research Center just released some statistics around mobile device location service usage. If you’re unfamiliar with “location service,” the basic idea is “I’m at this specific location, so show me information or allow me to do something on my smart phone relevant to this place.” According to the study, the percentage of online adults (18-29 years old) using “geosocial” or location-based services is still relatively low. About 7% of this group use location service sporadically, with about 4% using apps like Foursquare or Gowalla. The study seems to suggest daily usage of location service apps at about 1%. Interestingly, location service usage among Hispanics (10%) is higher than online whites (3%). 6% of online men use location-based services compared to 3% of online women.

The upshot of the study? These findings suggest place-based apps or services are still very much in their infancy. Case in point, look more closely at Tim Kring’s (creator of the Heroes TV show) recent Conspiracy for Good Project. It’s essentially a large place-based multimedia experience that leverages mobile phones location service and builds an emerging, interactive narrative around physical locations in London. Say again? In his own words,

We told a lot of story online and through mobile, publishing, and merchandising. Everywhere you could connect to an audience with the narrative, we were telling stories. This is taking that same idea and rolling it out, literally, into the streets. The exciting part is that the narrative lives all around you — on your mobile phone, on the internet, and starting on July 17, literally on the streets of London for three weeks.

In a slightly less ambitious nod to place-based service apps, many universities are exploiting students’ penchant for this type of “geosocial” activity (young, social, mobile). A recent Chronicle of Higher Education article shares a compelling example from Boston University.

Boston University’s Dean of Students Office designed a trek around a freshman-orientation fair in August that sent students to campus hangouts, libraries, and various academic-department booths. Students earned points by sending along pictures of themselves taking a dip in a college fountain, talking with counselors at the Career Development Office booth, and making tie-dyed T-shirts out on BU Beach, among other things. All pictures and completed tasks were posted on the event Web site, and the student with the highest number of points took home an iPad.

Foursquare and Gowalla have already won some followers and other “geosocial” or place-based apps are popping up. SCVNGR is notable in their attempt to blend place-based “check in” with challenges, user contribution and marketing (how about Oregami in a burrito shop with a virtual coupon tied to challenges?). The NY Times summarizes the approach as follows, “…location-based gaming platforms that allow visitors to explore the institutions in a gamelike fashion. The company was founded with the idea that mobile games could blur a line between digital interactivity and real-world interaction.”

Although in its infancy, the potential for educational and marketing organizations is promising. Pedagogically speaking, educational approaches like place-based learning provide helpful framework for imagining how this technology can support key objectives like promoting civic responsibility, awareness of environment, and maximally contextualized asynchronous learning. As the technology improves, I can imagine dollars being shuffled rapidly into this domain as more providers determine how to integrate place-based features into their marketing, app, game, or in some cases, large-scale interactive multimedia narrative. For those of us in the educational market, the opportunities are limitless.

As a communicator whose occupational focus is educational, I often find the social media landscape both exhilarating and downright annoying. Truth be told, the never-ending stream of articles, presentations, and books that focus on social media more often than not fall into the “annoying” category. Too many of these resources lack real-world examples that include an instructional or educational component and yet they often purport to convey methods or approaches that work outside of their specific domain.

For many, the sweet spot of social media is marketing. I don’t necessarily disagree. Marketing is extremely important to any organization, but social media need not always be constrained or driven by a marketing objective. How often have you run across this basic social media message: “Product X or Group Y is über cool and you need to act in some way if you want to join the campaign or affiliate”? Or, “I wasn’t generating a lot of revenue using traditional marketing, but with social media I turned my ‘Whuffie’ into serious waffles.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with either approach and social media can indeed be a powerful marketing tool that helps individuals feel connected with a brand, organization or other individuals. What’s more, brand management and connection with educational consumers is particularly big business and the likes of the Gates’ Foundation, Cisco and many other big players have been parked on this block for some time; looking to grow market share, influence policy, and improve the educational experience in a more equitable fashion.

But utilizing social media for educational outreach or research activities  in state-funded organizations? Over the last few years, I’ve seen numerous examples of social media working well within learning contexts here at our university (and others), but have not come across a cohesive vision that informs the practice. Is Cooperative Extension too rooted in face-to-face outreach to augment their communication efforts with social media? In fact, Extension groups are perfectly primed to leverage this form of communication based on their core goals and focus on meeting community-based needs.

A recent eXtension talk by Lee Rainey of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project unpacks this notion in brilliant detail. While the practices driving social media usage are still emerging in tandem with the evolution of the tools themselves, Rainie’s talk helped me envision a time when social media will indeed become a part of the university’s research and outreach effort and a crucial part of how it does educational business. Paired with Harold Jarche’s discussion on the historical psychology of communication (and its predictable shifts), I can only say that I was inspired. I’ve been following Harold Jarche’s blog for a few years now and have found his dialog around managing information (TMI—too much information) and network participation crucial to understanding the theory behind social media practice. Those working in large organizations where technology adoption occurs more slowly would benefit from these two presentations.

A university is in many ways an independent and relatively manageable entity, but what about an entire country that seems to push back on the use of social media, or a government?

GCN or Government Computer News provided numerous recent examples of how the U.S. Federal Government is using social media to build more transparency and efficiency into its communication practices while a Harvard Business Review article tackles the issue of social media adoption in France. Both resources document real-world examples of how social media can be used in a “blended” environment where a sizable portion of end users are still entrenched in traditional communication modes.