Monday, March 16, 2009

Elephant Diaries: PB & J

Last time I talked about newspapers, I talked about comics, and the contrast between webcomic content (a comic) and webcomic revenue (income from selling t-shirts). Reader Kristil expanded on that, wondering if this sort of divorcing of News Content from News Revenues could work more broadly for journalism. Here's what she has to say, in full:
I've been a while getting back to respond to you, mainly because I was trying to come up with a new business model for online journalism. Ha, kidding. Sort of.

I thought it would be nice to post the link here about some things that newspapers are trying, which I originally sent you on Twitter. By the way, I so want to work for Duo someday.

It seems that The Guardian has hit on a working model of the inkling I was having after I posted here; maybe newspapers can offer another product besides the news. And so now my thought is, “Okay, but what goes with the news better than online dating?” Are dating sites and in-depth coverage truly the next PB&J? Feel free to tell me if that seems snotty.

I heard a piece on NPR recently about new nonprofit and shoestring wire services. While I am loathe to link to that link hog, NPR, I’ll do it anyway. Actually, while looking for that link, I turned up a few other good pieces and blog that I’m definitely going to start reading by Jim Romenesko. I suppose that an endowment is one way to add another news service to the mix, but it should only be one of many tools in the toolkit.

One more thing. I read an article some time last year about Chinese web design that mentioned a Chinese business practice called Quanxi. Sorry, I’ve looked for the link and can’t find it. In a nutshell, it is extensive networking with potential customers and business partners before doing business. The example that was given was an auction site in China that had no plans to charge for its service until late 2009. This reminds me of companies using blogs to contribute to online communities, which in turn brings them “inbound leads.” But if a news site is all blog and no purchase, what then? What is the income generating complement to news content? I hope it’s not advertising, or paid content, because people are resisting those, don’t you think?
So, readers, what do you think? (FWIW I think it's a pretty clever idea, but I'm not sure it's all that different from how newspaper classifieds worked before Craigslist. Maybe the truly national papers like the NYT can do it, but I'm hesitant to say it'll save the local dailies. Awesome t-shirts, on the other hand...)

Placeholders/Mental Gumbo

I've a lot of ideas that have been stewing for a while. I'd like to write posts on all of them, but I figured I'd go ahead and get the ideas out in a very raw, rough form. Here goes.

1. Youth, Technology, Civics.
I want to write a follow-up to my last post, including a lot of my understanding of Lawrence Lessig and technology as used by the young. I think that being on the internet is formative in many senses to how youth understand government, and that actions online by governments which are viewed as protecting youth or artists are interpreted as obstacles, which itself undermines the rule of law. I'd like to talk about making law relevant to youth, first through sane online policy, but also through new government interactivity.

2. Tower Defense Game as Legislative Process
I really, really wish I was good at programming so I could do this. Tower Defense Games are the kind of perpetual casual gamers' version of a strategy game, and basically consist of paths enemies travel and tiles along the path where one can put towers that shoot. I would like to make one for the UK parliamentary system, which is largely a single straight line with lots of room for towers towards the end, and contrast it was a US system, where the paths are circuitous, there are chokepoints at committees, chambers, merger committees, and a presidential veto all along the line to stop legislation from being passed. For added fun, could make it partisan with different towers being able to attack different bills. The goal could be to prevent any legislation at all from passing. Basically, it's an outgrowth of the idea that veto points are choke points, but I still think it would be fun.

3. War Narratives
Watching Clone Wars on Cartoon Network last night, it struck me that most every war story produced in America is derived solely from our narratives of WWII or Vietnam. All our history of foreign involvement (and our internal conflicts) before or since hasn't really influenced our War Fiction. Iraq stories exist as a sort of corollary to Vietnam, Korea is a hybridized "US wins freedom abroad"/"US war machine limited in power" story that straddles those two wars, especially as MASH popularized in its long run. And it applies to fiction further afield - "300" is the WWII story with Sparta as England and Thermopylae as Dunkirk. I'd guess that more major developments in new war stories have come through adding perspectives not previously considered, instead of creating new war narratives.

I'd like to write about all three of these later. If you have a preference, let me know in the comments.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Remedial Civics Classes

Proposed Pulpit editorial topic, to deliver at First U of Abq this summer:

"One of my pet peeves is the lack of knowledge our citizenry has of the basic operations of our government (not UUs, of course) you have a take on what is needed to ensure that your generation knows such things as how many branches of government we have, their functions, what is contained in the bill of rights, what federalism is, etc., etc.? How can we hope to engender equal rights for all in all circumstances in the face of...well...ignorance concerning what "equal rights" means? Do we need to start remedial Civics classes?"

Rough shape from which the editorial will be carved:

It's fast becoming time for me to step back as the voice of youth. After all, I'm legally an adult, and I've legally been an adult for over two years now, which is half the total time one really gets to be a "youth". This is, then, almost overstepping. I hope you'll indulge me - I have just a little left to say about youth, and at least in this congregation, I've been a bit of a mouthpiece for my generation. Consider this, then, my swan song. Fittingly, it shall be a song of politics - I am nothing if not political. Perhaps more meaningfully, it is about the very edges of politics, that periphery so unfamiliar to talking heads and so prevalent for everyone else.

I'm a theory junky. I love the big picture - it's why I care about politics in the specific, and not justice as a broad category. My mind delights at the machinations across the macro level. I am, you could say, a bit of a wonk. Which is well and fine for me. But it places a tremendous amount of distance between myself and what I'm actually studying. Decisions about politics happen on the macro level, but politics is experienced every day in very personal ways. There are some easy examples of this - Raise your hand if you've ever been to the Department of Motor Vehicles. Okay, you can stop your grumbling and put your hands down. Yeah, I know, right? Awful place. But that, right there, is the end result of about a century of politics figuring out how to combine people and cars. Heck, there's even a school of thought out there which says the government can't make that decision; of course, that's taking me straight back to wonky. And this is about the very, very personal. Going to the DMV is easily one of the most benignly unpleasant experiences of a person's life, and that's the first place youth go to be confirmed in the eyes of the government as having adult competency. The policy, the deliberations, the behind-the-door decisions: "well, okay, we need to do it, but it'll be very expensive. Unless we pay poorly, and then we guarantee our public gets generally mediocre service. Still, I'd rather do that than ask them to pay more taxes - oh, let's just make it suck", that is all irrelevant to the person waiting in an interminable line to fill out lots and lots of forms.

Let's try a different one. Raise your hands if you attended public school. Now keep your hands in the air you ever broke a school rule. Okay, great - some of you are honest. Now, keep your hands in the air if, when you broke a school rule, you were escorted to the principals office by an armed police officer? Ah - so you're the post-columbine generation. Glad to see a few of you here this Sunday.

So that, that's where politics happens. I'll go ahead and say that I think armed cops in schools are a sign of a police state. And I'll make that even creepier by saying it's not all that bad, once you get used to it. I mean, I know it's wrong, but it's something bad that one outgrows. So long as adulthood is less policed than childhood, temporary injustices and inhumanities are tolerated. Of course, it's important to emphasize that "tolerated" and "accepted" aren't synonymous. People can tolerate a lot of bad, but people will accept very little of it as permanent and irreversible.

Last big question - hands up for anyone here who here as ever made something and put it online? Well, congrats yo you all. Any of you used music in a video and had it legally threatened? No? Well, I guess the RIAA is busy these days, so it might have slipped through. I'll speak for myself, then - I'm a little annoyed at all the transfers of rights that happen to me when I put my creative content online. And more than that, I'm kind of terrified at the places where government can take art and hold it up as a threat to commerce. And if you're afraid I'm getting a bit too wonky on this one, it's because the issue necessitates it.

If a youth, in regular civilian life, runs into government-created obstacles, the youth will then do one of a few things. First, circumvent it - the easiest way to interact with the government is to break rules and then be really clever about it. This works out great for the youth, but it undermines the whole "rule of law" principle upon which society is based. The other thing the youth could do is figure out how to make the law work on the periphery. My blog is creative commons licensed, which was a whole area of wonk-i-ness that I had no idea existed until I started caring about internet culture.

And that's what's fascinating about this generation. Yes, we may not inherently know everything we need about our government, but we are, in the words of an anonymous commenter online, "of a generation that values knowing where to find the answer over how to find the answer". We have all the knowledge available to understand our society at our fingertips, and as soon as it becomes useful to us, we'll make great use of it.

And right at our fingertips are where we have the remedial civics classes. No, everyone won't go out of there way to learn even the full set of basics. But on that edge of politics and daily life, that bleeding edge where the two run into each other, people will figure it out. Problems will be found, hypocrisies exposed, and laws either subverted, ignored, or challenged. Where government doesn't make sense, laws will be improvised and new social arrangements will be found until law catches up with society. There's no need for a new, sweeping re-education about what it means to be a citizen in this nation. So long as we treat people, and especially youth, as citizens, they'll figure out what rights are their's. More importantly than that, though, they'll figure out that wonderful little bit about the social contract - we are the mandate of heaven. If our government doesn't act in our best interest, we have both the power and the obligation to
change that. And, and I firmly believe this as almost an article of faith, that so long as the knowledge is out there, we will find it, and so long as we can find it, we will use it.

It is a Unitarian cliche to quote Marget mead and say "Never doubt that a small, group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." There is a lot of truth in that statement - but it overlooks the seachange made possible by an untold number of interested, casually motivated citizens, for whom politics is part of the game, but it is just a part. We are living the civics courses we need. Raised in this church, in the tradition of youth empowerment, there was never any doubt in my mind that politics was a part of life that one is allowed to partake in. Much as I love to pile praise upon this church, last summer's election campaign was the clearest indicator that we aren't the only group that takes youth empowerment and turns it directly into political action.

For all the doubt and skepticism about my generation that abounds today, we're a surprisingly capable bunch. We came of age after a national tragedy, were handed a dead-end war, witnessed the failure of apathy about politics in the form of a little thing named Katrina, and we're faced with "the great recession". And what have we done? Hard to say anything less than rise to the task. We've learned the civics lessons we need, and we are ready for an era of great reforms. I think, to understate the matter, that this bodes well for our nation. The kids today? The kids are alright.