Saturday, January 31, 2009

Another comic site to try,

FYI, my last post, related to comic-producing web sites, such as ComicLife, generated this response from Clive, creator of

"I stumbled across your blog today and thought you might be interested in hearing about an innovative Web 2.0 learning tool. is a website where you create comics without having to draw. It is a global community where people of all ages share, remix, and publish their ideas, opinions and stories. Read comics in over 40 languages, with our automatic translation by Google.

You can design every aspect of your character, and move it into any pose you want. All you have to do is click-and-drag to change or reposition any part of it - the creative and artistic possibilities are endless. Our language filtering system helps make Pixton a fun and safe place for all - from 6 to 106! Sign-up is free.

We also have a version specifically for educators. Pixton for Schools is a private virtual classroom for teachers and students (30-day free trial).

We welcome you and your colleagues to try Pixton and tell us what you think."

So I'm going to check it out. If you do, too, let me know how it works (or doesn't) for you,

- Brett

Friday, January 30, 2009

Where my homepage is headed (hopefully)

I'm working on a redesign of my homepage, that I hope eventually will make this entire site more engaging and dynamic for users (is anyone really out there?). It all starts at the homepage, I think, and if I can create an exciting entry point, like a great lede on a story, then the rest will follow naturally.

To begin with, I want to remove the artifice of third person and gradually transform the site into first person. Yes, it's true. There really aren't hundreds of people on staff working on this site day and night. The team actually consists of just me and the two cats who come in and out of my office to eat, drink and add to the environment's aroma.

But I want to have a concept to build the site around, to help guide the artistic decisions (doesn't that sound lofty?). Since my specialty as a writer is nonfiction narrative, and I've become a disciple of Mark Stephen Meadows now, after reading his book "Pause & Effect," a narrative approach feels completely natural. Yet my purpose for this site primarily is as a portfolio and student hub for the classes I teach. Can I really create a narrative based on that? That's the sort of fuzzy goal on the horizon. But I'm flummoxed by that as an end goal. Where does the path begin?

How about looking at some artist (including musician) sites that I think are well constructed, or at least interesting. It seems like they would have a similar dilemma in building an audience (and having an online purpose).

I found a list of the "top" rock band web sites at, and there are many, many fascinating ideas at work on these pages.

Meadows states that our eyes naturally gravitate first to movement, then light, then color, and I'm really engaged by sites that open with a bit of film or something that seems to turn the page alive. I'm assuming these are done in Flash, but I'll have to look closer to figure out the technical aspects.

Here are a few that made me think "Wow!"

* The stark style and simplicity of this one, from the Red Hot Chili Peppers feels similar in tone to what I want to accomplish. I'd like it even better if that home page had the negative strips scrolling through the images. I want to have just a few choices on the home page, to get people where they want to go, basically either to my portfolio, my blog or to my classroom hubs (and someday to my great American novel page; Ha!).

* I don't care at all for this band, White Stripes, but this site really grabbed my attention (after getting past the memorial intro). I'm starting to think, too, that some music would be cool to have. Note to self: What kind of "creative commons" music is out there that would be a suitable soundtrack for my site?

* The Killers, who I don't know anything about, show how effective just a little bit of movement can be on a home page.

* I've seen the floating category titles on a few sites, like this one from Audio Slave. In some ways, that's kind of annoying, to have to chase a link. I don't think I want to do that. Here's another site that does it, too, but better BlenderBox.

* I like the huge photographs on this site by System of a Down. But I don't have any photos of my content (or ideas of taking anything) that are anywhere near that dramatic.

* Check out U2's studio. Effective use of a great photo.

OK, I'm getting tired of looking at white text on black backgrounds now. So let's look at a few sites related to artists.

Found a list of the recent winners of the Webbys, which pick the best web sites of the year, and really became fascinated with the construction of these: Mi Fu makes calligraphy look exciting, Edward Hopper brings action to ordinary paintings and Richard Serra demonstrates how menus can be installed in unusual ways.

Here's a really high quality film intro type of site, from Coca-Cola.

This one by Checkland Kindleysidesis so clean and pure, with the most delicate of movement, I'm in awe.

This menu screen from The Sims made me think I better start checking out what the video game industry is producing. But that's for another blog post.

Movement, and sound, yes, I want those. I definitely prefer a very simple homepage, too. With just a few options to start. And then those can unfurl from there.

Maybe a comic is the answer? Meadows mentions how powerful the abstraction of a character in comic form can be, noting successful sites such as Banja and Comic Chat. I used ComicLife to create my family's annual Christmas card this year, and the response was as enthusiastic as I've ever received. But should I, would I, become a cartoon? I'm not sure I can see that perspective integrating with my information sharing goals.

Meadows also states that the face gives off more information than anything else, and indicates the greatest amount of response. I've thought a wild collage that incorporates a portrait of me with more interesting imagery could be cool. The different parts also could serve as the menu tabs. I like that idea. Still needs a narrative frame and point of view, but there's something to that one, I think. But, as Meadows emphasizes, I need the metaphor to build upon, "the consistent relationship of symbols." That's what's holding me back.

To take it to the next step, the ultimate step, interactivity, is beyond my cone of vision right now. Maybe next week.

- Brett

Seminar on selling

Took a little adventure today. Know those come-on letters you get in the mail every so often that say, "Hear our short seminar, and we'll give you lunch and a gift, etc., with no obligation"? Every time I had received anything like that before I had recycled those without even opening the letter, but recently a company called Stores Online Express sent me one that promised to teach me about making millions on the Internet while I sleep. Actually, it only promised to teach me how to sell things better on the Internet (and quit my day job and live out my dreams ...), which I interpreted more broadly as making millions, particularly while I'm napping. Since I'm taking a class on online publishing, I thought it might be interesting to attend this sort of thing, and I've always wanted to go through the selling gauntlet (yeah, right), to see out of curiosity how I respond to the really hard sale by seasoned pros. I figured with the class as my conscience, I'd keep my wallet in my pocket.

Anyway, the seminar was held at one of the Vancouver area's finest hotels and conference centers, The Heathman Lodge, and lunch was included. So I figured I really couldn't lose. The opening slideshow of the seminar displayed a variety of figures and stats that were fascinating, only the slides moved so fast, I couldn't write down all of the info, including sources, which were listed on most of them.

Here's a few that caught my attention:

Top online activities: 1. Email, 2. Obtaining news, 3. Making a purchase. I was encouraged to read that of all of the Internet activity, news consumption was that high on the list. Maybe there is a future for media after all.

How long did it take for each medium to reach its first 1 million users? Radio = 50 years, television and others were listed, too, and then the Internet = Four years. There probably has never been a medium more quickly spread and adopted in all of human history, although I need to get more confirmation on this than these shabby notes, including a source.

Internet users in the world: 578 million in Asia, 384 million in Europe and North America was third, with a number I didn't catch, somewhere in the 200 million range, I think. I thought America would be way ahead on that one.

Market share of search engines: Google = 50 percent, Yahoo = 24 percent, MSN was third down in the low teens, I think. On this one, I really thought Google would have more of a market share in the 70s or higher. It seems like Internet searching can be communicated as Googling, or as Google this or that. Who Yahoos anymore? Probably the same people who email through AOL.

In short, the bulk of the seminar related to marketing web sites. The No. 1 problem with any site, I was told, is that no one knows about it, or people can't find it, or it's buried on page 36 of a Google search. Search Engine Optimization was stressed over and over again, and I think that's an important area to emphasize. Of course, Stores Online Express will help you with that service, for only $24.95 a month. Ha!

One other idea that was mentioned briefly, but I would like to know more about, is the concept of geo-targeting, or focusing on your local market. Yes, we all know that the web can reach anyone in the world. But what if you really don't need it to do that? What if you just want to reach the people that you can serve within a 30-minute drive or so? That's a concept I haven't heard many people talking about before. I think as the web gets more and more full of material (like it's not big enough as it is) that people will need more guidance to explore the vastness of the information. This sort of approach could be fruitful. I'll look into it more soon and post if I find anything of interest.

One great quote I gleaned from that opening slideshow, too, with no source noted, "If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've got." This was something different for me, for sure. And that was a good thing.

- Brett

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Monday, January 26, 2009

Superintendent's Blog in progress

I met recently with the Camas School District superintendent, Mike Nerland, and the district's public information officer, Doreen McKercher, to discuss how I could help them with their Web site needs. Nerland has been wanting to start "a superintendent's blog," as this idea is gaining traction in his field as an effective and efficient way to communicate with constituents.

McKercher has been reading about blogging in the public relations field as well, and the two of them have been talking about doing this sort of project for a few weeks. Both expressed during our discussion the desire to have a blog that was easy for them to use and maintain as well as one that is easy for patrons to navigate.

From that point of view, I suggested that instead of using a more complex content management system, such as Drupal or NVU, we would use a standard template system from one of the leaders in the blogging field, Google's Blogger or WordPress, and also look into a similar online system that I ran across called, a blogging system designed specifically for educators. In turn, I offered to create a detailed instruction manual for operation and maintenance, whichever direction we go.

I also offered to create three prototypes, one from each system, under these domain names:

They asked for a clean, simple and professional look to the blog. So even though this is going to be the "superintendent's blog," the intent clearly is for a formal presentation, not a window into his personal whims and interests. The hope, too, they said, is to make this the portal for the rest of the school district, which maintains a variety of sites of differing styles and quality level. The hope is that this could become the front porch of the district.

There are 3,200 households within the district and about 18,000 residents in this town, a close suburb to Portland, Ore.

We had some initial discussions about Internet 1.0 content, versus Internet 2.0 and beyond, and the district officials expressed hope that the interactive outreach could be moderated to keep discussions at a high level and about related topics.

In short, Nerland and McKercher want the blog to at least do a couple of basic things: Allow Nerland to communicate to people in the district and give people an online way to connect with him. We also talked about ways in which he could make this portal more personal and help users feel more comfortable in engaging with him and his ideas.

Those are all things that need to be worked out, I suppose. At this point, though, I'd say they are comfortable with the 1.0 sharing of information, and we'll have to keep talking about more 2.0 concepts. I'll keep you updated on those developments.

To begin with, I plan to set up the pages with a few standard elements:

* Superintendent bio
* Blog
* Contact information
* Links to other Camas School District sites
* RSS feed
* Archives

From there, we have a variety of options to consider. They would like to try a podcast, incorporating it as a "storytelling" moment for the superintendent, about someone interesting he has met in the district, or some new program, or whatever. They would like to post documents, press releases and project information and budgets and the like. They would like to post slideshows of appearances Nerland makes at various school events. We'll see how much we can get done.

Question: Any of you out there have any opinions on which of the three systems (Blogger, WordPress and Edublogs) works best for this sort of thing? And why?

- Brett

Friday, January 23, 2009

Obama - Communication, Transparency and Participation

The George W. Bush debacle finally has ended (although we'll be feeling the hangover for years, I'm sure). President Obama already has taken many important symbolic steps to restoring the honor and integrity of our nation, including promising to close the Guantanamo Bay "detention center." One other announcement that should be celebrated is this blog posting by Macon Phillips, the Director of New Media for the White House:

Change has come to the White House

In that missive, Obama promises a government in the future that offers timely and in-depth information about legislation and administration of our country. Through modern technology, he also commits to creating a new level of participation through such devices and the most open and transparent administration in history. Hurray!

I also read recently Wired magazine's piece on Obama and the ways in which he embraces technology (Wired magazine's piece on Obama), which raised many insights into the challenges Obama faces in implementing this grand plan of openness.

That starts with the federal government's 24,000 independent web sites, many of which are out of date or abandoned, the do-nothing bureaucrats that generally inhabit many of our public institutions and the red tape (even if that initially was well-intentioned) that has become obsolete as the Internet has evolved and rules of public discourse have changed. In short, this is going to be as daunting of a task as turning around the economy, especially after eight years of driving hard the opposite direction. It's a bit like looking up at the peak of Mount Everest. But, especially from my perspective as a journalist, this is a critical and fundamental shift that will be difficult at first but pay massive dividends to democracy in the long run.

If the country's true goal was autocracy or disenchantment of everyone but the wealthy and elite, as it appeared to be the past eight years, this would not be a priority. If the goal is to become the world's beacon of democracy -- what we claim we want -- there is no higher calling than doing public business in the public's eye and letting the will of the people dictate our direction and let an open-source form of government blossom. It will be messy, of course, but fantastically worthwhile. Can you imagine this idea Obama has that the public could go online and comment on public legislation before it goes through the political pipeline? Wow!

That said, I'm not sure exactly how this Web. 2.0 approach will work with government. It's tedious enough with our representatives trying to get things done, let alone someone having to sift through in that process 14,000 variations of "ths law totlly suks!!!" It still will be just a slice of the population engaged. But that slice is bigger than what was involved before. Once the growing pains are overcome, I think we will be much better off with this approach.

One key statement I heard from Obama recently was that even though public disclosure of information may legally be withheld, by technicalities in the law, even under the Freedom of Information Act, he wants public servants to instead err on the side of disclosure and only keep things confidential that absolutely must be protected, say in the name of national security. This is a major mind shift for most of the public servants I have interacted with over the years, who seem to protect public information like it's a form of job security.

If only the newspaper industry wasn't imploding right now, I'd forecast a renaissance of investigative journalism under such a mandate. As it is, I'm afraid this new window might just open (and maybe close) without people reaping the many benefits ... or even noticing. Certainly those with pet issues will take advantage of these opportunities, and if the government kept closing down its information pipelines, I fear that democracy in this country might exist only in name. But maybe with this new approach by the government, new media can take advantage and go beyond the current state of celebrity gossip and weather coverage and establish that watchdog journalism can live in the 21st century. For the sake of us all, I hope so.

Questions I have: Will this new push by Obama for transparency and an open government get support and be well-received? Or will this extremely important philosophical shift in our federal government get lost amid the bailouts and gas prices and wars and collapsing economy? Is transparency an attainable goal at the federal level? All it takes is one insecure bureaucrat somewhere in the line to shut things down. I'd make it a termination-level offense for failure to properly administer a FOIA request. That might get some attention.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

"Pause and Effect" and Texas Tech

My doctoral studies at Texas Tech University officially have begun, and that's especially good news for the blog here at My first class is focused on online publishing, under the direction of Dr. Rich Rice, and one of my regular assignments is to make blog posts. So here they come.
We are reading “Pause and Effect” by Mark Stephen Meadows, and I have to say, once I started this book, I couldn't wait until the next chance I had to read more. The writing is clear and straightforward, and the design is fascinating. If I can use this word in an academic environment, I'd call it breezy. Yet full of interesting and complex ideas. Meadows maintains that in the context of storytelling, perspective is the only thing that exists. Which makes me think back to Tom Wolfe's four classic techniques of narrative writing: 1. Scene by scene construction. 2. Status life (details in the writing that serve as symbols of status) 3. Extended dialogue, and 4. Point of view.

Point of view is particularly difficult to use in nonfiction writing, I think, because of the inability to really get inside someone else's head, making the writer always wonder if truth really is being conveyed. It's also hard to stay focused on that point of view when telling a story, because there are so many other interesting perspectives pulling the writer in different directions as the action unfolds. Yet, I've found that switching point of view, or at least very much, can be extremely disorienting to readers and cause meaning and details to get lost in that haze. So a stable point of view, in my opinion, is important at least as a reference point.
Meadows makes the assertion that the development of the modern story-making technologies -- and the idea that all of us now have stories to tell and can freely tell them, at any moment, to everyone -- gives power to the concept of interactive narrative. And that style of storytelling gives power to the reader as much or more than the author, at least in the best case scenario. Instead of Wolfe's four building blocks, Meadows says the plot of interactive narrative gets constructed on foreground, background, context and decision. The reader decides what to do, and how to do it, in that setting, and the more freedom (combined with some sense of purpose, I would hope) that's left with the reader of an interactive narrative, the more engaged they feel. The more engaged and invested, the more attention will be paid to the narrative. The more attention, the higher the reputation is built. All of this building toward the ultimate satisfaction, whatever that is, in the minds of everyone involved. Whether that means selling more stories, or breaking free from a mundane life, or teaching and learning, the abstractness of this approach is a fabulous goal. But it also seems to me that an interactive narrative must have purpose, not a purpose, but purpose in general, or why bother? We tell stories for a reason. Or, better yet, for reasons. And maybe the reader makes up their own reasons, too, but something has to be gained from the endeavor. Meadows notes that there are no plots to a Microsoft Excel document, and that makes them a very weak form of narrative (company starts, company doesn't make money, company closes), or maybe not even a narrative at all (Wolfe, I suspect, would retch at the thought of such a thing being classified as narrative).
Which brings us back to Meadows contention that all storytelling is perspective. I recall the anecdote of a city editor who once took his cub reporter to a large window in their skyscraper office, which overlooked the cityscape. The editor waved his hand out over the scene and said, “There are a million stories out there ... and most of them are crap. Go out and find the great ones!” Or something like that. Interactive narrative, like any other kind of narrative, has to have something compelling about it to succeed, I believe. It can't be just hoop jumping, of course. But it also can't just be pretty. It can't just be expansive. Even "The Sims" and "EverQuest" have significant storyline moments that exist, and perspectives to follow, without which I doubt either would have been successful. The balance has to come from meshing the aspects of interactive narrative, providing the environment and context but also some story engine inside of it that makes the exploration worthwhile.

Questions this raises: What role, if any, does perspective and storytelling have on portfolio-like home pages or classroom blogs? Can these ideas, which I agree are at the highest level of storytelling techniques, be used in every case? I've had this argument many times about nonfiction journalism, and I think narrative techniques can be used in just about every situation. That makes me think this is the case here, too, but I just haven't been able to get my mind around that yet. Anyone found any examples of a professional home page that reads like a story? That's what I'd like to do.

Redesigns coming

Motivated by my online publishing class at Texas Tech, I'm planning to redesign at least one and maybe more of the pages here at, starting with the home page. As the changes come, let me know what you think. And while you are at it, let me know what else is working or not working for you on this site.

- Brett,

History of the Internet

No Al Gore but a lot of interesting detail, shown in a simple graphic way, about what happened to get us this far. ...

History of the Internet