Ramblings about Personal Bias Online

One of the comments someone made about what they want to read here, was about what makes me “me.” During Speak Out with Your Geek Out, I talked about how I’m a hobby anthropologist. *flexes fingers*

Yep, breaking that hat out today. One of the biggest challenges with online communication is the sheer volume of information we’re inundated with. And there’s a lot of it. The second biggest challenge? Your personal bias. A while back, I used to do a lot of keyword research on the day job, and I found that singular versions of search terms were almost always more popular than the plural. I think this is because the computer is such a singular experience physically. You sit down to your computer. You type on your keyboard. You chat or Tweet or message or e-mail on your account. The actions you take are yours. The words you type are yours. You, you, you.

(Or rather… Me, me, me.)

There’s a lot of “me’s” in online communication, which is why it’s so easy to forget that personal bias is common, rampant, and to be expected. What gets me, is the expectation part of personal bias and the hypersensitivity that results from that. Getting back to the whole “the internet is a singular experience” mindset, think about how this translates to what actions people take. Why does someone get pissed off when another person stops following them on Twitter? Why are there crappy comments on YouTube! videos, news sites, etc.? Why are people so gullible with respect to internet rumors?

It all comes back to bias and what that person is reacting to. I’ve seen incredibly nice people spit vitriol online. I used to wonder why that was, until I realized that they may be incredibly nice “in person” but remove the face-to-face contact and something changes. What you’re left with? Is that person’s mind or psyche. If you’re in a crappy mood and nothing is going right, then that colors how you view the world. Same goes for online, too. Only, it may not be clear who we’re talking to. How old are they? What cultural background do they have? Are they in the city or the country?

Similar to creating unique characters, when you start attaching other factors to a voice online, that voice is removed from the choir and becomes a soloist. When the only thing you have to go on is their words (and vice versa) they’re still part of the choir because they’re tapping into what you like, what you don’t, what you believe, and what you’re skeptical about. In other words, your ability to empathize is diminished because you’re hearing the words in the way you want to hear them. What you’re missing, is the “who” that’s speaking those words.

My solution to eliminating personal bias online is to take a page from the instructions I got as a kid. Mind you, these directions were to avoid getting hit by a car, but I think the same applies here.

Stop. Look. And listen.

I feel that the way we communicate online will continue to suffer the more rapidly our access to communication increases. Can’t tell you how many e-mail signatures I’ve seen lately that say something to the effect of: “I’m on my Blackberry. Responses are short. Please don’t take it personally.”

To explain every nuance in communication is nothing short of exhausting. To react emotionally to every nuance in communication is, in my mind, a consequence of hypersensitivity. Today, I had someone take a joke seriously. So I said: maybe I should start color-coding my words? When those misinterpretations happen, I feel that we begin to stray toward obsessive thinking about our words. Recently, John covered that concept in Dork Tower and based on the responses, I know I’m not alone in this.

Quite frankly, I obsess enough over my stories. I don’t want to fixate on every turn of phrase I post online, because that’s an exercise in insanity. It happens, though. Especially when someone doesn’t stop, look or listen to the “me” behind the words.

There are topics I avoid because I know what my buttons are. I do get a little frustrated when people feel compelled to edit my social media updates. It blows my mind when you see people criticize or edit other people’s Tweets by saying: “You should have…” Or “Company A has to…” or flat out corrects typos, etc.

What they’re really saying? “I prefer that you…” Or “I feel that Company A should…”

Again, it circles back to that personal bias. One of the lessons I learned from my hundred day experiment, is that the more connected I am, the worse my personal bias gets unless I catch myself. I feel this is universal. Maybe we could all use an internet detox every now and then?

I don’t understand why, when people are unhappy with a company, they post about it online assuming that company will pay attention. Customer service departments do exist. Unfortunately, many companies have struggled with how to best communicate online. Instead of coming up with a plan before they dive in, they react to situations. While that may work for some, the end result is bad PR. I know a few companies think that bad PR is better than no PR at all because you’re no longer invisible.

Recently, I sent a letter to Lego asking them about their board games and why the mini-figs were so small. I explained that I preferred a larger size because I wanted to use the figs in my fantasy game as miniatures. And they responded back explaining that the size of the figs was intentionally designed to match the size of the game. They also said that they do review suggestions internally. Makes sense to me. Their site was easy-to-use and the feedback loop was great!

So in addition to Stop. Look. And listen. I’d also offer: Ask. Language is ever-changing and it’s proving to be the Tower of Babel. A lot of us are saying something and we all want to be heard. But even with all these words, how many of us really understand what is being said?

Anyway, thanks for listening. Not sure if I’ve got any answers, but the hobby anthropologist in me had a blast.

Have a Nice Internet Day! Wed 10-27-2010

From kids committing suicide to nasty political ads and general snarkiness, the internet can be pretty negative some days. That’s why, I’m calling for a moratorium on nastiness for one day. I don’t care if you’re always nice to people online or not. This idea isn’t just about “you.” After all, every writer knows that all words have power. Even if they’re not your words. If they are? Then knock it off. For one day.

The idea is simple: Fight back with smiley faces. That’s right. Smiley faces. For every crappy comment, flippant retort and mean accusation, besiege others with a grin. If you’re following along on Twitter, the hashtag will be #haveaniceinternet.

Let’s turn the internet YELLOW. The smiley face in this post is from this link on Stock.xchng and is okay for public use.

[Opinion] Net Neutrality and the Future of the Web

Last week, Google and Verizon released a joint statement about their thoughts on net neutrality. This post entitled Press review: Google and Verizon announce a joint proposal for an open internet that was featured on Teleread.com has a nice, in-depth review of what this might mean for the future of the web.

I highly recommend reading that round-up because it highlights the public opinion and offers some industry editorials as well.

Rather than re-hash every piece of commentary that’s out there, I’m going to fast-forward a few years and share with you some of my predictions. In my mind, I feel that we need to start thinking about how the internet’s impending changes will affect how we shop, how we work, and how we interact with others. Why? Well, read on…

First, I believe that the gradual changes I’ve seen over the past year or two, coupled with the fact that most policy-makers do not understand the technology (or data) behind the web, indicate that net neutrality will cease to exist in as little as five years.

The end result of net neutrality not passing will not just affect what content is posted and read, but may also hurt our pocketbooks. We may have to, as they say, “pay to play.” I do not feel that it is unreasonable to think that our internet bills may one day reflect our actual usage, nickle-and-diming everything from sending an e-mail to writing blog posts. Frequency of usage and the type of usage (e.g. video streaming or MMOs) might be two factors in determining charges; where you host your content on the web may be a third. Larger companies and higher trafficked websites may get charged a premium service as opposed to the mom-and-pop blog for content and deliverability, but there’s a good chance that unless search results are “net neutral” after a fashion, those mom-and-pop shops will be a lot harder to find. As a result, entrepreneurial ventures will decline, unless those businesses can provide a valuable or unique service for the big players.

I should point out that I believe that we have heard the first death knell of net neutrality for this internet. The more legislation and the more corporate this internet gets, the more determined other people might be to create a second or even third internet that operates outside of places like Google, etc. Mind you, I do believe that the mobile web is its own internet for all intents and purposes, but we’re not to the point where everyone has a smart phone. (I don’t.) As long as we’re able to access the internet from a computer, changes to the mobile web will not affect everyone. There’s enough users to warrant changes to the mobile web, but if you want to ever be in for a real shock, talk to anyone outside of the U.S. and ask them about their cell phone bills and connectivity. The business of cell phones is very, very different here in the States than it is elsewhere. As a result, the “internet” will evolve very differently according to where you live and where you’re accessing it.

I also believe that as we continue to move toward a commercial web, there will be some standardizations that will have to come through the pipe. You’ll probably see a lot more transparency with celebrity and blogger endorsements once the FCC has had a chance to catch up. The big one will be whether or not web analytics packages will standardize their data across all platforms. A visit on one site should equate to a visit on another, even though right now it does not. Additionally, tagging sites for pirating content will become increasingly easier. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the tech used to discover plagiarism on the web now will be licensed and released to more companies.

Positioning will, undoubtedly, be the biggest problem for every business, author, etc. that’s out there. I would not be surprised if most browsers changed to include mandatory paid advertising as part of the default frame. I also believe there’s a good chance that website directories will actually make another appearance further down the road and will be sold direct to professionals for different verticals. Yes, some of that is being done now, but as positioning becomes more and more of a concern, everyone will rush to either a) embrace whatever new tech has popped up or b) pay a premium to see who the players are in order to sell to them. Keep in mind that I think some data that we can access for free now will start to disappear under a pay wall as we continue forward because data, not advertising dollars, is where the real money on the web is. Unlike cable or television, with the right web analytics package, you can see everything you need to know about the visitors that are coming to your website. That data, and the people that know how to read it and what to do with it, are more valuable than the content itself.

By far, the most depressing thing about the death of net neutrality are two things: one, there is a strong potential for censorship and two, there is also a good possibility that businesses who focus solely on one type of marketing and sales (e.g. either 100% online or offline) are the most at-risk to lose revenue and sales.

First, let me address my censorship concern. When you have so much content out there — who would know when something is withheld? We are at a point in our history of communication where there is so much content it is hard to know what to listen to and what to pay attention to. And, quite frankly, it is only going to get worse. In my mind, that scenario is just as bad as having no communication and getting spoon-fed the occasional news piece. Second, the reason why businesses with one focal point will be even more at-risk is because the market is still changing — and not necessarily for the better. I’m a strong proponent of long-term planning for that reason. However, it’s difficult to plan long-term when you have no idea what changes will occur online. Not to sound doom-and-gloom, but some changes could mean disastrous results for certain verticals because they put all their proverbial eggs into one basket. To stay soluble, I feel that businesses should consider both online-and-offline components to have revenue streams from both avenues.

The global stage will also have an impact on the future of the web, and I feel that will continue to increase. If (and this is a big “if”) people from all over the world can continue to collaborate, share information and discuss topics freely, then I believe we will begin to see a bigger impact on language and culture. (Given enough time, I wouldn’t be surprised if languages started to disappear as our vocabulary and languages begin to homogenize.) Cracking down on access to the web and where you might visit will slow that process down considerably, which is why I can see some groups that will pop up to fight back against internet culture out of fear for losing their identity.

Many people point to the web as the “Great Equalizer” and I have to agree with them. Once you start to dictate how and when people can interact with the web’s content through different pay structures or a behind-the-scenes hierarchy that few have the ability to affect, that will change. As a result, sites that are unpopular or new will have a helluva time trying to climb uphill unless they get linked to from one of the major players.

Much of what I’ve said here is simply my thoughts on where things might be headed. In this post, I’m not recording them because I need to be right. Rather, I’m writing them down because I feel that we all need to start thinking about our future and I’d like to hear your opinion.

Have you thought about what might happen? Are you worried about net neutrality and the future of the web? Why or why not?

Puking Content, Plagiarism and Too Much Free

I’m sure many of you have thought something along the lines of, “My gosh, there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet.” And you would be right.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like it’s too easy to get sucked into providing editorial on bad information to set the record straight. Of course, I’m speaking in generic terms here, but this is one of the reasons why a lot of people “puke content.” The more content that gets written about a particular subject, the more saturated the topic gets, the harder it is to discover the truth. Ultimately, this results in “louder” or “more forceful” content and angry emotions.

And that’s how internet trolls are born.

Sometimes I feel that professionals are “too” scared to set the record straight partially because they know the trap exists, but also because internet content is “stored.” Not every piece of internet content has a date stamp, so even if you provide content that corrects an error, there’s no way to keep track of “when” something was said. (Also, a lot of internet rumors start based on outdated content. So just because something has a date — even in the URL — it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone reads that content.) Unfortunately, silence isn’t always golden.

If you look at the trend of “too much content,” the reason why that’s a problem is not because of what you, yourself, are doing. It’s an aggregate trend that occurs because many professionals or amateurs like yourself are all doing the same thing at the same time.

There are a two other “trends” that concern me right now, too. I feel these are getting lost in the shuffle.

1. Too Much “Free” – My blog is a free, watered-down sample of some of my knowledge. I often cover extremely generic topics that are related to what I do, but I save the more “crunchy” bits for paid work or my day job. Why? Because this knowledge is what I get paid for. The free sample entices people to see what I’m about, without ramming self-promotion down someone’s throat.

I made the mistake of believing that my experiences were a good conversation starter to talk about my own fiction writing. Oh sure, I’d having interesting discussions with people about what I do – but in every case, no one offered to pay me or talk about my fiction writing. When they did, it was an “afterthought.” No one cared about my work, they cared about getting my knowledge for free.

Think about it this way: If everyone has a contest for a free book give-a-way, then that contest becomes the norm. It becomes “expected” for an author to provide that contest for a free book. If piracy and free content is left unchecked, then the reader (or consumer) expects things that normally have value to be “free.” Same goes for accessibility, which in a way, is “free” access; if you’re always online, people “expect” you to be there and answer your email immediately. For me, it was something along the lines of, “Well, Monica is always there to answer my questions. So I can ask her more questions, can’t I?”

Too much free devalues what a work or experience is worth; not enough free doesn’t allow readers (or consumers) to try before they buy. I believe that not enough people are concerned with giving things away for free (or taking them) as a whole. Just like the trend of puking content is a problem, so is “too much free.”

2. Plagiarizing “Free” Content – I have heard of several cases where writers are taking both non-fiction content (from Wikipedia and related sources) or fiction published online and offering it as paid work. One “author” took online published stories, published them as their own, and offered recommendations for themselves using fake sock puppet or alias accounts. Another, all-too-common practice is to copy/paste reference material from Wikipedia or other sources online and use it in articles, non-fiction or other published works. Recently, I heard of a fan offering free material under Creative Commons and a publisher picked it up, re-tooled it and offered it as a paid product.

While I believe that this is heinous for several reasons, this type of behavior originates from “too much free.” After all, if content is posted online, who really owns it? The person that created the content in the first place? The website that it’s located on?

The word “entitlement” comes into play here for two reasons: one, people expect content to be free for them and two, once they receive that content, they can simply do whatever they want with it and not expect some sort of recourse. They don’t seem to see the “aggregate” of thousands of other people believing the same way they do; they see it as “Well, it’s just me…what’s the harm?”

Note that popularity has more to do with the expectations of what should be free than the quality. YouTube! is a great example of this, because it continues to lose millions of dollars. (1) The moral to this story is that conventional wisdom still holds: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

One person plagiarizes and it effects the original author, publisher and the writer. A million people plagiarize and all of a sudden multiple businesses start going under because they can’t afford the lawsuits, damage to their reputation, etc. not to mention the loss of sales.

Same thing with piracy. One person “takes” an image from an artist that’s normally offered on commission, and that artist is out the amount they charge. Add several people to that equation and now the artist is out more than just money lost from those taken images; he’s unable to “sell” artwork to new, more viable customers because people just simply take from him.

These questions are currently being explored more in depth through changes in copyright and internet law. I believe that these changes won’t be received well because it’s a little like putting a genie back into the bottle, which is why education about the negative effects is really important. Just like piracy and plagiarism is “achieved” on a one-on-one basis, people need to remove their blinders about the negative effects this type of behavior causes. After all, you wouldn’t expect a doctor to provide care for you for free — why would you demand an artist or writer do the same?

Regardless, these trends are affecting not only what I read and write online, but how I pursue my career objectives and what I recommend other people to write as well.

Publishing’s Future may be a Paradigm Shift

One of the hot topics over the past, few weeks as been the “future of publishing.” At BookExpo America, the Future is Digital, according to the Washington Post. (You can also find a lot more information on the topic through Publishers Weekly.) While I’m offering my opinions related to the future of professional publishing and the digital market in this post, a word of caution — digital publishing is currently a tiny, tiny market. During a panel at WisCon, Tor Books relayed that of the entire book publishing industry, 98% of those are in “hard goods,” whereas that remaining 2% is digital. Perhaps due to the economy and/or the popularity of the Kindle, digital has exponentially grown over the past year even though book sales have declined slightly. (Remember, in a downturn economy people might be more likely to visit their local library and check out books for free as opposed to buying them.)

What is the Potential Market?

First, let’s look at some numbers that will help put internet usage into perspective and see if they reveal anything about the “potential” market for publishers online.

Take into consideration that the saturation of internet users in the U.S. is 75%(1). Even if the internet usage stats (after some digging, I found were pulled from Nielsen online) are accurate, they don’t show what people are using the internet for. Are they looking at all of the 109,734,433 active domains on the web? (2). Probably not, since Nielsen states that the average time a visitor spends reading a web page is less than a minute. Alexa’s top-ranked websites only show us part of the story, because you’ll notice that search engines, blogs and social media sites comprise most of that top 25.

The point that I’m trying to make here, is that even though internet usage is rampant, visitors use the medium for different reasons and there are a lot of websites trying to grab their attention. Unlike a physical bookstore where you have so many chances to make an impression on a potential buyer, the web is flooded with information — including ads — that are vying for that visitor’s attention. As every bookseller knows, positioning is key. The same may be true for the web, but the question remains “where” that positioning will be the most relevant to get the greatest effect.

Why a Paradigm Shift Might Be Necessary

Working for both online-and-offline companies in both the public (government) and private sector, I can tell you that there is a definite difference between a company that focuses their efforts online vs. offline. Online companies move faster, keep up on daily (if not hourly) trends, and have to make quick decisions that they can then track through virtually instantaneous data streams. As I’m sure you’re aware, offline companies might be structured around seasonality or production timelines, which may be supported by their web presence. The pace in an offline business can be much slower than an online one, depending upon which market you’re in.

Although publishing may not continue in the same vein as it has been, I hope that they don’t place all of their emphasis into an online presence. We’re still in the “Wild, Wild West” of the internet, where specific legal rulings could dramatically impact accessibility and deliverability of content. I’m seeing many businesses pour everything into online marketing because it’s “free” (e.g. have a website), but I think this may yield disastrous results over the long-term. There are a number of factors in flux that may affect publishing, some of which also relate to other businesses as well.

    a) Internet Law (copyright, piracy, social media rulings, net neutrality, etc.)
    b) Production Schedule (Time to Market)
    c) Offline “Support” (bookstores, schools, libraries)
    d) Technology (online and offline)
    e) Pricing (free vs. paid)
    f) Content Saturation and Distribution

Hopefully, publishers will continue experimenting while keeping an eye on the bigger picture. (Tor and Harper Collins are two examples of publishers who are dipping their toe into the space.) Book publishers have a unique challenge, because their product (e.g. “books”) can be offered in multiple mediums. This may be good news for the longer-term, because a product that can be adapted either physically or electronically is a product that has the potential for great accessibility.

What’s to come? The future is anyone’s guess, which is why I highly recommend that authors stay on top of these changes. Either way, it’s pretty exciting stuff!

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore near you.


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