What Is True/Slant?
275+ knowledgeable contributors.
Reporting and insight on news of the moment.
Follow them and join the news conversation.

Jul. 29 2010 — 12:54 pm | 204 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

So long, but only for now

This is my last post for True/Slant. The site has been acquired by Forbes Media and is in the process of ramping down; it will stop publishing new content on August 1, although archived blogs will remain accessible for a while. Some of the content that has found a home here will move under the Forbes umbrella. True/Slant’s excellent editorial team is already there.

Sixteen months ago I approached Lewis Dvorkin with a proposal for a blog that would explore the ways tech was inflecting pop culture, and vice versa. This was an idea that had two advantages: It was lively enough to guarantee a stream of content and analysis, and broad enough to help me maintain my own interest, even as I found my attention span crumbling under the onslaught of microcontent from sites like Twitter and Facebook. (Both of which I use every day — Twitter as a fan, Facebook as one of the grumbling millions who sort of hate it but are chained to it anyway.) Social media themselves became a popular topic on this blog, which was a little reach, but not much. Blogging about issues like the influence of Twitter helped me think harder and more clearly about the online world I move around in every day, and I’m grateful True/Slant afforded me the opportunity to do that.

Regrets? Oh, I don’t know. “Garfield,” maybe, and the fact that I published this very mean thinkpiece on Internet celebucreature iJustine at Huffington Post, not here. I suspect it got lost in the increasing clamor of HuffPo, and would have found a more appropriate audience here. I did manage to describe iJustine as “Joey Heatherton on meth,” which was a good day’s work, so there’s that. Besides, plenty of the posts I wrote here did find their audience (see left). I’m proud that three of my Top 5 posts were on The Old Spice Guy, Patton Oswalt, and “South Park.” It tells me that readers of Buzz, Boom & Sizzle have excellent taste, and I’m not just pimping myself for your applause when I say that.


Two last things:

1) I’m grateful to Lewis Dvorkin, Coates Bateman, the terrifyingly efficient and cheerful Andrea Spiegel, and Michael Roston for being such unfailingly encouraging people to write for. Their professionalism and good humor have made this experiment in entrepreneurial journalism a pleasure to participate in. I’m proud to have been a part of it.

Come on! This way for updates on Buzz, Boom & Sizzle!

2) This blog will return, and be hosted at the site of a major American business publication. (No more of those offshore business publications for me. I mean, “Fast Times Bangalore Inc. & Company”? What the hell was I thinking?) Arrangements for that move are ongoing, and that’s really all I can say about it right now. Follow me at Twitter for updates.

And seriously, no fooling: Thanks for reading. I’ve appreciated your comments, and I hope you’ll follow Buzz, Boom & Sizzle to [NAME REDACTED] later this year. There’s more fun to be had.

Jul. 21 2010 — 2:37 pm | 154 views | 0 recommendations | 0 comments

Flipboard: The scale of success

Flipboard, a new app that aggregates social-media content in a slick magazine-like interface, may well be the future of social media on the iPad. It may deserve the blizzard of praise it’s getting today on Twitter. But it also illustrates a trap that app developers fall into all too frequently. Within moments of yesterday’s glowing writeup by tastemaker Robert Scoble, the app was slammed with new users. People attempting to connect their Twitter and Facebook accounts to Flipboard were confronted with a maddening series of error messages. Other content was available, but without the ability to add one’s own Twitter and Facebook data, the thing felt only half baked. For much of the early audience, the first experience of Flipboard was pure frustration.

The problem, of course, was capacity.

Now adding new users in waves. We’ll update you when we’re ready for the next wave, after we deploy new servers tonight

the developers told followers on Twitter late last night. By this morning the message was

Hey all – we’re working on the login problem on Flipboard by creating an invitation system, and letting people in more slowly.

All this raises a couple of questions. Having snuck early access to Scoble, All Things D’s Katie Boehret and a handful of other influential writers — Scoble was muttering about something new and “revolutionary” as early as last week — why didn’t the dev team anticipate a rush of early users once the embargo was lifted and scale up accordingly? Why didn’t they over-commit to server resources and scale back after launch if necessary? (Money wasn’t an issue: The app launched with $10.5 million in VC money behind it.) And what can they do now to alter the appearance of fecklessness, especially among those early-adopting types who can do so much to evangelize for a new product?

All this is Monday-morning quarterbacking, to be sure. And let me be clear: I can’t wait to try Flipboard. I wish its clever, ambitious dev team all the best. But you only get one chance to make a first impression, the cliché goes. Flipboard’s first impression has been of a potentially great racehorse who’s stumbled out of the gate.

UPDATE: Flipboard has, as promised, been adding capacity today, and I was able to hook my Facebook and Twitter accounts into the app a little while ago. It feels remarkably polished and well thought-out, with loads of smart interface touches. (My favorite: It pre-caches in the background the complete text of any article you’re sampling, so if you choose to pop out to the full Web version, it loads instantaneously.Very smart.) It turns out, though, that — for me — the ability to view one’s own feeds is its least useful feature. It’s true that Flipboard bundles and presents your social-media streams in a compelling alternate way, but it’s still just that — an alternate way. More useful, to my mind, are the pre-populated subject-centric feeds the service provides for you (on tech, design, food, music, and many other topics). They’re only Twitter lists, really, but if the service is truly aimed at facilitating access to new content shared on social-media sites, this is where it works best — not in its presentation of content which is already easily accessible in other ways. In any event, Flipboard looks like a solid app that’s working its way through a rocky start.

Jul. 19 2010 — 9:49 pm | 99 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Why Internet content reviewers burn out

David Graham, president of Telecommunications On Demand, the company near Orlando where [Internet content reviewer Ricky Bess] works, compared the reviewers to “combat veterans, completely desensitized to all kinds of imagery.” The company’s roughly 50 workers view a combined average of 20 million photos a week.

“Policing the Web’s Lurid Precincts,” The New York Times: July 19, 2010

20 million images divided by 50 workers = 400,000 images screened per worker per 5-day week, or
80,000 images screened per worker per eight-hour day, or
10,000 images screened per per hour, or
167 images screened per worker per minute, or
2.78 images screened per worker per second.

Dear Mr. Graham: Do you really want to keep your reviewers from walking around the office like Christopher Walken in “The Deer Hunter”? Hire more reviewers.

(Due diligence: These insane calculations only hold up if you believe the numbers Graham fed the Times, which I don’t. Doesn’t anybody over there have a calculator?)

Jul. 18 2010 — 1:35 pm | 275 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

The LA Times looks (but not deeply) into the future of reading

Part 1 of the Los Angeles Times’ series on “The Future of Reading” starts with the kind of color feature editors are crazy for: A bright, precocious 12-year-old who’s been awakened to the wonders of science via new technology. If only the writers, Alex Pham and David Sarno, had been as inquisitive as little Emma Teitgen. Because once past the opening the story devolves into a credulous thumbsucker about how e-books “establish an entirely new kind of relationship with readers.”

That much is undeniably true. But it’s also as deep an insight as Pham and Sarno make an effort to mine. They seem to have zero interest in pondering what this sort of shift means, at least when it comes to fiction. They talk to young adult author Scott Westerfeld…

“There’s an ongoing feedback loop with my readers,” said Westerfeld, 47, who splits his time between New York and Australia. He figures he’s logged more than 30,000 e-mails from readers over the years. “They educate me a lot about the way they are reading. I’m a lot smarter about it now than when I was locked up in a room writing on my own.” He learned, for example, that writing about conflict can unsettle his younger readers. ”When two characters in my book have an argument, I get a lot of e-mail,” Westerfeld said. “Adults see it as churn. But kids are far more affected by it, so I use it only when there is a real need in the story for conflict.”

…without ever suggesting that an author who tames his narrative because it may be upsetting to readers, even younger ones, is a hack. I mean, does this guy really need a focus group to tell him that he should only use conflict, or anything else, when there’s a need for it? Pham and Sarno are similarly too easy on Shannon Reinbold-Gee, pen name Shannon Delany (I guess “Reinbold-Gee” was too unsettling for her younger readers), who

frequently asked readers to help her make decisions about plot and character twists in “13 to Life.” At the end of Chapter 6, she asked which beau her main character, Jessica, ought to go to the prom with. Fans voted for Jessica to go stag — and that’s how Reinbold-Gee wrote it.

Interactivity is one of the Grails of e-books, and it’s true that a book that helps readers — especially young ones — connect to outside source materials or even other readers is a better book. It’s shame, though, that Pham and Sarno didn’t tamp down some of their enthusiasm for the gee-whizziness of e-books and apply a little skepticism, especially as it relates to creative works. Authors can and will crowdsource the creative process. That genie is out of the bottle, and it’s not all bad. But to not even acknowledge the solitary author making the lonely aesthetic choices that best serve the story — that doesn’t serve writers or readers any better here in the future than it did in the past.

Jul. 16 2010 — 1:52 pm | 254 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Steve Jobs on Antennagate: ‘It’s all about the love. Also, there is no Antennagate.’

Steve Jobs’ press conference on the iPhone 4’s well-reported reception problems is just wrapping up in Northern California, and I have to agree with New York Times reporter John Markoff’s assessment:

Basically a Harvard Business School tutorial on how to turn a crisis into an opportunity…

Jobs was transparent about the particular rate of reception problems with the iPhone 4 (it drops more calls, by a few, than its predecessor model, the 3GS), even as he deftly made the case that antenna issues are common to all smartphones. He was specific about the reported number of complaints (low, although the number of unreported ones was surely much higher). He issued a short-term fix, ordering no-fault refunds or a free case to anybody who buys an iPhone 4 between now and September 30. (Use of a case alleviates the so-called “Death grip” issue. If you’ve already bought one, you’ll get a refund.) And when he pivoted to a closing disquisition on how “We love our users, we love them… We try to surprise and delight them,” he did with with the smoothness of Ray Allen pivoting for that sweet 14-ft. jumper he couldn’t seem to find in the finals, not that I’m bitter.

Apple isn’t perfect, and the reason I know that is that Jobs showed a presentation slide stating exactly that. (He really did.) But when it comes to not just managing a bad situation but turning it to its own competitive advantage, it’s hard to think of another big company that’s its equal.

UPDATE: The presser is over now. If you haven’t clicked through to the excellent Jason Snell liveblog I linked to in the first paragraph, it’s worth your time. Especially for the tonal shift at the end, when Jobs’ composure started to wear a little and the Kumbaya atmosphere began to fray. Jobs had to be tired if he really expected anybody to believe that Apple’s gotten an unfair ride in the press. I still think the overall performance was masterful, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that, yeah, the boss lost a little something off his fastball toward the end.

UPDATE UPDATE: Slate’s Farhad Manjoo, who was less impressed with the press event than I was, argues that Jobs cooked the numbers on dropped calls.

My T/S Activity Feed


    About Me

    I'm a writer in Santa Monica, CA. I spent some years at Newsweek and some more writing for TV. My freelance journalism has appeared in The New Yorker, Time, Slate, The Boston Globe, Fast Company, Fortune Small Business, Washington Journalism Review, American Journalism Review, American Heritage and TV Guide, and on PBS.

    I've been writing about popular culture for more than 20 years, and about technology for almost that long. I've been fascinated the last few years with the way the two have started to intertwine, so that's what I'll be looking at here: Technology, pop culture and the places where they meet. I'll also be poking around in the world of blogging, microblogging, nanoblogging, micronanoblogging and whatever comes next.

    You can reach me at billbarol.com.

    See my profile »
    Followers: 86
    Contributor Since: April 2009
    Location:Santa Monica, CA

    What I'm Up To

    An iPhone photo a day, every day for a year.