Andrew Brown

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Using new technologies throughout the course, both ones that I was already familiar with and ones that I had never explored before, it was apparent that the Internet is changing the shape of argument in our world. The Internet has not only served to break down boundaries and allow distribution to previously unheard of numbers of people, it has also fed the rapid development of entirely new methods of communication.

Although just using these new methods of communication is exciting at first, they are not perfect and actually still suffer from many of the downfalls of the old methods. First, I would like to discuss some of the thoughts I had while working with the various tools and technologies throughout the course. Then, I will examine how they affected my final project, what things went right, what things went wrong, and how I can work to remedy those in the future.

One of the most beautiful things about many of these new technologies is how simple they are. I am technically proficient, but even people who are not can pick up many of the skills necessary to use any of these tools quite quickly. Participating in a wiki (rather than just reading Wikipedia), making a podcast, and exploring Second Life were all things that I had never done before. The sort of accessibility to everybody these tools provide is incredible and extending the ability to argue and participate to as many people as possible is great.

Simplicity does have its costs, though. One area where I do have experience is programming. Scratch was great for building some cute little games and many people loved it, but I found it to be incredibly frustrating. It seemed to me that the simplicity came with the cost of needing to fit into the box that the developers had built. It was easy to build a game if you followed the right paths, but in attempting to do some unique things, I quickly ran into roadblocks set up by the developers that required some really sick kludges to get around.

I also wonder how experience with Scratch would affect individuals if they decide that they want to go further than Scratch will allow them. I had to unlearn a lot of the (fairly basic) things that I know about programming to work with Scratch (in particular, the way to build certain loops and cause-effect triggers). If I needed to unlearn things in order to use Scratch, people who start with Scratch are going to have to unlearn some bad habits in order to use any other programming language. In a somewhat-related vein, I felt at points during the class that the ease-of-use could encourage another problem: just because you can do something does not mean that you should do something. It is easy to start up a blog, and so now millions of young kids have blogs. They are not necessarily interesting (who cares what you had for breakfast?) and they often end up abandoned. I personally have three previously boring and presently abandoned blogs that I set up sitting out in cyberspace. Argument in these forums is not as simple as “if you build it they will come.”

This was most painfully obvious to me while recording the podcast. I was not passionate about my argument and did not really have anything to say (that was before I switched from an argument about scheduling to one about DRM). So I staggered, stumbled, and stuttered for a couple of minutes. Painful and embarrassing. This seems to be a fairly common problem. You don’t have to listen to very many podcasts (or, for another example, try the Commentary track on a DVD sometime) that too often it is a case of somebody doing something because it is possible or expected rather than having a real reason. The commentary on a DVD can be enlightening and brilliant or it can be a painful couple of hours of stammering. A podcast can be effective or it might have been better as a written piece.

For my project, I decided to set up a blog to highlight individuals and companies who are selling their creations as digital content on the Internet without restrictive digital rights management protections. This was meant both to support those people and, hopefully, to show that it is beneficial to the content creators to forego DRM.

I think that at the root of the failings of my blog was my inability to find an audience and it is the sort of problem that could be spiraling. Because my project did not obviously require user participation (as, say, a wiki would), I did not hunt out readers or advertise to friends at all. I did not get my name out at all. The project is not listed by any search engines or linked to by anyone.

At first, it seemed to me that short posts linking to DRM-free content would be easy to make and a quick way to fill out the blog. The difficult part, however, is finding that content. I already read a large number of websites that aggregate news, which does provide some links for me. But to be successful, I would need to dig, dig, dig to find content. I need to find content that the large news aggregators are not picking up on. That is the only way for the site to become a destination. The breadth and depth necessary to be successful in that regard is just not attainable by a single person. The ideal solution is to have a large group of users (many, many eyeballs) that send in links. The problem is of the chicken and the egg, though. Without users, there is not enough content. Without enough content, there are no users.

I am also afraid that I exacerbated the problem by making too many longer posts with commentary. The initial idea was to have the site be about the content with a primarily commentary post sprinkled in here and there. My assumptions about the relative difficulty of making certain types of posts were wrong, however, and I found that writing a few paragraphs of what I thought about certain related issues was easier than finding the sort of content that I was trying to highlight (and I also was concerned about my grade in the class and thought, correctly or not, that commentary might look better to a professor than a lot of short posts with just links). Unfortunately, that loss of focus also, I feel, makes the site less attractive to users. The content links can be useful and interesting, a draw; the commentary, I am afraid, is not as unique (it’s along the lines of “what I had for breakfast”) and is more likely to frighten people away.

As one of my friends said, “the blog is very serious.” Serious can work in some contexts, but not for a website like this. It needs to be fun to draw a critical mass of users and be truly useful. The commentary is not completely out of place but is, in my view, beneficial only in moderation.

The key for me to have success in the future, then, is to try to regain the correct focus. As part of that, I also need to make a conscious effort to draw users to the site and encourage them to participate. Only then can it form an effective argument.

(I do also feel that the relatively short timeframe available to build the project before grading was part of the problem, and I hope that with more—virtually unlimited, actually—time, I will be able to be successful in this—but only after I am through with the rest of my exams.)