The future of content, Part 4

I’ve talked about redesigning the web into a collection of interconnected pieces of content, and I’ve discussed monetizing such a paradigm. Now I’d like to go further into the value this reconstruction would bring to content creators, sharers, and users.

The way the web works right now, content creators and sharers typically must either have their own website or use third-party services in order to build an audience and make money. Under this paradigm, the websites (or their content streams) are the main point of interest, and the onus is on the site owners and managers to “keep the content fresh”. In the case of businesses, this includes finding and hiring/contracting creators and negotiating licensing agreements with third-party content providers. The now-now-now pace puts pressure on creators to write something, anything, in order to keep people coming back to the site. This has resulted in a glut of content that is posted for the sake of having new content posted. SEO marketing has exacerbated the issue with content posted for the sake of higher search engine rankings. People are wasting more and more time reading navel-gazing content that adds little value to the human community.

With a web that is truly content-driven, the focus would shift from trying to keep thousands of disparate sites and streams “fresh” to trying to produce and share content that is meaningful, impactful, and important. With IP issues handled through robust tagging, content would be available for anyone to share. Licensing would be streamlined, and creators would be directly paid for their work. Media houses could more confidently keep creators on staff; sharing would provide an obvious metric of a creator’s value. Creators could focus on more long-form pieces, knowing that their existing work would continue to be shared and monetized. There would be less pressure to post something, anything, every day.

The web has suffered from the adoption of the “always on” mindset. If there is nothing new to report, there is no need to invent something to report. Someone, somewhere, is always producing content; it’s a big world. Rather than polluting millions of streams with junk, media companies, news organizations, marketers, and individuals should shift their focus to finding and sharing value. Simply aggregating RSS feeds or repurposing content the way we’ve been doing it so far is not enough; it does not meet the needs of the user and it does not ensure that content creators are paid for their work. We need to rebuild the system from the ground up.

The future of content, Part 3

Over the past two days I’ve described a new model for web architecture, one whose primary unit is an individual piece of content stored in a universal repository, rather than a product (page, feed, API, etc.) hosted on a web server. (Read Part 1; read Part 2.) Today I’ll discuss how such a system might be monetized.

Currently, content is shared in many disparate ways. The Associated Press has its own proprietary format for allowing other news sites to automatically repost its content; it also allows its lower-tier affiliates to manually repost (i.e., by copying and pasting into their own content management system), so long as the copyright notice remains intact. Sites pay to be affiliates. Bloggers, of course, have done the manual copy-and-paste thing for years; nowadays a pasted excerpt with a link to the original is considered standard, and this of course brings little money to the original creator. Video sites, too, have their own different ways of allowing users to share. Embedded video advertising allows the content creator to make some money on shares…assuming someone hasn’t simply saved the video and reposted it. Data is far more difficult to share or monetize. Some sites offer an API, but few laypeople know what to do with such a thing. The typical social media way of sharing data is by posting a still image of a graph or infographic–not contextualized or accessible at all.

In a system where every piece of content is tagged by creator, wherein sharing of any type of media is simple, IP could be more easily secured and monetized. Content tags could include copyright types and licensing permission levels. A piece of content might, for example, be set to freely share so long as it is always accompanied by the creator’s advertising. Ads could be sponsorship watermarks, preroll video, display banners or text that appear within the content unit, or something else entirely. The content creator would determine what advertising would be available for each piece of content, and the content sharers would each individually decide what advertising they are willing to have appear, or if they’d rather purchase an ad-free license. Resharers who took the content from someone else’s share would not avoid the advertising choice, because while they would have found the content at another sharer’s site or stream, the content itself would still be the original piece, hosted at the original repository, with all the original tags intact–including authorship and advertising.

Content could also be set to automatically enter the public domain at the proper time, under the laws governing its creator, or perhaps earlier if the creator so wishes.

The first step in making all of this work is to have all content properly tagged and a system wherein content tags are quickly updated and indexed across the internet. The second step would be in making sharing the “right” way so easy that very few would attempt to save someone else’s content and repost it as their own. As I mentioned in Part 2, I’m imagining browsers and sites that offer a plethora of in-browser editing and sharing options, far easier (and less expensive!) than using desktop applications. Making sharing and remixing easy and browser-based would also cut down on software piracy. Powerful creation suites would still be purchased by the media producers who need them to make their content, but the average person would no longer require a copy of Final Cut Pro to hack together a fan video based on that content.

The kind of tagging I’m talking about goes somewhat beyond the semantic web. Tags would be hard-coded into content, not easily removed (or avoided by a simple copy and paste). A piece of content’s entire history would be stored as part of the unit. Technologically, I’m not sure what this would involve, or what problems might arise. It occurs to me that over time a piece of content would become quite large through the logging of all its shares. But making that log indivisible from the content would solve many issues of intellectual property rights on the internet today. Simply asking various organizations who host disparate pieces of content to tag that content properly and then hoping they comply will not lead to a streamlined solution, especially given the problem of “standards” (as spoofed by xkcd).

With a system like this, the web rebuilt from the bottom up, there would be no need for individual content creators to reinvent the wheels of websites, APIs, DRM, advertising. They could instead focus on producing good content and the contextualizing it into websites and streams. Meanwhile, the hardcore techies would be the ones working on the underlying system, the content repository itself, the way streams are created, how tagging and logging occurs, tracking sharing, etc. Media companies–anyone–could contribute to this process if they wanted, but the point is they wouldn’t have to.

The future of content, Part 2

(This is the second in a series of posts about the future of content creation and sharing online. Part 1 contains my original discussion, while Part 3 considers monetization.)

Yesterday I imagined a web architecture that depends on individual pieces of highly tagged content, rather than streams of content. Today I’d like to expand on that.

Right now when a creator posts something to the web, they must take all their cues from the environment in which they are posting. YouTube has a certain category and tag structure. Different blogging software handles post tagging differently. News organizations and other media companies have their own specialized CMSes, either built by third parties, built in-house, or built by third parties and then customized. This ultimately leads to content that is typically only shareable through linking, copy-and-paste, or embedding via a content provider or CMS’s proprietary solution.

None of this is standardized. Different organizations adhere to different editorial guidelines, and these likely either include different rules for content tagging or neglect to discuss content tagging at all. And of course, content posted by individuals is going to be tagged or not tagged depending on the person’s time and interest in semantic content.

The upshot is, there is no way, other than through a search engine, to find all content (not just content from one specific creator) that relates to a certain keyword or phrase. And since content is tagged inconsistently across creators, and spammers flood the web with useless content, search engines are a problematic solution to content discovery.

In my idealized web, creators would adhere to a certain set of standards when posting content. The content posting interface would automatically give each section of content its own unique identifier, and the creator would be able to adjust these for accuracy–for example, marking an article as an article, marking the title as the title, and making sure each paragraph was denoted as a paragraph. If this sounds like HTML5, well, that’s intentional. I believe that in the interest of an accessible, contextualized web of information, we need all content posting interfaces to conform to web standards (and we need web standards to continue to evolve to meet the needs of content).

Further, I think such systems should tag each unit of content such that the context and sharing and linking history of that unit of content can be logged. This would provide extraordinarily rich information for data analysts, a field that is already growing and would explode upon adoption of this model.

In my vision, content would not be dependent on an individual or an organization to host it on a website at a particular IP address. Instead, there would be independent but interconnected content repositories around the world where all content would reside. “Permalinks” would go straight to the content itself.

Browsers would become content interpreters, bringing up individual pieces of content in a human-comprehensible way. Users could have their own browser settings for the display of different kinds of content. Theming would be big. And a user’s browser history could allow that browser to suggest content, if the user opted in.

But websites would still exist; content interpretation would not be the sole domain of browsers. Rather than places where content is stored and then presented, websites would be contextualized areas of related content, curated by people or by processes or both. Perhaps a site owner would always be able to post and remix their own content, but would need to acquire a license to post or remix someone else’s. Perhaps different remix sites would pop up, sites with in-browser video and image editing, that would allow users to become creators. All remixes would become bona fide content, stored in the repository; anyone could simply view the remix from their browser, but community sites could also share streams of related remixes.

With properly-tagged content that is not tied to millions of different websites, content streams would be easy for anyone to produce. Perhaps browsers would facilitate this; perhaps websites would do so; perhaps both. The web would shift from being about finding the right outlets for content to finding the right content interpreter to pull in the content the user wants, regardless of source.

Such a system would have “social media” aspects, in that a user could set their browser or favorite content interpretation website to find certain kinds of content that are shared or linked by their friends, colleagues, and people of interest to them. This information, of course, would be stored with each piece of content in the repository, accessible to everyone. But users would also be able to opt out of such a system, should they wish to be able to share and remix but not have their name attached. The rest of the trail would still be there, linking from the remix to the original pieces, such that the content could be judged on its worth regardless of whether the creator was “anonymous user” or a celebrity or a politician or a mommy blogger.

Under this sort of system, content creators could be as nit-picky about the presentation of their content as they wanted. They could be completely hands-off, submitting content to the repository without even creating a website or stream to promote or contextualize it. Or they could dig in deep and build websites with curated areas of related content. Media companies that produce a lot of content could provide content interpretation pages and content streams that take the onus of wading through long options lists away from the user and instead present a few options the creator thinks users might want to customize. The point is, users would be able to customize as much as they wanted if they dug into the nitty-gritty themselves, but content creators would still be able to frame their content and present it to casual users in a contextualized way. They could also use this framework, along with licensing agreements, to provide content from other creators.

Comments would be attached to content items, but also tagged with the environment in which they were made–so if they were made on a company’s website, that information would be known, but anyone could also see the comment on the original piece of content. Content streams made solely of comments would be a possibility (something like Branch).

This system would be extremely complex, especially given the logging involved, but it would also cut down on a lot of duplication and IP theft. If sharing is made simple, just a few clicks, and all content lives in the same place, there’s no reason for someone to save someone else’s picture, edit out the watermark, and post it elsewhere. Since all content would be tagged by author, there would actually be no reason for watermarks to exist. The content creator gets credit for the original creation, and the person who shares gets credit for the share. This would theoretically lead to users following certain sharers, and perhaps media companies could watch this sort of thing and hire people who tend to share content that gets people talking.

Obviously such a paradigm shift would mean a completely different approach to content creation, content sharing, commenting, and advertising…a whole new web. I haven’t even gotten into what advertising might be like in such a system. It would certainly be heavily dependent on tagging. I’ll think more about the advertising side and perhaps address it in a Part 3.

The future of content

(This is the first in a series of posts about the future of content creation and sharing online. Part 2 expands on the ideas in this post, while Part 3 considers monetization.)

I recently read Stop Publishing Web Pages, in which author Anil Dash calls for content creators to stop thinking in terms of static pages and instead publish customizable content streams.

Start publishing streams. Start moving your content management system towards a future where it outputs content to simple APIs, which are consumed by stream-based apps that are either HTML5 in the browser and/or native clients on mobile devices. Insert your advertising into those streams using the same formats and considerations that you use for your own content. Trust your readers to know how to scroll down and skim across a simple stream, since that’s what they’re already doing all day on the web. Give them the chance to customize those streams to include (or exclude!) just the content they want.

At first I had the impression that this would mean something like RSS, where content would be organized by publish date, but customizable, so a user could pick which categories/tags they wanted. This sounded like a great way to address how people currently approach content.

Upon further contemplation, though, I don’t think it would go far enough. Sorting by date and grouping by category seem like good options for stream organization, but why limit ourselves? What if I want to pull in content by rating, for example?

What if, alongside a few curated content streams, users visiting a content creator had access to all possible content tags–so that power users could not only simply customize existing streams, but create their own? As they start to choose tags, the other options would narrow dynamically based on the content that matches the tags and what tags are in place on that content. I’d want to be able to apply sub-tags when customizing a stream, so, for example, I could build a recipe stream that included all available beef entree recipes, but only sandwiches for the available chicken entree recipes. The goal would be to give users as much or as little power as they want, while maintaining ownership of the content.

Think of all the fun ways users could then curate and remix the content. Personal newspaper sites like have already given us a glimpse of the possibilities, but with properly tagged content, the customization could be even better, especially if the content curation system they’re using is flexible. Users could pick the images they want, create image galleries, pull in video, and put everything wherever they wanted it, at whatever size they wanted, using whatever fonts and colors they wanted. And what if each paragraph, or perhaps even sentence, in an article had a unique identifier? A user could select the text they want to be the highlight/summary for the piece, without having to copy and paste (and without the possibility of inadvertently misrepresenting the content).

And what if the owner of the content could tell what text was used to share the content? With properly tagged content within a share-tracking architecture, each sharing instance would serve as a contextualized trackback to the content owner. Over time, they’d have aggregate sharing data that would provide valuable audience information: who shared the content, what text they used, what pictures they used, what data they used, what video they used. Depending on how the sharing architecture is built, perhaps the content owner could even receive the comments and ratings that are put on the content at point-of-share, helping them determine where to look for feedback. They could see who shared the content directly and who reshared it from someone else’s share. Whose shares are getting the most reshares? How do those content sharers share the content? What is the context; what other content are they sharing in that space? This could inform how the content owner chooses to share the content on their own apps and pages.

For websites would still exist, of course. They would just be far more semantic and dynamic. Rather than being static page templates, they’d be context-providing splash pages, pulled together by content curators. Anything could be pulled into these pages and placed anywhere; curators could customize the look and feel and write “connector text” to add context (such as a custom image caption referring back to an article). This connector text would then become a separate tagged unit associated with the content it is connecting, available for use elsewhere. The pages themselves would serve as promotional pieces for content streams users could subscribe to; the act of visiting such a page could send the user the stream information. And content shared alongside other content would then be linked to that content. Whenever a content creator presented two pieces of their own content together, that would tag those pieces of content as being explicitly linked. Content would also be tagged as linked whenever sharers presented it together, regardless of creator. Perhaps explicit links would be interpreted by the sharing architecture as stronger than other links; perhaps link strength could be dynamically determined by number of presentations, whether the content had the same creator, and the trust rating of the sharers involved. Regardless, users could then browse through shares based on link strength if they chose.

Author and copyright information would be built into this sharing system. Ideally, authors would be logged into their own account on a content management system such that their author information (name, organization, website, etc.) would be automatically appended to any content they create or curate. There would probably need to be a way for users to edit the author, to allow for cases where someone posts something for someone else, but this would only be available at initial content creation, to avoid IP theft. This author information would then automatically become available for a “credits” section in whatever site, blog, app, or other managed content area that content is pulled into. Copyright would be protected in that author information is always appended and the content itself isn’t being changed as it’s shared, just contextualized differently. Every piece of content would link back to its original author.

I’m imagining all of this applying to everything–not just text-based articles and still images, but spreadsheets, interactive graphs, video. Users would have in-browser editing capabilities to grab video clips if they didn’t want to present the entire video. They’d have the ability to take a single row out of a table to make a graph. Heck, they’d have the ability to crop an image. But no matter how they chopped up and reassembled the content, it would always retain its original author and copyright information and link back to the whole original. Remixes and edits would append the information of the sharer who did the remix/edit.

Essentially, rather than pages or even streams, I’m seeing disparate pieces of content, linked to other content by tags and shares. All content would be infinitely customizable but still ultimately intact. This would serve the way people now consume content and leave possibilities open for many different means of content consumption in the future. Meanwhile, it would provide valuable data to content creators while maintaining their content ownership.

I would love to work on building such a system. Anybody else out there game?

Since writing I’ve found some related sites and thoughts:

Otome Youkai Zakuro

Otome Youkai Zakuro

This week I watched the 13-episode series Otome Yokai Zakuro, or “Demon Girl Zakuro”, on Crunchyroll. It’s based on an ongoing manga series about a half-spirit girl named Zakuro, her half-spirit and full spirit friends, and the human imperial army officers who team up with them to form the Ministry of Spirit Affairs. The story takes place in 19th century Japan shortly after the Meiji Restoration, during a time of unrest and change due to westernization. In this slightly-altered history, humans and spirits live side-by-side, but westernization efforts are marginalizing the spirits, causing conflicts to arise. And of course, there are evil spirits, too. Zakuro’s team takes requests from various parties, then attempts to nail down the problems that are occurring and resolve them.

One thing I noticed right away was that the male lead, Agemaki Kei, was voiced by Sakurai Takahiro, who also voiced my beloved Shibuya Yuuri from Kyou Kara Maou. He plays a similar character here, so his voice is pretty much the same as Yuuri’s. It was really nice to hear it again. At the end of the series, he even has a very Yuuri-esque line about people coming to understand one another. ^^

I found the setting extremely interesting. While the spirits live in a traditional-style Japanese house, and many people on the street still wear traditional garb, there were also plenty of people wearing western-style clothes, and the army officers’ uniforms were of course western-style. The characters took trains, new to Japan, to reach distant clients. Much talk was made of the “new calendar”. (Japan adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1873.) Overall, there was kind of a Victorian-meets-traditional-Japan vibe.

I loved seeing Zakuro and her friends’ reactions to things like cookies and milk. While the others were generally cheerful and open-minded, Zakuro often complained about cultural items and practices she dubbed バテレン–bateren, a word referring to Portuguese Jesuits or simply to Christianity itself. (The Crunchyroll translator subtitled it as “Jesuit”.)

The artwork was quite pretty, and the animation was very smooth. The story didn’t shy away from some particularly nasty concepts, such as a spirit that liked to eat women and children. There was some stylized violence, but not fountains of gore.

Pacing was Zakuro‘s weak point. I didn’t realize going in how short the series was, and as various concepts were introduced I imagined it would take many episodes to resolve them all. The series climax seemed to come out of nowhere, and the resolution seemed to drag while still somehow feeling hasty. With all the threads the story had woven together, we needed more time with the Ministry of Spirit Affairs to see their bonds grow, more time seeing Onodaka leading from the shadows before it became obvious who he was, more time to spin out Zakuro’s story so it didn’t feel like we had to choke down an entire buffet line of exposition during the series climax.

I did like the denouement…even the two-second, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it car passing by to answer the question of what happened after the fire. It all left me with a good feeling. (Except Zakuro’s persistent tsundere tendencies. Honey, at some point you’ve got to just roll with it.)

I also liked the flashback scenes with Zakuro’s mother, in no small part because they featured Morikawa Toshiyuki, who played Conrad in Kyou Kara Maou. He changed his voice for this part, but I still recognized him right away. Love.

I usually get a little annoyed with anime that feature twins, and I expected that to be the case here, especially when Bonbori and Houzuki told Ganryuu he should be in a relationship with both of them. But somehow they didn’t irritate me as much as I expected they would. (Maybe they would have if the series had been longer.)

I absolutely adored Susukihotaru’s relationship with Riken. I know, it’s extremely cliche: the proper lady and her strong and silent man. Shut up. It was sweet.

Agemaki and Zakuro’s relationship was great, too. I think it needed a little more time to truly flesh out before it got to “I love you”, but there were some extremely impactful moments, especially when Agemaki was captured and Zakuro found the candy ticket, and when Agemaki asked Zakuro, of all people, to come with him to deflect some of his father’s gregarious attention. If the series could have been longer, I would have liked to have seen more done with the Agemaki-Zakuro-Hanadate love triangle, and with Agemaki trying to make himself worthy of Zakuro. I’d also like to have seen more of why Agemaki fell in love with Zakuro. I think it partly has to do with how her abrasive personality paradoxically made him more comfortable being around spirits, and partly with her beauty and battle prowess, but I’m sure there’s more to it, and I would have liked to have seen that explored.

Ultimately, seeing this series has simply made me want to read the manga! I’d love to see how this story was originally told, and what other stories the author has come up with. The characters are interesting, the story is fun and complex, and the setting is fascinating.

And now, some spoileriffic screencaps:

Agemaki looking flabbergasted
“You’re the worst!” …not really the desired reaction, here.
Zakuro and Agemaki about to kiss
THIS is the desired reaction.
Agemaki sprays milk EVERYWHERE
Aaaaaand here’s the aftermath.

Fringe finale disappointments

There are copious spoilers in this post.

Let me first state that the two-part finale of Fringe was generally enjoyable. There was a nice Fringe event featuring one of my phobias–nanobots (you can’t see them!)–and it was awesome to see Leonard Nimoy return as William Bell, especially in the second half. His performance was excellent. I was intrigued by the notion that David Robert Jones got what he wanted in this timeline: recognition by Bell, even if it meant self-sacrifice. And the new explanation for why Walter had parts of his brain removed was shocking and perfect. I also loved Bell’s escape at the end, which hearkens back to Olivia’s first meeting with him in the original timeline. Makes you wonder if he rode out of there inside someone’s head. The various character wrap-ups were nice too. I appreciated seeing Nina doing some science and being recognized for it. You could tell that the writers had been planning things so that they could end the series here if they hadn’t gotten a season five. (Which perhaps would be better, since season five seems destined to follow the horrid totalitarian Observer plotline.)


The heroes of the day, ultimately, were Walter and Peter. Olivia’s main contribution was to get her and Peter onto Bell’s ship, which seemed more “oh, Olivia should do something heroic too” rather than “Olivia is a vital member of the team”. In fact, it was Olivia, or rather Olivia’s victimization at the hands of William Bell, that threatened to destroy the world. And she had no way of fighting this. All she could do was stand there freaking out. She didn’t even think to kill herself–Walter had to do that for her. (Self-sacrifice would not have been an empowered choice, but at least it would have been her choice.)

Nina makes a big deal about how compassionate Olivia is, and how Bell is using that against her. It is Olivia’s compassion that allows her to become powerful. But based on the events of this finale, we may well conclude that compassion is weakness. Olivia is so compassionate, she can only react emotionally, and is stymied when faced with a dilemma more complex than protecting one person in front of her. She’s powerful, but ultimately she’s weak. She’s just a woman.

That’s the message I was getting.

I would have liked to have seen Olivia control her powers. We saw her doing it in the future of the original timeline, the future that Peter ultimately ended up erasing. The difference with the season four scenario is that she had been dosed with cortexiphan more recently by Evil Nina, to get her up to par with her original timeline self. This probably led to the instability and rapid release of power, provoked by the events Bell put into place around her. But think back to seasons one and two. Olivia–original timeline Olivia–had already dealt with her victimization, with taking care of other victims. She’d found her strength. She’d turned weakness into power and her past into a mission. Would this Olivia really have been flummoxed by William Bell, once she knew what was really going on?

I say no. I say that our original timeline Olivia would have stared Bell down, folded her arms, and calmly turned it off like a light.

Heck, if they’d played their cards right, the writers could have left in the headshot scene, which was actually pretty cool. Just as Olivia figures it out, Walter shoots her in despair. Peter freaks. But the bullet goes all the way through and Olivia’s cortexiphan-infused brain self-repairs instantly. Bell, about to flee, stops to gloat as the universe-destruction starts up again. And then Olivia drops the hammer on him. Later, in the denouement, Olivia undergoes a series of tests and discovers that excessive use of her powers causes an enormous drain on her body and might threaten her life, so they should be treated as a last resort.

(I’d like to keep the part where Walter removes the bullet, because that scene is just crazy, but I’d also like for Olivia to be able to stare William Bell down as she’s turning off her powers, and I’m not sure he’d stick around after he thought she was dead.)

My rewrite would allow Olivia to keep her powers without becoming some sort of overpowered superhero. It would give her an advantage in a universe populated with (male) scientific geniuses, other than her photographic memory and detective skills, which haven’t really seen much use lately. It would also bring back the feeling from seasons one and two, when the main character of Fringe was a strong woman who fought her own battles rather than feeling like a victim and waiting for her white knights (or rather, Bishops) to save her.

My new anime love: Kids on the Slope

Kids on the Slope坂道のアポロン (Kids on the Slope) is a story about jazz-loving high school students in Kyushu in the 1960s. I’ve been watching it on Crunchyroll. The series is directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who you may remember from the fabulous Cowboy Bebop, and the music is by Yoko Kanno, whose amazing music is everywhere–Bebop, Macross Plus and Frontier, and Escaflowne, just to name a few. (There’s even an iPhone alarm clock app from UNIQLO featuring original Yoko Kanno music now.) The art is nice and the animation flows well, and of course the voice acting is top-notch.

The show’s got plenty of the pieces I look for: an interesting setting, believable characters with pasts that are revealed as the story unfolds, a purpose bringing the characters together. I love that it’s not set in Tokyo. I love that it’s the past, and that it feels so well-researched. I love that everything is infused with jazz music. I love all the “love” relationships that at first seem so simple and then get more and more complex, just as real relationships do.

And I love that this is a show that is unafraid to go there. In the fourth episode, our heroes are playing their first live concert, and they’re really getting into it, when all of a sudden a surly drunk American soldier starts yelling at them to “stop playing that [expletive] music and play white jazz”.

Of course that would happen. It was completely realistic. And the characters’ reactions are just as realistic. Sentaro, the drummer, who is half white, half Japanese, is extremely sensitive to this sort of issue. He yells something like “Fuck that segregationist shit!” and storms off the stage. Another character, Jun, calmly rallies the piano player, Kaoru, and the two of them perform a soft jazz tune, which placates the drunkard.

I feel sort of bad for being so surprised at the scene. I’m just not used to seeing racism so blatantly portrayed in anime–especially with Japan as the setting. In an imagined setting, you can more safely explore this sort of theme without implicitly accusing a culture of bigotry. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Japan is by and large a homogenous country, and racism does exist there, as you can see in the story of what happened to a guy today on a train in Nagoya. Having racism as a story element is an extremely brave thing to do because it’s going to make people uncomfortable (as it should). You could argue that having the racist be a white American absolves the Japanese characters, but he’s just the loudest example of racism. You see plenty of quiet, cruel racism towards Sentaro from his own family members in flashbacks. I think putting in the soldier, having him be blatantly racist, makes the other racism more obvious, and makes Sentaro even more relatable.

It’s rare for me to have such a strong reaction to a show after only having seen four episodes. It took me a long time to process how I felt about that last episode in particular. I love that this is a show that takes the time to do character development well, but doesn’t actually waste any story time. Plenty of stuff happens; time seems to pass quickly. But at the same time I feel like I’m slowly untangling a glorious mess of thread and seeing how it all ties together. This is not shut-my-brain-off entertainment; this is the kind of engagement that comes from true storytelling. And I love it.

Feminism and Fringe

Fringe has been one of my favorite shows ever since it began. I loved the focus on a strong female lead who attacked problems head-on and who, at least in the beginning, provided direction for the group as a whole. But I’ve recently started to notice a few troubling details that make me wonder whether the writers are working with unconscious sexist assumptions.

Really, it all started with the horrid episode 4.19. It struck me as very odd that Olivia and Peter’s daughter should be, essentially, a clone of Olivia, and not have any of Peter’s scientific genius. This made me start to think about the female characters in Fringe in general, and I realized that none of them is really a match for Peter, Walter, William Bell, David Robert Jones. There are no genius woman scientists in Fringe.

Nina is said to be a scientist, but we rarely see her doing anything related to science. More often she is managing Massive Dynamic or directing others to perform scientific experiments. She can’t even repair her robotic arm on her own.

Astrid has a gift for computers, languages, and code-breaking, but more often than not she is relegated to the tasks of lab assistant and babysitter. We have never really seen her take the lead on a project, though she may make small observations that help the show’s featured geniuses arrive at a conclusion.

Other than that, we have the Fringe events of the week, some of which involve women, but usually those women are either pawns or are using technology they got somewhere else. We have had no main scientific antagonists who were female.

Do the writers of Fringe believe on some subconscious level that women can’t be genius scientists? Is this why there are no female Observers? (If what September said was true, and the Observers are the future of humanity, this implies that humanity evolved away from, or forcibly shifted itself away from, having two sexes. Are we to believe this is because women were inferior scientists and could not “keep up”?)

This all comes as the show has shifted its focus away from its protagonist, Olivia, to focus on Peter. Suddenly Peter is the one who has remained the same throughout all four seasons, not Olivia. Our base of “normal” is no longer Olivia, but Peter. We don’t see Olivia directing the action anymore…instead, she reacts. Things happen to her. At the very end of 4.20 she started to take control again, but after a full season without that strength, it didn’t feel like enough to re-cement her protagonist role. And we already know that in the ridiculous totalitarian Observer future, Olivia isn’t even there.

It’s just all very troubling, and I wonder if the writers see it.

The purpose of government

Legislation proposed and even passed on the federal and state level in the past several years has made it unclear whether or not the people we’ve chosen to represent us in government actually know what it means to govern in a democratic republic.

Since 9/11, individual US citizens have seen their rights slowly stripped away in the name of “fighting terrorism”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “safety”, and “the greater good”. The assault on liberty has only intensified in the past few years, with the added supposed justifications of “stopping piracy”, “taking care of the economy”, and “protecting children”.

The first wave:

  • USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 (Wikipedia, EFF, Center for National Security Studies, full text from the Library of Congress)
    This was a huge increase in governmental powers of intelligence-gathering, financial regulation, and the detaining and deportation of immigrants. It also redefined terrorism to include domestic terrorism, laying the groundwork for the indefinite detention rider to the NDAA (see below). The PATRIOT Act was set to expire a few times, but has always been extended–or provisions that did expire were reborn under other laws.
  • Homeland Security Act of 2002 (Wikipedia, PBS, full text at DHS)
    This law radically restructured the US government, further threatening individual privacy and paradoxically making gathered information less safe while increasing government secrecy. Here is some analysis from the Bill of Rights Defense Committee. (Note that the TIA portion of HSA was, fortunately, removed.)
  • Military Commissions Act of 2006 (Wikipedia, Center for Constitutional Rights)
    Allows the US to detain “alien unlawful enemy combatants” indefinitely without trial, to try them in military courts, and to employ torture. This was basically our government’s way of saying they were unhappy with having to adhere to the Geneva Conventions. Apparently they liked this power so much they wanted to extend it to US citizens as well; see the NDAA below.
  • Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act of 2007 (Wikipedia; did not become law)
    This law would have criminalized such behaviors as sharing one’s opinion on the internet. Think such a thing would never pass? Check out the NDAA and CISPA, below.

The more recent wave:

We have essentially empowered our government to spy on us, harass us, arrest us and detain us indefinitely without trial…and to thank us, they keep chipping away more and more freedoms. How many of us even know this is happening? How many of us who do know are afraid to say anything, for fear of being targeted by the government?

Do these laws make you feel more secure?

Any law that allows the government to do something to a citizen based on the suspicion that that citizen is engaging in certain activity is a law that can be abused. Have a political enemy? “Suspect” her of terrorism, and get her locked up by the military. Don’t like a certain blogger’s message? “Suspect” him of cybercrime, and enjoy knowing the intelligence community is laying his private life bare.

Why do we have a government, again? Wasn’t it something about taking care of citizens? Let’s see. Here’s part of the preamble to the Bill of Rights, which basically says governmental powers should be limited to make sure people can trust the government:

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

And from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

It’s hard to look at what our government has done since 9/11 and argue that it has not been destructive to liberty.

What should we do? We need people in our government who truly represent people, not drug companies or entertainment empires or banks or monopolies or other huge businesses. We need legislators who are knowledgeable, who don’t spend all their time fundraising. I outlined some campaign reform ideas in a previous post; I truly think if we could do something like that, we’d be in a much better place than we are now.

Until then, we have to fight every battle as best we can. And that definitely means fighting CISPA right now. Contact your senators and contact the White House; let them know that this further incursion into civil rights and privacy cannot pass.

It also means electing people who understand larger issues, who aren’t simply motivated by the desire for a career in Washington. It’s probably going to be hard to find these people, but we have to try.

The government should not prop up failing business models

One thing that really stuck out to me during the SOPA/PIPA debate, and is now resurfacing in my mind with CISPA, is the sheer nerve of the entertainment industry, to essentially ask the government to be volunteer copyright enforcers on the taxpayers’ dime.

Digital piracy is not an indicator of masses of criminals who delight in stealing copyrighted works. It’s an indicator that people want content, and they have no easy, legal way to get it.

The makers of television programs who do not offer any way for people to purchase the programs online or watch them stream with ads are essentially saying they don’t want people to watch their content. I get that what they think they’re saying is people should watch it on TV when it airs, or maybe on their DVR…but many people have moved away from these costly entertainment streams in favor of Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, and iTunes, and companies need to catch up. And even if a person does typically watch a show live on TV, what if she misses an episode? Most shows build on the happenings of previous episodes these days, so just skipping one would be jarring. You’ve got to give people a way to catch up to the story.

But instead of seeing the profit potential in online streaming and digital downloads, many big content creators are just opting out, or only providing a limited offering. They’re ignoring a whole new revenue stream and then wondering why profits aren’t quite as fantastic as they used to be.

The decision-makers are so blind to their own failing business model that they’re grasping at the piracy straw and holding it out to the government in desperate entreaty. “I don’t want to let people consume my content legally. Just arrest and prosecute a bunch of people for me so I can make up some profit!”

Please note that I am not arguing that piracy is in any way right or good. I am, however, arguing that it is an understandable behavior under these conditions. Humans who want things tend to get them, regardless of the risks involved. (Illegal drugs are a good example of this.) If companies want to curb piracy, they should change their approach.

Rather than treating all potential customers like criminals, companies should make it so easy and convenient to get their content that it would be absurd to pirate it.

We are already on a slippery slope of creative control. Copyrights have been extended to a ridiculous degree, and fewer and fewer modern works are entering public domain. The original notion of copyright, to protect a person’s creation during his or her life, has become lost in corporate greed. And what people seem to be missing is that draconian copyright laws are nothing more than government handouts in the form of law enforcement muscle and court time.

Government is there to ensure opportunity for all, not to blindly throw money at problems. If the government gets involved in a company’s profits at all, it should be only in a time of desperate need. Even then, I disapprove of just giving them money or law enforcement assistance. They should come in with a business plan.

Entertainment companies should not expect huge profits in a bad economy. They should create strategies for their own survival. If and only if they still need help, and if and only if their loss would significantly impact society, government could help. But this should not be entered into lightly. Congress should not make the decision based on numbers the media company brings in themselves, for example. There should always be independent confirmation.

And when these companies ask for help, it should be publicly…not through the legislators whose campaigns they’ve funded.

Ultimately, it should not be the government’s job to funnel money into big companies. Bailouts that get paid back are one thing, but copyright enforcement would occur at the cost of the government–lost time and money. That’s not sustainable, and ultimately it’s not going to fix the entertainment industry’s lack of vision.

Fringe 4.19 [SPOILERS]

I am disappoint.1

For the most part, I have been enjoying this eclectic season so far. It’s difficult to completely alter reality, and every character’s situation, and have the show feel like “home” to a viewing audience. Eureka kind of lost me, for example, when the main cast went back in time and changed the course of history. There were just too many differences in the new reality. I never regained that sense of “normal”.

Fringe has always been pretty mind-bending, and I was truly impressed with what the writers had done with the characters and history in the alternate universe. So I held out hope that our reality, the foundation we’ve been building for the past three years, would come back strong in season four, merging with the new timeline…that somehow, everyone, or at least everyone aware of Fringe events, would remember both.

Instead, the last handful of episodes have indicated that the only ones who will remember what the viewers remember are Peter and Olivia, and presumably the Observers, who worked to erase that timeline.

This climactic battle with the Observers in the future may yet lead to a restoration of the original timeline. It’s possible; anything is. But if that’s it, if that’s all, if that’s the resolution I’ve been waiting for, then what a letdown.

First of all, putting text on a screen to quickly explain an all-new story concept right in the middle of a show that’s already working within a different reality than the one previously established is heavy-handed. It might have been more confusing to be thrown into the episode with no explanation, but it certainly would have felt less awkward and B-movie sci-fi.

Second…Observers, in a nightclub, acting like gangsters, forcing themselves onto women. Uh, what? This is the first time I have ever seen an Observer do anything remotely sexual, and what a cliche way to add that to the story. I realize there are no female Observers–I’ve wondered about that for a long time, actually–but it doesn’t follow that upon wresting control of Earth from their ancestors, they’d start behaving like thugs from the 1940s.

Speaking of the 1940s: human enforcers of Observer law, dressed up like Nazis! Really! Yes, let’s invoke Nazi Germany in our already trope-heavy dystopian dictatorship.

I guess one thing that really drives me crazy about this is that the future September showed Peter seemed so bright. Humans would evolve and grow and eventually be able to go anywhere and Observe anything. This seemed Good. He never mentioned anything about destroying the planet in the future and then going back into the past to take it over. That, to me, sounds like some hack writer’s drunken “Dude, wouldn’t it be awesome if?”

But September fervently warned Peter that it was imperative he and Olivia get together, because their child would be essential. (If it wasn’t obvious to you that Etta was their kid, the millisecond she first appeared on screen, you haven’t been paying attention.) I had assumed at the time that this meant Peter and Olivia’s child would be part of building the bright future that led toward human expansion into the galaxy…not that she would be vital to stopping the Observers because her mind could somehow not be read by them. Snore.

And did it annoy anyone else that while Etta is practically a clone of her mother, she doesn’t seem to have picked up any of Peter’s scientific genius? What’s that about?

Speaking of clones: last night, I was convinced that this future must be some alternate timeline that would inform our own story, but did not doom our characters to its realities. My main support for this belief was the fact that William Bell was there. Only this morning did I remember that Walter didn’t bother to take William out of the amber…he simply removed his hand. This could imply that he intended to clone William, which could further imply that the William in the amber was also a clone. So that turns out not to be proof after all, much to my dismay. And come to think of it, I don’t think we actually know what happened to William Bell in this timeline anyway. He died in the original timeline, not this one.


Already this season I’ve had many of my assumptions challenged or overthrown (I thought Evil Nina and alt-Broyles were shapeshifters, for example), so maybe things aren’t as doom and gloom as I think. Maybe something good can yet come out of what for now appears to me to be a very trite, uninteresting story. There are little things that intrigue me, like Walter having his brain back, Etta’s life and how she managed to hide the fact that she’s Peter and Olivia’s daughter (her last name was never mentioned in the episode), what happened to the other universe (is the bridge gone?), and whether David Robert Jones is still around somewhere. I’m not so keen on watching another episode without Olivia. Etta does a good Olivia impression, but, you know, Olivia is the main character. Kind of like having her around. It sounded like something happened to Olivia, though, which implies she may not be in this little dystopian future story arc at all. Blerg. [Edit: Looks like I don’t have to worry about the next episode not featuring Olivia, as we are apparently leaving the future storyline unresolved and going back to the present next week.]

At least we already have established precedent for Peter going forward in time, then back in time to change the results he saw. It’ll be totally cheesy if he does it again, but I won’t complain.

I think what bothers me the most about this episode is that my entire understanding of the Observers has changed. I used to think of them as, well, observers. They watched and didn’t interfere. They were scientists and historians. They were interested in their own past and were lucky enough to be able to go and see it in person. September, our most sympathetic Observer, made a big mistake by changing the timeline in two universes, and that touched off all the events where Observers started interfering (except that one where an Observer decided he didn’t want a particular young lady to die). Olivia had an affinity for the child Observer they found, and I felt that this indicated the promise of future friendship. While I knew the Observers were willing to sacrifice people for the sake of the timeline, I always felt they were working for the greater good.

This episode would have me believe that everything, all of it, was the Observers preparing to take over, and just watching and preparing for the best time. And that one big piece of their puzzle was making sure no Peter Bishop ever had a child with our universe’s Olivia Dunham. You might ask, “Why not just kill them, then?” I’m sure a writer somewhere can come up with an explanation like “It would affect other things in the timeline too much.” Never mind all the other timeline changes the Observers kept making, including trying to erase Peter. Did they ever think to stop our Olivia from getting treated with cortexiphan, or is that too obvious?

I’m just disappointed. I’m unhappy that the Observers are nothing more than ruiners and conquerors. I’m unhappy that basically the writers are saying humanity can’t evolve past our petty greed and selfishness in 600 years, even as we make astounding scientific discoveries (and apparently eliminate all women :P).

What this episode is telling me is that even if Peter or someone else from the cast is able to prevent the Observer takeover in 2036, that won’t necessarily stop the Observers themselves from being evil. I’d grown rather attached to them, and I didn’t want them to be evil. I didn’t want this to be so freaking black and white. I wanted a nuanced story with hard situations and tough decisions for everyone.

It’s naive to think that totalitarian regimes can’t exist, obviously, and I probably shouldn’t dismiss them as cliche in stories. I guess I was just expecting more from a civilization 600 years older than our own.

Weigh anchor, Big Media

boatThe digital theft of copyrighted media and the sale of knockoff physical items are different issues and should be dealt with separately. They may seem on some level to be the same thing–taking profit away from copyright holders–but you can’t solve both problems the same way.

With physical items, it’s pretty easy to get evidence of the crime. A website selling knockoffs can generally be dealt with “old school”: find evidence of the counterfeit items, then, if it’s domestic, raid and make your arrests. If it’s outside the US, work with that country’s government to shut the perpetrators down.

When it comes to digital media, though, you run into many problems, not the least of which is the sheer amount of data. How do you target illegal activity without affecting legal activity?

The first important point is this: Who determines that copyrighted material has been illegally made available somewhere digitally, and how is this confirmed? “Because the copyright holder said so” is not good enough; there needs to be documented evidence that 1) the complainant does, in fact, hold the copyright; 2) that the item in question does exist on the website; and 3) that true copyright infringement has occurred, e.g. this is not a case of fair use. All of these items should be confirmed and documented before action is taken…or at least two out of three.

Second, how do we determine who is at fault–i.e., who to prosecute? Historically, site owners have not been not responsible for content posted by users. Forcing a site owner to moderate user-submitted content before it is posted to the site would effectively end user-submitted content; the workload would be unimaginable and impossible, even on smaller sites. The people’s voice would be silenced, not by the government directly, but by websites unwilling to be held liable for their users’ actions.

So, assuming we don’t put the onus of content vetting on the website owner, how is fault determined? Domestically, a site could be subpoenaed for information about the user/account involved in uploading the content. But abroad?

This is the line of thinking that went into SOPA/PIPA, which were targeted at foreign websites unreachable by US law. But those bills are hopelessly flawed. Rather than targeting copyright violators, they would simply close off foreign websites suspected of infringement from the US, effectively censoring parts of the world internet. A law that would allow this sort of blocking could be severely abused, and the average person wouldn’t even know it. Let’s be honest; we live in enough of a bubble already. Do we really need to be that much more out of touch with the rest of the world?

No; the only way to fight internet piracy via law enforcement is to target individual perpetrators. This may not be as exciting a solution as shutting down entire websites and raiding server rooms and offices, but it is the only governmental solution that doesn’t adversely affect unrelated individuals. The rights of people using the internet legally are just as important as the rights of copyright holders looking for justice; trampling one to bring victory to the other is to give one group undue priority and protection.

In fact, while individual users are being tried in court, their accounts and uploads and whatnot should be frozen, but not deleted, and the website itself certainly should not be shut down. It doesn’t matter if there’s one suspect or 50,000; unless you know for a fact that none of the content on a site is legal, you have no ethical right to shut it down. People rely on the internet more and more, and people’s needs are varied. What might seem to be nothing more than an illegal file-trading site to you might have some other legal purpose for someone else. Unless you can prove it doesn’t, no shutdown.

Any government shutdown of websites where users are suspected of engaging in illegal activities is a running start down a slippery slope of censorship. It could indeed lead to what some misguided SOPA/PIPA protesters feared–a shutdown of Facebook or YouTube. The point here is that the website is not on trial, unless it is the website’s owner herself offering the illegal material. To ensure a free and open internet, the utmost goal should always be to leave sites alone and go after individuals or groups.

Media executives don’t like this reality, of course. It’s slow. It takes a long time to amass proof. They actually have to go to court to get things done, instead of just having the government hatchet away the illegal activity for them with no due process. But ultimately, it’s the only solution that’s fair to all US citizens, not just media executives.

I believe the true solution to the digital piracy of media is not the government at all, but a radical change in media companies’ distribution paradigm.

The basic truth underlying all of this is that people want to enjoy the content being produced by the media company. Why not make it easy and legal for them to do so? Stream all video content online. Live stream TV shows and movies as they air, and include location-based commercials. Create a digital archive of content, or just use Hulu or Netflix or Amazon Prime. Post episodes online immediately after they air–don’t wait eight days like Fox so that it’s extraordinarily difficult to catch up in time for broadcast. Make sure all your video streams are playable on all devices.

Put your music on all the internet radio options. Put music videos on YouTube. Make tracks and albums downloadable on Amazon MP3 and iTunes.

Make every book, magazine, newspaper, or other printed material you offer available as an ebook.

Put everything online. Create different online directories to help people with differing interests find content relevant to them. Price everything low enough that people will find the cost and convenience just as good or better than getting the content free from some ad-filled, virus-infested download site.

Make everything so readily available that piracy would be ridiculous. And do this not just here in the US, but all across the world. And then watch online piracy dwindle. Oh, it’ll never die…but if people can easily enjoy the content they want legally, they’ll have far less of a reason to do it illegally.

One reason big media companies have been so ambivalent about online–trying things out but never fully committing–is that executives don’t believe online content will bring high profits. This is short-sighted, not to mention untrue. It’s their job to figure out how to make it profitable, not to pretend the world isn’t changing. The internet can’t just be put back in the box.

Another problem may be not having direction. Rather than deciding what exactly they want to do with their content online, companies might simply be looking around for existing widgets and solutions and services, or copying what someone else is doing. This is completely backwards; first the company should come up with a clear vision for online, and then they should set out to accomplish that vision with whatever tools they need.

I also believe media execs are afraid of how easy it is to distribute content online, and of people who choose not to use big companies for distribution. It reminds me of some news people’s initial reaction to bloggers. “That’s not real news. They can’t do what I do.” That bravado masked real fear, because the truth is, with the internet, anyone can do anything. Rather than denying the fact that alternative distribution methods exist, big media needs to commit to using them. Yes, these independent artists are competing for a slice of the pie. So compete with them.

Big Media, it’s time to weigh anchor and move forward. Things can’t stay the way they currently are. Think about it: How long has your current business model actually existed? Not really all that long, right?

Humans have a tendency to believe “the good old days” lasted forever, and anything new is scary and bad. But the truth is, there were no good old days. People have always made it up as they went along.

And that, Big Media, is what you need to do now.

Edit: Y Combinator has decided that the next startup they want to fund is one that would kill Hollywood. They’ve concluded that Big Media in its current form cannot continue to exist…a conclusion with which I obviously agree.

Fax your people in Congress about SOPA/PIPA

I used this website to send a free fax to my Senators and Representatives about SOPA/PIPA. The fax started out with a generic blurb, but there was a section where I could add my own thoughts. Here’s what I wrote:

Copyright holders already have ways to deal with infringing content, through the courts. Their real problem is their refusal to eschew their dated business practices and their insistence upon running to the government for help rather than finding better ways to market and distribute their content. Please don’t reward this backwards thinking by using taxpayer money on even more big government.

Blacking out tomorrow

Like many sites across the internet, pixelscribbles will be blacking out on January 18 from 8am to 8pm Eastern US time in protest of proposed US legislation that ostensibly seeks to stop online piracy but would ultimately result in curtailing free speech across the world.

I’ll be using the SOPA Blackout WordPress plugin. However, I wasn’t a fan of the default intro text, so I wrote my own. Here’s what I came up with; please feel free to use it yourself. I encourage writing your statement in your own words if you can, though; that makes it all the more powerful. is currently blacked out in protest of SOPA and PIPA, two fundamentally flawed pieces of legislation currently being considered by the US government. If enacted, these bills or others like them would have far-reaching consequences across the globe. Their flawed reasoning and careless wording would give censorship power to corporations, blocking the free flow of information from country to country, isolating us from one another. It would put US citizens’ knowledge of important events such as the Arab Spring in jeopardy. You can watch the video below for more information, and this blog post summarizes the timeline of events. I’m including links to more information below.

Many of the sites I’m linking to are likely blacked out in protest today–Wikipedia is just one such example. If that’s the case, please save the links and read them later.

SOPA, HR 3261: The Stop Online Piracy Act, was until recently being discussed in the US House of Representatives. It has been shelved, for now, due to the online backlash.

PIPA, S. 968: The Protect IP Act, is a bill in the US Senate with similar problems. This bill has not yet been shelved.

Here is more detailed information and analysis about the bills:

While this legislation has many supporters in the entertainment industry (click here for a list as of January 14), many other companies have come out against it, including Facebook, Twitter, Google, Mozilla, Wikipedia, and Reddit. Here are a few articles on the subject:

Where do your Senators and Representatives stand on PIPA and SOPA? Click here to find out. You can then use the form below to contact the people who are supposed to be representing your interests, not the interests of big companies.