Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Dying Digital Communities

Teaching colleagues, especially those in "New Media" and the "Digital Humanities," might find the pattern below interesting. The image is the report for activity on an academic mailing list from 1999 to present. Similar patterns are visible when I check other mailing lists. It's like the USENET statistics. Where are people going to discuss academic topics? 

I left the WPA-L and other lists, because they were too often off-topic and/or not about scholarship and pedagogy. I didn't enjoy the mailing lists anymore. The fun was gone, though a core set of users remained active on other issues. Maybe that's the problem for all online spaces: they become insular. 

The loss of RSS from some sites also reduced my connection to academic discussion. I really miss having easy access to RSS, and don't like Twitter or Facebook as my news feeds.

From 2002 through 2010 was an active, exciting time for online communities. That's eight or nine years, which is a long time on the Internet. Still, the loss of these communities disappoints me. 

I'm using my phone more than my computer, and I'm reading fewer sources with almost no "community" content. Slashdot and MacRumors are about the only communities left that I check daily. 

Even the theater and film communities I used to love are on life support. They tried podcasts, but that's not community — it's top-down from the organizations, not the membership.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Loyal, but Frustrated Apple Fan

English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Appl...
English: The logo for Apple Computer, now Apple Inc.. The design of the logo started in 1977 designed by Rob Janoff with the rainbow color theme used until 1999 when Apple stopped using the rainbow color theme and used a few different color themes for the same design. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Apple needs a revamp. It has turned into a big phone maker, with little side hobbies in computing, software, and television. Sure, by any metric, the computing and software side is huge, but these feel like afterthoughts at the current Apple Inc.

Apple Computer is no more, I realize, and the computer world today is nothing like the 1980s or even 2000, when a desktop computer was necessary for basic work. But, someone has to code and create content. To create content requires a big, powerful, computer.

I have some suggestions for Apple, which are unlikely to be read.

Spin off the software so it becomes the primary focus of a stand-alone company or two companies. In fact, two is better: business apps and content creation apps. Filemaker is out there making money. Turn the business suite apps over to Filemaker - the old Claris Works reborn.

A creative professional company could revive Aperture (maybe), give new life to Final Cut Pro, and keep Logic on track. Do something… instead of letting software rot with age. Creative professionals stood by Apple when few other users did. Give us back that focus!

Revive the Mac Pro as a tower with expansion slots. Lots of slots, cages for drives, and stop thinking "pros" want a mix of cables and adapters tucked around a desk. I want an internal disc (Blu-ray writing is a must), and I want Dolby 5.1 sound from a Mac Pro without external audio devices.

Make a real, serious, MacBook Pro that has real ports and slots. I can accept that I'll need an external Blu-ray/DVD disc drive, but give me a huge, fast, 2TB internal SSD, 32GB of RAM, and USB 3.1 with both major USB connectors (C isn't there yet). And for many of us it is too early to dump HDMI and DisplayPort - we use those on the road for presenting. SD card is a must for video and audio work. And please, don't take away my audio ports!

We need a real, USB 3 / Thunderbolt 3 Cinema Display.

Clean up the product line, overall. I want a machine for content creation, and that content sells your iPhones and iPads. Prove you care about the professional market, or at least spin-off those product lines.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Certified Final Cut Pro Professional... Why?

Fourteen units into my MFA in Film and Digital Technology, I passed the Apple certification exam for Final Cut Pro X 10.2 (Post-Production). As a believer in digital composition and new media, having the skills to edit audio and video — and the ability to teach those skills — was important to me.

But, as a colleague noted, credentialism is fading quickly in the technology industry. Finally, people have realized passing an exam is not indicative of having essential job skills. When I was in college, Novell NetWare certification was the golden ticket to many jobs. Networking was a mix of hardware and software, with little standardization. Testing assured a minimal level of knowledge.

Today we have the return of the Builder/Maker culture that started the PC revolution. People learn to build Raspberry Pi contraptions, with Arduino controllers and Java or C code. Networks are easy, relatively speaking, compared to building a home robot.

The reason to take any exam today is to prove you have those minimum skills that hundreds of thousands without the certification also possess. It is a resume thing, especially in education. That's about all a certification is today, especially when compared to the NetWare days.

Apple has slowly ended many (most) of its exams. Few people in tech have renewed their Microsoft certifications. Does anyone obtain a Linux/Unix certification anymore? Credentialing has faded, quickly.

When will the same occur in education? When will we start to question the value of a degree that emphasizes vocational skills that can be learned and mastered outside the classroom? If credentialing starts to fade away in more fields, schools will need to prove their added value.

I have certifications, which are more important to schools where I might teach than they are to any technical employer. What does that reveal about the nature of credentials? (I've long doubted the value of teaching credentials compared to mentoring and team-teaching experience.)

I'm glad to have the Final Cut Pro credential, though I realize it is not that important compared to what I can demonstrate in a portfolio.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Digital Media Future

By May, I'll be half-way through an MFA in Film and Digital Technology. People ask why a Ph.D in rhetoric would need an MFA. My explanation follows.

Rhetoric (and composition, since they are often lumped together in academic settings) has struggled between the tension to teach traditional rhetoric and a need to update our courses and field to reflect new technologies and trends in communication.

Other departments expect us to teach how to format academic papers (MLA, APA) and write traditional genres: the five-paragraph (yuck) "essay" (which isn't an essay at all), the term paper, the journal article, the "book review" (again, which isn't a review at all), the thesis, and so on. We know these forms and many of us want to resist them. Yet, our classroom work is often relegated to the "service" of other academic fields.

Shifting away from composition seems necessary for me to explore rhetoric where it is now most effective at reaching broad audiences. It isn't that we can't define "composition" itself broadly, but that to be a "composition" teacher is too often to be a (resistant) advocate of forms and writing styles I dislike.

I do not like dense academic language. I don't like the strict formatting rules, meant to emphasize the words when so many other ways to communicate should be permitted and encouraged. I don't like a lot of what I have had to teach in writing courses, and I have often reminded students that we use academic writing to reach a narrow, specific, and powerful audience. (Power is contextual, right? Power over grades is real power over students, even as academics have less influence in public policy today.)

Enrolling in an MFA in Film and Digital Technology allows me to resist the "rhet/comp" quicksand, while I hope to continue to speak out and advocate for changes in writing across the disciplines.

Persuasion today occurs on YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and a dozen other social media outlets. Media clips live on, with links being passed along in a "viral" spread among friends of friends. The old days of an academic appearing on "Meet the Press" changing news coverage and influencing the public are fading away.

Digital media are not really "new media." Though they offer new potentials for creation and distribution, a creative video embodies the old idea of a public square, an "agora" with people trying to influence each other.

And so, I will return to the academic job market later this year (2016) with a focus on the digital, the multimedia content of today and whatever is to come. Academic papers? Those have always been a rarified niche, and that niche is shrinking (ironically, due in part to the wild expansion of academic journals with smaller and smaller audiences).

I'm glad to be moving forward, seeking to cross a bridge between the past and future of public discourse.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Blogging and Audience

Should we teach our digital composition students the "tricks of the trade" for bloggers and other new media publishers?

The ancient texts on rhetoric discuss proper attire, gestures, and tone of voice to appeal to audiences. Aren't these almost as shallow as writing the best headline to drive traffic to an online post? Clearly our Greek and Roman ancestors understood that the superficial (nice robes, deep voice) was part of the persuasive art.

We tell our students to focus on the quality of their arguments, while blogging, reporting, and scholarly writing fades fast on the Web of today. The great World Wide Web that was going to bring information to everyone is one giant magazine rack, thanks to Facebook and Twitter.

Short headlines, ideally implying something sexual in nature, drive traffic. Shocking. Horrible. You won't believe your eyes. From the Huffington Post to old-stalwarts like The Atlantic, clickbait headlines dominate the flow of information (as opposed to knowledge or wisdom, because those are lacking).

Yes, online reflects the physical world. Magazine racks always had a little space for the fine arts, music, poetry, and philosophy. But it was (and is) Cosmopolitan, Sports Illustrated, and Playboy that ruled the stands. Their digital cousins rule the Web.

Clickbait isn't my specialty as a blogger and my websites don't scream "You'll never guess what happened!" For years, that was okay, but I continue to see declining traffic to my websites and blogs. The loss in readership means I'm not giving audiences what they want, which is interesting.

The Web was supposed to allow niches a space to flourish. When millions or even billions are online, then it should be easy to maintain a few thousand readers. Online, barriers of geography and class were supposed to fall. A website on almost anything was going to find an audience.

People have always been more interested in stories about sex, relationships, and sports than public policy. However, the Web was supposed to help us find our little communities of special interests.

That leads to the question, what do readers expect? Know your audience, we tell our students. What does an online audience want? What does it take to even get that online audience?

Search engine optimization (SEO) used to work. But it turns out that people are shifting away from search. At first, I thought that was impossible, but then I started to think about how I find news.

Yes, I use Google, but I use Google News, not Google Search. I read my Facebook feed and (admittedly) click on stories of interest. I have dedicated apps on my phone for the Washington Post, New York Times, RealClearPolitics, Politico, and a handful of other media sources.

I cannot recall the last time I used my RSS reader. I have Apple's News app on my phone, but I forget to check that, too. The dedicated apps are where I go for information, including some searches. That means I'm searching only within the sources I've already favored. I'm not exploring, like I might have explored in the late 1990s or even ten years ago.

What do we tell students in media courses? What do we tell our composition and rhetoric students? Has the nature of public discourse changed in this brave new world of app-based reading? Stumbling upon stories of interest isn't easy when you stay in the apps from major newspapers or magazines.

How do you teach about obtaining and keeping an audience? Or, do you hope that great content will somehow always find readers? How does that great site find readers without the Google searches of the past?

I don't have answers, but I am trying to decide how I should approach this topic of audience in coming years as a professor and speaker. Tossing things out onto the Web and hoping simply isn't enough. Neither are the old tricks of SEO, from good keywords to proper use of HTML tags.

When there was Yahoo, the curated director of websites, you could find some pretty great content. When we used RSS, you could skim headlines and the first paragraphs from hundreds of online posts. Today? We're buried in an avalanche of purposefully titillating tweets, many with attractive models. Even the images and content that isn't sexual is called "porn" for a reason: food porn and fashion porn posted to Pinterest.

Digital media and public rhetoric. The dream has come up against reality. Our best media inventions always end up being used for base entertainment, but somehow deep discourse survived and thrived on the fringes. Is that changing?