Archive for the ‘media’ Category


Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! masthead from 1998.

Yahoo! (1994- ), so spelled, is the number two search engine on the Web. In the early days it was the best there was, but now most people use Google. Yahoo! must kick itself daily: in 1998 and again in 2002 it could have taken over Google but thought the price was too high.

By some measures Yahoo! is larger than Google. Its website, for instance, gets more visitors than even Google. Yet it is Google that is making the real money on the Internet, not Yahoo!

Like Google, Yahoo! started out as a student web page at Stanford University. It was Jerry Yang’s web page on akebono.stanford.edu, called “Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web”, later renamed “Yahoo!”

The name comes from “Gulliver’s Travels”. They added the “!” because plain “Yahoo” was already taken as a trade name.

Yahoo! not only had a search engine, but also the best listing of some of the best sites then on the Web. You could look up sites by field of interest. Of course, it did not have everything, but it was a good place to start.

But in time the Web grew too large for such a listing, no matter how many people Yahoo! had working on it. The geniuses at Google found out how to get a computer to come up with listings almost as good in a split second. Yahoo! has been eating Google’s dust ever since.

Where Google has largely grown from within by applied genius, Yahoo! has grown by gathering bits of the Internet into one company:

  • 1997: RocketMail (web email)
  • 1998: ViaWeb (online stores)
  • 1999: GeoCities (user web pages), Broadcast.com (radio and music)
  • 2002: HotJobs (want ads), Inktomi (search)
  • 2003: Overture (the old GoTo.com – search-based advertising)
  • 2005: del.icio.us, Flickr (online pictures)
  • 2007: MyBlogLog

Those are just a few. The crown jewels are Inktomi, which has a search engine almost as good as Google’s, and Overture, which was making money on search-based advertising long before Google even knew how.

But putting all these pieces together into one, everything-for-everyone website that works well and makes money has been difficult.

Yahoo! has been led by Terry Semel since the dark days of the dot-com bust of 2001. He is a Hollywood deal-maker from Warner Brothers. He knew how to gather the pieces but not how to put them together. (He resigned a month after I wrote this.)

Google avoided doing it this way. For the most part they have built everything for themselves. They even tried to build their own YouTube. Instead of gathering Internet companies, Google has been building a brain trust, perhaps the best the world has seen since the Second World War. So far it has served them well.

Now there is talk of Yahoo! taking on Google by joining forces with Microsoft (third place) or eBay.

To its credit, Yahoo! has not gone the way of curiosities like Lycos, WebCrawler and AltaVista. Remember them? They still exist, you know.

– Abagond, 2007.

See also:

Read Full Post »

The press

“The press” means news reporters as a whole. The name comes from the printing press that newspapers still use. These days the news is also reported through television, radio and the Internet, so in the 1900s some started to call it “the media” instead. It means the same thing.

In many countries the government controls the press. In some countries only the government is allowed to print newspapers. In others it can stop a newspaper from printing a story or even shut down an entire newspaper.

In a working democracy the press is free to print anything it knows to be true. Even if it ruins someone’s name or brings down a government.

  • This makes it harder for government to lie or keep secrets for long: there is always someone in the government who talks too much or who does not like what is going on.
  • This makes it hard for democracies to fight a long war, especially guerrilla wars.
  • This means voters and businesses know more of what is going on and can presumably make better decisions.

But even in a working democracy the press is not completely free.

A news operation must still make money to pay its reporters. Most make money by selling advertising. The more readers or viewers it gets, the more it can charge for advertising and the more money it makes.

This is why American news:

  • Has little depth. Saving a girl who has fallen down a well is far more interesting to more people than, say, mounting government debt or poverty.
  • Is soft on its readers and viewers. In America the news is largely of, for and by the white people who live in apple-pie America. It reports a world where black women are never missing and America is noble. A world where blacks have cultural pathologies but whites do not.
  • Is soft on government, big business and the police. Because they regularly provide the press with news and can shut reporters out. That is why the press rarely attacks a sitting president.
  • Is soft on advertisers. Mainly big business and the business owners in town.
  • Is soft on Israel. Because many advertisers are businesses run by Jews.

Business and government both know what the press wants and feed it ready-made news to get its own point of view across. Companies put out press releases. The president provides ready-made events that he knows the press will cover. They know reporters are under a deadline and most will take the easy way out. Even a top newspaper like the Wall Street Journal will print parts of press releases word for word as fact without any quotes.

President Reagan and his men took this a step further: they thought about what story they wanted to appear on the television news that night and then worked backwards, feeding the press with the sound bites and images it would need to create that story. It worked.

– Abagond, 2007.

See also:

Read Full Post »


articleAn article (500- ) is a form of prose writing found in newspapers, magazines and encyclopedias. Each of these are made up of articles. Each article is about just one subject and can be read independently of the others.

Origin: The science books by Aristotle and Pliny are almost written in articles. But the form did not make sense till the 300s when the codex (a book of leaves) took the place of scrolls. The first real articles began to appear in the 500s. See, for example, the Institutions of Cassiodorus.

Length: An article is hundreds to thousands of words long. For example, most articles in The Economist are between 450 and 1500 words long, though some run as long as 4000 words.

Magazine and encyclopedia articles are meant to be read from start to finish. Newspaper articles are not.

An article is meant to be read in one sitting, so it is not divided into chapters, though it might be broken into parts with headings.

Title: An article has a title. The title is there to get your attention and draw you into the article. In a magazine or the back pages of a newspaper, titles are written with some wit, sometimes making reference to film and song titles.

In newspapers the title is called a headline. It can also be a play on word, but most often it is much more matter of fact, telling you in the shortest possible way the news that the article reports.

Newspaper articles are written in an inverse pyramid style. The most important facts are given first, less important ones later. You stop reading when you lose interest.

The inverse pyramid style is the opposite of how you would tell a story: it gives away the ending in the title and the very first lines.

For example:

  • “World floods, Noah saves animals”
  • “Prince finds Cinderella, marries tomorrow.”

Then the details are filled in, the more important or newsworthy ones first.

Web articles: An article is a natural form for the Web. But what works in print does not always work on the Web. And the Web can do things print cannot.

Some pointers on writing articles for the Web:

  • Make the title searchable. Put the subject in plain view.
  • Do not divide it into pages. This is a holdover from print. On the Web it makes your article much harder to read, print, copy or search.
  • Use an inverse pyramid style. Most come to your page looking for something. Make it easy.
  • Make the paragraphs short – about four sentences long. Each should stand on its own as much as possible because most will read it that way.
  • Make the article short, about 500 to 1000 words long. It is better to write ten short articles of 500 words each than one long article of 5000 words It will make your articles more useful and more people will read it.

The Web allows you to link articles together in ways you never could in print.

See also:

Read Full Post »


From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

From the Google home page, December 2nd 1998.

Google (1998- ) is both an Internet search engine and the American company that created and maintains it. It is now the top search engine in the world.

Like any search engine, Google is a page on the Web that you can go to to find all the web pages that mention the given word or words that you write in.

But the Web has countless pages, even for uncommon words. It seemed that the Web was going to die under its own weight, that it would become too large to find anything useful in it, even with search engines.

A good search engine will list pages from most important to least important. But how do you tell which pages are more important for a given word?

Sergey Brin and Larry Page of Stanford came up with a beautiful idea:

What matters is not whether a page has the word you are looking for, but how many times it is linked to by those that do!

For example, if you put in “New York Times” into Google, it will list the New York Times website first. Not because anyone told Google where the newspaper has its website, but because of all the pages that mentioned “New York Times”, it was linked to the most.

This process is called PageRank.

Brin and Page wrote a computer program that did this and ran it on some computers at Stanford. It worked!

They knew they had the best search engine in the world. But to start a company, they needed some serious money and a way to make money from searches.

First they went to Yahoo!, the top search engine at the time. It had also started at Stanford. Yahoo! said no, search engines were already as good as they were going to get. The real money was what you could add to a search engine. “Portals” was where it was at, they said.

Then they went to Andy Bechtolsheim, a founder of Sun Microsystems, a computer maker. They told him about Google on his front steps. He got it. He understood how great Google was. He got them the money they needed and the rest is history.

Google’s searches are free, so how do they make money? By selling search words. When someone searches on that word, your link appears on that page.

Nothing new in that. But Google did two things that most search engines did not:

  1. They kept your link separate from the search result itself. A Google search should be utterly trustworthy.
  2. You only paid when someone followed your link. This is called pay per click.

Prodigy, an early online service, had the second idea as far back as 1988, but Google was the first to get it to work.

Google has since got into other things, like searching for pictures, news and directions, putting up pictures of the entire Earth on the Web as well as all the old books in libraries.

The Google logo through the years:











– Abagond, 2007.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Reading the Mechanical Bride

I am now reading McLuhan’s “The Mechanical Bride”. Anyone who knows the book and knows this blog knows that it is just the book for me.

“The Mechanical Bride” is from 1951, McLuhan’s first book to see print. He takes 59 “exhibits” – mainly printed ads, but also posters for films, comic strips and front pages, all from 1945 to 1951 – and for each he writes a few pages about what it says about the state of man. The “disease is in excellent health”, he reports.

He wants to wake us up from the dream the advertisers have sunk us into.

“The Mechanical Bride” is halfway back to “Howards End”, but it lays bare the same grey cheapness that business and enterprise has thrust upon man in place of life, truth and beauty. Whatever can be put in a box and sold pushes out all else. It becomes what we live for. Heaven can wait.

How little things have changed.

I see the past as deeper, wiser and better than the present. As it turns out, 1910 and 1951, at least, seem little better than 2006. Sad to say.

Well, there is always 410. The year the Goths came to Rome.

He writes when television and computers were new, new enough to be known but too new to have made any changes in society. So the book gives you a sense of how computers and especially television have affected us in the years since.

McLuhan prints the ads and then he lets them have it! His wit cuts.

His prose is an interesting mix of overly long Latin and Greek words and short right-to-the-point Anglo-Saxon:

As much time goes into the search for a title for some indigestible cold lard as in launching a starlet with the kind of name that will twang your synapses.

He knows more words than most and knows just how to use them. His Latin words are not a long march of deadwood, as in most writing, but are used to effect.

On the other hand, his writing seems to have much of the same whistles, bells and breathlessness as the ad copy that he writes about. His language is halfway between that of a scholar and a salesman. If he used fewer long words, he could write for the very same TIME magazine that he rails against.

He is trying to look at his world with a cold eye, but his mind and mouth are still part of that world.

I have thought and written about many of the same sorts of things, so, yes, I can tell you that he is part fast-talking salesman. But he is also a serious and sharp mind that has something of substance to say. His point of view, however, is often moral and not strictly that of a scholar or a man of science.

See also:

Read Full Post »

sound bite

A sound bite is a piece of what someone said, about ten seconds worth, that is presented on television or radio news. It has 20 words or less out of the hundreds or thousands that were spoken. A sound bite, however, is supposed to catch the heart of it.

Those in high office – presidents, ministers, senators and others – know this, of course. So they pitch what they say in public to give news reporters the sound bite they need, like throwing a dog a bone.

A good sound bite can stand on its own apart from the speech or comment that it came from. It should sum up one’s message in a striking way that bears repeating – not just one night on the evening news, but in the days that follow among the public.

President Reagan was a master of the art. His most famous sound bite was “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall”, speaking of the Berlin Wall and all that it stood for.

John Kerry, who ran for president in 2004, was said to have lost in part because he could not put his message into sound bites.

Kerry and his supporters will say that the great policy questions are not that simple. And so they are not. But to lead a democracy you must be able to get your message across.

Even before television and sound bites, great speakers like Churchill and William Jennings Bryant understood they needed a line or two in the speech that would be repeated and carry its message long after the speech was delivered.

Advertisements are much longer than sound bites, but even they try to pack their message into one line that will stick in people’s minds.

So the sound bite is not some evil practice cooked up by television news: it is necessary for anyone who wants to get his message across to millions of people.

Jeffrey Scheuer in his book “The Sound Bite Society” argues that sound bites favour the right over the left: the right’s message is simple enough for sound bites, the left’s message is not. Thus Kerry’s trouble with sound bites.

Scheuer has half a point: the great danger of sound bites is in making policy debate in a democracy too simple-minded. But the American left’s trouble with sound bites is not so much that they refuse to make their message simple-minded, as that they have no clear message to begin with. Once they have have a clear message and a leader to deliver it, the sound bites will take care of themselves.

A sound bite, properly used, is not an end but a beginning. As in advertising, it is the heart of your message, but one on which you build and give meaning to with each new ad or, for would-be presidents, with each new speech or debate. It is not the death of thought but a door into it.

See also:

Read Full Post »


An advertisement, or ad for short, is a paid message that is meant to persuade you. Most are short and come from companies trying to sell you something. They appear mostly in magazines and newspapers and on television, radio and the Internet.

Ads are mostly used to affect the spending and voting of millions of people.

Ads work less by the use of facts and reason or even base appeals, and more by being repeated over and over again. The idea is that if you hear something enough times you will start to believe it. This works, as it turns out.

Ads tend to be short and make very good use of the medium that they appear in. There are no wasted words, images or seconds. If you want to learn how to express yourself better in a medium, study the ads.

Ads are very important for things like cars and toothpaste where there is not much difference between what companies sell. And so these companies must get you to think that the name on the box – their brand name – makes all the difference.

I have talked on and on about all kinds of media, but said little about where all the money comes from to pay for them. In America most of it comes from advertising. Books and movies have little of it, but newspapers, magazines, radio, television and the Internet are largely bought and paid for by advertisers. It is the ads that you see that have paid for everything else.

So does advertising affect what you see in a medium?

Yes, it does.

If you doubt it, then just think of how public television (paid for by the government) is different from private television (paid for by advertisers). This will give you some idea of how advertising affects the medium that it appears in.

Where public television tends to be worthy but dull, private television tends to be lively but lacking in substance. It is like the difference between bread and cake. It is no accident.

If you run a medium supported by advertising – like a magazine or a television station – the bigger your audience the more you can sell ad space for and the more money you make. That means you cannot afford to anger either your audience or the advertisers. So you play it safe.

And so you show what you think people want to hear or see (sex and violence) or what will catch their attention – like bad news from the war in Iraq or a fire across town. You avoid what will drive away your audience or advertisers – like the burnt children of Iraq or the poor across town.

And so in America the love lives of certain Hollywood film stars are better known than what goes on in vast stretches of Asia like, say, India or China.

That is the world brought to you by advertising.

See also:

Read Full Post »


A magazine is printed once a month or once a week, containing articles and stories. It is halfway between a newspaper, which is meant to last a day, and a book, which is meant to last for years. In Britain and America about eight in ten read magazines. In America more people read magazines than either books or newspapers.

Everything about a magazine is designed to last just long enough till the next issue or number comes out: the paper, the ink, the binding, the cover, even the writing. It is a creature of time.

A magazine cover is made of paper – stronger and thicker than the inside pages, but paper all the same. The binding is often a matter of three well-place staples. The paper is smooth enough and fine enough to print good colour pictures.

The writing too falls in the middle. While some articles do make their way into books after a time, most do not. On the other hand, magazine articles take a much broader view of affairs than those in a newspaper.

For example, where a newspaper might report on the progress of a battle, a magazine article will be about the direction of the war. Or: a news magazine which comes out once a week might might report the battle but then set it against the bigger picture of the war as a whole.

Most magazines are about one subject – the news, cars, fishing, fashion, hair, weddings, computers, film stars and so on. Some are aimed at a certain kind of reader – men, children, single women, housewives, etc.

Some magazines are written for the general public. These used to be much more common, but television has taken their place in most people’s lives: where before one might unwind at the end of the day and catch up on what is going on in the country by reading one of the main weekly magazines of the day, like the Saturday Evening Post, now one watches television instead.

A few are printed in only one city or part of the country, but most are sold nationwide. Some even appear in more than one country, though they may not be the same from country to country. Vogue is like that, while The Economist is the same all over the world.

While you can buy a magazine at the newsstand, you can also subscribe: you pay for a year in advance and then receive it every month or week by post.

Magazines make money not just from the price paid but also by printing advertisements in among the articles. I suspect that this is why magazines use such good paper: it is not so much for the articles as for the ads.

The date printed on the cover of a magazine is not the date when it was printed, but the date it is meant to be sold and read. If the date is not a month or a week but a day, then it is day when the next issue comes out.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Aldus Manutius

Aldus Manutius (1449-1515) is a hero of mine. He founded the Aldine Press in Venice during the High Renaissance. He printed the great works of the Greeks and Romans in books so beautiful that they are still sought after today and yet at the time were cheap enough for a craftsman to buy.

The Aldine Press printed not just the Greeks and Romans, but also the great Italian and Renaissance writers, like Dante, Petrarch and Erasmus. In addition it printed books about religion, the latest overseas discoveries and other books of learning. It printed books in Greek, Latin and Italian.

His trademark is the dolphin and anchor.

Manutius printed his books not in the thick, heavy, hard-to-read black letter type of Gutenberg and the Germans, but in a clear, easy-to-read Roman type – what most books are printed in today. He based his Roman type on the letters found on Roman buildings and in Petrarch’s own handwriting. It was believed that this was the way Cicero wrote, but the style only goes back to the time of Charlemagne.

Manutius is the one who came up with italics. We use italics to draw attention to words, but he used it to print whole books, like his Virgil. It was designed to be graceful and yet take up less space than regular print. This allowed him to make his books smaller and therefore cheaper and more useful.

Where Gutenberg printed large Bibles for churches. Manutius printed books that were small enough and cheap enough for a craftsman to buy and take anywhere. They could fit in your bag or even your pocket.

Notice the change that took place between Gutenberg and Manutius: where Gutenberg used the printing press to make something cheaper and faster (huge church Bibles), Manutius used it to make something new, something we take for granted today (books that are small, cheap and easy to read).

By doing this Manutius increased the rate at which knowledge and new ideas spread. And, because of the sort of books he printed, his press helped to drive the Renaissance itself.

Manutius not only wanted his books to be of the most use to the most people, he also made sure his books were beautiful.

Manutius was a Greek scholar turned printer. He loved the Greeks and wanted to make sure they saw print. These books were his great love and he spared no pains to make sure that what came out of his press was the best. Not just in physical beauty, but also in the scholarship that went into them.

His editors were not just Greek scholars like himself, they even spoke Greek among themselves and with him to do their work.

The Aldine Press was the first to print many of these works. In doing this, Manutius has helped to preserve them for the ages.

Sometime after his death his brother-in-law took over the press and its reputation began to suffer. Later, however, his son and then his grandson brought back its former glory. The press was in operation for over a hundred years, from 1494 to 1597.

See also:

Read Full Post »


A newspaper (also known simply as “the paper”) reports the latest news of the day (or week). It is printed on large pieces of paper folded up together. Because it is only meant to last a day, the paper and ink are cheap and no cover is needed to protect it.

Newspapers are a medium that print made possible, but they did not become common till the middle 1600s. And it was not till the advances in printing of the 1800s that newspapers could reach the masses, as with the rise of the penny press.

In the 1800s and the early 1900s most people got their news from newspapers. In the 1900s new media came along – radio, television and the Web – that were also able to report the news. And not just once a day, but once an hour or even every half hour.

In the 1920s 130 newspapers were sold for every 100 households in America. By the early 1970s this number had fallen below 100. Today only 53 are sold and the number is still falling. The other media are blamed – first it was television, now it is the Web – but cars are just as much to be blamed: in New York where most people get to work by bus or train, there are still many daily newspapers.

Despite the rise of the new media, there are two advantages which newspapers still hold:

  • Newspapers cover the news far more deeply and seriously than the other media. If you are serious about wanting to understand what is going on, you must still read the newspaper.
  • Newspapers can be taken anywhere. You can fold it and carry it under your arm or in your bag and read it later when you get a chance. You cannot do this with television news or (at present) the Web.

The web could cover the news far more deeply and seriously than a newspaper ever could, but so far it does not.

These days newspapers have their own web sites, but most are not very good. No doubt print brings in more money and rightly gets more attention. But I suspect there is more to it than that. Many newspapers seem wedded to the idea of selling the news in a certain form – you know, on cheap paper with ink that rubs off on your hands. Even a newspaper as grand and good as the New York Times still has a completely print-bound imagination.

Many newspapers in America have died since the 1970s. Now few big cities in America still have more than one daily. And those that remain are more alike than ever. Partly because the big chains have moved in and taken over many of them. But partly because a greater proportion of news now comes from the news wires, like the Associated Press (AP). You can see the very same story in newspapers all across the country.

See also: 

Read Full Post »


Print is the medium made possible by the printing press. Printed books, newspapers and magazines are all part of this medium.


Printed material comes in different forms:

  • Books: Before print there was the book, but printed books, being cheaper and easier to produce, could reach more people and reach them more quickly. More people could read Plato or Scripture in print than was ever possible with handwritten copies. For the same reason, the latest knowledge could spread much more quickly. Because each copy of a printed book was the same, page numbers and index were now possible.
  • Newspapers: in time print became such a cheap and
    fast medium that it could be used to report the day’s or the week’s news. Because newspapers are only meant to last a day, they do not need covers or even good ink, paper or bindings.
  • Magazines: are between books and newspapers. They come out every week or month, not every day, and are meant to last for at least a month. So while they do not have hard covers, they do use better ink, paper and binding (staples!). Their articles likewise have a shelf life somewhere in the middle.

At first print was used to do what had always been done by hand – to copy books. It took time for people to take full advantage of print. Newspapers, page numbers, books for the masses, books you could take anywhere – these things did not appear right away but took time.


The printed word has a power that the hand-written word could never possess. Because print cut the cost of books, it meant that ideas and knowledge could spread faster and reach more people. This increased the rate of material progress. What once took 200 years now took only 20.

A perfect example of this is the Church and Galileo. The Church could no longer take a wait and see approach and let ideas kick about for one or two hundred years, as it had with Aristotle in the 1100s and 1200s. The Church no longer had till 1710 or 1810 to do something about Galileo’s discoveries of 1610. That is a measure of how much print had increased the pace of change.

McLuhan says that print has changed our habits of thought. Print makes the eye, not the ear, our chief means of knowledge. Print makes private reading, thought and point of view common habits. Print marches across the page in straight orderly lines, dividing speech into words into letters, the same everywhere.

So now when we look at the world, we divide wholes into parts to understand them, we expect events to follow one after the other in an orderly fashion, we try to see the world as it appears to our eyes, not as we think of it.

You first see this sort of thinking among the Ancient Greeks with the rise of lettered writing. Print gave these changes a power and push they never had before.

See also:

Read Full Post »


A film (1888- ) is a picture whose parts move so that it is like a picture of something happening before your eyes. They are also known as motion pictures or movies. They can be seen on television or in a theatre, known as a cinema or movie theatre. Film as an art or industry is known as the cinema.

Films became common in the 1920s, sound was added in the 1930s and colour in the 1940s. Films are chiefly used for shows.

In the old days when you went to the theatre, you saw actors on the stage acting out a play. Now that can be recorded once in a film and shown over and over again all over the country. Even if it was recorded years ago.

A film can do far more than just record a stage play. It can seem a lot more true to life:

  • You can get the best actors and actresses.
  • It can be acted in the place where the story takes place, like Egypt or Paris.
  • Parts of it can be made in different times and places and later put together into one film.
  • Computers can paint things into to the flim that look real.
  • Special effects can make the action in a film seem real (like people dying or flying spaceships).

When a book is made into a film, a lot of it has to be cut out. A two-hour film is only 120 pages long. But those who have never read the book will not notice anything missing.

When a film first comes out, you have to see it at the cinema. Which is not bad since the screen that it is shown on is much larger than anything you have at home. In time you can get them on disc and later they are shown on television for free.

Before television, people used to go to the cinema on Saturdays as a regular thing.

The top actors and actresses are rich and famous and live like kings and queens. We hear all about their private lives in the newspapers, magazines and on television. It is hard to escape.

Most films are made in India and America: in Bollywood in Bombay and Hollywood in Los Angeles.

Bollywood films last three hours and are chiefly in Hindi. Most are sure to include singing, dancing, a love story and twists of fate.

Hollywood films last about two hours and are chiefly in English. Most are about good against evil. The hero (good) in time finds himself overpowered or outnumbered by his enemies (evil). It looks hopeless, but he always wins in the end. Sometimes a love story is thrown in.

Most serious films, like those that win awards at Cannes, do not always have happy endings, a clear cut hero or even a clear storyline.

In America, the highest film award is the Oscar or Academy Award. In India it is the Filmfare Award.

See also:

Read Full Post »


The Wikipedia (2001- ) is an encyclopedia on the Web that is completely written and edited by its readers. Readers are free to write whatever they want about any subject under the sun. The only real guideline is the “neutral point of view” rule. Since late 2005, however, most changes have been rejected. Well, most of mine at least.

The Wikipedia started in 2001 and already it is the largest encyclopedia in the English-speaking world with over a million articles. The Wikipedia exists in other languages too, but with far fewer articles.

The Wikipedia is free: anyone can read it for free. On the other hand, anyone who writes or edits the Wikipedia is also doing it for free. For the same reason it cannot use copyrighted material.

You would think the thing would be a complete disaster, but somehow it works. For every evil-minded person who wants to ruin the Wikipedia, there are ten others who want to see it succeed and will fix it. The Wikipedia is set up so that it is easy to undo any change. No one can cause any lasting harm to it. For example, you can write “the moon is made of green cheese” in the Moon article. Within minutes your change will be gone.

The Wikipedia is built the same way Linux was: on the Internet by many hands from all over the world. This was why those who started the Wikipedia thought it would work.

But there is an important difference between these two: to work on Linux you need to be very good and very experienced in computer programming. To work on the Wikipedia you just need to know how to write.

The science magazine Nature took some science articles from both the Britannica and the Wikipedia and asked experts to count the errors in each. The Britannica had fewer errors – no surprise there – but the Wikipedia was not that much worse. The Britannica strongly disputes this, showing how the results were interpreted to favour the Wikipedia.

But fact checking, it turns out, is one of the Wikipedia’s strengths.

What it is not so good at is writing and editing. After all, checking a fact is much easier than editing. Just look at what a fact checker gets paid at a magazine compared to the editor. So articles tend to be long-winded and badly written. Clear, forceful writing gets watered down or removed.

Bad writing is harder to understand. It also makes it harder to find key facts. Articles are much longer than they should be. A good editor would fix all that.

Another bad influence: the Britannica. Most Wikipedians grew up with the Britannica as their idea of what an encyclopedia should be. But the long articles and long-winded prose of the Britannica do not work on the Web. Wikipedia articles are nowhere near as bad, but many are still too long and too long-winded for the Web, good writing or no.

See also:

Read Full Post »


An encyclopedia (or encyclopaedia) is a book of knowledge. The word is Greek for “in the circle of learning”: it brings together all of mankind’s general knowledge of the world into one circle, one place. The first real encyclopedia was Pliny’s Natural History.

An encyclopedia is made up of articles. Each article covers one subject — China, Napoleon, music, insects, eighteenth century science and so on. It gives the most important facts and ideas in the space allowed.

The purpose of the encyclopedia is not to tell you everything. To the contrary, its purpose is to save you time, space and money. So it tells you only the most important things. Pliny, for example, took the facts he found in 2000 books and put them in the 37 books of his Natural History.

An encyclopedia can take different forms. It may all be between two covers in one volume – a desk encyclopedia. It may have many volumes or it may even be on the Web. There is no telling what form it may take a century from now.

Right now in the English-speaking world the two most important encyclopedias are the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Wikipedia.

The Britannica is very serious and very trustworthy but online it is not free and not easy to use. It is a good example of how shovelware does not work. But before the Web came along, nothing was better.

The Wikipedia is the opposite: it is on the Web –  it was born there – it is very easy to use (when its computers are not overworked), but it is not entirely trustworthy and not always serious. It is a good example of how not having a real editor does not work. But nothing on the Web is better.

The encyclopedia and the Web are a match made in heaven. The Web has three things an encyclopedia needs that print cannot give it:

  1. Search engines make finding an article faster.
  2. Links make going to a related article faster.
  3. It is easy to keep content current, which means what you read is not ten years old.

The Web makes everything about an encyclopedia faster. That makes it easier to use and means the content can be better.

But there is more: an online encyclopedia can be far larger than one in print. The Wikipedia is already far too large for anyone to print the whole thing. This is in part because it is easier to use, so it can be larger, and in part because the Web is a much cheaper medium than print.

But wait, we said the purpose of an encyclopedia was to save us time, space and money. Like with Pliny boiling down all those books into his Natural History. What about that? Yes, that is just it: a web encyclopedia done right will let us go just as deep into any subject as we wish.

See also:

Read Full Post »


Shovelware is content moved from one medium and to another with little or no change – as if it were shovelled in. It can be between any two media, but these days it is the Web that is at the receiving end in most cases. The New York Times and the Britannica online are perfect examples. If a web page has a link that says “Next Page”, you can be sure that it is shovelware.

In the early days of television the first shows were moved straight from radio: radio plays, music shows, ball games and news. Some of it worked on television, some of it did not. Most radio plays did not work – television needed something else. And television news at first was read – read! – not shown!

And now it is the Web’s turn. That is why so much of the Web looks like a magazine. But the sites of those like Google or reddit, who know what they are doing, look nothing like this.

The New York Times on the Web is a lot like it is in print – so much so that it even has page numbers! Page numbers are completely unnecessary on the Web and, in fact, only get in the way of print, copy and search – operations that are unthinkable in print, but are common on computers.

The New York Times online is also structured into the same parts as it is in print – world news, city news, science, lifestyle, opinion and all the rest. Again, completely unnecessary on the Web and again it only gets in the way.

Even the links that they have in their stories are a waste compared to what they should be.

The New York Times conceives of the Web as a form of print. So they put up with the disadvantages of print – on the Web! – while missing out on what the Web can do.

They cannot treat the Web as some side thing: if they do not get it right, it will kill them. They seem to sense this, since they are getting help from Microsoft. But the changes they are making will make it even more like it is in print!

The Britannica is even worse. The Web and the encyclopedia are a marriage made in heaven, yet no one in Chicago seems to notice. They break nearly every principle of good web design. The only thing they get right is the spelling.

I love the Britannica dearly, but these days I almost always look up things in the Wikipedia first. It is far easier and almost as good. Only when I want to go in depth do I pull out one of my old Britannicas. But even that will not last.

Writing about inventions in 500 words or less has taught me something that Sony and the New York Times do not seem to understand: an invention has very little to do with what it looks like or how it is made. It has everything to do with what it does. Both companies are wasting a fortune because they do not seem to understand this. It blows my mind.

See also:

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: