What Media (Hasn’t) Done for Me Lately

In the larger scope of things, it’s trivial.  But it’s fast become one of my favorite shows: Downton Abbey.  I’m a sucker for a good costume drama, and when I saw that one of the producers of Gosford Park (perhaps my all-time favorite movie ever?) had another lush upstairs/downstairs sort of drama in the works, it was all over.

I not only watched each episode live on PBS as they aired, I discovered that iTunes was selling the original uncut versions from ITV in the UK.  It was great to be able to get rid of Laura Linney telling me what “entail” entails (as if US viewers don’t have a dictionary or Wikipedia) and to see the drama unfold in the way it was originally intended.  So I joined this great community of viewers and tweeted my way happily through January 2011.  When I found out that it had been broadcast in the UK the previous fall, I figured that they didn’t know how popular it might be in the US and just chalked it up to some sort of an error.

Imagine my surprise when I found out that Downton Abbey series two would be broadcast the same way, despite its large and vocal American following.  Now, instead of being able to follow the gossip and fansites like I did last winter, I must IGNORE THEM COMPLETELY and go out of my way NOT to see them for four entire months.  That’s four months worth of unfollowing, blocking specific people in my Facebook feed, and generally walking around with my fingers in my ears so that the next season isn’t spoiled for me.  It’s going to be a sad fall.

But this all points to a persistent issue for fans and media consumers:

Why can’t we watch what we want the way we want to, when we want to?

E-books and Netflix and cable, oh my.  None of these media industries has come up with a new, customer-friendly method of licensing content in ways that make sense for their fan bases.  It’s a global, hyperlinked society these days… nobody wants to wait the next day to download an episode of a show off of iTunes and miss all the online chatter, nobody has time to wait six months in line at the public library for a book that is relevant to their current needs, and increasingly everyone is sick of throwing hundreds of dollars a year at the cable companies for only about 5 or 6 channels full of content they really want to see.  And the idea of trying to wade through the Internet while avoiding your favorite fan sites because the next series is currently airing in another country seems onerous, if not sadly mean-spirited.

I understand that the BBC (and ITV, I think?) are run off of British people’s taxes, and that premium cable subscribers pay for the development of edgy, cool shows, and that it’s important to pad out book prices to help pay for editing and publicity.  I know all those logical, service-delivery-type things exist and that they are complicated.  If there is a way to reinvent the subscription model, I’d gladly pay a bit more than the going rate to get the content I want a la carte rather than in tiers, or lumps, or not at all for days or months.  I don’t like paying gobs of money for channels or shows I don’t particularly care for, but I would enjoy being a premium fan of a large handful of content that I personally curated and found awesome.

As a consumer, though, I simply get more and more frustrated by these things all the time.  The message that’s being delivered to me is one that says “we don’t care, we’re going to do this digital thing our way and take our own sweet time about it, and we don’t care if we lose you as a customer.”  The first show or channel or network or publisher that decides to make access easier for me as a consumer is going to get all my love and attention, even for the marginal things that they produce, because I know they want me to have the media experience I want to have.

Now the question remains: who will get it right first?

The Library As Game: What NYPL is Doing Right

I’ve been fascinated ever since I heard about New York Public Library’s all-night geekfest, Find the Future: The Game.  Ostensibly, this is an event to celebrate the library’s centennial.  I think it’s also a grand and bold way to help rebrand the library and its historical holdings as relevant to today’s youth.  Here are some of the major design elements of The Game and why I think they are pretty brilliant:

  • Time and setting.   The Game will be held overnight – players will be locked into the Schwarzman Building (you know, the one with the lions out front) and will be given access to normally closed stacks to play between 8 pm and 6 am.   This combines two forbidden elements to tantalize prospective players… getting exclusive access to a normally public place and getting to stay there during a time when that public place is usually sealed off from access.  Since they are aiming for a young demographic, offering the Game all night (as opposed to a Sunday evening, for example) will naturally weed out non-target participants.  (There’s a reason younger people stay up late.)
  • Technology.  Players will be challenged to locate 100 historical items in the collection, but they are required to supply a smartphone (to read QR codes and similar) and will also be using laptops.  Using technology to augment the interaction with (possibly) unfamiliar historical objects, participants will be able to bridge the gap between their personal experience and the object quickly and easily. 
  • Premise.  The product of this game is a book.  If you just asked patrons to come into the library, check out a few historical items, and write a page to contribute to a commemorative book then I think you’d end up with a pretty dry product.  The Game only lasts eight hours – there is no time to overthink what will be written, and I predict that the sense of urgency among the players will be high.  Sometimes these conditions combine to result in a much better written product than when you have oodles of time to deliberate.  Constructing a game in order to elicit emotions to write a book will eliminate some of the players’ inhibitions – resulting in a more raw, real, and authentic product.
  • Competition.  Players don’t just show up, they have to enter to win a spot as one of the lucky 500.  As of my writing, the chances of being picked are about 1 in 3, which builds healthy anticipation and creates a sense of exclusivity around the event.  They must prove their worthiness by responding to this prompt: “Imagine what extraordinary thing you might achieve in the next ten years and complete this phrase: ‘By the year 2021, I will be the first person to…'”
  • Scope.  500 players will (presumably) be split into teams of five to interact with 100 historical objects in eight hours… if every team must locate and use each object, that means they must maintain an average of 12 objects an hour.  Players will be challenged to cover a lot of physical ground – “into the underground stacks of the Library, where more than 40 miles of books are waiting to be discovered.”   This quest-type atmosphere will definitely have appeal to young gamers, who will encounter challenges in way-finding and interpreting their surroundings, especially if they are unfamiliar with the behind-the-scenes settings of a major library.
  • Publicity.  The teaser trailer video is amazing: watch it here.  A diverse cast of young players enter the library, their live shots interspersed with Ken Burns-style panning through cutaways of a vintage piece of art featuring librarians deep underground among vacuum tubes and book stacks.  Then, the music picks up and the video begins to resemble a Hollywood production starring the young players.  The result?  I felt that by entering the competition, I would be an intrepid explorer… like a young Indiana Jones or Rick O’Connell (from The Mummy).  By tapping into previously established tropes of adventure movies, the promo video gives this Game strong appeal to the target audience.

I will be eager to see the results of The Game and what sorts of things players will be inspired to write as a result of their explorations.  This event provides a lot of inspiration for those of us looking to shake things up and offer different, provocative experiences to users of our collection – what sort of Game would your community play in YOUR library?

Super Stuff on Sticks!

If you are a mobile computer user, bouncing from machine to machine all day long, then you know how difficult it is to plan for productivity.  Sure, you can use the cloud to store things, but aren’t you tired of using two or three different browsers?  Having to hunt your favorite sites down?  Worrying about browser caches and wiping your passwords? (if you’re not worried about that last bit, then you should be!)

Try a stick.  There are so many ways to customize a relatively cheap USB thumb drive (or stick) and make it your very own.  Your favorite computing environment can travel with you and help you be more productive… or have more fun!

My original stick experience came with a 1G USB drive and PortableApps.com.  They have a variety of popular programs that have been “shrunk” in file size to easily fit on a flash drive.  This site came in handy when helping others to create their own drives in workshops and for promotional purposes.

On of my favorite edubloggers, Alec Couros, was inspired to liberate the teachers in a locked-down school with a little “freedom stick…” how inspiring!  Another edublogger, Ira Socol, did a similar thing when he helped Michigan educators develop their own version of freedom sticks.

Want to have more fun with younger computer users? Use Sugar on a Stick!   Sugar is a specially designed computing environment aimed at young users, with a graphical interface and the ability to learn the Python programming language to alter and build on the environment itself.  With games, web surfing, activities, group interaction, and other appealing factors, Sugar is a great choice for a stick!

Worried about censorship?  Put together your own Chinese Wall.  You can use the Tor system on a stick to prevent others from filtering your internet access or tracking your movements.  There are many reasons to surf anonymously, privacy concerns among them.  Sticks can set you free in this way as well.

Do you have your own favorite stick tips?  Share in the comments!

Transform Twitter into a Research Tool for Students

Today I went to a great jamboree of school librarians from all levels – university, high, middle, elementary, and a few in between (of course, I was my usual hybrid self).  This was a first step towards more effective communication in order to facilitate college readiness among K-12 students, and there was a lot of sharing and venting and struggling to get on the same page.  Lexiles and DIBELS and critical thinking– oh my!

I promised to share a fun tech tip on the College Readiness group wiki, and I will definitely post a link to this once my membership goes through.  Ready?

How to Research a Current Event Without Breaking a Sweat

1)  Make sure your cell phone plan is set to unlimited texting.

2)  Sign up for TWO Twitter accounts if you do not already have one.  You want a PERSONAL account and a RESEARCH account.  Since you can only have one Twitter account associated with a single email address, you can open that second Twitter account using Gmail (use your Gmailusername+researchprojectname@gmail.com).

2b) FOLLOW the research account with your personal account.

3) Log onto Twitter with your personal account.  Go into Settings and select Mobile.  Verify your cell phone number.  Make sure you follow the instructions on the right side of the screen with the phone icons – the ONLY account you want to have turned ON is your Twitter research account.  (The default for phone following is OFF so this is usually not a problem if you already follow lots of accounts.)

4)  Open a new browser tab.  Go sign up for Twitterfeed.  Give it your Twitter research account info.

5)  Open another tab, and find a news site that has RSS feeds for different topicsNYT or the BBC are good starting points, or you can pick a specialized site like AllAfrica that will have just the right info you need.  (Stymied?  Use the criteria in Consider the Source to select a good online news site.)

6)  Once you have an RSS feed selected, copy and paste it into your Twitterfeed account.  It will test the feed and make sure that the new posts from the RSS feed will now tweet out THROUGH your new Twitter research account.  You have effectively made a custom Twitter news channel!

7) Repeat steps 5 and 6 a few times as needed – don’t get too many, because you don’t want your phone blowing up constantly. (See @readersadvisory and @edunewsus as good/bad examples of custom Twitter news accounts I have created using many RSS feeds.)

8) By now, your phone should be texting you any new stories from the feeds you threaded through your research account.  Not only will these stories be stored in your research Twitter account (and you can Favorite the ones you want to use!), but they will also come to you in real time – reminding you about the project on a regular basis and letting you have immediate access to new information.

It sounds a little complicated (especially if you are not a current Twitter user or RSS feed master).  Yet this is a perfect example of how a typical social media site can be transformed into a powerful automated research tool!  Twitter is not just for sharing with colleagues or chatting with friends – it has the ability to transform your cell phone into a critical support system for schoolwork.

Apps for all ages

If you have an iPad, iPhone, or iPod Touch then you already know how appealing they are to… well… all ages!  Parents, kids, teachers, friends, even the person at the next table at the coffee shop are all sharing and trading tips on which apps they love to use.

Scholastic Parent and Child suggests 15 apps for you to load up and share in the family. (“15 Mighty Apps,” Sept. 2010)

Parenting Magazine has 25 apps – no, wait – 50 apps for you to try!

Teachers can give these 20 iPad apps a spin, including ones that will keep you organized and up to date on current events.

I haven’t heard as much buzz about kid-friendly Android apps yet, but I will keep my eyes peeled & ask friends with Android phones.  Do you have favorites?  Contribute in the comments below!

want kids to love reading? places to start

Patrons frequently ask me how they can hook their kids on books. This makes me thrilled, because if books are your crack then I want to be your dealer! (Drug metaphors work quite well in the literary world. Don’t ask.) Depending on the situation I usually recommend one or more of these resources to feed adults information about nifty books.

These sites are great, but the most important advice for adults who want their kids to love reading is this: read for yourself, read often, and read in front of your children. Let them see your enjoyment in the printed word. Make time in the family schedule for stories and wordplay. Read aloud, read silently, listen to audiobooks, and reread books that really impress you. Do these things, and I guarantee you will eventually need to send your kids to Book Rehab. (Dr. Drew, if you’re reading this, CALL ME. I totally volunteer to help with the group therapy sessions.)

Changing and evolving…

Hello everybody – I’ve imported the posts from my old blog, Schooling.us, and am starting over fresh with a new look and a new name that better reflects my own personal brand. Welcome and take a look around!

More Questions Than Answers: Month 3 of the Year of the E-book

First, a blog post got passed around on Twitter. Then the NYT picked up on it, and the following week this video was posted to YouTube:


(better version of this from Penguin’s Digital unit)

Got your mind properly blown yet? (Yes? Good.)

This is just the start of what promises to be a really ground-breaking year of user experience with e-content. In fact, I think we may have to stop calling them e-books. I knew that the iPad would be a game-changing device because of its ability to connect content with video and touch as well as connectivity, but to see its ability to utterly transform content is AMAZING.

I know we’re going to see more of this when the Microsoft Courier makes a debut, and as soon as the Asus eee Pad comes on sale later this year the market will be blown wide open. Just as the touchscreen smartphone became the norm in a little over 2 years, it will take even less time for tablets and “pads” to do the same.

But what else will be transformed? The evaluation of this content is going to be paramount for consumers – a traditional book or media review is not even going to start to cut it for interim consumers stuck between now, where we are in a real Wild West stage of development and innovation and the future, where (hopefully) standards for e-content will emerge… in some way or another. The same e-content could look radically different on one device than it does on another, and lose or gain functionality when ported to yet another.

I’ve said in the past that digital content needs to be device agnostic, and I’m willing to stick to that as an ideal for now. But things are getting very interesting, and it is nearly impossible to deny at this point that the publishing, reviewing, and bookstore/library industries are getting ready to pass through a fundamental change. Will consumers who bought a Nook only three months ago be satisfied once they see what their money could have bought in Apple’s iPad bookstore? Can Kindle fanatics reconcile themselves to plain black and white e-ink when interactivity and animations are available on new-style tablets?

Let’s see what Q2 of 2010 brings.

More Godin-ish thoughts

My co-worker Josh forwarded me a link to the Friendfeed conversation he started about my last blog post. I read the reactions with interest, and had a few thoughts in connection with this:

Another co-worker forwarded an email with this, that seems related:

“And these statistic(s) from another book, “Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle,” a third of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives, and neither do 42 percent of college graduates. In 2007, 80 percent of the families in the United States did not buy or read a book.”

While I think the above stat is a bit hyperbolic, it is however reflective of the larger culture’s widening gap between the literate and the illiterate.(Our regulars are nearly all power users, relying heavily on the library to supply them with a constant stream of materials.) It seems reflective – although not correlated – to the similar concentration of wealth in the country over the past few decades. A well-informed middle class may be going the way of a well-off middle class, IMHO. Instead of being able to divide our patrons up by socioeconomic class, we should probably be making distinctions between new “upper” and “lower” classes by their information consumption habits. Which group would Seth Godin be in, I wonder?

I’d be interested to hear what others think about our culture’s connection to information in an age of abundance (but not largess).

Information is not free

Seth Godin blogged recently about his idea to transform libraries for the 21st century. Apparently he’s been talking to librarians who are unhappy that their DVD circulation is up (as it would be, in this economy when people are looking for cheap/free home entertainment). But I think he has some things very wrong:

They can’t survive as community-funded repositories for books that individuals don’t want to own (or for reference books we can’t afford to own.)” I have yet to see the person able to afford all the books they will ever need in their lifetime. Or a personal subscription to all the magazines they might want to read, or all the databases they might need to consult. It reminds me of the quote by Malcolm Forbes: “The richest person in the world – in fact all the riches in the world – couldn’t provide you with anything like the endless, incredible loot available at your local library.”

I’m not sure I’d want to live in a world where we only had access to the ideas we could afford to buy.

The information is free now.” Information is never free. Libraries and librarians work to provide access (using your tax dollars) to hugely diverse, authoritative sources of information in many formats. Yes, there is more access to information than ever before but access is not equal for all. I know Godin’s rebuttal would be “buy a cheap netbook & mooch off a neighbor’s free WiFi” but there are still people who don’t have the money or comfort level with technology to make that happen. Librarians are useful because we’re professional searchers; able to help people formulate their questions, refine their ideas, and locate the best information to match those needs. Just because you can type into the Google search box doesn’t mean you’re an information expert.

My last thought: in many communities, the public library is the last truly democratic place. Anyone can come in, anyone can read for free, anyone can meet freely. There needs to be at least one place that is open to all in every community, and the library is as much a place as it is a collection.

%d bloggers like this: