Monday, August 31, 2009

Check Up: What is my own "online reputation"? What are my own goals?


In view of some of my recent posts, I guess I can ask myself, “what is my own online reputation? What is my own brand? Where is all this heading? What are my own goals?”

It’s even more meaningful as a question as practical reality means that everybody has an online reputation that can be crafted by others even if they never go online and are supposed (by job requirements) to “keep a low profile”.

In the past twelve or so years, I’ve developed and deployed a body of content that helps visitors “connect the dots” among various facts and arguments related to our notions of social justice [particularly if "man's justice" is to become "absolute"] and individual sovereignty. I’ve also wanted (and to some extent started ) to develop the application infrastructure that would allow others to do the same (and I will be looking for others to partner with in doing so).

I’m particularly struck by a particular dichotomy with which we regard the “moral” basis of freedom. Today, we place an emphasis on personal choice and following through on the consequences of choices. Libertarians call it “freedom to contract.” I sometimes call it “paying your bills.” But a few decades ago, most of the emphasis was on belonging to a community (starting with the nuclear family established by socially and legally recognized and married parents) and on the socialization necessary to guarantee that everyone shares some of the risks, uncertainties and burdens at a personal and intimate level, beyond what is normally subsumed by “choice.” I sometimes call this “paying your dues.” There is some evidence that some of this is returning today. At least, we need to understand how it was in the past and how to deal with sustainability and generativity pressures today -- we're having to back away from the naive notion that responsibility for others always starts with "chosen" sexual activity or with pregnancy. None of this dilutes the fact that we endured enormous “group” injustices in the past. But it does recall the moral example set by "The Greatest Generation" and how close we came (to the end of civilization as we know it) a couple times (at least in 1962) during the Cold War.

I originally got into this debate over the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military, which relates to some of my long-term life experiences in an unusual way, and which also connects to this dichotomy. Over time, I’ve found that similar problems come up in other areas, for example today health care, eldercare and the supposed “demographic winter.”

When every "netizen" can "connect the dots" on his own, special interests and their hired lobbyists (yup, lobbying can be a job or career, too) become less effective and less influential on end results. More important, silly petitions, encouraging people to send emails and letters written by others (this is the "we give you the words" problem) become less important, and people get away from victimization thinking and accept the need for some tough love, sometimes.

Much of the social tension over “personal sovereignty” or “self-ownership” does revolve around the right and practical capacity to select one’s own consenting adult significant others. But another increasingly visible component of it centers around personal expression, particularly all of the controversies attending the “free entry” mechanism that we have for Internet self-expression. While I think my presence on the Web has helped win the Lawrence v Texas case (2003) and COPA, and while I have faith that my steadfastness will become significant in overcoming “don’t ask don’t tell”, I think that the biggest challenge may eventually be to “save free entry” on the Web. As I return to the job market, that’s where I would like to focus a lot of my effort.

I do have two practical problems. One of these is that I can’t go through life “getting out of things” myself (just by avoiding "uncertain" choices). It is difficult to maintain individual sovereignty and take care of others when one was not as competitive as one should have been much earlier in life as a boy or young man. Like it or not, this takes on moral dimensions. (In the 1950s, for a young boy with artistic or musical inclinations, becoming a “regular man” first was depicted as a moral absolute, but for the good of everyone else.) The other is that it is difficult to profess public objectivity and “neutrality” (and I chuckle now at the phrase “network neutrality”) when one is in a personal situation, not completely voluntary, that requires some exercise of authority with bias. I must walk the line as best I can. But the worst possible outcome would be to become compelled to dedicate one’s public presence to become corrupted into transmitting the biases and messages determined by others (out of demand for loyalty). I’ve seen it happen when people fall. And, over the years, I've come to see why moral simplicity can become a compelling end in itself.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Reprise: could I really have become a math teacher as a second career, after all?


I still look back in retrospect, did I “blow” the chance to become a high school math teacher as a “second career” for a few years, after age 60?

In 2003, while still in Minneapolis, I looked at the possibility of substitute teaching there, and saw that only licensed teachers were hired even as subs or, as they called them, reserve teachers. Certification seemed to require a full year as a full time student, although there were several programs at Twin Cities universities (including the U of M). I came back to Virginia for family reasons in August, but I did not think about checking out the situation in Virginia in advance.

In March of 2004 I accidentally heard about the “Career Switcher” program from a television ad, and quickly checked and found out that Virginia school districts could hire unlicensed subs (even with only two years of college). It was even possible for unlicensed subs to work as long-term subs, and sometimes even teach summer math courses. I also found out that there were some low cost and fast-track courses to get the 180 clock hours required for certification. What would follow has been documented here on the blogs before. But my biggest problem was discipline with certain kinds of students, who need a sense of attachment or imprint, a belief in the teacher as an “authority figure” for its own sake. Another problem is that I did balk when accidentally (and by surprise) drawn into situations (with certain special education students) that were more intimate than I thought appropriate. And still another issue was my web content, the biggest incident of which I documented here on a posting July 27, 2007.

Suppose I had “found out” about the “demand” in Virginia before moving back. I could have become a sub immediately in September 2003, and probably had better assignments than I did (because of starting at the beginning of the year). Perhaps I could have taken a “fast track” course with a local northern Virginia campus of Old Dominion University in the spring of 2004 and had a full time job in the fall of 2004. Perhaps I could have focused only on my strengths – academics – reviewed all my graduate school mathematics and wound up teaching AP calculus. (I did take the Praxis in September 2005 and mgot a good score in Math.) I might have wound up with Algebra 1, but just Maybe I could even have wound up at the esteemed Thomas Jefferson High School of Science and Technology. I could have led a different life.

Let me add something here parenthetically: I would not have taken the "opportunity" to "burn 'em again" (or "hang 'em high"), making up for karma at the University of Kansas back in 1966-1968 when I was a graduate student assistant instructor (and I did give some F's -- at a time of the draft). Well, maybe I would have come up with some challenging exam free response problems for calculus. But tests have become pretty standardized since the time I went to high school (since they aim at passing SOL's), and are often largely mutliple choice (with certain patterns of variation for different classes and rows); test making is no longer a prerogative of teacher "creativity".

One concern is that the greatest demand really appeared to be for special education and for younger grades, the other direction than my strengths. This brings up some “personal problems”, which I would call “political problems” as much as personal (even if some administrators who remember me disagree). Federal law (the 1993 “don’t ask don’t tell” law for the military) says that I am legally as less worthy, second class citizen, not only because of the marriage issue (that’s DOMA), but because I cannot legally share the risk and burden of defending the country without distracting or disturbing the cohesion of others. If that is so, how can I be perceived as a legitimate, competitive male role model? There even could be legal questions of consent if some of those intimate situations had actually come about, as well as a practical risk of false accusations.

I must admit that, as an "introvert", I do not like people to cling to me, and depend on me to "cue" them with emotional "acting out," or with a "relationship" that is not "real."

The other big question is about the Web. As a short-term substitute (using the on-call assignment systems like SIMS) I did not have the responsibility for assigning grades or making important discretionary decisions about students. Were I to become a long term sub or a permanent teacher, io would. According to my understanding of ethics and my perception of “conflict of interest” at the time, I would have needed to pull all my political writings off the web and no longer have them available.

I could have contemplated doing this, and going into a quiet period where I was to be seen and not heard. A teacher’s contribution comes through the students he or she teachers, generally, rather than from his or her own personal and publicized work. I would have been, in a sense, “paying my dues”, perhaps earning “the privilege of bring listened to”, taking on the responsibility of “generativity.”

All of this would have been evolving for me just as social networking sites were coming into prominence and wide use. We know now that I would have been left vulnerable to what others post about me on the Web, and given my background, I think I would have been exposed, unless in a sheltered (“spoiled”) environment where I taught only more advanced students.

In fact, it seems that we’re entering a world where people cannot simply remain mum and keep a low public profile if they are in sensitive positions to pass judgment on others (what I used to see as a controlling principle); they have to develop their own online public reputation for someone else’s (their employer’s) agenda. Imagine what it must be like now for, say, a life insurance agent. Given my background of 12 years in I.T. in life insurance, it’s not surprising that I was also approached in 2005 about becoming an insurance agent. I just could not see myself pushing other people’s products, using myself just to promote someone else’s position rather than my own. But given the state of the Web and social networking today, that’s what it seems a lot of people have to do.

Note: I see I did a take on this question March 24 of this year. But I thought it was worth revisiting, given the rapid growth of "reputation management". As I see, it's no longer possible to have a blank reputation.

The recent recession has, of course, raised a good practical question: would I have actually gotten and kept the teaching jobs had I invested my own money in licensure. Despite the demand for teachers, especially in math, there have still occurred some layoffs.

My best chance to get back into education would be to help the schools to develop a program to deal not only with basic Internet safety but also with reputational issues too.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Could Section 230 protections for "ordinary people" be weakened because of Web reputation abuse?


On the heels of the book by Sue Scheff and John Dozier (and Michael Fertis) about the ravages to online reputation by bloggers or columnists “with nothing to lose” and of a stern Washington Post column by Kahtleen Parker about the anonymity case and about how ordinary users were going to get whacked for sundering others on the web, I found an “Editorial Notebook” in The New York Times today, “Time to Be Afraid of the Web?” By Eduardo Porter, link here.

He wonders whether current incremental self-policing efforts “will do” given all the risks, and I do wonder why his college and graduating class would be so critical as personal information.

Dozier, an Internet attorney, wants, among other things, to weaken Section 230 protections (from the 1996 Telecommunications Act, the part of the "Communications Deceny Act" that survived the 1997 Supreme Court challenge) for operators who are not “real communications companies” – that is, it sounds as though he would want bloggers to be liable for comments posted on their blogs and webhosts of forums to be liable for defamatory posts. My immediate reaction is that bloggers would no longer allow comments and forums would not exist. Dozier wants to stop anti-SLAPP legislation, too; you can see where he may be headed.

As I’ve noted before (as on my review yesterday on my books blog of scheff’s book There are forces that see web asymmetry as a systemic risk, and want to shut down speech from those who don’t compete for social, familial or political standing (or don’t succeed at the competition) in a conventional, accountable way. (It’s the “nothing to lose” problem.) It’s true, some people(as was Scheff) are in jobs or familial situations that make them particularly vulnerable to unsubstantiated rumor, including those from non-credible commentators on the Web, given the ease of finding things by search engines.

I suppose that a nefarious party with a grudge could anonymously fill up comments on other people’s blogs and forums with accusations against someone. That person would still be liable for libel even if the hosting bloggers or forum moderators are not, and we know that sometimes courts will order his identity to be disclosed if he harmed someone. That sounds to me how it should be.

I used to allow all comments on my blogs, and had to start moderating them to eliminate spam, which our hosting service rightfully objects to. Sometimes an issue-oriented blog posting generates comments about individuals involved in a particular case. I generally have no way of knowing whether the comments are factually true. The comments certainly add nuance to the debate of the issue, and I accept them if they seem credible. I do reject comments that sound like rants or that are objectively illegal (obscenity), but I get very few of those. I am not 100% sure that this level of review shields me from all potential downstream liability, but common sense says that it should. But “establishment” newspapers and broadcast media websites will run into the same issues allowing (reader) comments.

Here’s EFF’s reference on Section 230.

The other big hooker, that Dozier did not suggest, would be if some day all bloggers had to be bonded or carry media perils insurance, which right now is too expensive and erratic for those with “nothing to lose” and even with many with something to lose.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Anonymous speech is double-edged; what about "gag orders"?


The recent “Skanks” case (Aug. 19 on this blog) demonstrates that speakers and bloggers should not be allowed to “hide” under anonymity if they harm other people, as with defamation or libel.

On the other hand, anonymous speech is viewed as an important part of the First Amendment and is viewed, in a democracy, as a very important safety valve, allowing legitimate whistleblowing (as in the workplace) and holding politicians, professionals and various businesses serving the public accountable. The USA Today article (noted on the Aug. 19 posting) pointed out that recently some physicians have made patients sign “gag order contracts” not to use online rating services, as the doctors maintain that the asymmetry of these sites undermines their ability to deliver medical services to future patients. G Anonymity would seem to be an effective antidote to the gag orders, but without the possibility of forced disclosure doctors would have no way to defend themselves against libel. It’s all too easy to imagine property owners or landlords wanting to impose the same conditions on residents in the future.

I do use my own name in my speech, because it is analytical, social and political: it is driven by issues, not by complaining about specific people or parties, so my speech is more effective if people know who I am. I realize that that creates an “online reputation” and I can imagine how it (because of the asymmetry) can present some practical risks, in a real world of political, social and business hierarchies that are challenged. For example, if I took an interim job for which I was overqualified, a business might, after finding me on search engines, still wonder if I took the job to journal or report on the business (as with the ABC Food Lion case in the 1990s – OK, I named one business here, but that’s a well known case already exposed by others).

I do want to point out that I do not complain about specific business entities online. Were I to do so, that could create many practical problems in getting needed services in the future. So I do not use rating websites for professional services even anonymously. If I have a specific complaint, I go through the proper channels set up for that service industry. I do review consumer items (like films), because these are not services in the same sense; I should add that no one pays me to review or “endorse” films, books or shows.

For me, the real "boon to democracy" is in asymmetric speech about issues themselves (and the ability of individuals to conenct them in novel or innovative ways); it's not in the ability to bitch or complain about specific people.

I took up the subject of “business privacy” on a posting here May 30.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Wikipedia tightens editing standards for articles on living people; more "professionalism" ahead?


Wikipedia is tightening its editing standards as it matures as a major reference site. The main story appeared today Tuesday Aug. 25 on the Business Day page of the New York Times. The print title is “New Rules in Wiki World: Seeking accuracy, online encyclopedia will set a hierarchy of edit approval.” The online title is shorter, “Wikipedia will limit changes to articles on people,” with link here.

Andrew Vanacore has a story on AP and MSNBC here. CNN shouts that Wikipedia is no longer the "Wild West."

Wikipedia will require “experienced volunteer editors” to review changes to articles on living people. For example, I’ve seen controversial people marked as deceased, with the change quickly fixed.

As the site matures, the paradigm, that the sheer volume of the community will force accuracy, needs tightening. The article says you just can’t see what sticks to the wall (no pun on Facebook).

A good question is whether volunteer senior editors should be publicly and conspicuously identified.

I might consider becoming such an editor in the future. But I’ve updated only one article, about “don’t ask don’t tell”, with a note about the Rand Corporation report (and now there is a notation, “clarification needed”).

Monday, August 24, 2009

Self-publishing and the "asymmetry" risk


In the past, I’ve talked about employer blogging policies (for associates), as with the CNN case, presented in 2008. I thought I should review where my concern for this topic comes from, since the public usually now hears about this problem in terms of “online reputation defense.”

When I was writing my first “do ask do tell” book in the 1990s, I referred to some texts on i.p. law, especially: Kirsch, Jonathan, "Handbook of Publishing Law, for Authors, Publishers, Editors and Agents" Los Angeles: Acrobat Books, 1996. I was quite struck by the amount of due diligence that used to be required in conventional trade publishing, which regarded "getting published" as a big deal. For a book, in fixed format, I could so most of this myself, although I didn’t use any of the expensive copyright check and other services common then in the industry.

At the same time, online self-expression had been slowly growing since the mid 1980s, with a variety of relatively small services. There were various dialup user-groups in the days before http. But their overall visibility in general society was still relatively low. I didn’t get email until 1994 (AOL), and then depended on AOL and Prodigy proprietary content until the Web started getting more established for ordinary users in the mid to late 90s. People “in the know” would check corporate merger news on CompuServe, but this wasn’t something “everybody did” yet.

I self-published the book in 1997, and decided to keep “running footnotes” online available for free in two places: Hometown AOL, which had become usable in late 1996, and my own domain, which a workplace friend arranged for me for little cost in 1997 at the time of publication. After selling a few hundred copies and appearing on Minneapolis cable TV (which rebroadcast a lecture I gave on it at Hamline University in early 1998), I was running out of steam, so I put the text of the books online and allowed users to browse free. The policy was “pay if you can” but I wanted people to find my content.

By 1998 and 1999, search engines (Google was the largest but definitely not the only) were becoming very effective in making self-published people visible. This was a rather sudden development, partly because engines would pick up material even if not highlighted by metatags. (You could keep robots out, but that took effort). Many times the material was indeed picked up by robots looking for customers, but a substantial portion of the traffic came from people with legitimate interest in topics like, in my case, gays in the military. Furthermore, my own “political philosophy” demanded that I link this topic up with a myriad of other social issues. Public policy was one interconnected universe in my mind; it should not be looked at as a pool of competing special interests. Ironically, I got that notion from “conservatives” (and newspapers like The Washington Times).

So effectively I had, on my own with relatively little capital and no need for profits because I had a good job, developed or “innovated” a way to reach a large audience at little risk and influence the thinking of large numbers of people, without “paying my dues” or practicing the usual expensive due diligence of the past. I thought of this as a natural part of the process of globalization and “creative destruction”, so championed by libertarian journalists like John Stossel.

In time, however, the global reach of self-posted materials was starting to cause reportable incidents in the media. Some of them had to do with pornography or financial fraud. I had already vetted a potential “conflict of interest” problem over my book because my employer had selling life insurance to the military as a major line of business; a corporate transfer after a merger worked well as a solution. But I could see the problems that could occur in almost any workplace if employees in certain positions self-published controversial material. This problem could be particularly troubling if the associate had direct reports, spoke publicly for the company as part of the job, or worked for a “fraternal” employer whose “business” was based on bias. Complications could include inadvertent creation of “hostile workplace” problems, driving away potential clients with “sharp edged” controversy, and a belief that controversial posts not obviously motivated by “normal” financial self-interest could be viewed as enticing (a sort of “anti-selection” problem that we sometimes call “implicit content”).

Around 2002, essays appeared on employer blogging policies (after a few incidents where people, like Heather Armstrong of “dooce.com” got fired for their blogs). Typically they stressed protecting trade secrets and confidentiality, reminding readers that “you” didn’t speak for the company in your own posts, and avoiding defamation and discussing other coworkers or customers (or “stakeholders”) online.

In the meantime, around 2004, social networking sites took off, followed now by Twitter. But teen and college-age entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) probably did not envision their services primarily as self-publishing tools (like what I had done in the late 1990s); they were innovating services helping people (particularly on campuses) to connect socially, academically and professionally. However, in practice, social networking sites, since they had full-scale blogging (other than Twitter, which is about micro-blogging) were often used for passive “publication” purposes as well as networking. (Ashton Kutcher uses Myspace and Facebook for real content as well as networking; just look). Most of the issues that get reported in the media has being about “reputation” really have to do with publication, rather than networking.

So it’s possible to maintain that the “asymmetry” of speakers like me creates a “systemic risk” that cannot be calculated or bounded. I’ve talked about this notion before in connection with blogger insurance (particularly in September 2008). Lawrence Lessig, in his 2006 “CODE Version 2.0” book, touches on the question as to whether publication and distribution are “fundamental rights” (as distinguished from the speech itself, which cannot be censored just on a content basis) while talking about the broadcast industry; in general, courts (as in the COPA trials) tend to support the idea that it is. Cooperative publishing and even indie self-distribution for films have become accepted and even common, relieving public companies from overly risky ventures. There's even a television commercial based on "the right to publish", even though a couple decades ago "getting published" was a "big deal" and seen as a privilege as well as an event that feeds vanity or ego. If self-publishing and self-distribution is a fundamental right (subsumed by the First Amendment), that might mean that government could not, with impunity, regulate the supposed “systemic risk” of asymmetric distribution (like mine) say by requiring insurance or bonding, although political forces could lead it to try. But private employers could gradually develop much more draconian practices. They could demand, for example, that some or all associates adhere to a "low profile" policy: that all social networking (even from home) be just that and use privacy settings, and that public "asymmetric" blogging be limited to narrow topics (chess, gardening, cooking, etc) or else require “third party review” as had been the practice with most book publishing in the now distant past. The HR world would need to develop “best practices” not only for “online reputation” screening of job candidates (which often pick off the wrong people) but for employee “self-promotion” when speaking and publishing asymmetrically in controversial areas (whether related to the employer’s industry or not). Such policies should be made available to job applicants. One practical reality in today's world of "reputation defense": if someone is precluded from global self-publication, he or she has no way to defend himself from attacks by others with own speech (without laywers, anyway). And many jobs require that people promote themselves very publicly on the largest online social networks.

It’s clear that the military has to consider issues like this, and that it will come up in any plan to repeal “don’t ask don’t tell.”

Resumes also raise questions, when posted globally, that didn't come up in the days that resumes were circulated on paper with French folds.

Asymmetric, self-published does indeed add a lot to the public debate on all kinds of issues (like, particularly now, reforming health insurance). It tends to make paid lobbyists and special interests just a little less powerful (a boon for conservatives, probably). But it does come with its own risks, that we are only now beginning to grasp.

An employer or business could decide that it does not have to accept an unknown systemic risk and complain that the associate or stakeholder had no intrinsic right to distribute the speech, when the actual motive is disagreement with what the speaker said, however valid the speech by normal Internet expectations. In a sense, then, this theory could be used for hidden censorship, especially of employees. Or it could be used in litigation in SLAPP-like suits, such as discussed Aug. 20 here with respect to the eminent domain issue.

Politicans, reacting to public "outrage" (like in the "Myspace case"), could come up with a scheme to require media perils insurance for any material available to search engines and not under privacy settings. Anyone like me who wanted to "get published" would again have to "compete", even "socially", the old-fashioned way.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

NBC Today Show reviews online reputation problem


The NBC Today show, on Sunday Aug. 23, reviewed the topic of online reputation, with Columbia journalism professor Sree Sreenivasan http://www.sree.net/ .

The report told of one young woman who was told by a prospective employer, “we like you, but we have trouble with the fact that you broadcast that you were a playgirl at your sorority.” And they had the wrong person. 44% of employers now check job applicants online (I don’t know if that’s for professional jobs only), and sometimes pick the wrong person without realizing that. It is amazingly easy to confuse people online, even when there are low quality photos. The HR industry ought to be tackling this.

The report mentioned Michael Fertik’s company Reputation Defender, and suggested that people stay away from “ranting” online, even when they are sure they are morally right, ought of a concern that they will appear “sharp edged” and drive away potential clients.

What others write about you can be as important as what you post yourself. And it’s not just social networking sites; it can be older sites around long before social networking became popular.

Many people have pages of references, however, in Bing and Google, with many of the references ambiguous or meaningless, often copied from other sources (sometimes illegally). The show made a wisecrack that anyone who searches his name will find “Lester Holt” (an NBC reporter) buried in the links.

One can also improve online reputation by making as professional an impression as possible on Facebook and LinkedIn (Myspace, not so much).

Today’s story was not available yet, but an older story (“Social netiquette: when poking isn’t polite”) from March 2009 is here.


Kirsten Dixon appears in the earlier segment.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Personal sovereignty and "karma": perhaps Rick Warren has a point: when is it "about you"?


A couple of important ideas for me, as anyone familiar with my posts knows, are “personal sovereignty” and “karma”.

Generally, “individual sovereignty” means the ability (of an adult) to act lawfully as one pleases, in any matter of significance: too accept any employment that one successfully competes for, to buy and lawful good or service that one can afford, and particularly to choose one’s company and adult significant others without undue pressure from others. Once one has made a commitment (usually “marriage”, including gay marriage), one should behave according to what the other partner would expect according to the vow; that doesn’t contradict sovereignty. Once one has had children, one is obliged to support and raise them. Freedom to speak freely and now (with some controversy) to self-publish and distribute one’s own speech have become an important component of individual sovereignty.

People may lose sovereignty when they become incapacitated, with age. People with disabilities may maintain or get sovereignty and independence if they are given the accommodations required by law; even for libertarians, there’s no real controversy that this is how things should work. People may lose sovereignty if they are required or compelled to support others beyond the normal scope of their own choices. An example that may become increasingly troubling is provided by filial responsibility laws, which states may be more likely to enforce in the future. In practice, many people take on family responsibility that they did not “choose”. Christian theology makes a large effort to deal with how to share and deal with common and external hardships falling on a community.

A concept related to sovereignty (and "station in life") is karma. The “New Age” notion of karma became popular in the 1970s, although sometimes it seemed appealing to people who did not yet face immediate severe hardships. It seems “just”, doesn’t it, as if there could exist a “Cultural Revolution” that spans across many incarnations, guaranteeing that eventually everyone has to deal with what they personally “deserve”. Karma can be effective within a lifetime, and seem to take on a supernatural aspect; intense thoughts, sometimes expressed in writings, can become as powerful as actual instrumentalities of technology (like on the Internet). I know this is true of the events of my life (I am 66) that have taken on some bizarre and complex ironies.

There are reasonable and humane ways to present individual karma in trying circumstances. For example, an incapacitated individual can “take responsibility” by accepting help from others in a format that others find more “efficient” and not monopolize others. But some personal karma must be shared, especially within families, sometimes other groups, even nationalities (as, for example, with military service). If one person is incapacitated, someone else must “own” the karma. Marriage and parenthood seem to imply the “power” to set up social arrangements in which others will share karma, which is one reason why marriage and “family values” become so socially and politically controversial.

My own impression of the “afterlife” issue is that at the end of life, one may know whether he or she really wants eternal life as he or she is at the time. The answer could be, no. Then reincarnation, with rebirth in a new and challenged situation (possibly related to poverty or disability) where one can pay back some debts related to dependencies that may have remained hidden during one’s life (“off the books” legally) makes sense. Failure to comprehend a hidden debt can be a serious problem for one’s karma and for others in one’s family. This gets to be translated into a lot of political and religious conflicts that help explain some behavior that we sometimes see as self-destructive.

In a sense, Rick Warren is right; it isn’t always “about you.” Except that it is “about you” in that “you” have more dependence on circumstances beyond “your” control than “you” want to recognize. New Age theory does layer the idea of salvation: the Cross gives everyone a chance to save themselves, partially, first. Maybe that simply appeals to man's own idea of "personal responsibility" and "justice." But freedom and perfect justice cannot coexist.

I am aware of the "Who sinned" issue (John 9), an "Freedom Rings" has an interesting take on that here. Sometimes, it seems however, "sin" must be accounted for anyway. Even so, there is so much "sin" to go around that it may not pay to hunt for it, or we all pay--with loss of sovereignty.

"Karma" would seem to invoke the idea of mandatory generativity and sustainability. While losses and sacrifice are real under "karam", there is political protection in that aggression is not allowed. That's what makes the idea comport with libertarianism.

I have a discussion of some of the AMORC books by H. Spence Lewis my books blog here.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Big league, college sports has to deal with Blogger photo journalism: new boundaries in copyright law?


College and major league sports leagues and franchises are now weighing whether bloggers represent a credible “threat” to the financial profitability of their broadcast and video rights. So says a story Aug. 20 on the front page of the New York Times by Ken Belson and Tim Arango. The print title is “with bloggers in the bleachers, leagues see a threat to profits”, link here.

Much of the problem comes from technology that would let bloggers stream play-by-plays live. Maybe it’s not too hard to capture a great outfield catch on video now (yes, I think of Willie Mays in the Polo Grounds in 1954). But major league sports jealousy guards the video rights, and anyone familiar with the MLB and NFL sites knows that a lot of the replay or live video content requires paid subscription.

Big league sports is saying that it doesn’t mind tweets or non-commercial incidental photography. But is a posting of a personally taken photo at a big league game on a website or blog with paid advertising really “commercial”? Technically, yes; but is this plain common sense? I don’t think that ordinary bloggers represent a “credible” financial threat to A-rod. But property rights are property rights … we see the same philosophical and moral debate going on about movies and music. You see the same sorts of questions with movie theaters and commercial legitimate theater (which nearly always ban indoor photography) and museums, which sometimes ban indoor photography. This is the sort of question that comes up in Lessig’s 2006 book “CODE Version 2.0” and probably we need to use the concept of “Commons” here.

By the way, I’m glad that the Nationals signed Starsberg. In 2003 the Tigers won only 43 games; in 2006 they were in the playoffs.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Oprah and Dr. Oz lauch "right of publicity" suit for false endorsements


Here’s a good one. Although Oprah Winfrey has been the target of some SLAPP suits, this time, she is turning the tables, with her frequent medical lifestyle guest, Dr. Mehmet Oz. They are suing about fifty small companies for falsely using their names to imply endorsement of a number of consumer or beauty products.

This is known as a violation of “right of publicity”.

The legal theory as to how the plaintiffs are harmed is interesting: it’s called the “Death by a Thousand Cuts Theory.” It sounds pretty hypothetical.

Here is the AOL news link. The story is called "Oprah Winfrey: Slayer of Spam".

Writers and bloggers and particularly small business webmasters should be aware of the risks of implying a celebrity endorsement of a product or service.

Update: Aug. 24, 2009
ABC "World News Tonight" reported that the FTC says that celebrities must actually use the products they endorse. The FCC link (on the July 16 post here) has added proposals based on comments, and discusses ads that lead readers to believe that the spokespeople voiced their own opinions.

Eminent domain cases are generating SLAPP lawsuits (explained in op-ed today by George Will)


I’ve discussed abusive litigation and misuse of police powers on these blogs (and in my books) before, but George F. Will’s column on p A17 of The Washington Post today contains some of the most shocking anecdotes ever. The op-ed is titled “Bulldozing Freedom of Speech”, with link here and what he describes sounds like intellectual “mountaintop removal”. I guess Chicken Little is right sometimes, even if (as in the Disney film) speaking out risks not only litigation but one’s “family’s” online reputation.

Will starts by a discussion of an eminent domain case, Kelo v. City of New London, where the Supreme Court allowed the takings for public use, unwisely according to Will. Cornell Law School has a copy of the 2005 opinion here. Will then discuss a similar takings in Texas against the Gore family (not former VP Al Gore's)), and then the frivolous litigation against journalist Carla Main for her book (“Bulldozed: ‘Kelo’, Eminent Domain and the American Lust for Land” (Encounter Books) about the matter. The Amazon link is here. Will notes that even a writer who reviewed the book and the Galveston newspaper that published it were sued, and a law professor Richard Epstein for endorsement of the book on the book's dust jacket (the latter suit was dismissed, but apparently the rest of the litigation is still before a judge in Texas; nevertheless the book is still available). I note that I don’t recall any case before where anyone was sued for a review or endorsement of a “tortious” book (remember that line from the movie “The Insider”?) I thought about ordering it on Amazon and reviewing on my book’s blog, but is it “dangerous” for me to do so? Unbelievable!

USLaw has a review of the book (requires free registration) here.

Will discusses the Institute for Justice, “the nation’s only libertarian, civil liberties, public interest law firm”. The IJ has a December 2009 press release on the case here, where Professor Epstein's endorsement is discussed, here. (Note the long title of the IJ press release: "Texas Developer Files Lawsuits To Bulldoze Freedom of the Press; Targets Include Book Author, Publisher, Law Professor Richard Epstein and Newspapers that Published Book Review" (It sounds as though the newspapers might be protected by Section 230 automatically.) George Will notes several other frivolous cases against advertisers or small speakers in other real estate cases around the country. Will notes that in many cases the plaintiffs (and their attorneys) ignore the “opinion rule” where subjective opinions are not themselves libelous; only defamatory statements (purporting to be fact) that are actually untrue can be libel. It seems like some judges overlook this.

The Eminent Domain Law Blog has an entry similar to IJ's on blogger, here.

The Galveston County Daily News has a Jan 2009 article (By John Tompkins and Nathaniel Lukefahr) about some of Walker Royall's other issues with the Gore family, while discussing the litigation about the book, here. Item 22 of this "anvilpub" reference contains Royall's "justification" for the lawsuit against the reviewer.

Will also notes the effect of McCain-Feingold. I’ve previously discussed the controversy over McCain-Feingold and bloggers, which the FEC smoothed over with some administrative rulings in 2006, but not before I was personally involved in a bizarre situation (in October 2005) triggered by MF when substitute teaching (relating to m own website), discussed here July 27, 2007.

And he notes a special hearing before the Supreme Court on Wednesday September 9 (with Justice Sotomayor) to review some constitutional aspects of McCain-Feingold.

But the underlying problem, besides eminent domain, is the need for tort reform, including maybe “loser pays” and strengthening anti-SLAPP protections, implementing them at a federal level (they’re pretty strong in California).

The Will posting reminds me of another related problem, "libel tourism" (see Sept. 30, 2008 on this blog, or my review of Rachel Ehrenfeld's book on my book review blog Oct. 17, 2007).

Visitors may want to refer to Electronic Frontier Foundation, and to Renfrew Law’s site on “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”. This kind of intimidation through frivolous lawsuits has been known since before the Internet era, and incidents seem to be concentrated particularly in certain areas. Real estate developers have been known to be quick to file SLAPP suits that they know are probably illegal. There have been some real problems in some parts of the country dealing with “good old boy” alliances between developers and local politicians. Will the collapse of real estate and mortgage markets create legal “viral mutation” leading to more frivolous or SLAPP suits? Or perhaps it can be a bit dangerous for bloggers to complain about the McMansions going up in their neighborhoods, I guess. But there is a fundamental moral problem here: is speech supposed to be generated by what individuals or small groups think is right, or by what people can control through political, social and even familial hierarchies. This whole Gore case sounds like soap opera, a kind of Texas “Days of our Lives.” There are far too many “Stefano’s” around.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Anonymous blogger defaming NYC model identified: Internet anonymity not protected when committing tort


ABC “Good Morning America” on Wednesday Aug. 19 gave, in the first hour, an interview with model Liskula Cohen, who says she was defamed by defamatory blog posts (made on this blogging publishing service) in the summer of 2008. The blogger was an anonymous female, who wrote some pretty bad words and nasty and presumably false comments about the model on her blog, some of which were repeated verbatim in the interview. Some of the language in the blog resembled that of Imus in his notorious incident with the Rutgers team. The model says she may have lost work because of the posts.

The blog was removed for TOS reasons (the name of the blog was offensive and won’t be republished here), but the service refused to identify the blogger, citing protecting of the right of anonymity. Cohen went to court and got an order to identify the blogger. She then called the blogger and said she “forgave her.” Cohen’s attorney Steven Wagner also appeared in the segment, and did warn that bloggers will have to be prudent in what they publish (with respect to defamation or libel) just like the mainstream media, and anonymity will not protect them.

Diane Sawyer played devil’s advocate, asking, there is so much “trashtalk” on the Internet, why not ignore it?

The video appears today at the GMA link here. ABC did not provide any embed code.

Cohen said that those victimized by harassment online (including blog posts as well as on social networking sites or IM’s and texts) can seek assistance from lawyers for civil action and sometimes the police; sometimes, harassment spills over into criminal conduct (such as stalking or threats).

This incident should be compared to the Charlottesville incident reported here Monday Aug. 10.

The news story by Rich McHugh and Noel Hartman is “EXCLUSIVE: Model Liskula Cohen Wins Court Battle with Google to Learn Blogger's Identity”, link here

I don't engage in conduct like that depicted in the video here, and I do provide references for potentially harmful facts, usually from well-established media sources.

Update: August 25

George Rush, the New York Daily News "Gossip Columnist", reports that "outed" blogger Rosemary Port plans legal action herself, claiming invasion of privacy when her anonymity was compromised, link here. Jeffrey Toobin and Port's lawyer discussed the case on Campbell Brown's hour on CNN Monday Aug. 24.

Update: Aug. 26


Kathleen Parker has an important op-ed on p A15 of the Aug 26 Washington Post, "Shock Waves from the Google Bombs", in which she gives a pre-review of a Setp. 1 book by that name ("The Untold Story of the $11.3M Verdict That Changed the Way We Use the Internet"), authored by plaintiff Sue Scheff along with Reputation Defender CEO Michael Fertik (link here; I just ordered it myself). The op-ed link is here.

Parker mentions that Likshula Cohen has forgiven the blogger and dropped the suit (note the NY Daily News story above). But Scheff's business was damaged (according to the story) and she collected a big judgment for defamation (in 2006).

Parker acknowledges that blogging (especially with anonymity) has been a "boon to democracy" but is problematic for "decency". She warns that "a new level of accountability, largely missing from personal blogs, could be in the offing." Could that include mandatory insurance some day?

Update: Aug. 27

David Lieberman has a perspective in USA Today on the model case "'Skanks' case over Google's release of e-mail address tests limits of bloggers' anonymity", link here. Electronic Frontier Foundation now links to the article in its News area.

Monday, August 17, 2009

What a "do ask do tell" docudrama would say: logic dictates a beginning ("asymmetry"), middle ("community") and end ("CODE")


I am contemplating “my” documentary, which would explore the “problem” of individual sovereignty, how it developed, and how it is challenged by sustainability. I would use the slogan “do ask do tell” for it, to connote the idea of being and experiencing who you are, and being able to express it freely – until you run into the constraints. And the boundaries don’t come so much from your neighbor’s moat as they derive from having to justify how you got there. Yes, “justified” – scrubbed for the mags, for people’s competing fantasies. This walks the path of the knowledge of good and evil.

A good Silverdoc has a beginning, middle and end, just like a good story. I’ll outline my “argument” as a kind of expanded executive summary, and just hint at what the visual images would be (that dreaded “annotated bibliography” of college English classes!) I won’t be real specific as to the personal stuff yet because of privacy concerns, but the days for that will inevitably come.

Like a solution to a math theorem, this effort requires a “motivation”. In my case, there is a personal confrontation, or dispute, that calls for resolution, and generates the principled discussion. The specific problem is that others often want me to accept intimacy with others in circumstances dictated by the needs of others rather than by my own values. There are several scenarios where this happened, as in substitute teaching situation (and a hint for the video is the “pool days” incident, as well as a couple bizarre job interviews). There is a secondary problem, related to my asymmetric “high profile” publicly.

We usually look at “disputes” in terms of the market economy and the voluntary legal system, based on the freedom to enter into contracts and the obligation to honor them. (That’s the “Cato” view.) All kinds of matters get handled this way, going from job performance appraisals (yup, performance matters) to Suze Orman smackdowns on mortgages and personal finance. The general moral principle is simple: you keep the promises you voluntarily make (or “choose”); that includes supporting the children you have, of course.

But we all look deeper into what I grew up (in the 50s, in the historical shadow of WWII) at to the “deeper morality”: accounting for what you have in terms of the sacrifices made and risks taken by others (often your parents or other family members) to get you where you are. Much of our older moral code (“family values”, patriotism, faith) relates to this sense.

Moral values, beyond “just” the market, affect the choices you can even entertain or consider. Over the decades, there has been an improvement in “personal autonomy” and less attention to these older, less tangible moral expectations.

We used to think of autonomy as dealing with “private choices” such as consenting adult intimate partners. We connected the concept of “autonomy” to that of “fundamental rights.” Over time, and especially during the new asymmetric “Internet age”, we’ve come to see that autonomy or sovereignty is also tied to freedom of speech, and now freedom of publication and distribution. That may imply a potential contradiction, because the ideas expressed could (out of, say, a desire to implement moral or religious “virtue”, or even an absolute notion of “personal responsibility”) have an eventual impact on the freedoms of others, partly because of the asymmetry.

Even so, we can see a general concern that any person, in claiming his sovereignty (and some public “station in life”), has in some sense “paid his dues”, performed some service, had some accountability to other people. So some ideas about family responsibility (and the relationship to sexual intercourse) can indeed get turned upside down.

I’ve written a lot on these blogs about the asymmetry of Internet speech, particularly the “online reputation” and “implicit content” issues. I recently discussed these on my review (Aug. 13 on the book review blog, which see) of Lawrence Lessig’s 2006 book “CODE Version 2.0”. A person who broadcasts “out of turn” without having proving he or she can take the responsibility normally connected to family and social hierarchy, could attract risk to family or others connected to him or her inadvertently, partly because many people assume that all speech is motivated by narrow (monetary) self-interest in familiar scenarios, and interpret speech as invitation for harmful action. For the docudrama film, there could appear several skits (for example, see this blog entry on July 27, 2007).

But the whole question of family and hierarchal values raises a more basic issue, that of “living in a community.” The concept is well known from the way many people interpret the New Testament: hardship is inevitable despite people’s best efforts, and moral behavior requires living for the good of the group rather than yourself. One instantiation of this idea is Rick Warren’s “Purpose-Driven Life” – and the slogan “It’s not about you.”

In this view, marriage gives the two spouses of a couple the “station” to regulate the others in their span of control – benevolently, enough to give value to the lives of less competitive family members, even as adults. The absolute commitment of the marriage vow requires relinquishment of fantasy and the entry of an emotional space that transcends “rationality” and that requires some lifetime emotional sacrifice, something many people (like gay men) may not want to make. In return, the couple gets “power” and its commitment is supposed to guarantee moral justice. The way a young adult gains station is to compete for a partner and then marry, have children in marriage, and make the same commitment. The family is supposed to find value in the family created by their parents, and owe their parents absolute loyalty and filial responsibility or piety. Parents have considerable filial authority; in practice (because of their investment in lineage) if an adult child with kids dies accidentally, they could pressure a childless sibling to help raise “other people’s children” (as Phillip Longman, who advocates a new “social contract”) would point out). A system like this works rather like health insurance: it’s only good if everyone goes along. It assumes that the kids owe an automatic debt to their families, without which they could not exist, or would live in the streets (depending on how you see things). That is a major explanation for what we call “homophobia.”

But the “communal” view must translate back into (Lessig’s) “Code”, or the moral rules that every individual will be expected to live by. A lot of it has to do with sharing risks or uncertainties and common “burdens.” I can understand why, despite my intellectual and music talents, so much pressure was put on me to conform to gender norms. If I don’t step up and carry a rifle when it’s my turn, the risk is passed (unfairly) onto someone else. That led to the whole moral dilemma about the Vietnam era draft and student deferments (many location images possible here). And I showed how this links to the debate on gays in the military and “don’t ask don’t tell” as it erupted in the 1990s and continues today. For me a particularly painful part of my background is that I came (because of the teasing) to believe that I could not be competitive as a “husband and father” and instead found the “upward affiliation” of male homosexuality exciting. Perhaps I had "voluntarily" forfeited any "standing" for involvement with my world if I did not want to carry my future (and family's future) on through biological lineage (that's how some people, like at the Vatican, see it -- and priests and cardinals should talk). I had a psychological motive to demonstrate that many others (who did marry) were not particularly competitive, too; and that “existential” process certainly carries a moral double edge (rather like kibitzing tournament chess games rather than playing yourself). Hence, linking back to the opening of this posting, I resist letting others “assign” to me others I must be responsible for and “play family for” but that is what society may find it has to do; it can no longer, it says, afford to let me remain vocal and “get out of things.” (Many skits are possible here, obviously, some in gay spaces). Looking ahead to the post 9/11 period, I can see why some people around the world perceive that our media-saturated and “individualistic” civilization is achieved only at expense (or Marxist-speak “exploitation) of poorer people. The indignation lends itself to skits scattered across a few decades back to the 60s.

That leads me back to the high school and early college history that led me down this path, all very filmable, and covered elsewhere (starting with the 1961 William and Mary Expulsion followed by my “hitch” as a “mental patient” at NIH, but my being drafted and serving in the Army, but “getting out” of Vietnam, from 1968-1970. There’s plenty of “full metal jacket” here. In my “investigations” I have learned some details about the 1961 events that are particularly disturbing given what we have learned from the 21st Century debate on gay marriage. All of that lends itself to docudrama treatment in film, probably working back in time in “Benjamin Button” fashion. We do need to understand what most people meant by "morality" a half century ago, and where they were coming from. Some if this gets reflected by what my father used to say is the importance of "seeing people as people" and a willingness to value someone's needing "you"; how often today we say that clinging to someone is a pejorative.

But we do seem to be headed for a world where “sustainability” requires “generativity” of everyone, before he or she stands on a soap box. If so, that flips a lot of our ideas about choice and personal responsibility, and new CODE can ambush a lot of us. Remember, though, "generativity" has a lot to deal with underground "justice", and no free society can have perfect justice. Yes, you do need a community.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The "O.C. East" is over the recession (without my gams)


If traffic on US 50 getting into Ocean City, MD (or near the Bay Bridge, earlier) Saturday is any indication, our country, at least that under “East Coast Law”, is feeling better about recession. There was an immovable and immutable 5 mile backup getting in to the O.C. East at 1 PM Saturday afternoon. The same was true with the bypass to the north on Md 90, which was backed up for seven miles from Highway 113.

But my family made many June trips to Ocean City starting in 1948, and had first visited Bethany Beach in 1947 (one of my first childhood memories). In 1950, before second grade, I came down with the measles while in the O.C.

So I knew some back roads. Route 54, off 113, in Deleware (the Blue Hen State), just barely, takes you to Fenwick, on Rt 1, just north of the OC. No one was on this road, and no one knew this back way.

If you part in a 30 minute space in Rehoboth Beach, there’s not enough time to walk to Queen St, and back.

But today there were “people I knew” in the Ocean City and Bethany. The Atlantic Ocean water is warm enough for hurricanes. No one at Queen St. needed to see my bald gams. Let Jim Carrey show up in his shorts instead for a Truman Show.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Trump book case tests libel, journalists' shield law


An AP story on July 17 carries on the “controversy” over Timothy O’Brien’s book, “Trump Nation: The Art of Being Donald” which, Trump says, grossly understated Trump’s net worth. Amazon shows the 2005 book, from Business Plus, available on Kindle.

A New Jersey judge held that O’Brien had not acted maliciously and that the book was not defamatory, and dismissed the suit.

However, earlier stories had tested both New York and New Jersey journalists’ shield laws. New Jersey’s are more inclusive, where as New York’s protect only confidential sources, but earlier a judge had said that New York’s would still apply.

The AP story appeared in the First Amendment Center here. It refers to several important earlier stories about the reporter shield laws.

I guess The Donald now doesn’t limit himself to “You’re fired.” It’s now “you’re served.”

Bring back the original Apprentice. We need to see some more team players (like Troy McClain). I’ve reviewed his “Think Like a Champion” in June 2009 on by books blog and recall his flippant “How to Get Rich”.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Government "cars.gov" site claims government ownership of users' computers!


Registered car dealers were confronted with language from the US Department of Transportation claiming that if they accessed the government’s “cash for clunkers” site Cars.gov , their computers became the property of government. The language read:

"This application provides access to the [Department of Transportation] DoT CARS system. When logged on to the CARS system, your computer is considered a Federal computer system and is the property of the U.S. Government. Any or all uses of this system and all files on this system may be intercepted, monitored, recorded, copied, audited, inspected, and disclosed... to authorized CARS, DoT, and law enforcement personnel, as well as authorized officials of other agencies, both domestic and foreign."

Apparently this language has been removed and was not viewable by car buyers visiting dealer’s sites. However, I recently bought a car from Koons Ford and was allowed to access the dealer’s system to deal with certain matters such as moving my own auto insurance. My trade-in car was not legally a “clunker” so I did not encounter such language, but it appears that I could have.
Hugh D’Andrade has the story at Electronic Frontier Foundation here, “Cars.gov Terms of Service: What Glenn Beck Gets Right and Wrong” , link here.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Charlottesville VA woman arrested for identifying police officer in blog; info was available in public records, she says


I recall back in middle school a history teacher saying “uh-oh, Susan T. was talking” and we all got detention. I there were some “Uh-Oh’s” in ABC Family’s “Greek”. But today, the comic “Uh-Oh” is back, and it isn’t funny: it’s an editorial on p A12 of The Washington Post on Aug. 10, 2009, “Uh-Oh, They’re Here: A persistent blogger annoys police, and winds up in jail.” The link for the editorial is here and the name of the blog, based probably on the movie “I Heart Huckabees” is “I Hearte Jade”.

The blogger, Elisha Strom, living or working and blogging near Charlottesville, VA, was charged under a Virginia statue prohibiting “identifying a police officer with intent to harass”. The blogger insists that everything she posted is available on public records (the blog is still available this morning). The police officer(s) involved were part of the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force.

I could not find this wording in Virginia code. The closest I could find is “obstruction of justice” which is not the same thing (link). It must be buried in some other law. I can understand that it would be a crime, for example, to identify witnesses under protection, but they wouldn’t be on public records.

I didn't see anything remotely resembling the "wrong" that the Post editorial describes there as on her blog as it is today, and the Post editorial itself did link to it. Generally, journalists can report what they can see and film without "illegal" trespassing (with the established press, there are some circumstances with classified information and certain sensitivities; for "amateur" bloggers, as described in the EFF legal guide, the rules would be pretty much the same; it would be unusual for an "amateur" to get a hold of classified information outside of their own jobs, but in today's world it might sometimes happen.

It would worry me that the state could make something of the asymmetry of her posts: the absence of supervision, the instantaneous world audience, probably instant indexing in search engines and maybe Next Blog. Blogging can amplify, with no oversight, the effect of information technically public but difficult and costly to access in practice. As to constitutional questions about the “asymmetry”, we already visited them in the COPA trial in Philadelphia in 2006, and so far, “free speech rocks”, as Oprah says. I bet this case winds up on Oprah, too; I hope it does. I’ll try to push it.

Here’s still another account.

Sunday, August 09, 2009

Blog into stardom?


Megan K. Scott of the AP has had a couple of postings recently on the idea that “blog stardom is not an easy goal.” The Minneapolis Star Tribune has an article from Aug. 4 giving “5 ways” to stardom, link here. There was a similar but shorter piece in the Sunday DC Examiner on p 13 (the most recent web reference on Examiner is here .

There’s a site called “Problogger” with tips, such as promoting your blog with a giveaway. The most important tip seems to be a unique voice, technique, or point of view that effectively makes your blog a kind of “brand”. A couple of well-branded blogs are “gay patriot” and Andrew Sullivan’s “Daily Dish” Breaking into the “legitimate” or “established” media can be an effective goal of blogging. It does happen.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

"Private" insurance models sometimes run into anti-selection -- until it's mandatory


The “Your Money” column of Business Day of the Saturday August 8, 2009 issue of The New York Times has a provocative piece by Ron Lieber on the notion of private unemployment insurance. The title is "Good Luck Getting Private Insurance for Unemployment" and the link is here.

As I covered when discussing a Washington Post column recently (link here), unemployment insurance is mandatory, and premiums are paid mostly by employers in most states. However. As Lieber explains, offering additional private unemployment insurance (a libertarian idea to be sure) would confound the insurance business with anti-selection problems unless the additional coverage was also “mandatory.”

That’s why we see proposals to make health insurance mandatory, and maybe some day long term care insurance, too.

That’s one more reason I feel skeptical about media perils insurance for bloggers, discussed previously on this blog. As long as it is optional (as it is now), it would seem extremely difficult to price. But it would be difficult to price even if mandatory.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Examiner piece criticizes AP for outsourcing to "left wing" (or "progressive") groups


The Washington DC Examiner (which tends to the conservative side, maybe not so much as the Washington Times, though) has a commentary on p 25, on Aug. 6, by Ken McIntyre, “Associated Press outsourcing to leftist nonprofits is a bad idea”, link here.

The non-profit AP (163 years old, with about 1500 member papers) recently announced that it would feature investigative journalism from the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica (Journalism in the Public Interest), the Center for Public Integrity, and the "academic" Investigative Reporting Workshop at the American University School of Communication.

McIntyre criticizes the concept because contributors won’t necessarily be “accountable to employers with a stake in the community”.

In the past couple of years, AP has been involved in some controversy over its complaints over the way some bloggers or “headline story collection sites” used its material, which it claimed was copyright infringement.

However, major media outlets often get permission to run and feature AP stories.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Pennsylvania tragedy underscores limits on "free speech" in blogs


A horrific shooting incident at a fitness club near Pittsburgh, resulting in at least five deaths, shows how some people expose their intentions (to police, too) on blogs. ABC News has the detailed story with link here, by Chris Cuomo, Santini Leuici, Sarah Netter, Jason Stine and Lindsay Goldwert, “Pennsylvania gym shooter plotted attack in online diary before shooting four; Shooter George Sodini’s ex-girlfriend was reportedly shot, as was instructor who just told her class she was pregnant”.

The ABC story gave a link to Sodini’s blog or website, which was still available this morning but which may not stay available indefinitely because it would violate TOS.

There still occur plenty of incidents where police find people have indicated intentions online, sometimes in blog, sometimes in wallspaces on social networking sites. There have occurred some cases like that in the DC area, also over the past year.

EFF’s legal guide for bloggers is very clear on the matter of material that can be taken as threats, particularly for public and private school students, here.

Later Wednesday, police were wondering who had read Sodini's writings and who could have contemplated notifying police of his announced intentions. But it is not clear that anyone had a legal responsibility to do so.

Remember in the Va. Tech case, Seung-Hui Cho’s violent material had been written for class assignments or passed around in hard copy, but I don’t recall that any of it was posted on the Internet until after the tragedy, when some of it was posted on AOL.

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Are people reading blogs as much as they used to? What blog postings keep traffic up? Harping on "personal responsibility" doesn't work!


Yesterday, as I drove down to and back from Williamsburg on a not-as-crowded-as-usual I-64 and I-95 (don’t we get bored with these particular interstates?) in my new Koons Ford Focus I stumbled on “liberal” (somewhat) Pete Dominick and his talk show on Sirius radio “gadget” (it has to go through an "Aquiring Text" step to come on). They talked about a number of things like the Vietnam draft (could it come back), extending unemployment benefits (no, it doesn’t promote laziness) ; and, I thought I picked up a comment that people aren’t reading blogs as much as they used to. Part of the reason (given on the radio) is that employers, especially military and government-related employers, have cut off access to amateur content out of security concerns.

I’ve noticed a drop-off in traffic since May myself, although earnings are about the same (they dropped off a cliff last winter during the recession but came “roaring back” in March). But the quality of traffic (the bounce rate) per visit is better, according to analytics. Other bloggers have “complained” about drop-offs in traffic and/or earnings recently.

There are a lot of things that affect a blogger’s traffic. One is that the interest in the blogger’s subject matter changes a lot with the times (traffic tends to get lighter in the summer, and pick up in the fall). Another is competition with more blogs. Still another is technical issues with how search engines work. I find that most of my blog postings show up within a few minutes, but sometimes the specific posting doesn’t come up, just the whole blog. Sometimes on older postings the wrong posting comes up, which would annoy visitors cause them to stop looking into my material.

Until May, a lot of my traffic was on the TV reviews blog, and seemed to come from California, especially during business hours on weekdays. I made a posting about John Stossel’s “unsympathetic” opines and ideas (“you can’t talk about this”) and on that blog traffic dropped off. Did I anger people? That’s just the risk of telling the truth. Coming from a libertarian-to-conservative background myself, his comments (about “personal responsibility” and “creative destruction”) have always appealed to me (even if they sound like they belong in “The Washington Times”). I did see very angry comments on ABC’s blogs about that particular show, and I’ve always wondered about it since. But I can think back to the 1999 “Southpark” feature film and remember how it was an animated call for “personal responsibility”.

Some postings “spike” with requests, partly because of Next Blog, or because they are recent search results, and they tend to be postings about controversial issues where there is not a lot of competing material. The most successful blog posts would (1) deal with an unsettling or controversial situation and (2) not have been written about a lot by others and (3) if possible, include eyewitness reporting or material by the blogger not available anywhere else. Sometimes “connecting the dots” in an original way will give a post buzz. I try to focus on edge topics that I think are important for personal sovereignty and freedom of expression. There are a variety of special topics (here “special topics” is rather like what a university means by it when offering a seminar) in this area, in no particular order. Some of these, for bloggers, would include “libel tourism”, media perils insurance, quirks in (DMCA or section 230) safe harbor or downstream liability protections, domain names v. trademark, “free entry”, “implicit content.” In other areas of life they include aspects of the environment debate (I like the “mountaintop removal” debate), public health (“social distancing” and the politics of disease transmissibility), eldercare and filial responsibility laws, “demographic winter”, “aesthetic realism”, “existentialism” and moral values or “rules of engagement”, the “it isn’t about your” concept (“purpose-driven life” of Rick Warren). Oh, yes, there is the military "don't ask don't tell" policy for gay people, that is so easily replicated in civilian areas (like teaching). As for "gay marriage", well, equality sometimes really does matter, in subtle ways, especially for singletons and the childless. Some other areas, like the financial crisis and mortgage meltdown don’t get as much attention (on my blogs) because there is so much coverage and it is hard to be original (a post about new “short selling” rules is hardly shocking).

In 2007 and 2008, it seemed that everyday there would appear a critical story in one of these areas. But the news has "calmed down" a bit (the Obama administration has actually calmed things down a bit), and some of the postings may seem a bit like TV reruns. But news goes in cycles. Controversy will return.

What makes blogs effective is to keep continuity up and the reader’s guard up on those sharp edges in the news; conventional broadcast journalism still doesn’t quite do that, as it has to go for a larger common denominator.

I’ll close this particular post with an anecdote from Revolutionary City in Williamsburg yesterday. George Washington, in an address, says that a generation should pay its own debts and not pass it on to its kids. (Actually, Thomas Jefferson would soon articulate that, with 19-year generational cycles.) I put down my papers and soda and clap. But no one else does. I’m surprised. That’s just was Congress, the president, and most “regular citizens” need to hear, today. A bit too much about "personal responsibility", Stossel (or Soutpark) style. Maybe that’s too “conservative.”



Update: August 6, 2009

ABC News is warning webmasters not to put hidden text on sites just to attract search engines, and don't deliberately display something different to search engines than to users. The story by Ki Mae Heussner is here. Look at what happened to the site of Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Boston grad student assessed huge judgment in P2P illegal downloading case


The AP, in a story by Denise LeVoie, reports that a jury has ordered a $675000 judgment against Joel Tenenbaum, of Providence RI, and a graduate student at Boston University, for downloading and distributing thirty songs.

The recording industry has stopped such lawsuits but has pursued litigation that had been previously filed aggressively.

AOL reproduced the story today, and provided a survey, showing that most visitors considered the award to be excessive and that most visitors do not download music by P2P.

In June a federal jury in Minneapolis had awarded a judgment against Jammie Thomas-Rasset, 32, of 1.92 million, based on 24 songs.

Tenenbaum appeared on the Campbell Brown show on CNN Monday Aug. 3.

Picture: page from my own piano sonata, composed at age 16.