Posts Tagged ‘elon’

Sometimes the Best Tools in Life Are Free

October 23, 2009

My fellow students and I are privledged to have acceess to some of the top software on the market. The latest version of Adobe’s popular Creative Suite — which comprises image editing, Web development and multimedia software — was included with our tuition and professional programs not part of that package, such as video editing client Final Cut Pro, are available on campus.

Still, our school can’t afford to buy us everything we need. And, many of us knee deep in student loans, we certainly can’t. So, quite often, we depend on free tools to get the job done. This is good practice as many of us can expect to be working for startups or nonprofits with relatively small budgets.

Free tools, we learned today, sometimes are preffered even by companies that can afford paid ones.

Elon Unversity alumnus Travis Lusk, who was to particpate in a School of Communications networking panel later in the day, told us this morning that most of the Web sites he oversees for WCBS-FM in New York will soon be produced using WordPress’s open-source content management system.

Lusk, as part of a talk on audience analytics, praised WordPress’s clean interface and its customizability through Cascading Style Sheets and widgets and called it the “most out-of-the-box SEO friendly [CMS] on the market, hands down.”

WordPress, for example, makes tweaking urls to match keywords a snap.

While Lusk depends on paid analytics tools like Clicky Web Analytics and for real-time audience information, Google’s free analytics software is a tool he regularly uses.


They’ll Assume You’re a Social Media Expert. Prove Them Right.

October 21, 2009

In no other marketing arena are messages born, spread and adapted as quickly as they are in social media. Reputations can be bolstered or broken in a few clicks.

To whom do firms turn to navigate this volatile landscape? Very often, young people.

In Elon University’s School of Communications, nearly every summer internship student this year reported completing social media-related tasks such as creating Facebook and Twitter accounts or blogging.

Young people, it’s assumed, know social media. That they at least have a better grasp of it than their older colleagues is generally a safe bet. The median age of a Facebook user is 26, a MySpace user 27 and a Twitter user 31, according to the Pew Internet & American Life Project. But what exactly do young people know? Do they know how to monitor what customers are saying and exploit opportunities and put out fires? Or do they just know how to post mundane status updates and write clever captions?

The Elon interns, who had already been blogging and studying reputation management in their classes, were better positioned than most. The communication school’s internship director wrote to faculty and staff that in many cases supervisors were impressed enough by students’ skill level to extend to them opportunities not offered to other interns.

But what about those without any formal training? Young people who on their face seem social media savvy may in fact be practicing some very bad habits. Friending everyone and their brother regardless of their character merely to increase their own perceived popularity. Posting embarrassing photos of themselves and their friends without regard for what potential employers may think. Not the kind of quality control you want in the business world.

Furthermore, behind the technology bells and whistles, strong social media marketing comes down to strong writing. And, while the opposite argument is also made, there is concern among educators that electronic communication’s carefree spelling, lax punctuation and grammar and acronym shortcuts degrade writing quality, also according to Pew.

Students or young workers may read this and get defensive. “We can write.” “We can and do use social media responsibly.” And I hope they do call me out. Because, what an opportunity. If you know social media tasks are probably going to be part of your next job — or are part of your job now, why not do a little homework and learn how to use social media to grow a brand, not just grow your friend count? You’ll differentiate yourself from your peers and just might get that promotion a bit sooner.

Social media blog Mashable’s How To section is a good starting point. It’s a gold mine of concise primers, some geared toward general social media literacy, but many also geared toward business applications.

First-Half Highlights

October 15, 2009

My classmates and I are nearing the midpoint of the semester and next week will receive a couple of well-earned days off. It’s the All-Star Break, if you will. In that spirit, here are some first-half highlights of what I’ve covered in this space to date:

The Art of Failure

There’s a grade school art piece of mine, a watercolor, I like to reference to illustrate — pardon the pun — why one should never be afraid of mistakes.

Manage Technology Before It Manages You

Don’t check your text messages, e-mail or Twitter until you’re done reading this blog post. If your phone buzzes or Outlook or Tweetdeck flashes an alert, ignore it. If the prospect of this bothers you, you’ll want to read on.

The World Wide Web, a Wonderland of Words

The Web was built for conversation. Kind of funny, then, it can be so tricky to talk about.

Its lexicon is a mish-mash of new words, repurposed words, and, well, mish-mashed words.

Like Pictures? This Post’s For You.


Scalpel, Stat! Hold On a Second.

Not three weeks into my fall semester studies, the mantra, “Let the story dictate the tool,” has been popping up a lot. It’s been nearly as ubiquitous as commentary on Kanye West’s VMA outburst. (Heck, even my favorite football team is weighing in on that.) OK, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but, in the iMedia world, this is a kind of a big deal. It’s being reinforced at every turn:

Breaking Through the High-Tech Bubble

October 2, 2009

bubblesThe joke about charities is that their mission is to put themselves out of business. It can be said, then, that the mission of computer manufacturers is to make their product invisible.

As I mentioned last week, students in my program are required to deliver weekly micro-presentations on a technology or interactive media topic not yet covered in their studies. New products or prototypes are popular subjects. What makes many of these items captivating is the degree to which they push the computer to the background.

They mimic traditional platforms:

  • Flyp Media presents multimedia content in magazine-style Flash movies.
  • BumpTop seeks to make the computer desktop more like its real-life counterpart.
  • Google’s Fast Flip lets readers browse content more like they do in print.

Or they reduce or eliminate the presence of a tangible user interface:

  • The NeatDesk scanner automatically extracts data from business cards, receipts and other documents.
  • Argentina-based BCK’s wireless-enabled rings allow callers to start and end conversations using hand gestures.
  • MIT Media Lab’s Sixth Sense transforms any surface into a Web interface.

We have a saying here on campus about breaking through the Elon bubble. In an active, self-contained community like a university, it’s easy to become insulated from the larger outside world. One must constantly work to break through the bubble.

The technology community isn’t any different. Those who live and breathe on the cutting edge are liable to shut out traditional approaches. Developing products like those mentioned above, however, requires a healthy understanding of old media as well as new media, the real world as well as the virtual world.

Be cognizant of this bubble. And act to break through it.

Two Golden Rules for Interviewers

September 30, 2009

My cohorts and I are in the thick of the expert-interview stage of our future-oriented research projects and today our professor, a former newspaper journalist, gave a slide presentation of interviewing tips. An ex-print journalist myself, I received similar advice in high school, at internships, in college and in the workplace.

Still, a refresher never hurts. Familiarity breeds complacency. On deadline, one adopts shortcuts, and some of them stick.

Research ahead of time. Have a backup plan for if technology fails. Save hardball questions for the end. Always get contact information for follow-ups. All tried and true.

Two of my favorite tips are also among the simplest:

First, leverage the power of silence. Yeah, it’s uncomfortable for the interviewer, but, trust me, it’s even more uncomfortable for the subject. I used this technique at my last reporting job to get details on the relationship between a murder victim and the suspect before police were ready to announce them.

I was canvassing the apartment complex where the homicide occurred and came across a chatty older gentleman who seemed to know more than he was letting on. Sensing he was one of those people who enjoy the sound of their own voice, I kept him talking no matter the subject. Then, I asked what I came there to ask and waited. And waited. Sure enough, he spilled what he wasn’t ready to spill before. His information matched up perfectly with what the police would later release.

This technique is helpful not only for sensitive questions but also for complex ones. If a subject doesn’t answer immediately, it’s natural for the interviewer to assume something was wrong with the question and scale it back. Give the subject time to think things through. The point of an interview is to generate original, well-thought-out answers, not trite, off-the-cuff ones.

Second, before ending an interview, always ask something to the effect of, “Is there anything else you’d like to tell me?” Usually, the source’s response will yield something of value. It’s not always groundbreaking, but, surprisingly often, it is. The source will point out an essential resource or raise an issue that completely reshapes the story.

A ridiculously open-ended question can even produce a bombshell. It did for me one Sunday afternoon working the cops shift at my first paper. The police beat required tracking disorder of all forms across a sprawling four-county area. Keeping an ear to the scanner and asking “Anything going on?” “Anything else?” over and over was pretty much the only way to do this. I made the first of two routine calls to one of several state police barracks on my call sheet and asked the routine question. “Any accidents, arrests, anything to report?

“Oh, you’re calling about the arrest from last night,” said the trooper on the other end of the line. “What do you want to know?”

I had no idea what arrest he was referring to but it was obvious it was newsworthy. “Umm,” I thought, before responding with more boilerplate, “Name, age, residence, location of the incident, the charge.”

Whether the trooper could tell that I was clueless I’ll never know. But the name was that of the county sheriff. The charge? Drunken driving.

Yes, preparation and tact are important, but the worst question can be the one never asked.

Face to Face With the Future

September 25, 2009

Think of it as the nutritional shake of graduate learning. It’s dense. And it’s consumed quickly. Welcome to Face-to-Face Fridays.

To end each week in our foundational theory class, my 35 peers and I share 90-second presentations on topics not covered in our studies. The open-ended nature makes for a riveting, if somewhat disjointed, morning. Today, for example, we jumped from bionic lenses, to independent journalism, to interactive gaming, to poetry.

Futurcasting is a focal point of this course. This made me curious: In a parallel world years or decades ahead of ours, what might have our corresponding selves been talking about this morning?

Present: iPhone app FoodScanner — Train phone’s camera on UPC to call up nutrition information, track calorie consumption.
Future: Smart foods that change color or taste if they violate a consumer’s nutrition plan.

Present: Microsoft HealthVault and Google Health — Upload and organize personal medical records.
Future: A healthcare system that does this for us.

Present: Microsoft Courier tablet computer — Key features include dual screen and pen and finger multi-touch.
Future: Screenless computer that achieves the same functionality via tactile projection.

Present: Museum of Robots
Future: Museum of Humans

Present: Gowalla iPod app —Travel game rewards users for visiting ordinary and extraordinary places.
Future: Travel game rewards users for visiting ordinary and extraordinary times.

Present: Bing Visual Search
Future: Bing Telepathic Search

Present: USPS Virtual Box Simulator — Uses Web camera to help customer estimate whether an item will fit into flat-rate box.
Future: USPS Virtual Teleporter — Helps customer estimate whether item/being will fit into teleporter.

Present: Uber-customizable media player from Veeple and Big Gravity. Can embed documents.
Future: With now millions of superior presentation tools, PowerPoint, bewilderingly, remains widely used.

Present: Five rad virtual reality movies.
Future: Five rad virtual actors.

Present: — MP3 library free for nonprofit academic projects.
Future: LPs make an astounding comeback. Subliminal marketing campaign convinces world records really do sound better.

Present: Pentagon developing thought-controlled prosthetics.
Future: Stem-cell regenerated limbs.

Present: OnStar coordinates with police to slow down stolen vehicles.
Future: OnStar coordinates with police to slow down haywire autopiloted vehicles.

Present: Netflix awards developers $1 million for improving recommendation algorithm.
Future: Users pay Netflix several million dollars to weaken algorithm. It gets too intuitive for comfort.

Live Tweeting OneWebDay: Lessons Learned

September 22, 2009

Time seems to speed up when you’re live tweeting. Especially when you lose your Internet connection.

These were among the lessons I learned this morning from my first live tweeting experience, covering Elon University’s OneWebDay celebration.

For the international Earth Day-like event, designed to raise awareness about the Web — this year specifically about digital inclusion, my interactive media classmates and I surveyed attendees of our school’s weekly College Coffee gathering about their Web use and knowledge. Through this, we learned that less than 20 percent of them spend more than 15 minutes a day accessing the Web from a mobile device and they learned that Tim Berners-Lee proposed the World Wide Web in 1990.


Ideally, I would have done more advance promotion. Live tweeting is a great tool for interacting with your audience and building your brand, but, you need readers to do this. I did post tease tweets on my professional and personal accounts yesterday and, on my way out the door to go to the event, verbally told a couple of classmates still in the computer lab to follow suit. Even these minimal efforts produced a couple of retweets promoting my coverage. However, as I was live tweeting just to expose myself to the experience, whether my coverage bore any journalistic or marketing fruit was secondary.


This exercise was similar enough to covering events for delayed Web or print publication that I knew enough not to go into it blind. I typed up a text file containing pre-made shortened urls for content I thought I might want to link to and keywords for tweets I wanted to make sure I got in. This prepwork definitely paid off. I didn’t waste time or miss important details creating links, and my keywords led to descriptive tweets. These three were respectively based on the prompts “weather,” “shirts” and “food.”

It’s an overcast but pleasant first day of fall here in N.C.’s Piedmont Triad. A few occasional drizzles. #OWD09

iMedia students, clad in black #OWD09 T-shirts with the hashtag in teal on the back, are setting up. Students are starting to file in.

Crowds snaking around food spreads. Donuts, fruit, sweet tea &, of course, coffee. Unfortunately, tastes/smell uploads not poss. yet #OWD09

To get others’ voices in my coverage, I also made plans ahead of time to interview a few attendees (this would have been easier with a netbook instead of a laptop), asking them, “What’s your favorite thing about the Web?” Here is one resulting tweet:

Getting similar responses. Freshman Sunny likes the “Unlimited information. If you want to find something it’s out there.” #OWD09


The “#OWD09” in each post is a hashtag. Hashtags help readers find information on a specific topic. This particular hashtag is the tag OneWebDay organizers asked content creators to put on all OWD-related posts. If any of my classmates were also live tweeting today’s event, it would have made sense to add a tag specific to our school so everyone’s posts could be accessable from a common page.


Thinking of stuff to write about wasn’t an issue. Writing it quickly and maintaining a certain threshold of quality was. In hindsight, I might have put too much pressure on myself to constantly churn out content. Allowing more time to think about and edit posts might have better served readers. I did have my share of typos, which, the way I understand it at least, are tolerated in live tweeting, but only to an extent. I might have had too many.


As I mentioned farther up, the opportunity for interactivity is one of the strengths of live tweeting. A fellow user might write me, for example, “I thought government researchers invented the Internet, not Tim Berners-Lee,” and I could explain that the Internet and the World Wide Web are two different things. However, had anyone been asking me questions, since my coverage lasted only about an hour, I doubt I could have kept up with them and what was happening around me. Here, a co-tweeter would have likely been needed.


I’ll end where I started: Cumulatively, there was probably about 10 minutes where I lost my wireless connection. This can be a helpless feeling, and, toward the last quarter of the event, I thought I had lost it for good and began scanning for someone with a smart phone he or she could loan me. To avoid such panic, having a built-in backup would have been a good idea.

OneWebDay: Briefing on Broadband Mapping

September 10, 2009

This essay and accompanying video are part of Elon University’s participation in the fourth annual OneWebDay on Sept. 22. Digital inclusion is this year’s theme.

Before you can solve a problem, you have to define it. So, before you can bring broadband to unconnected homes, you have to find out where those homes are. Sounds simple. But it isn’t. And how we go about identifying these homes has great bearing on whether a key aspect of closing the digital divide is successful.

Since the U.S. government pledged $350 million for broadband mapping as part of last February’s economic recovery package, the methodology, objectivity and transparency of the nation’s largest broadband mapping organization, nonprofit Connected Nation, have come under fire from public interest groups.

Critics make the following arguments:

  • That Connected Nation’s reliance on sampling in lieu of a door-to-door census tends to overstate the degree of connectivity.
  • That the funding the nonprofit receives from large telecom companies and the strong ties between these companies and its board of directors present a conflict of interest.
  • That non-disclosure agreements with telecoms prevent stakeholders from evaluating the accuracy of its surveys and from making full use of them to expand access.

In media interviews, Connected Nation representatives have countered:

  • That it reconciles its surveys against engineers’ on-the-ground observations and with public feedback and continously
    updates its maps to reflect this new information.
  • That its board includes members of leading consumer groups and its business model depends on serving the interests of small and large telecommunications companies alike.
  • That disclosing the location of sensitive infrastructure compromises security. All other information, they say, is made public.

What this conflict reveals as much as anything is a shortage of guidance from the federal government. To its credit, the government has identified broadband connectivity as a priority and put up serious money to help accomplish it. What it hasn’t done, however, is establish standards strict enough to ensure broadband mapping is done in a consistent and reliable manner.

Furthermore, since this work in being done under the auspices of economic recovery, the primary goal is spending the money quickly, potentially to the detriment of quality. It’s great broadband mapping is being done. But, if we’re to be successful in narrowing the digital divide, it’s important that it be done right.

What I’m Doing Here

September 6, 2009

Just another weblog. WP’s default tagline says what we’re all thinking, doesn’t it? “Yawn, another blog.” Here’s why I’m joining this exclusive 133-million-member club and why, I hope, it won’t put you to sleep:

Well, it’s for school. Elon University’s brand-spanking-new interactive media master’s program to be exact. My 36 classmates and I will be filing regular dispatches from the front lines of this emerging field. We’ll be responding to class discussions, chronicling our futures-oriented research and posting whatever else we find interesting. 

Before we get going, I thought I’d share my admissions essay. Written in February, it offers as good an overview as any as to how I arrived here and where I want to go next. My about page fills in the rest.

Why do you wish to pursue a graduate degree in Interactive Media at Elon?

A year ago, with not quite four years of community newspaper reporting and copy editing under my belt, I foresaw answering a similar prompt for a business school or law school application. My heart resisted leaving journalism, but my head worried about earning a comfortable living.

With media companies hemorrhaging money, jobs and audience members, few would have blamed me for fleeing to another field. My dad, as devoted a newspaper reader as you’ll find who cherished my choice of vocation, even encouraged my search for greener pastures.

I weighed my professional future against the backdrop of the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign, the first where candidates and those covering them fully embraced interactive media. Somewhere in between an animated snowman querying candidates about global warming and the president-elect texting supporters as he began his victory speech, I realized I’d be a fool to leave journalism now. The old model of gathering and delivering news may be dying, but the new model is just coming to life – and today’s practitioners are the ones who will define it. Elon’s interactive media program offers me the exciting opportunity to be among these pioneers.

Its flashy technology alone makes interactive media an enticing field. Just ask any of the millions of full-grown adults who drooled over the iPhone 3G last summer. But, what captivates me most is interactive media’s capacity to improve the quality of journalism. Readers can scour public documents for irregularities a lone reporter missed. Citizen bloggers can call out mainstream outlets when their reporting isn’t up to snuff. Mobile phone users can send and receive breaking news as it happens. Given all journalists have accomplished without these tools, there’s no telling what they’ll accomplish with them.

A master’s degree in interactive media from Elon would prepare me to navigate this new landscape as a manager at a community newspaper, a position I’ve long aspired to. At the same time, it would provide me skills that, if need be, could be easily transferred to a more lucrative field.