Saturday, June 04, 2005

Ladies and gentlemen, my future wife

Spotted on the northbound red line on my way home from a poetry show that never took place. F**k!

Field Report: Alex Kotlowitz reading, Chicago

Greetings from the suddenly rainswept Chicago, where I just finished attending a reading by Alex Kotlowitz at the Uptown Borders in my neighborhood. Kotlowitz, for those who don't know, is the author of There Are No Children Here (1992, Anchor), which was both made into a movie by Oprah and was chosen as one of the 150 most important books of the 20th century by the New York Public Library. Kotlowitz's newest book is called Never A City So Real and is part of that Crown Journeys series (where Crown basically asks all these hipster writers to pen travel guides for the city where they live); this reading was a promotion for that book, as well as for a play Kotlowitz recently wrote called An Unobstructed View, based on his experiences writing for National Public Radio's "Chicago Matters" show. (The play's being performed as we speak by the Pegasus Players theatre company; a couple of the cast members were at the event as well, and performed a couple of scenes from it.)

The book is actually a pretty slim one (145 pages), and I ended up reading about half of it at the bookstore today as I was sitting around waiting out the rainstorm. It suffers a little too much from "White Man's Burden Syndrome" (that is, the idea that a person's story is not worth telling unless they are poor and of color, an attitude I get awfully f**king sick and tired of sometimes from middle-class liberal white guys); plus, for being published by a travel company, the book actually has nothing to do with travel whatsoever, which is not only a real shame but a blown opportunity on the part of Crown to publish a decent travel guide to Chicago. That said, it's definitely a brisk and sometimes entertaining read; you might want to check it out the next time you're at the bookstore.

Live at the Alex Kotlowitz reading

I'm at the Uptown Borders in my neighborhood, attending a reading by Alex Kotlowitz, author of "There Are No Children Here" and the new "Never a City So Real." More later today!

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Field Report: Community Media Conference, Chicago

UPDATE, 7 pm: Oops, I meant Barbara Iverson, not Betty. Sorry, Barbara!

So, I just got done attending the Community Media Conference down at Columbia College, a big event that has drawn journalists from all over the country. Well, that's not exactly true - I actually only attended one panel discussion of the conference, "Blogging and Its Effect on the Media" (or something like that), which featured Andrew Huff of GapersBlock.com (disclosure - a friend of mine), and Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune (who I am a big fan of and read every day, although had never met before today). Oh, and many thanks to the organizers of the conference, by the way, who caught me trying to sneak in for free and let me go in anyway, on the promise that I would leave after the panel was over. Moderating the panel was Betty Iverson, a journalism professor at Columbia College.

The panel was definitely lively and fascinating, although obviously it was geared towards people who have much less knowledge of blogs than you and I do, which of course could be a little frustrating at times. That said - man, who was the genius who put Huff and Zorn together on the same panel? They're both a bit of smartasses, and have this great conversational style of speaking in front of audiences, and the two of them on one panel meshed together as perfectly as tornados and mobile homes.

I ended up asking them about the schism between journalists and bloggers when it came to traditional ethics issues, like finding reliable sources, multiple sources, and where the line lays between reporting a rumor or not. They in turn got into one of the more interesting journalism discussions I've heard in awhile, which concerned last year's senate race here in Illinois between Barack Obama and professional nutjob Alan Keyes. (Basically, halfway through the campaign someone discovered that Keyes' lesbian daughter was maintaining an anonymous blog online about her sexual and romantic life.) All three of the panelists discussed this issue, and where the line laid between whether to report it or not, and where that line changed when it came to a blogger versus a mainstream newspaper. Very interesting stuff.

Anyway, I finally got a chance to meet Mr. Zorn after the panel - and unsurprisingly, he turned out to be this really great, funny, disarming guy, which is always so nice to discover in people you admire. And the four of us (plus one of Mr. Zorn's editors at the Trib) sat around for a few minutes gabbing about the incestuous nature of blogging, and how by the end of the day all four of us were going to have posts up about the panel and about each other, etc. And then I felt bad about sticking around so long, considering that the conference staff had let me in for free, so I took off. Thanks again, you three, for such an entertaining panel!

Live at the Community Media conference

I'm at the Community Media Conference at Columbia College, attending a panel with Andrew Huff of GapersBlock.com and Eric Zorn of the Chicago Tribune. More later today!

"Lost:" The Curious Case of the Viral Website Which Might Actually Be a Fan Website

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Back in February, I made the following prediction during an episode of my short-lived podcast: That as more and more companies turn to viral marketing to promote their products (that is, underground activities such as fake websites and company-sponsored "anti-company" campaigns), it's going to become easier and easier for actual customers to make their own campaigns for the company as well (either pro or anti), with a growing amount of the general public confused over whether the campaign is "real" (i.e. sponsored by the company) or "fake" (sponsored by customers). And now just three months after that prediction, we actually have our first example - the enigmatic and delightful driveshaftband.com, a supplemental site to the weirdo ABC television hit "Lost."

It's purportedly a fansite for the platinum-selling British band "Driveshaft" - which, as followers of the show know, currently counts its bass player as one of the marooned survivors on the freaky black-smoke-huffing island we've all come to love. And indeed, the site is insanely exhaustive in its details, including an downloadable audio interview with the bass player's brother (another character that's appeared on the show, via flashbacks), photos from the band's various live performances, a weekly blog from one of the band's roadies, even Kurt-Cobain-style tributes to the bass player sent in by fans. And, like all great viral websites, driveshaftband.com also seems to contain hidden information about the show that one cannot get from the episodes themselves - such as the tidbit that American officials have been examining the flight manifest of the downed plane since the accident, and have discovered that several of the passengers listed have no record of actually existing (no IDs, no work history, no tax records, etc). And considering that there actually is a viral website out there officially sponsored by ABC (oceanic-air.com, which actually does have all this weird-ass s**t hidden in its pages relating to the show, and which "Lost" fans absolutely must visit), many people have just assumed that driveshaftband.com is yet another officially-sanctioned viral site, and that the tidbits we read there really are coming from the show's writing staff.

But wait - is it an officially-sanctioned site? Examine the evidence:

- The shots of the band playing live are actually vidcaps from one of the flashback sequences on the show;

- The site claims that the bass player has been missing for nine months now (that is, the length of time the show has actually been on the air), although according to the show itself, season 1 only covers 40 days;

- The site has a guestbook that the general public is allowed to sign, which includes numerous references to the television show, breaking the illusion that the site is "real" (a big no-no among viral marketing campaigns);

- And perhaps most telling, the site is peppered liberally with curse words, including lots of references to the F-word. And in the times we live in, I can't imagine in a million years that ABC would let a viral site be peppered with F-words, no matter how tangentially the site might be related to them.

You see my point, though, right? This, I think, is the first time in history that fans have created a "fake" site so convincing that people are still debating whether it's officially sanctioned or not, months after it first went online. And since one of the cardinal rules of viral marketing is that the company can't admit in public that they're the ones behind the viral marketing, it may be a long time indeed before we get a definitive answer. This is simply going to become a bigger and bigger issues over the next couple of years, as more and more companies turn to viral marketing to promote themselves, and the fans get smarter and smarter about creating viral campaigns too. As this example shows, the potential for sticky situations is high when it comes to viral campaigns, and especially the potential for fans putting words into companies' mouths that they don't want in there. It'll be interesting, I think, to see what happens in the future when it comes to company/customer relationships in the world of viral marketing.

For those who don't know, by the way, there is a plethora of supplementary material on the web for "Lost," much of which helps explain the subtle details embedded within each episode, many of which you might never discover on your own. (Here's one really good example - it's been discovered by viewers now that at least six of the characters have Chinese symbols somewhere on their bodies, either as a tattoo, necklace, or design on their clothes. Well, some smartypants actually sat down with vidcaps and translated them all into English, and it turns out that they each stand for a specific personality attribute that can be directly applied to that character in question. Man, that "Lost" writing staff sure are a bunch of sneaky little f**kers!) A great resource for finding all this crap, in my opinion, is lostlinks.net, which I encourage all fans of the show to check out; they have hundreds of vidcaps from telling moments of the show, behind-the-scenes videos, JPEGs of the crazy French woman's maps, even a comprehensive list of every single reference in the show to the numbers 4, 8, 15, 16, 23, and 42 (and there are hundreds of them, as you can imagine).

And finally, two little pieces of trivia for "Lost," for those who don't already know: 1) At $13 million, it was the most expensive television pilot in history; and 2) with 130 foreign markets airing the show this year as well, it's also the most widely simultaneously-watched television show in history. Um, can you tell I kinda like the show? Jeez, I'm such a dork!

p.s. For those who miss listening to it, I am going to be doing my podcast again - just as soon as those damn programmers over at Odeo actually open for business, that is.

I'm going to NextFest!

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So, after months of watching better bloggers than I (i.e. those with jobs) attend all these cool conferences around the world and schmooze with all these cool people, I'm finally getting to attend one myself - namely, Wired magazine's NextFest, a celebration and examination of the next generation of technology that's about to hit our lives, being held here in Chicago at the end of the month. And how did I manage to fanagle an invitation? Easy - I volunteered to do manual labor! Well, that's actually a little off - they keep promising that there won't actually be any heavy lifting or other manual chores involved, and that my main job is going to be to partner with one of the corporate sponsors and help answer questions about their booth to festival attendees. And what do I get for the 20 or so hours of work I volunteered to put in? Oh, all kinds of wonderful things - a staff all-access pass, something like nine general-admission tickets, a free t-shirt of course, an invitation to the gala opening reception, a year's free subscription to Wired, and even a free iPod Shuffle, if you can believe that.

Of course, none of that matters much to me; the main reason I want to go is so I can see all the cool high-tech stuff on display, and schmooze with all the bloggers and other tech writers I've been reading over the years. And speaking of which, are you going? If so, please let me know by dropping me a line at ilikejason at hotmail dot com, so we can make plans to meet up. Don't forget, of course, that I'll be doing tons of real-time posts to the blog here during the fest itself, including photos, text and audio; make sure to tune in that weekend for all the goodness.