Monday, October 29, 2007

Online Tutorial - Saving Your Brain

Many of you share my concerns over a zombie attack. The good folks at CommonCraft, who produce short online videos on important topics (such as a social bookmarking one that I keep intending to post here) are also concerned.

Together, we hope to help you save your brain this Halloween. Watch this video and learn, before it's too late.

My brain for the record is safe from prying zombies, as it has already been fried on too much communication theory reading recently.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Royal Roads Scholar

As my classes at Royal Roads have "opened" today, I was thinking back to the process of what lead me to choose Royal Roads. This process shows not only the value of social networks, but also the power of Internet as an invaluable research tool.

As a prospective grad student, my determining criteria was: a) opportunity to learn - I wanted courses I cared about and an effective way to learn b) reputation of university - I benefit from the perception of the university's value c) opportunity to meet interesting, influential faculty & students d) had to be offered either by distance or in proximity to Toronto.

I scoured the websites of universities around the world. I found many possibilities, but was able to eliminate some by looking at their course calendar and being unimpressed with their offerings. I found some distance programs, but didn't feel their methods were good, ie. not fully using e-Learning. Several universities had outdated or incomplete information, which I was able to rectify from e-mails and then discount (eg. inappropriate faculty, program was shut down, or just a research centre not degree granting, etc.)

Here's how communication vehicles helped me cull the list:

1) ordered, from the websites, print brochures- this was a waste of trees as without exception all the material in print - and then some - was on their websites
2) emailed most of my Address Book - this had the most success, more later
3) posted to various web forums, specifically Yahoo Answers, LinkedIn, and Lonely Planet. Yahoo Answers was little help, but did scare me about e-Learning. LinkedIn got no response except two replies by Royal Roads staff, which showed they are tuned in. LonelyPlanet, who has a very active forum site, was the most success as I got a lot of positive and negative feedback.
4) telephoned - this was a determining factor for a Toronto university were staff and a program head were so uniformly rude and unhelpful, it made me very reluctant to go there.

In emailing my Address Book, I got some insider help and tips for new directions. When I came to specifically deciding whether or not Royal Roads was suitable emails to my contacts netted people I knew who knew: a current RR student, one of their e-Learning software developers, the chancellor of the university (probably the real reason I got in).

My friends put me in touch with their friends and the insider information I got on the quality of the program and the e-Learning platform was instrumental in my decision. This was the second time I can remember where I asked my online contacts to help me out and I never imagined it would be so successful - definitely a case study for the power of social networks.

I was favouring Royal Roads early on, but was discounting it due to my concerns that e-Learning would not be an effective way to learn, I wouldn't get to know students & faculty, and the reputation of a mostly online university and an online degree.

Largely through the Internet, via e-mailing various people and reading online articles & posts, I was able to dispell these concerns. I got to know a lot about the program, the technology, and their reputation.

As a result of my Internet research and my online social network, I was much better consumer. I was way more informed of my options and had a much better idea of what I was buying.

Argument for e-Learning

Today, my Master’s of Professional Communications classes at Royal Roads University officially begin.

I'm excited by the subject matter and by the method of learning. My program is predominantly delivered through e-Learning, with a readings offline and online. There are also two periods of three weeks of intensive classes on campus in Victoria, British Columbia.

There are a lot of criticisms of e-Learning. As a web professional, I'm committed to living as much of my life online as I can, so I'm excited to be so immersed in this aspect of the Internet. Also, I think some of the concerns of e-Learning aren't always legitimate.

Some criticism undoubtedly arises, because e-Learning is new. But it's not that new - even before the Internet was popular, there was e-Learning. Back in 1993, I took a distance course from the University of Guelph that used computer programs (everything was done by exchanging diskettes). The course applications explained concepts, had users interact with the subject matter, answer questions and get feedback, and complete tests. In my case, I found this style of learning worked really well, allowing me more opportunity to work through the particular lesson and put the learning into practice – this just couldn't have happened without individual instruction, something not cost-effective to provide.
While change is no doubt intimidating to many people, I do think some instructors are worried they'll lose their jobs. If universities offer effective e-Learning, there should still be need for a lot of professors and it could grow with the opening of access to education that e-Learning enables (both by removing geographical and time barriers – sadly, as I can attest, not cost barriers though).
Another concern is that e-Learning prevents the Socratic method of learning so beloved by academics, but so lacking in modern factory universities nowadays. I didn’t get the Socratic method in my huge university classes. Even when there were opportunities to ask questions and have discussions, they were usually in sessions led by grad students who were sometimes only a year or two ahead of me. But I do believe that discussions with professors and students is essential (and something campuses really need to improve). Effective e-Learning can counters this concern, through online discussions, wikis, and forums. I have heard of courses using these but unable to get students to participate. I think is due to three reasons: 1) participation needs to be required – as are university "tutorial" type classes 2) language skills – people need to know the language and be able to articulate their thoughts through writing, obviously this will work better in some faculties than others 3) familiarity – it really helps if people feel comfortable with one another, this is hard in online only courses, but I think Royal Roads in-person time will foster a community that will then be able to be transported online.

Cheating is also concern with e-Learning. A colleague is taking an online course and must complete multiple-choice exams online. I did find it troubling that there was no means to prevent her from having help completing her tests or even that she herself did them. But I have had take-home exams before and certainly essay purchasing is not unheard of – so this may be a reality of academic life.

I suspect most people would, if it were feasible, prefer in-class rather than online or other distance learning. Distance learning has been around for ages, but traditional forms (print &/or video/televised) don't seem to be as popular as e-Learning. I suspect e-Learning's advantage is the opportunity to participate and interact. I took distance courses that did make good use of computer programs and videos to supplement what would otherwise be all reading, but there was no interactions with the professors or students. e-Learning greatly enhances distance education, but I still don't think many people prefer e-Learning (with the exception of web geeks, social phobes, mobility challenged, and naturists). e-Learning allows the opportunity to get an education when and where you want it. This allows people flexibility to study at their own time to not have to move or commute and to maintain their otherwise hectic life.

As my courses progress, I'll update this blog on my experiences with e-Learning – good and, hopefully not, bad.

Update: Thanks to Madison Murphy for her help with this post.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Living and Dying Online

Earlier today, I found out via an e-mail that a friend from highschool had died from breast cancer.

While I found the news most upsetting, I didn't find the method of delivery unusual. When my mother-in-law died, we were so physically and emotionally exhausted that the only way I could handle passing on the news to our friends and family was to e-mail people.

Some people still find death the last taboo of online communications. I have no such qualms. The e-mail I received also had a link to a posting on the funeral home's website of the obituary notice. I've also heard of people posting retrospective videos online or having message boards for people to post and share message about the deceased.

I think e-mail and Web can be a great way to help people talk, share and deal with the death than they might be able to in person.

Many of us live so much of our lives online nowadays. I have found out about births, marriages, divorces, coming outs, hirings and firings online.

I think Facebook is great for enabling this by helping us share the details of our lives with a wider circle of friends than we might otherwise be able to. For instance, there's this perception that people don't want to see other people's kid or trip pix. I love seeing them, even more so when I can do it on my own time.

Without the Internet, I never would be this in touch with people's lives. It's definitely a good thing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

More Biggest Canadian Internet Success Stories

Canadians aren't good at trumpeting their own success. Granted, we're a small market so our stories aren't always that big and glitzy (though some are).

I noticed that Canada's Internet history and successes are not well documented and I'm hoping to help improve this situation.

While my list of Canadian Internet Successes is by no means scientific, it is a start.

While some companies are obvious successes (eg. Flickr, StumbleUpon, RIM) there are some I'm not sure about (eg. is Nygard truly a leader in e-Business that one source claims it to be?).

Also, the list is biased towards front-end and B2C companies - this is not intentional, but reflects my limited knowledge base.

Please help me out with any omissions, corrections or details about companies already listed.

Criteria for inclusion:
* doesn't have to be an Internet company, but must use an Internet component (ie. Web, e-mail, FTP, etc.) successfully
* scope or influence extends beyond Canada
* founded or based in Canada
* commercially successful or influential for online offerings, technology, design, research, etc.

Top Canadian Internet Successes

1) Club Penguin (Kelowna, British Columbia)
Disney’s purchase this summer of Club Penguin for $350M US (read Globe & Mail article) must make Club Penguin the biggest monetary success story of any Canadian Internet company. Club Penguin is a gaming and social networking site for pre-teens. I believe they were so desirable not only for their site's stickiness with a choice demographic, but also because they had a viable, profitable model in place that doesn't rely on advertising.

2) Flickr (founded Vancouver, British Columbia)
While Flickr sold out to Yahoo for a paltry, rumoured, 20-30 million, this photo-sharing website is one of the most popular and most used websites in the world. Flickr was a pioneer in the tagging of photographs.

3) Reseach In Motion (Waterloo, Ontario)
While RIM's BlackBerry device is capable of web browsing, its claim to fame is being the first to allow users to retrieve non-wireless email accounts from a wireless device.

4) Kevin Ham (Vancouver, British Columbia)
One of the first and, by some accounts, the best domainer, Ham owns a portfolio of websites worth at least $300M and with revenues of $70M a year. (Read Business 2.0 profile)

5) Archie (Montreal, Quebec)
Considered the first Internet search engine. Archie was created in 1990 at McGill University to search and index FTP sites.

6) CryptoLogic (Toronto, Ontario)
One of the top four online gambling software companies. While tighter online gambling regulations in the States have hurt, they are still doing well and recently done a high-profile partnership with Playboy.

7) StumbleUpon (founded Calgary, Alberta)
Started in Canada, this social bookmarking and recommendation site gets more popular every day. StumbleUpon relocated to San Francisco for financing and was subsequently bought by eBay in May 2007 for $75M US.

8) Open Text (Waterloo, Ontario)
One of the first search engines and an early leader in web-based content management.

9) Lavalife (founded Toronto, Ontario)
While Lavalife didn't invent online dating, they revolutionized it by making it much more fun and thus became North America's most popular dating site. They sold out to an American company for $152.5M CDN.

10) iStockPhoto (Calgary, Alberta)
iStockPhoto is one of the leading royalty-free stock photography websites, and, by their own admission, the "world’s busiest image market", pioneering the use of micropayments. They sold in Feb. 2006 to Getty Images for $50M.

11) NowPublic (Vancouver, British Columbia)
Billed as the world's largest citizen journalism network with thousands of citizen reporters in 140 countries. The company recently received (see CBC article) one of the largest investments ($10.6M) in citizen journalism.

12) William Gibson (Vancouver, British Columbia)
This science fiction novelist didn't work on the Net, but his work predicted the Net - and he coined the term "cyberspace". Gibson has also been a contributor to Wired Magazine and writes his own blog.

13) AbeBooks (Victoria, British Columbia)
The world’s largest used book online marketplace, AbeBooks continues to grow. They have recently bought other book websites and remain a favourite with bibliophiles.

14) (Toronto, Ontario)
This company, selling men’s clothing (not just white shirts), was an early e-commerce success. Somehow they managed to lose their head start and went out of business last year.

15) WebKinz (Woodbridge, Ontario)
Owned by toy and gift company, Ganz, this company makes plush toy animals that come with a secret code that let's the owner participate in the WebKinz virtual world. With at least a million registered users and stickiness and loyalty in line with Club Penguin, WebKinz is undoubtedly a goldmine.

16) Naked News (Toronto, Ontario)
Originally a free online website with daily news coverage by stripping anchors. Naked News launched in 2000, before the heyday of high-speed connections but were nonetheless phenomenally popular for awhile, due, no doubt, as they say in Avenue Q - "Grab your xxxx and double-click, the Internet is for porn!"

17) eHarlequin (Toronto, Ontario)
The leading romance story online destination, eHarlequin is a branch of Harlequin Enterprises, the world's top romance book publisher. The popular website was also an early pioneer in web 2.0 techniques.

18) Cambrian House (Calgary, Alberta)
A leader in crowdsourcing via its online community and software to enable peer production.

19) TakingITGlobal (Toronto, Ontario)
TakingITGlobal is a website with an active, international community that enables developers to create IT projects to aid developing nations.

20) 20-20 Technologies (Laval, Quebec)
The leader in software for the interior design industry (according to their own site) 2o-20 Technologies offers a suite of products many using or enabled by the Web.

21) Tucows (Toronto, Ontario - originally Michigan)
I knew this company when it was owned by my first ISP, i-Direct. Tucows was the ultimate site for freeware and shareware downloads.

22) (Montreal, Quebec) is one of the largest jewelery e-tailers and certainly one of the nicest looking.

23) Têtes à Claques (Montreal, Quebec)
This French-language humour website, Têtes à Claques started with a series of bizarre animated online shorts. It's the most popular French-language website in Quebec and its popularity is spreading into France.

24) Nygard (Winnipeg, Manitoba)
According to an Industry Canada report , Nygard was a pioneer in the fashion industry in using technology, saving at least $10M a year back in 2002 for its innovative use of e-Business. Apparently, Nygard was one of the first designers to actively display their catalogue online.

25) Weblo (Montreal, Quebec)
I’m reluctant to put this virtual reality site on the list, as it seems to be much ado about nothing. Lots of money was spent here with the hope that audiences will come, but there’s little to draw them in.

26) Simply Audio Books (Oakville, Ontario)
The largest company in the rental and sale of audio books via their website. Simply Audio Books earned revenues of more than $6M last year.

Honourable mentions
  • Iceberg Radio - one of the largest and first Internet radio portals
  • b5media - global blog syndicate
  • Chilly Beach - web-based Flash cartoons that transitioned to a TV series
  • MegaDox - legal documents
  • Long Pen - Devised by Margaret Atwood, now on the board, LongPen enables remote celebrity signing events via online conferencing and robotic signing of books/goods
  • Don Tapscott - co-author of Wikinomics and digital evangelist
  • Digital Cement - marketing services firm with a specialty in e-mail marketing, acquired by Pitney Bowles in May 2007 for $40M
Close, but no cigar
Founded, totally or in part, by Canadians living abroad:
  • SitePoint, publishers of web development books, videos, websites and forums, but although co-founded by a Canadian, they are based out of Australia
  • Jeffrey Skoll – first president of eBay and he wrote their business plan
  • Thompson Corporation – started in Canada, now headquartered in Connecticut, though largely owned by the Canadian Thompson family (that is, pre Reuters merger). Thomspon, a specialty and trade publisher, was one of the first companies to go into digital publishing in a big way.
  •, founded by Ottawa-native Graham Hill, but based out of New York, this environmental blog was bought this summer for $10M by Discovery Channel.
  • Bob Young - from Ancaster, Ontario, Young co-founded Linux distributor Red Hat and he is now CEO of, one of the first websites enabling digital and print micro-publishing.
Canadian pioneers
These were certainly Internet leaders in Canada:
  • Chatelaine - one of the first Canadian magazines to really do something with their "companion" website, then were leaders in integrating & cross-promoting print & web
  • Sears Canada - made a success out of e-commerce in Canada, while others were giving up on it or just not able to figure it out
  • Chapters - before Amazon came to Canada, Chapters' website was doing just fine here
  • Grocery Gateway - for a long time they were the only grocery website and it seems still one of the best
What did I miss? Please help out with some additional information or with some additions to the list.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Blah Blah Text - Mea Culpa

I was reading of Jakob Nielsen's most recent Alertbox article, Blah-Blah Text: Keep, Cut, or Kill?, and within seconds I knew I was in trouble.

When I read the last few words of his opening, I had the uneasy feeling that I had broken a basic web usability principle. Nielsen stated:
The introductory paragraph(s) found at the top of many Web pages is what I call blah-blah text: a block of words that users typically skip when they arrive at a page. Instead, their eyes go directly to more actionable content, such as product features, bulleted lists, or hypertext links. The worst kind of blah-blah has no function; it's pure filler — platitudes, such as "Welcome to our site, we hope you will find our new and improved design helpful."

I didn't even finish reading the article before checking my homepage. Sure enough, I had a dreadful blah blah text intro. It should have been obvious to me it was bad copy - anything that starts with "Welcome" is a dead give-away - but it took Nielsen's words to snap me out of it.

My excuse for writing blah blah text is that I wrote it on the night of the website relaunch and I been working days and nights and I was genuinely excited and wanted our visitors to be excited by our redesigned website.

No excuse. I quickly rewrote the copy and purged it from 103 words to 65, without sacrificing any meat, only filler. And - this is my redemption - I was able to chop the words down by almost half and yet add another teaser about a new topic!!!

Still I was feeling guilty and ashamed. I felt as atonement I would to do a "Mea Culpa" blog posting here.

Then I went back to reading the remainder of Nielsen's article, when my shame was assuaged by Nielsen's assertion of his own "Mea Culpa". I did feel a bit better that even the divine Nielsen has his moments of weakness.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Something To Blog Home About...

History has been on my mind today.

History of personal, local and international proportions. Today is the one year anniversary of this blog. I also bought a book today at Word on the Street about a favourite subject of mine, Toronto history. Later in the day, I read a chapters of a book by Tim Berners-Lee on the history of the World Wide Web.

I thought these three events provide an intriguing perspective on where my life stands right now and a look at my future.

I started blogging a year ago as the momentum of recent developments in the Internet had got me excited about the field again. Since starting in this field I have loved it tremendously - no regrets ever. But the dot bomb was hard to live through, having a kid brought a whole new level of responsibility, and frankly circumstances had not handed me exciting online opportunities.

To fill the void over those intervening years, I spent a lot of time reading about Toronto history (I have about a hundred books on local history most of which I've read). I joined Heritage Toronto and maintained their website. I'd even thought about starting my own Toronto walking tours company and started planning some tours. I also started working on a possible print book on famous Torontonians.

Glen 2.0

But last year my life started to change course, back to my love of the Internet. I started really getting excited about some "new" (for me) Internet developments. First del.ici.ous, then blogging, RSS, accessibility, social media, the Semantic Web and microformats, etc. I also had my company's website relaunch that I lead that solidified my views on good web design and allowed me to put some theory and my thoughts into practice. And this blog was a great way for me to share all this.

I wanted to take this knowledge and newfound passion to the next level and as such decided to do my Master's and hopefully PhD focusing on Internet as much as possible.

I was excited to meet others who shared my passion and who I could learn from. And so I made a real effort for the first time ever to go to industry events and try some social networking. This has had some ups (I have met some cool people and got to know some industry friends much better) and some downs (like pretty much all the real world Internet groups in Toronto and I tried out a lot of them. CaseCamp is the only good one for the record. I've been working on a blog about how crappy they are but have been reluctant to as it seems awful to be so negative to people that are trying not matter how shitty of a job they are doing). I attended Mesh last Spring, the first Web conference I had been to - it was amazing! I also spent an insane amount of time on Facebook, reconnecting with old friends and friended some people that I really wasn't friends with (not like I'm the only one guilty of that).

Corny as it sounds I feel like I had a flash of light where one's future is revealed to them. I am certain now that I want to spend the rest of my life working in the Internet - learning about it, talking about it, sharing info, building in it.

I really felt that doing this meant that I had to focus completely on the Net and give up all my old "time-wasters". My Toronto book in progress was transferred to a wiki (one subsequently neglected). Haven't watched much TV in ages - even the box sets of BattleStar Gallatica, Dukes of Hazard or Scrubs. I felt like I had kicked my travel addiction and swore off travel. I stopped all reading other than about Net topics - hence my reading of "Weaving the Web" by Tim Berners-Lee (a great read and now I'm dying to make a pilgrimage to CERN, the birthplace of the Web).

This weekend I'd planned to get a head start on some online modules for my program and to spend a long time on this blog anniversary (as it is, I'm working on it in the wee hours - so the date will appear as a day off the actual anniversary). But the weather was so damn nice and my daughter was dying to spend time with me, so we decided to got to some cultural events that my wife and I used to go to a lot of before having a toddler made it too difficult. We went to Nuit Blanche and Word on the Street. It was great to participate in something creative and cultural and in complete different spheres again.

The article I wrote for work on Toronto's outdoor art (and posted here last week) got me thinking that I do love Toronto and its art scene and its history. I love spending time with my family too.

So I'm getting the sense that following my passion for the Net doesn't mean I have to wear hard-wired blinders.

I guess I'm feeling lucky that I know what I want to do with my life. I know what things are worthwhile to spend my very finite time on. I also feel happy that I have so many cool things in my life and the opportunity to partake, to various degrees, in them all.

The title of my first blog entry ever was "Nothing to blog home about" but ironically this blog lead to changes in my home, so it was indeed something to blog home about.

Man, this blog was so sappy. Thank God no one reads it!