Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Using the Net medium to tell medium-appropriate stories

I went to the ever-growing CaseCamp. Without a doubt it is one of the most significant digital culture and marketing events in the country - and free.

The presentation - or is it unpresentation - that most impressed me was by Jill Golick, Executive Producer of

A Canadian filmmaker and television writer, she was critical of storytelling on the Web. I completely agree with her critique that too much of what was happening on the Web was taking TV-type shots and chopping them down to 4-5 minute clips and posting them on the Internet. Entertaining but not a good use of the medium. Golick equated the period we are in as when movies first came out, the first response was to film plays. (This is still done today and is why the movie I love to cite "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead" is a bad movie" - it's probably a great play, but bad movie).

Golick set out to experiment with the online medium and create a story using the unique qualities and feature of the Internet. I wasn't part of the original storyline, but here's a recap: Golick and team, created characters, wrote scripts, and made various media products (eg. videos). They created fictional Facebook and accounts, blogs and vlogs, Twitters, etc. To get the full story one could friend the characters, ask them questions, post comments, and follow their various online exploits.

While there was concerns that the story was so convincing that some fell for it, despite the various notices on the sites that these were fictional characters, I believe these concerns show how compelling and effective the story was.

I'm so excited to see someone breaking ground with this and making such innovative use of the medium. I've friended her characters now and can't wait for the next storyline to begin.

Friday, April 18, 2008

No Shirking Responsibility for Website Accessibility


While the grant is a decent amount of money, the tuition at Royal Roads is extremely high (on par with MBA programs here). But it will help me devote myself fulltime to my studies and research. This means I'll be wrapping up my job as a web producer in a few months and instead focusing on my new career as an Internet researcher.

SSHRC, which stands for Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, gives research grants to students and universities. I submitted my proposal to them to study website accessibility.

Here's is some background material on the issue of website accessibility and what I hope to research:

Website accessibility encompasses many groups in Canada, the visually impaired, including those with low to no vision, are particularly limited by existing barriers, due to website code that either prevents or causes problems using adaptive technology. The needs of the visually impaired can often be accommodated easily through adjustments to the website code, such as by providing options for different font sizes or alternative text for images.

Even though the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the governing body for web standards, published website accessibility standards as far back as 1999, many websites in Canada are still not accessible to the visually impaired. The standards set forth by the W3C form the basis of defining website accessibility, as they are the most widely accepted standards by both the Web and visually-impaired communities. The ramifications of website accessibility affect both the website owners, whether a business owner or shareholders, as well as the website users, in this case those with visual disabilities.

My study will focus on the people who have the authority and the access to enact and maintain the changes for accessibility; these individuals range from programmers and developers to business managers and leads. I have not found any research, however, focusing on why many Canadian website managers, that is those who have the authority over websites, have not made their websites accessible.

I have previously blogged about some of the difficulties in making a website accessible that I have encountered, not least of which are the confusing and at times impossible criteria set forth by the W3C and a lack of fully adequate educational material for website developers on this issue. This spurred me on to research the topic more and I have found this is an area in definite need of further investigation.

If you know of some good information on this topic or are a website producer/manager/developer or have any thoughts on the issue, please help me out.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Harnessing the Power of a Brainstorm

A frequent occurrence in many workplaces is for a group of employees to gather in a room and free-flow ideas on a specific topic. Developed by Osborn in 1953, brainstorming flourishes in workplaces, despite research that found individuals working alone are more effective. Alternatively, collective brainstorming via a computer, known as electronic brainstorming (EBS), has been shown to be more effective. While it is possible that the novelty of the technology and the desire of participants to please the testers can account for some of these gains, the difference found was quite dramatic, particularly as group size increased. Connolly found the main improvement was the lessening of production blocking; the real life (RL) constraint of only one person able to speak at a time does not apply in EBS. EBS can thus be seen offer greater productivity than RL brainstorming.

Production blocking is not the only brainstorming liability, as evaluation apprehension (not fully participating due to fear of being judged) and loafing/freeriding (not fully participating due to perceived low reward or allowing others to do the work) are possible factors. For example, EBS allows anonymous participation and Connolly did find this increased performance. Furthermore, it is possible that the individual act of sitting in front of a computer to do EBS encourages otherwise free-loaders to participate.

Electronic brainstorming does not make sense for all situations. Anonymous EBS would probably not make sense in situations where receiving monetary or reputational credit is a determining influence. If businesses have goals other than idea generation, EBS can be inferior, as Dennis found in a study that showed “if you want to build a good team, strengthen the relationships and allow for opportunities for mentoring and individual growth, verbal discussion is better [than EBS]” (Vlahakis). If the goal is number and quality of ideas, however, Dennis concludes EBS is more advantageous.

These improvements results from EBS lessening production blocking. Given that RL brainstorming sessions have a finite time and are constrained by the ability of only one person able to speak at a time, RL brainstorming suffers from the fact that some participants will not be able to fully contribute. Moreover, in the time when participants wait for their turn to participate, participants may forget ideas or lose focus. RL brainstorming also suffers from participants having to listen to someone else, which may distract from their own contributions or derail possible lines of thought. RL brainstorming can be sidetracked by overbearing participants or by a group fixation on a limited number of topics. EBS removes these limitations. By each participant working individually on a computer but participating collectively, not only is there no down time, but many distractions are removed and participates can pursue ideas that inspire them and disregard those that do not.

Connolly found not only is EBS more effective, but gains are more pronounced with more participants. Compared to RL, adding participants would increase production blocks, whereas EBS does scale up. With more participants not only does this increase overall output, there is a greater statistical likelihood of recruiting more effective people. RL sessions are, by necessity, often smaller; this limits participation to a smaller range of types of people. By enabling larger numbers more diverse types of participants from a larger cross-section of an organization can participate and have the opportunity to add their unique perspective and ideas . The RL production blocks of space and time constraints also do not apply to EBS, as sessions can be available remotely or, through asynchronous methods, at user-determined times.

Despite the popularity of RL brainstorming, researchers had largely discounted its productivity. Now with the advent of EBS, the key limitation of brainstorming, production blocking, can be significantly lessened thus allowing for the optimal and intended free-flow of ideas.

More info:

Connelly, T. (1997). Electronic brainstorming: Science meets technology in the group meeting room. In S. Kiesler (Ed.), Culture of the Internet.

Vlahakis, G. E-brainstorming? Retrieved April 1, 2008, from

Monday, April 07, 2008

I'm Divided on the War for Net Neutrality

The issue of Net neutrality has been heating up lately in Canada with ISPs filing a motion with CRTC against Bell. Wikipedia offers a rather nebulous definition of Net Neutrality but I think most people are using the term to refer to the practice of slowing down or blocking certain types of Internet traffic to home users.

The discussion here revolves around some larger ISPs and backbone providers wanting to slow down or block certain types of Internet traffic, usually this is users downloading huge files (video and/or audio usually). However, some people are worried about where this might lead.

This is an issue I care very deeply about, but unlike others my take is more mixed.

First, the Internet was not designed for telephone calls (VOIP), broadcasting long videos (or any videos), or for downloading of software, music and movies. If these activities continue to grow, they will break the Net. As far as I have heard the techies have not come up with a viable way to address this, so it's a huge problem that's getting worse every day.

I'm a regular Net user. I don't download large files. I don't watch long videos. Nor do I use VOIP. So why should I pay the same amount for my Net connection as these bandwidth hogs? Why should they be allowed to degrade my Net connection speed? There are people who illegally download movies and software day and night. So I have no problem whatsoever with the ISPs charging more for users of these types of Net activities or for even slowing their connection down.

What I do hate is the idea that large ISPs, could be allowed to have their own content, or their partners' content, download faster to their customers or slowing down content from everyone else. Or worse, if the ISPs one day started charging websites for "premium" connectivity. All this works to destroy a fundamental principle of the Internet, universal access. The source of content should not be allowed to affect how fast it can be accessed.

I also hate the type of content filtering that China and Saudi Arabia does, but that's another story. Unlike some, I'm not worried that slowing down service or charging more for some Net services (eg. VOIP, watching or downloading movies) will lead to censorship. I don't have a problem drawing a line. The Net cannot continue to have more and more traffic added to it and not degrade for everyone.

The website, gives news and more information on the issue and specifics to Canada.