Wednesday, December 28, 2005

high street reborn

How was Christmas for you? If it was anything like mine, it was bloody expensive. At what point did Christmas become an enforced debt? I was amazed to learn from a family friend this week that some only finish paying off last Christmas in November, then take out a loan for the next one. Oh well, each to their own.

Credit cards have become, as far as I can tell, an extension of one’s finger. And it is the Internet shopping phenomenon of the last half decade that has helped drive this unrelenting virtual debt accumulator. Three days after Christmas, leading online retailer Amazon revealed record festive sales.

Take a second to digest the statistics. In the run up to Christmas weekend Amazon’s UK division delivered 480,000 gifts. On the busiest day a Royal Mail truck left one of its three distribution centres every 15 minutes. Globally, December 12 was busiest. Customers bought 3.6 million items, or, if you like, 41 items every second.

The news reminded me of a conversation I had with a colleague before Christmas, where we discussed the problems of shopping at this time. Busy streets (so busy indeed, that it is recommended that consumers attach indicator lights to their shoulders when in need of entering a shop), lengthy queues and SOLD OUT signs that stand smirking in place of the most desirable items.

I found myself arguing with my colleague that Christmas shopping, being the distasteful, stressful and downright soul destroying experience that it is, is in danger of becoming extinct. In a survival of the fittest kind of way, I argued, online shopping would rise from the primordial jelly that was physical retail therapy and abolish the high street for good.

But my colleague, fresh faced from a daring last minute lunch hour power shop, remarked that, for all the advances in Internet shopping over the last few years (including making it more simple, advances in educating a sceptical technologically afraid public that it is safe, and the proliferation in credit cards and the social acceptance of debt) the high street will never die.

Why? Because, despite the stress, people enjoy going out and shopping. They enjoy having a sales assistant make them feel important. They enjoy accumulating endless swathes of bags. They enjoy trying on clothes and discussing how big their bum looks with an apologetic friend. In short, they enjoy a day out shopping.

He has a point. I love Internet shopping. I bought a number of gifts online this Christmas and waited, gleefully, for them to arrive in the post. But the actual process of the purchase – logging on, registering, selecting a product and entering credit card details – is quite boring. Browsing is an exercise in website navigation, and, of course, there is no chance to try before you buy.

The conversation came to an end with some kind of compromise. The physical and the virtual would co-exist happily. Indeed, a blurring would emerge. What if Amazon opened a retail store on Oxford Street? It would include rows of designer computers that allowed customers to browse their website free of charge and place orders in a comfortable environment. Sales assistants would be on hand to offer guidance for those who are not as tech savvy as others, and food and drink would be available, perhaps in partnership with Starbucks, in the same way Borders does. Not only would this increase sales, but it would help convert the uninitiated in a shopping environment in which they already feel at home.

So, as other online retailers release record figures over the next few days, as I’m sure they will, traditionalists need fear not. The future promises a utopian shopping experience perfect for those who love the hustle and bustle of the high street, and those who enjoy the comfort of their own computer chair – and, perhaps, something for those who enjoy both.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

only as good as your last edit

The news this week that Wikipedia had passed a research test will have relieved founder Jimmy Wales and the many thousands of people who read its articles. What's interesting to discuss is whether facts and comment on Wikipedia can be considered an authoritative source for journalists.
When researching for the London-based national newspaper I work for, I often wonder about Wikipedia. Previously I have used it as a gateway to point me in the right direction. It has been extremely useful for me as a journalist in this sense, and links at the end of articles often jump to established authorities in specific areas.

But has Wikipedia become a valid authority itself? Probably not. At the present time, I would still refrain from quoting from Wikipedia in an article on any given subject, simply because I know the tiny team employed by Jimmy Wales cannot possibly check the millions of facts contained within.

Even if every entry was given a thorough going over in the same way British journal Nature did for Wikipedia's science pages, I still wouldn't be able to quote it. It simply doesn't have an aura of authenticity. This is to be expected - Wikipedia is only five years old. Compare this with Encyclopedia Britannica for example, which has been going for since 1768, and you start to get the picture.

Another hindrance to the authority value of Wikipedia, and indeed almost everything on the web, including journalism, is anonymity and ease of publishing. Because of this, web publications struggle for respect. This situation is changing. There are many websites that can be considered authoritative (although they usually carry the weight of an established name, like the BBC or The Guardian). But web journalism, like the Internet, is still in its relative infancy.

If Wikipedia wishes to be considered a credible, quotable authoritative source it will take many more accuracy studies like the one conducted by Nature. But it also needs to invest more in fact checking and expert consultation. And it's not just Wikipedia either. A wholesale image change of web journalism needs to take place. Then, perhaps, we will see web journalist salaries rise and sweat on the brow of Encyclopedia Britannica.

Friday, December 09, 2005

fools gold

Whether he knows it or not, prominent journalist John Seigenthaler has just advanced the cause of online journalism tenfold. How? He complained about Wikipedia.

Wikipedia's page on Seigenthaler was full of innacuracies. Significantly, one comment suggested he was involved in the Kennedy assasinations, making the piece defamatory. Online fools should suffer a similar fate to their print cousins, and, perhaps smelling a suit, Wikiedia founder Jimmy Wales withdrew the article and introduced a registration system for those who wish to publish articles.

What are the implications of all this? Wales says the number of new articles on his site will reduce. He will also be able to track posters. Editing will, however, remain anonomous (it is a wiki after all). Will the move improve the quality of Wikipedia's journalism though? This is, after all, what the fuss is about.

The answer is, essentially, no. It will merely slow it down. The only thing a registration system will do is make those who wish to deliberately post libellous articles on Wikipedia think twice.

But what is the ultimate outcome? If a Wikipedia user posts something which is libellous, can the poster be held financially accountable? I assumed there would be a clause within the registration that warns prospective users against posting dubious information - maybe even offers a crash course in media law.

I never trust to assumptions. So I found out. During registration, nothing informed me that I would be liable if I published libellous information. Fair enough. Mr Wales is quite obviously prepared to protect the users of his website by making Wikipedia responsible for everything published in it. Just like in print: where the publication is sued, not the journalist.

Unfortunately, this isn't quite true. Here's a quote from their disclaimer:

"None of the authors, contributors, sponsors, administrators, sysops, or anyone else connected with Wikipedia in any way whatsoever can be responsible for the appearance of any inaccurate or libelous information or for your use of the information contained in or linked from these web pages."

Interesting eh? So, basically, if something on Wikipedia is libellous, then Wikipedia is not repsonsible. But wait? If users aren't responsible, and wikipedia isn't responsible, then who is?

The improbable answer is, funnily enough, no-one. Seigenthaler, being the dogged investigative hack he is, persued his biographer with a determination not seen since the days of The Terminator. I'll let the man himself tell you the result:

"Federal law also protects online corporations — BellSouth, AOL, MCI Wikipedia, etc. — from libel lawsuits. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, passed in 1996, specifically states that "no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker." That legalese means that, unlike print and broadcast companies, online service providers cannot be sued for disseminating defamatory attacks on citizens posted by others."

In short, defamation doesn't exist online. This is a rediculous situation. Imagine how farcical it would be to see a similar disclaimer to the one found on Wikipedia's website appear on the front page of the Daily Mail.

It does, however, beg a curious question: why did Wales remove the entry? He has the support of the Communications Decency Act and a nice, big, bold disclaimer to bat away any suit that might be lobbed his way.

This cannot continue. Online journalism cannot complain about professional rejection from print and broadcast media when it seems to be exempt from basic media law. How can online journalism convince the public that it's stories are factually correct when, by law, they don't have to be?

Seigenthaler's view, expressed in his excellent USA Today piece recounting his fight for justice, is that shared by many in the media today:

"When I was a child, my mother lectured me on the evils of "gossip." She held a feather pillow and said, "If I tear this open, the feathers will fly to the four winds, and I could never get them back in the pillow. That's how it is when you spread mean things about people.

For me, that pillow is a metaphor for Wikipedia."

Seigenthaler will be blissfully unaware, but he just might have forced Wikipedia, and online journalism, out of the virtual world and into the real.

Friday, December 02, 2005

roger ebert

The esteemed film critic Roger Ebert, of the Chicago-Sun Times, says games are not in the same league as film and literature in the art stakes - why? Because games allow users to make their own choices, whereas film and books have authorial control. Fair enough. He's probably right, but give us time. Won't be long until his generation are extinct and the gaming generation rises in his place. Until then, check out his reasoning.

angry gamers

I went to the launch of the XBox 360 last night at GAME in Oxford Street, expecting to see riots. What I saw was a damp squib. There were one or two people who left the line, I'd say about 150-200 strong, after a GAME employee told us that those who hadn't been called personally by GAME were not allowed in.

No riots, no fighting, no molotov cocktails. It was quite civilised really, for urban gamers. Check back soon for some vids of the launch I took with me trusty mobile phone. I may swear.

a new beginning . . .

For the Christmas period, this blog will change subject material. Every week (probably a Saturday) a news story will be deconstructed, analysed, and generally screwed up. It will be a news story that has raised my eyebrow, something out of ordinary, or something so scandalous I just can't help myself. Either way, a looming shadow will be cast over it - journalists of the world ph34r my wrath - the end is near.