Alaa Free

Funny how the same words, in a different order, mean vastly different things. Last month I blogged about the Free Alaa campaign, an online drive to raise awareness of the detention of Egyptian blogger and democracy activist Alaa Abd El-Fatah. I heard about his detention via blogging, and by the same methods (via Adloyada) I now hear he has been released.

Part of the campaign was a GoogleBomb, whereby bloggers attempted to fool Google into returning pages from the Free Alaa campaign site, whenever the word ‘Egypt’ was searched for. As Adloyada suggests, this particular tactic may have had minimal effect, but the wider use of the internet as a medium for campaigning is what interests me here.

We are updated regularly on the ‘explosion’ of blogging, with about a billion new blogs created daily. Many of these – arguably the more interesting ones – are likely to spring up in places where democracy and human rights are not guaranteed. I worry that examples of bloggers being detained, already a regular occurence in Iran, will increase with the popularity of blogging in general. Perhaps we will begin to see a form of campaign fatigue, whereby it is difficult to keep track of which bloggers have been detained, and where!

This is where Web 2.0 innovations such as wikis and RSS feeds can come into their own, ensuring we can keep updated and active over a lengthy period of time. Metaphorical ideas of momentum and critical mass are crucial factors in political movements. It will be interesting to see whether technology will lead to more sustained and effective campaigns, or just higher-profile, yet ultimately damp, squibs. Looks like the former in the case of Alaa, thank goodness.

Google China

Now, it would be very hypocritical of me to complain about US government intrusion into internet search results, if I do not also utterly condemn Google’s decision to censor its Chinese site. However, even if I did not draw that parallel, I could never be more hypocritical than Google itself. The company who did indeed stand up to the aforementioned US government interference, has sold its morals down the Yangtze River. This is appalling blow to everyone who values freedom of expression, especially as the act comes from a company who emphasises its ethical policies. Via Blairwatch, we find that censorship directly contradicts Google’s admirable company policy:

Google does not censor results for any search term. The order and content of our results are completely automated; we do not manipulate our search results by hand. We believe strongly in allowing the democracy of the web to determine the inclusion and ranking of sites in our search results.

Not any more.

Perhaps Google should be subjected to some kind of boycott. Simply refusing to use the search engine would be almost impossible for most people, as it is such a ubiquitous tool (it’s even integrated into my Safari browser). Likewise, too many people use Blogger for this to be a viable proposition. It would also be counter-productive if our aim is the free flow of communication around the globe. CuriousHamster hints that he will remove the Adwords bar from his site, thus sacrificing some income from his blog. Will others follow suit?


Down In the comments, John suggests a very good article on the issue. Google does inform users that their search on will be blocked. This definitely doesn’t excuse the hypocrisy of going against a stated company policy though, nor does the fact that they are making money in a country through a censored search engine. I’m not sure that providing some search results is better than providing no search results. That seems to be a tacit endorsement of the system to me, especially as money is being made. As Danny Sullivan says, it would be better if they weren’t there at all.

Another Update

I just saw an AOL advert that used a clip of the man with shopping bags in front of the Tiannamen Square tanks, with a voice-over “The only place where freedom of speech is a reality”… Hmmph.

Linklog and blog strategy

Browsing the net, its clear that people use their blogs for different things. Some are very personal diaries, some are more true to the etymology of ‘weblog’, and use it as a log of places they’ve visited.

I don’t have the time to be as prolific as some of the other sites on my blog-roll, for whom delivering five or six posts per day is the norm. So I like the majority of my posts to be substantial things, with my own addition to the debate… rather than simply a sign-post to other sites. Hopefully this will be more engaging for the readers I am lucky enough to get. It’s a strategy of sorts, to ensure that I retain as many of the people who bookmark my RSS feed as I can.

However, I have been feeling guilty that I cannot pass on the the many bizarre websites I find, and that I do not ‘flag up’ those posts that other bloggers have put a great deal of thought and effort into creating. To this end, I have taken inspiration from QWGHLM and put a linklog on the site. By showcasing some of the sites and articles I find interesting, it should give visitors a small insight into my interests and political views, without the narcissism of posting about myself on the main blog!

New Year Honours

Happy New Year everyone. Time to announce some additions to the blogroll.

I am delighted that a few high profile sites I read regularly have added this site to their list of recommendations, and I am more than happy to return the favour. Chicken Yoghurt, and fellow Edin-bugger Devil’s Kitchen are pretty prolific hubs, of the type that have to post messages of apology if they do not post anything for more than 24 hours! I am not sure I will find a political soul mate at The Kitchen, but as one of his other endorsements declares: “I disagree with him quite a lot of the time but I actually have to use my brain to articulate why.”.

Stef at Famous for Fifteen Megapixels probably leans more my way. He presents articles that are thoughtful, amusing, or both.

The rise and development of the Internet is a subject that fascinates me. We are still at the beginning of the communication revolution, and those who campaign for good practice and good design deserve particular praise. A List Apart is a “website for people who make websites.” As well as carrying a fantastic design, it is impeccably coded and offers advice on how designers can mirror those traits on their own sites. Website design should be so much more than simply visual design for the screen, and these folk are the best advocates. Elsewhere, the simple site by Clay Shirky carries some concise and perceptive essays on the Internet and the digital revolution.

It is an oversight that two organisations I have collaborated with on a few projects are not present in my associates list. Radio Magnetic are a Glasgow based radio station, perennial nominees for online station of the year awards. Digital technology opens up whole new ways to communicate, for those with the confidence to try.

Radio Magnetic have commissioned a series of podcasts from Scottish artists, giving an insight into the process of creating new music. The FOUND Collective bring us the first podcast in the series. its quite funny.

Blogging analogies

Nosemonkey provides a long and interesting peice on the cliques and changes abound in blog network.

This is the main concern. If we all start meeting up in the real world and communicating via email rather than just comment boxes etc, is this likely to turn us all into some kind of nepotistic clique in just as bad a way as the mainstream press (pretty much) is? This whole obsession with ID cards, 90 Days etc is a prime case in point – in some areas it’s already almost turning into a Britblog hive mind…

The ‘hive mind’ idea is a popular one in science fiction, which in turn reminds me of the SETI screen-saver, where your computer analyses radio noise from the heavens in its spare time, looking for a pattern. The idea of a blog-hive-mind is like this too: Many people analysing lots of information. As Nosemonkey points out, the sheer volume of information being churned out by the established and online media means that we cannot read it all, and we cannot verify all of what we read. But the ‘blogosphere’ means we don’t have to. Between us all, we read everything, and between us we recommend the best of what we have read. The most interesting and controversial articles, or those that somehow capture the zeitgeist of the hour, will succeed in the market-place of ideas.

And the marketplace is not a bad comparision either. Why not concieve of the internet as a giant public square, where the best price can be obtained for your goods, you are sold exactly what you want, avoid tedious discussions, and spend more time finding precisely the right people to be friends with, and to argue with?

Update: From the comments section of the same article, I found a great piece on Weblogs, Powerlaws, and Inequality. Apparently it is highly unlikely that blog posts will success in the marketplace of ideas after all! As another commenter puts it: Shall we just forget about it all and get on with writing about things that interest us?

Sports and National Identity

The quality of the articles on race and identity at Minority Report is consistently very high, so I have added the site to my blogroll. David’s latest post is titled Overlapping Circles, and highlights the curious world of national sports. A country’s sporting heros are usually its most famous citizens, held aloft as model citizens who exemplify the national character. And yet in the sporting arena, nationality is a very transient quality indeed.

Sport takes nationality fairly loosely at the best of times. Or rather, in order to cast the net wide, rules are relaxed. At one time it seemed that to play for Ireland the requirement was only that one of your grandparents had sipped a pint of Guinness.

Another stark example of this is in the world of cricket, where many members of the English side have been of Southern African origin (with Kevin Pietersen the notable, recent example). A lament at the talent drain from the Zimbabwean national side forms the beginning of Let’s Talk Cricket from ZimPundit. White players are alienated, if not overtly excluded from the side, as their race becomes increasingly at odds with their nationality (as defined by their government). Those that remain, black and white, are abused and disrespected by the authorities:

… if you want an idea of how well a society is doing, take a look at their sports.

Ghosts in the iPod, Dæmons in Google

Everyone knows there are ghosts in the iPod. These are the beings that live deep within the algorithms of the randomise feature. They tap into your thoughts, and play a song for you. The iPod ghosts, they say, will choose the track that suits what you are thinking. The ghosts will look at your reflection in the train window, and the view beyond, and pick a song that fits your mood.

The iPod ghosts do not exist to simply provide a fitting cinematic sound-scape to our lives. They want to talk to us, and tell us stories. They show us connections we have not seen before. The non-believers claim that iPod ghosts are just the bizarre connections you make in your own head, links that give the impression of infeasible coincidence. But any connection you make will be a product of your language, the things you have done, the places you have been, the books you have read. These connections, the iPod ghosts, are our culture, the ramblings of our ancestors trying to tell us something they have already forgotten.

Contrast the iPod ghosts with the Google AdSense dæmons. These are the malevolent creatures that are trapped in a JavaScript world, somewhere between your computer screen and Google Inc’s servers. The dæmons strike when you are at your most vulnerable. They look for important pages, ones that mean something to the author. A cry for help, a gesture of genuine solidarity, a long pondered social comment. The daemons find these pages, and sabotage them with a crass, inappropriate and ill-timed mini-advert.

Trapped in their bland, neutral boxes, the AdSense dæmons are the enemy of sincerity. They take those same thoughts that are incubated by the iPod ghosts, and taint them with a blind, amoral commercialism. Perhaps the connections they make are also our culture, the same ancestors laughing hysterically at what we have become.


Andrew Sullivan has spotted a couple of AdSense daemons plaguing Mickey Kaus’ blog at Slate.

Chicken Yoghurt has sharp eyes, and has spotted an odd juxtaposition of story and advert. John Reid, Knifethrower.

Internet Philosophy

When the aliens come to visit me, the first thing I will do is show them the Internet. I think it is fascinating that I can surf from cross-stitch to cross-dressing in a single click. The Internet proves how diverse the human species can be, with little cliques and groups each posting their messages about those activities which take up their time.

I enjoyed Jeanette Winterson’s article in The Times, discussing the internet as an innovation and a medium. Part of the reason for this site’s existence is my plan to discuss the philosophy of the Internet: How its uses are evolving; how design, and coding innovations allow easy access to information; the future of the medium. I believe that the Internet will have a seismic effect on society, in the UK and beyond. The ability to “communicate and connect” (as Winterson suggests) may cause a paradigm shift for the way we live, especially politics and the media. The Internet is about globalisation…. it will be at the heart of multiculturalism.

This post inaugurates a new category on this website. I will call it Internet Philosophy for now, but I may change it to something less (or more) grandiose, depending on the feedback.

Narrow Definition of Web Design

This was the Star Letter in the July 2005 issue of Creative Review.

If the websites showcased recently in Creative Review are any guide to the industry as a whole, our definition of what constitutes a good website design is far too narrow. The emphasis at present seems to be purely on the visual, with websites being laid out using exactly the same rules as print design. Focus is given to ‘wow’ technologies such as Flash, while the basic rules of accessibility are ignored.

A film with immaculate cinematography may be totally let down by poor narrative structure or sound-track. Likewise, a website with an pleasing and original visual style will be let down by invalid markup, slow download times, and a lack of accessibility features (such as ‘title’ and ‘alt’ attributes to aid site visitors).

Examining the Aardman and Nike websites, showcased in the 2005 Annual, we see that neither site validates for HTML or CSS, and all the copy is presented as images – not searchable by Google or Yahoo – with no textual alternative. I can’t remember the last site featured in CR that was NOT designed to fixed dimensions, which reduces accessibility for those who may wish to enlarge the site on their screen. The end result of all these choices is that the key messages are communicated less efficiently to less people.

Designing good website visuals is not the same as designing a good website. I would encourage readers of CR to read one of the countless guides to website accessibility that exist online, and design accordingly. The ability to separate content from presentation is one of the positive aspects of the Internet. The web should be treated as a medium in itself, and not a metaphor for print.

Cliché watch #1

The Internet is a wonderful medium for communication and collaboration, but my God, it encourages lazy clichés. Many journalists are still under the illusion that using the Internet for research is still innovative and clever. In order to demonstrate to us, the pop-cultured masses, that their chosen subject is relevant, they begin their article thus: “A search on Google for x yields over 100,000 results.”

It’s a really tedious way to set the scene. No specialist knowledge or research lies behind the statistic. Anyone can use Google to search for a phrase, and everyone does. And therefore, everyone knows that the figures given are meaningless. Google includes in its results all indexed sites that contain one or more of the keywords and does not yet make any recommendations as to how relevant the results returned are likely to be. Everyone also knows that several pages in the same site can return multiple results, making the raw figure presented at the top of the screen even more meaningless.

What does the figure actually mean? When 472,000 results are returned for, say, “Margaret Thatcher Sex” have we really learnt anything new? All it really tells us is that some English words are used on some sites, somewhere on the web. And yet the journalist is wasting an entire column inch telling us this.

But it is most annoying because the phrase itself if so unoriginal. A search on Google for “A search on Google for” yields 90,000 results. So let us call a moratorium on this particular cliché, please.