Adventures in Livestreaming: Chapter 1

An occasional series in which I fumble my way the world of live-event coverage. I screw up so you don’t have to. 

My golden nugget of fried gold from HighEdWeb 2011 was this, courtesy of rockstar niceguy and caffeine connoiseur Seth O’Dell: If you are not livestreaming your events, you do not care about your community. All it takes is one person, one laptop, and one camera.

With those words ringing like a Buddhist sutra in my ears, I’ve set about trying to bring real-time event coverage to our campus this year. My immodest goal: make livestreaming of guest speakers, panels, and performances an expectation and not an exception. When someone hears that an event is *not* going to be livestreamed, I want them to be disappointed.

So far this year, I’ve livestreamed two events and have three more coming up. Each time I’m learning something new, something I think I’ll do differently the next time around. Let’s start at the beginning:

Livestreaming Rule #1:
The Cake Is A Lie (well, at least a fib)

Seth is an inspiration and a giant amongst mortals, but his “One person, one laptop, one camera” philosophy is akin to the coach in Bull Durham saying, “You throw the ball. You hit the ball. You catch the ball.” He ain’t lying, but there’s a bit more to it than that.

The very first event I livestreamed did in fact involve one person (me), one laptop (and old MacBook Pro I use as a Safari test machine) and one camera (an even older Sony Handycam of the kind your dad took on vacation to Washington’s Crossing in 2002).

And it did in fact work. The event was a hastily convened ceremony for our YellowJackets a cappella ensemble who were being presented with a key to the city. It was in a huge room with bad acoustics and there was no podium mic or sound system. I just used the built-in mic on the camera to pick up the sound in the room. We ended up with 48 viewers for a webcast that was only promoted about a half an hour before it began with a homepage, Facebook, and Twitter posting.

So as a proof of concept, I’d call this one a success. With lots of research and several test runs, even a clueless neophyte like me was able to pull off a live webcast that did not crash and burn midway through. One-person-one-laptop-one-camera does work. However, both the person, the laptop, and the camera in this scenario left something to be desired. As a result, the final product did leave lots of room for improvement on both the technical quality side (especially audio), the skills side (especially me) and on the promotional side.

Things can only get better from here — stay tuned for our next exciting episode!


PS — for those interested, here are some of the specifics on the equipment used on this event.

EVENT: YellowJackets Key To the City

  • Platform: Livestream; used their Livestream Studio Web-based interface
  • Camera: Sony Handycam DCR-HC90 (don’t think they make ‘em anymore)
  • Mic: Camera built-in
  • Laptop: Macbook Pro (late 2006 model; this caused a last minute scramble to find a Firewire 800 to Firewire 400 adapter for the laptop’s older Firewire input)
  • Tripod

The Goddess Watches the Iowa Caucus Results (so you don’t have to)

I fell asleep before the final votes were in, but here is how the Iowa caucus played out in my little corner of this beacon of freedom Rick Perry calls, “‘Merka.”

Goddess Redux 2008: The Goddess Explains the Iowa Caucuses

NOTE: This blog post originally ran on January 3, 2008.

The Iowa caucuses begin in just over an hour, and already the talking heads on CNN are creaming their pants waiting for the returns to start coming in. I’m worried.

I’m not worried about any particular result. I’m worried about the media coverage. The journalists and pundits covering this campaign haven’t had anything real to talk about for more than a year. They are like racehorses trapped in the starting gate, straining for the finish line. The language is already scary: “It finally begins!” “It’s a day that’s been circled on political calendars for months.” “It could be anyone’s game and in a few hours we’ll finally know who emerges as the winner in Iowa.” As a result of all this pent-up media energy, a completely ridiculous system involving around 200,000 corn farmers will be blown totally out of proportion.

So just what is a caucus, anyway? The mainstream media have been doing these “So just what is a caucus, anyway?” pieces all week, but they are always done with this “aw, shucks” undertone. “Aw, those cute Iowans, meeting in each others living rooms, bringing cookies and pie and talking to their neighbors about politics. That’s the stuff of democracy.” The BBC America reporters covering the caucuses seem to get particularly swept away with the heady romance of good ol’ fashioned USA democracy in action.

But the Iowa caucuses have a dirty little secret: hardly anyone participates. Part of the romance around the early electoral states of Iowa and New Hampshire is that the people in these small, unrepresentative states take their duty seriously and are really engaged in the process. In Iowa, it turns out that’s just not true. Two million of Iowa’s 3 million residents are registered to vote, and of those only 150,000 Democrats and 80,000 Republicans are expected to participate in caucuses. That’s only about 12 percent of registered voters. So much for participation.

There are other issues with the Iowa caucuses that make them less the bastion of participatory democracy that they are portrayed to be.

  1. The caucuses begin at 7pm sharp. If you can’t be there at 7pm, you can’t participate. So anyone who has to work at 7pm (oh, let’s say nurses, police officers, bar and restaurant waitstaff, couples who can’t get a babysitter, the babysitters of couples who could get a babysitter, etc.) are left out in the Iowa cold.
  2. When you attend a caucus, you are asked to publicly choose which candidate you prefer, usually by physically moving to a certain area of the room. If your candidate does not garner 15 percent of the participants in his or her corner, you can either leave or move to one of the other groups. It is this “neighbors persuading neighbors” bit that’s always romanticized by the pundits, but what if one of the people doing the persuading is your boss? Or your minister? Or a party activist, promising you a spot at the state’s convention delegation if you come over to their side?
  3. Those initial counts — when everyone first says who they support — are not reported to anyone ever. It’s therefore possible for a candidate to come in third or fourth in the preferences of participants overall without anyone ever knowing it. For example, if you attend a caucus of 60 people a candidate must get at least nine supporters to be considered “viable.” So if six people support Dennis Kucinich, 27 people support Barack Obama, and 27 people support John Edwards, those six people in Kucinich’s corner will be asked to support another candidate. The fact that they initially supported Kucinich is never known by anyone. Multiply that across the 1,781 precincts in Iowa, and you’ll never know how many people in Iowa actually thought Dennis Kucinich would make a good Democratic presidential nominee.
  4. Forgetting all that nonsense for a moment, even after the Kucinich supporters in our example above move on to support, say, Obama, those vote totals are not reported either! So if there are 60 people in that room, the result coming out of that precinct is not “Obama: 33, Edwards: 27.” Those totals are plugged into a mathematical formula that no one ever explains! except to say “it’s reaaaallly complicated, Wolf!” That formula decides how many state delegates each of the two candidates in our scenario will receive (not national convention delegates; those are different). Our hypothetical precinct might have only three or four delegates, and that’s the only number that counts in the end of this “democratic” process.

My rule of thumb: if a system requires this much explanation, it’s probably not that good.


UPDATE: My mistake above. My post from 2008 was referencing the Democratic caucus rules. The GOP caucuses work differently. They do have a secret ballot, and there is only one vote with those raw vote tallies counted and reported. I was right about the participation rates though; they are abysmal.

Post-HighEdWeb Resolutions

I played guitar on a stage in Austin, so HighEdWeb 2011 has already given me a moment to check off the old Life List. But as I settle back in to work on Monday, the strains of furry karaoke still ringing in my ears, there are three resolutions I take back with me to tackle before the next HighEdWeb conference in Milwaukee in 2012.

1.) Make live-campus event coverage a reality. And then make it an expectation. The first thing I did when I got back to Rochester was talk to my boss about Seth O’Dell’s red stapler-winning presentation on live-event coverage. And to my boss’s credit, he gets it, and agrees that we should be doing this. But the problem is one that Seth articulated: there is no one who’s job this is right now. Well now it’s my job. Or at least it’s my job to figure out whose job it is. Because as Seth said, “If you are not livestreaming your events, you don’t care about your community.” It is that important.

(Of course, the next logical question is, if you are streaming your guest speakers, why not livestream your classes? And that’s where the conversation gets really interesting.)

2.) Introduce some real project management up in here! Right now, my main project management tool is my inbox, and most of my deadlines are “as soon as possible” or “when you get a chance.” This is not good. Alana Riley’s session on leading successful projects was packed full of so many tools and resources. She almost made project management seem easy. Almost. ;-) Easy enough for me to give it a try, anyway.

3.) Stay positive and get out of my own way. This is a tough one. As I stare at the aforementioned inbox, I have 434 unread email messages from my week away in Austin. The post-heweb glow usually lasts about a week or so before I feel myself slowing sinking back under that weight. But as Dan Frommelt said in his presentation on project management by Attila the Hun, “You can laugh or you can cry. And one of these is dignified.” I usually am a pretty positive person around the office, I think. But I do allow myself to get  overwhelmed by events. This year, in an attempt to save my sanity, I resolve to say “no” more often (see Fran Zablocki’s post “It’s All Your Perfect Little Fault” because I can’t put it any better than this) and finally, to quote from Karlyn Morisette’s red-stapler winning session, I resolve to get out of my own way, and to not let the myriad little things distract me from the big, important things.

See you in Milwuakee — stay HighEdWeb, my friends (shout out to Mark Greenfield!)


Does Facebook = Knowledge Creation?

If libraries provide computer stations for their members, and all that most members use them for is to check Facebook, are we really “facilitating knowledge creation?”

What if what our community wants is a place where they can participate in social media? What if they want to update their Facebook status and friend their childhood sweethearts and play Farmville just like everyone else? If the library creates this space for them, is this knowledge creation? Or has the library just become a free computer lab? Or is the latter the beginning of the former?

It can be if you insert the one thing that makes a library a library, and that’s a librarian. If that librarian creates guides about the different social networking sites out there; or teaches workshops on how to present and protect your social identity, or how to use social networking to look for a job; or hosts a social networking “petting zoo,” to demonstrate the latest social tool on the block, then he or she is facilitating knowledge creation in their community.


If Librarians Ruled the Web (circa 1998)

The idea of librarians creating a “Reference Extract” for the Web — a “credibility engine” of linked Web pages based on how well they help answer users’ questions — has kinda sorta been tried before by Microsoft, who then proceeded to pretty much bungle it.

When I worked as an editor at MSN Search in the mid-1990s, the main goal of our staff was to organize the content of the World Wide Web around the language used in the most commonly entered search terms on our site. The leaders and many members of this team were librarians, and we used library-like language to describe our work. We created synsets with disambiguators to group and describe these keywords, then assigned Web sites or individual Web pages to those synsets in the ranked order we wanted them to be returned to the user of the search engine.

For example, we may see a new term in our keyword logs one week: Saturn. First we’d need to determine whether that keyword was a part of a larger keyphrase that was already in the database. So maybe we already had a synset for “Sega Saturn,” a sadly defunct video game console system. If so, maybe we could add “Saturn” as a new keyword to that synset and call it a day? But does Saturn mean anything else? Of course. There’s Saturn (planet), Saturn (car manufacturer), and Saturn (Roman god). That’s three new synsets to create. Now we need to search the keyword logs for other search queries that equal each of these concepts. Does a search for “Saturn’s rings” get its own sysnet, or can that query be added to Saturn (planet)? And where do queries like “Saturn facts” or “Saturn information” go? Once the synset work is done, now we have to find websites that the editorial staff think best answer each of these queries. We would even write the descriptions for these sites so that when a visitor to MSN Search enters the search term “Saturn,” they receive a lovingly hand-crafted set of the best search results back in return.

In hindsight this approach has many flaws (Microsoft didn’t lose the search wars for nuthin’!). A team of 20 human editors can only tackle so much. We did not open the process up to other professionals — other librarians — to expand the number of credible contributors. We also tended to focus on new search terms and the most popular terms, so that once a search term was included in a synset it would not usually be revisited. And — crucially, I think — Microsoft did not promote the fact that there were reliable, credible human beings doing this work. In fact, they hid it. PR materials would describe MSN Search as being powered by “SmartSense.” What was SmartSense, you ask? We were SmartSense! The 20 librarians, indexers, and editors in the editorial suite out in Redmond! We even had t-shirts made: “Ask me: I have SmartSense.”

As a technology company, Microsoft was proudest of its technology solutions: its crawler, its results engine, its throughput. And of course, the real goals of the service were more about selling banner advertising and sponsored links, and driving users to other MSN resources. But having started down the path of creating a credible, human-powered system for finding the connections between the information people were looking for on the Web, Microsoft did not have the SmartSense to see it.


“The Mission of Librarians…

… (should they choose to accept it) … Is to Improve Society through Facilitating Knowledge Creation in Their Communities.”

This is the organizing principle of David Lankes’ book, The Atlas for New Librarianship. I suspect it is also the organizing principle of his life, brain, and sock drawer. The man lives librarianship with a passion that is infectious and inspiring. And it makes me embarrassed at my 25-year-old self who had an opportunity to enter the library field but thought, “I don’t really want to be a librarian.” That girl was an idiot.

To be fair to my inner idiot, I was working from a very stereotypical view of librarians that was not uncommon. I imagined that as a librarian I would spend all day doing data entry, filing, and shelving. And while I did love to read, I did not especially relish a future surrounded by books and journals.

Not that there is anything wrong with books and journals. But there is nothing sacred about them either. For a long time now, the best tools for sharing and accessing information and then turning that information into new knowledge were text artifacts like books. They still are great tools. But they are only the tools. And the mission of librarians is not simply to organize the tools.


P.S. — TRUE FACT: I worked at Microsoft during the time period Lankes describes in his opening chapter when discussing how the difference in worldview led Wikipedia to succeed over Encarta. In fact, my Scottish husband was, rather hilariously, hired as an editorial assistant at Encarta to write captions for photos of German castles. He used to go to the library and look them up in Encyclopedia Britannica. :-)

“Blackboard is Not Awesome”

I have been using Blackboard as a student for about three weeks now, and I could not sum up the experience any better than one of my fellow classmates: “Blackboard is not awesome.”

Ain’t that the truth. Visually, the site leaves a lot to be desired: editable windows are tiny and aren’t expandable, icons hold little clue to the functionality hidden underneath, discussion threads are difficult to follow and are not searchable. And those are just the first three things I thought of.

More important though than the myriad design, navigation, and structural flaws of the Blackboard interface is a more fundamental issue: In this social networked world where students — and faculty — are used to systems that “just work” and that allow us to make connections with people who are important to some aspect of our lives, Blackboard doesn’t and can’t.

Moving from the world of Facebook and Twitter and Google+ and Foursquare to Blackboard feels like someone has slammed on the brakes in your brain. You can practically hear the “screeeeech!” followed by the “clunk … clunk … clunk” as you try to upload an assignment or find the one discussion thread you are supposed to respond to. And — crucially — the real life connections you make with your fellow students in the classroom have no presence here. All of that real connection and collaboration seems to happen elsewhere: in Facebook groups primarily but also on Skype and maybe soon a Google+ hangout (I know we are still in the “Google+ will change [FILL IN THE BLANK] as we know it!” phase of giddiness, but the Circles and Hangout features look sooooooo tempting to me right now.) How cool would it be as a student if your academic life online felt as connected as your social life?

There are other learning management systems (and isn’t that a horrible name — you will learn, but that learning shall be managed in this system!) that I am not familiar with that seem to be moving in this direction — namely Moodle. And I wonder how long a very un-social, not awesome tool like Blackboard will be tolerated in an increasingly and awesomely connected world.


The Goddess of Clarity Goes Back to School

So the blog is re-emerging from one of its quieter phases again (have I *really* not posted in three months? Shame on me!) and will be taking on a slightly different range of topics in the months ahead. You see, I am going back to graduate school, specifically for my Master of Library and Information Science degree from Syracuse University. It is all very exciting and all very daunting and all very ridiculous.

I have to admit that so far the predominant feeling or thought running through my head in the last couple of weeks has been, “what the hell am I getting myself into?” followed by, “you can’t be serious?” Oh, but I turns out I am. To borrow from my original personal statement when applying to the program:

[In the mid-1990s,] I began working full time at Microsoft on the MSN Search team — Microsoft’s first foray into the search engine wars — where I was surrounded by librarians. With their indices and taxonomies and hierarchies it seemed they had set about the task of cataloging the whole of human knowledge. But how far can software go in knowing what we’re really looking for?

Now in my current position as the Web Editor for the University of Rochester, it’s my job to help people find what they are looking for on our websites. And while it can be customary to think of content and design as two separate aspects of website development, I have come to view design as content. The most informative content in the world is of little use if it’s hiding behind layers of roadblocks. How can interface design contribute to the accessibility and ultimately the value of the content we have to share with our users?

These are just a couple of the questions that I very much want to explore.


Back to the Future: Lessons Learned on April Fools

April Fools homepageFor the third year now, our office has done an April Fools homepage. This year’s was simple: roll the homepage back to the first-ever homepage for the University, first published in 1996.

It was surprisingly simple to pull off as well, since the actual file was still (!) on the central Web server. All I did was update the links to the current URLs and add a wonderfully cheese-tastic animated “NEW!” gif and we were good to go.

Teasing my way through the code to make those few small changes turned out to be more difficult than it should have been for such a simple site. Under the hood of what is basically a header image, a list, and two paragraphs is a nest of nested tables, <center> tags, spacer gifs (remember those?) and all-around ridiculousness that just screamed, “man, what were we thinking!” Add to this behind-the-scenes nonsense the grainy top montage gif, the beveled borders and horizontal rules and you have a pretty good snapshot of the state of the Web 15 years ago. All that’s missing is a tiling background image and an “Under Construction” graphic.

This got me to thinking: what are we doing NOW that is brimming over with wrong? What will we look back on 15 years from now and say, “wow, that’s hilarious. What were we thinking? This is so 2011!”

  • Glossy buttons
  • Rounded corners
  • Tag clouds
  • jQuery content sliders in the top third
  • Square photos
  • “Hey, remember when you had to use a mouse to physically move a cursor over a link? Weren’t they made out of plastic or something?”
  • “It was like every site wanted you to create another account, another login, another password. It was a nightmare.”
  • “Man, you have no idea. The content management system was separate from the events calendar, which was separate from the online directory, which was separate from the catalog. It was insane.”
  • “What’s a content management system?”

Any others?