Writing Conversation: An Analysis of Speech Events in E-mail Mailing Lists

Nearly ten years ago, in what was another life, I completed a Master’s degree in applied linguistics with Aston University in Birmingham, UK. My dissertation was about a subject that was, at the time, relatively new: e-mail.

I’ve had this on my web site ever since, and I have received a great deal of feedback about it over the years. While it probably won’t interest many of my readers, I thought it was worth dusting off and mentioning here on Kirkville. So, if sociolinguistics interests you at all, you can read the entire paper here.


Imprecision in Journalism: How the iTunes MiniStore was Reported

With the recent kerfuffle over the iTunes MiniStore and privacy, I have written several articles about the issue, been interviewed by a number of web and print media, been interviewed for podcasts, and invited on a national business channel to discuss the issue. This issue annoyed me from the beginning: the fact that iTunes was both sending personal data to Apple and other companies without warning users, and the fact that iTunes was displaying “recommendations” (that is, ads) when users were not “in” the iTunes Music Store.

But now that Apple has corrected this problem, what really annoys me is the level of journalism I have seen about the problem. From mistakes to clueless writing, from minor technical errors to stupid comments from writers who clearly no nothing about technology (and probably cannot read very well, since I and others have very clearly written about what the iTunes MiniStore does), these errors are legion.

So, here’s an overview of some of the statements I have found that are incorrect, and, in some cases, border on incompetent. Tell me how journalists can get something so simple so wrong…Nick Farrell, writing for The Inquirer, said the following: “There were claims that you had to be a computer expert to know how to switch the data collection facility off, which many of its users are not.” Nick, show me where anyone said that you need to be a computer expert to click a button or select a menu item… Do you run iTunes at all?

Many articles, including this one in the LA Times, an editorial to boot, said things such as, “Besides, Apple said, it didn’t store any of the information it received.” This comment makes me snicker. My friend Rob Griffiths, who wrote an article about the iTunes MiniStore shortly after I published mine. Griffiths received an email from a high-level Apple official to this effect (that Apple was not storing information), and added the following update to his article: “…an Apple official told Macworld that the iTunes MiniStore feature does not collect any information from users.” But at no time did Apple issue an official statement about the iTunes MiniStore. Media comments, such as those mentioned by the LA Times, suggest that this is the case, but they are simply relying on a comment from a journalist about an email he received. Sigh.

Louisa Hearn, writing for The Age in Australia, explains how the MiniStore displays a warning, but goes on to say “Although the MiniStore is turned on by default for new customers, a pointer at the bottom of the playlist page allows them to switch it on or off.” This one is interesting. The article includes a screen shot which shows the Turn on MiniStore button, but this journalist seems to think that the MiniStore is on regardless of this button? The button turns it on, not off, as the button says.

The CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Company), in an article about the iTunes MiniStore, repeats another fallacy that has spread, showing that their journalist didn’t do any fact-checking. “The software scans a user’s existing downloads and recommends new songs to buy,” the article says, which is blatantly false. The iTunes MiniStore only sends information about songs that users click. This suggests that iTunes is sending information about users’ entire libraries. You get an F, unnamed reporter, for this one.

PC Magazine took a different tack. In this article, they tried to sound like investigative network journalists, using advanced forensic techniques to get to the bottom of the question. Journalist Oliver Kaven says such wondrous things as, “Here at PC Magazine, we began dissecting the issue, one IP packet at a time.” Ooh, like CSI but with computers, right? He goes on to say, “We found that this can be prevented by minimizing the MiniStore application or by playing songs from a play list.” Hmm… He didn’t need a packet analyzer to find that no data was sent, but at least he was checking the facts. I reported this, saying, “However, when the MiniStore is hidden, iTunes does not send these requests. You can therefore protect yourself from Apple’s prying eyes by simply hiding the MiniStore,” as did several other web sites. However, “playing songs from a play list”? That’s not entirely correct. What he should have said was that the MiniStore only sends data when you click on a song. If you double-click a song to play it, iTunes sends information about that song, but not about subsequent songs in playlists or albums. Guilty of over-exaggeration, and of a minor error, PC Magazine tried to turn this into a detective story.

What surprises me in all this is that some of these “major media outlets”, such as the CBC or newspapers, have reported this issue with more errors than most bloggers. Not that I believe in the Easter bunny, especially given recent scandals at top-tier newspapers like the New York Times, but I would have thought that these media had better structures in place for fact-checking, and that the journalists are more qualified. This said, the above examples are only a handful of negative ones; there are many more, but a majority of the stories I read about this issue were correct.

The Trouble with Newspapers

Not long ago, I posted an article about online newspapers here on my site. My complaints were more about form and functionality than content, but I did suggest that newspapers have an important role to play.

Joseph Epstein has written an interesting article in Commentary called Are Newspapers Doomed?, which examines the more serious questions of the content of newspapers as they are faced with increasing competition from audiovisual media and the Internet. I heartily agree with Epstein, especially with his conclusion:

My own preference would be for a few serious newspapers to take the high road: to smarten up instead of dumbing down, to honor the principles of integrity and impartiality in their coverage, and to become institutions that even those who disagreed with them would have to respect for the reasoned cogency of their editorial positions. I imagine such papers directed by editors who could choose for me—as neither the Internet nor I on my own can do—the serious issues, questions, and problems of the day and, with the aid of intelligence born of concern, give each the emphasis it deserves.

Beyond that, I wonder about a world where people consider that even attempting to understand the world around them, and voting for their leaders based on little more than beauty contests. I wonder how people feel that they are part of a society that they shun at every opportunity, yet get flustered when things go wrong. How they could elect an American president who is so averse to telling the truth about anything, yet continue to accept new lies on almost a daily basis.

This won’t change. Not overnight, at least. It would take much more than a few good newspapers to turn passive couch potatoes into interested voters and citizens. But one can always hope, right?

Cory Doctorow on Copyright, Piracy and DRM

The fine people at Change This have posted an attractively laid-out PDF of a speech Cory Doctorow gave to Microsoft about DRM (digital rights management). Cory has a way with words, and he puts his words where his mouth is, by giving away the novels and stories he’s written.As the Change This website says:

Usage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been hotly debated since a college student threatened to put an entire industry out of business with a little application he built in his spare time, Napster. In this transcript of a speech he gave at Microsoft’s campus, Cory explains why DRM doesn’t work, why DRM is bad for society, bad for business, bad for artists, and a bad move for Microsoft. Using Sony and Apple as examples of companies that are using DRM to *punish* consumers, he suggests Microsoft use the opportunity to once again champion users’ rights. To follow our current path, Cory argues, is to stifle innovation and contradict the purpose of American copyright law: to promote the useful arts and sciences.

There is an irony in this document being made available in a proprietary format: PDF. But since you don’t need Acrobat to read it – there are several other PDF readers, including Preview, if you use Mac OS X – I guess that’s all right.

in any case, it’s an intereting read, as Cory goes over the history of copyright and piracy.