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New ACCC guidelines for online reviews

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Sunglasses

By Kaye Blum

As a 21 year old emerging writer, I was incredibly excited to land my first writing job reviewing gigs in a popular weekly street press magazine. I wouldn’t be paid for my work of course – the publication was free to readers and relied on advertising revenue to survive. But I would get a byline – my name would be in print – that was exciting! And that was over 20 years ago, well before the emergence of the internet. These days pretty much anyone can have a byline online.

I didn’t see myself as a critic, more of a reporter, providing punters with an insight to a particular performance or event as I’d experienced it. As a local music fan, I was thrilled to get my name on the door to see some of my favourite bands.

But I soon discovered it wasn’t all fun and games, I had to work. I needed to take a few notes (pre-smartphone-with-recorders era), which I preferred to do discretely (not easy in a dimly lit room with no tables). I had to stand where I could get the best quality sound, which was usually by the mixing desk. But I also needed a clear view of the stage and I’m not very tall. Needless to say, I had to be on the ball, so drinking wasn’t an option. And back then, I was fond of a bevvy or three at a gig.

Then came the actual writing process. And this didn’t come easily at first. I was a perfectionist and wanted my piece to sound as good as the music I’d heard. Well, close enough, anyway. I remember at times toiling away on a draft all night, sometimes until dawn, to file my review before deadline. Lead times were short – there was an editor and a pre-press process to go through before hitting that marvellously historic invention, the printing press.

When the weekly edition hit the streets, I’d race out to the nearest distribution point (usually a pub or record store) to grab a copy. I’d flick through the pages at lightning speed until I found my article. Week after week, my reviews were published verbatim.

One week, however, it was possibly my eighth or ninth review, I read my work in print and the colour drained from my face. It had been changed. A whole line had been removed and another added, which clearly altered the opinion I had articulated from my viewing experience of the gig. These were not my words, and they did not reflect what I had witnessed. But the review still had my name on it. 

I raced home and rang the editor. Why did you change my piece? What was wrong with it? Well, she explained, the headline artist’s record company is a major advertiser in our magazine; and your review wasn’t very favourable of him. What? It wasn’t directly critical or blatantly negative. Why couldn’t you call me first to discuss it with me? If it really had to change to something I didn’t actually experience I’d have asked you to take my name off it altogether. I put down the phone.

I never wrote for them again. In fact, I never reviewed again, until the past year. After living in London for six years from the mid Nineties and witnessing how some critics, particularly theatre critics, would sit in the front row with their pen and pads practically waving about as if to say, look at me, I’m very important to your production. And unfortunately, they did have the power to make or break a production with their reviews, depending on the publication they wrote for.

But isn’t a review just an opinion? It might be an educated and informed opinion, it might not. The reviewer’s experience can be impacted by so many factors – an exhausted performer, dodgy equipment, a catastrophe in the kitchen. There are factors that might not be apparent. And how informed is the reviewer? Are they an expert in the field they’re critiquing? Or are they just another punter? It varies. Dramatically. Especially now with the internet, because pretty much anyone can publish a review on a wide range of platforms, from TripAdvisor to their own blog.

Some review platforms publish anonymous reviews, so there is little or no accountability. Anyone can say anything. And they do. Everyone’s a critic. When it comes to online comments, anonymity gives some cowards the opportunity to say things they wouldn’t dare put their name to.

But maybe not for much longer.

Late last year, YouTube changed the way comments are managed* and moderated by requiring a Google+ ID login to comment. In a recent SlideShare presentation from JWT Intelligence called 101 Things To Watch In 2014*, slide number 97 predicts verified reviewers as the way forward, citing platforms such as Amazon and Google Play as already utilising a form of verification.

In an effort to address the increase of fake positive reviews and potentially business-destroying defamatory ones, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) published new guidelines to online reviews* for both businesses and review platforms in November 2013. While honest reviews can be helpful for consumer decision-making, the increase in fake positive and contrived negative reviews has serious implications.

The ACCC publication provides guiding principles on transparency of commercial relationships, reviews presented as impartial that are not, and editing or omission of reviews that can be misleading.

Disclosure of any incentive given to review is vital. When I added a review section to Tweed Scene last year, I updated my About page to disclose my reviewing principles in an effort to maintain the integrity of the site. After completing MEAA’s Australian Media Law and Ethics training in December, I was glad I’d instinctively chosen transparency on Tweed Scene, but even more grateful to have a deeper knowledge of Australian defamation laws.

Personally, I’m all for transparency, integrity, and reviewer verification. So I hope JWT Intelligence’s prediction for 2014 comes true. Meanwhile, for all those reviewers and bloggers out there who aren’t accredited journalists, best you familiarise yourself with the ACCC’s guidelines, pronto 🙂

*Accessed 15/1/14

Written by Kaye Blum

January 17, 2014 at 12:37 pm

MWF’s Stories Unbound app – a world’s first?

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By Kaye Blum

Don't be afraid of the sadness

An image from my Ambient Literature series.

Researching emerging technologies as part of my Masters/PhD can really suck sometimes. Technology changes at such a rapid pace, it’s a challenge to stay on top of it. So ideas formulated and documented but not yet developed can very easily get pipped to the post by those with greater means (read: ‘money for development’).

This happened to me not so long ago as I was perusing the Melbourne Writers Festival program in search of sessions addressing new technologies. A tiny little article on page 26 titled iPhone apps announced two freebies. One was the “official MWF2011 app” which enables ticket purchase and program browsing directly from an iPhone. The other was called Stories Unbound, which the article claimed as “the world’s first social platform for stories”, enabling readers to access geo-tagged stories and writers to publish their own stories.

A loud sigh escaped when I read about the second app. It sounded quite similar to the one I have planned as part of my creative project. I headed straight to the iTunes store to check them out. I found the MWF2011 app (which proved extremely useful throughout the festival). But I couldn’t find the Stories Unbound app anywhere. This was on July 31. I posted a comment on MWF’s Facebook page enquiring about it, but got no reply. I signed up to their Twitter feed to watch for future announcements.

It wasn’t until 5th September, the day after the festival finished, that I stumbled upon an article on The Guardian’s technology blog reviewing 10 new apps, including Stories Unbound.

So I checked iTunes and there it was. The published release date was 31st August – six days into the festival and long after I’d given up on it actually existing at all. I searched back through the MWF Twitter feed to see if I’d missed an announcement, but found nothing. Then I went through my emails and found buried at the bottom of the Day 9 e-news bulletin (2nd September, two days before the festival’s end) a little news item titled Stories Unbound… Forever? It introduced the app as “the world’s first social-media platform for writing, publishing and of course, reading stories.”

Dammit I must have missed that article altogether. Or possibly didn’t even open the email.

Ironically, the Stories Unbound app was created by JWT Melbourne, an ad agency I’d done a long freelance stint at quite a few years ago. Obviously there must have been major delays in getting the app launched in time for the festival, which is a real shame.

It’s an interesting claim that Stories Unbound is a “world’s first”. I conducted extensive research last year to compile a list of locative media poetics and found projects such as textopia (Løvlie 2009), a mobile app which enabled the user to walk through a city and access literary texts relevant to certain places; Ourplace (Hamilton 2009) which converged locative media and online participation; and Neighborhoodnarratives (Iversen 2009), which used mobiles and the web to produce stories reflecting a particular city or neighbourhood. But these are not the only ones. I’m finding more all the time.

The advantage of finding MWF’s Stories Unbound app is that it’s not just research, it has been released to the big wide world and it’s actually local, unlike other publicly released apps which rely on a location across the globe to activate. So I can give this one a thorough road-test. Here goes…

As a reader, I have several options on how to choose a story. I can enter a title or author into the search box; or select the Search icon at the bottom for options such as searching by most popular, most recent, nearest me. Or I can filter by genre or writer. A quick way to find stories about my current location is via the pin icon, which brings up a Google map with book symbols denoting different stories. There’s also a list icon which enables you to scroll through story titles. Readers can rate stories out of five stars and share them via Facebook or Twitter, but can’t leave comments.

To write and upload a story via the app is relatively easy, reflecting a well-designed user interface (UI). A character count keeps tabs on the 50 character limit for the title and 4000 character limit for the body of the story. The only drawback: entering a story that’s a couple of hundred words or longer. A 4000 character limit is around 700-800 words – a decent length for a short story. But who wants to spend hours tapping in 4000 characters with one finger? Not me. I’d prefer to touch-type on my laptop and upload it from there. So I go to the Stories Unbound website to see if that’s possible.

From my laptop I discover lots of issues with the website’s UI and I can’t seem to upload my story. I switch from Chrome to Safari – same deal, so it’s not a browser issue. After a few hours of fiddling, it seems several scroll and submit buttons fall below the fold, which I can’t access on my laptop even though I have the screen open as wide and long as I can get it. Frustrated, I abandon my mission and decide to try again the next day when I can access a bigger computer screen to see if that resolves the issue.

It does. Well, most of the UI issues, anyway. I’m able to upload my story, but sorting out the location proves difficult.

Curiously, the world map on the website isn’t a Google map and the country and city names aren’t shown. So dragging and dropping the book icon becomes a little like pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey. I tried going back into the app to see if I could modify the location with the more detailed Google map, but edits aren’t possible from the app – you can only edit from the website. So I tried again on the computer, opening a Google map to try matching up roughly where Frankfurt might be in the great black land mass of the Stories Unbound map. I’ve almost got it, but it’s still not accurate and it took ages.

There are a few other glitches with uploading from the website, such as selecting the genre. I did this several times, trying travel, then memoir, but it kept defaulting back to Children and Young Adults.

Overall, it was a great experience to try it and I really like the app. I just hope they can get the UI sorted for website access via a laptop to encourage a few longer stories to be uploaded. In terms of how it compares to the app I’m developing, there are several key differences. To find out what they are, keep an eye out for future posts J. And if you find any similar apps, please be kind and share – just leave a comment.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

Seeking writers unbound at MWF 2011

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By Kaye Blum

This year’s Melbourne Writers Festival (MWF) is themed ‘Stories Unbound’. It’s a delightfully positive spin on the status quo of the publishing industry as it edges tentatively into the digital era with (hopefully) a little less confusion, fear and foreboding than the music industry experienced not so long ago.

I’ve regularly attended writers’ festivals in various Australian locations including Brisbane, Byron Bay and Melbourne. In recent years there’s usually been a session or two on e-books and what’s going to happen to our beloved paperback.

Much of the focus has been on the current issues facing the publishing and book retail industries. And there are many challenges, including digital rights management (DRM), the different formats required for the range of tablets (or e-readers) available, pricing models and distribution.

You only need to be the owner of a tablet yourself to know the current limitations of the Australian e-book market. And if you are a tablet owner, you’re one of the rapidly growing masses, according to the stats in this promo blurb for AIMIA’s upcoming seminar on Tablet Wars:

“It is forecast that 5.5 million Australians or 3 million households will own a tablet by 2015…. The rate of adoption is twice as fast as smartphones, broadband and other technologies that have preceded it.”

These stats are from Pricewaterhouse Cooper’s Australian Entertainment & Media Outlook 2011-2015, due for release some time in August 2011, which will include a focus on tablet devices. Hopefully the report will also include some up-to-date statistics on e-book sales compared to printed books in Australia, which I’m currently struggling to find. (If anyone has any data, please be kind and share.)

But there’s no point having the tablet if we don’t have the content. And to me, the tablet is more than just a device to transform a printed book into a PDF. It’s an entirely new world for readers – and writers.

As writers, we are no longer limited to words on paper. With smartphones and tablets, we can integrate sound, moving image, location and real-time interaction from anywhere in the world as narrative devices. Storytelling is literally leaping from the page to become story sharing across media platforms and across the globe.

At this year’s MWF, I want to find out how writers feel about the potential of the e-book. Are they mainly concerned about piracy and how they might protect their hard-earned income? Are they ambivalent about making any kind of change to the structure and methods of their storytelling? Are they interested in developing new skills to explore the possibilities of interactive or non-linear narrative? Do they think the title ‘content creator’ holds less esteem than ‘author’? Are they – like me – excited by the limitless potential of stories unbound?

If you’re a writer of any genre, I’d love to hear what you think.

(c) 2011 Kaye Blum.

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