NetAction Notes

Published by NetAction Issue No. 85 July 11, 2002
Repost where appropriate. See copyright information at end of message.


Bandwidth or Blogs
When Good Text Goes Bad
About NetAction Notes

Bandwidth or Blogs

"The Broadband Difference" is a new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project that describes how high-speed Internet access changes the way people use the Internet. The report cites three major ways in which broadband users differ from dial-up users, one of which is that they create and manage online content. This isn't surprising, especially if the content being developed includes bandwidth-intensive graphics, sound, or video files that take forever to upload on a dial-up connection. But Internet users don't need a high-speed connection to create and manage text-based content, which may explain the growing popularity of weblogs.

Although the number of Americans with high-speed Internet access has quadrupled over the past two years, the vast majority of Internet users still rely on a slower dial-up connection. The assumption that underscores much of the discussion about broadband deployment is that demand will skyrocket as soon as the perfect bandwidth-hogging multimedia "killer" application comes along.

But the speed with which text-based weblogs have caught on among Internet users raises some questions about that assumption. Also called blogs, weblogs make it easy for anyone with Internet access, including dial-up users, to create and manage text-based online content. The rapidly growing popularity of weblogs is especially remarkable when you consider all the hype about multimedia applications driving the demand for high-speed access. Will the perfect "killer" application really prompt millions of Internet users to switch to broadband and download feature-length movies? Or will they be content using weblogs and similar applications to upload a couple of paragraphs of text about whatever strikes their fancy?

We're betting that blogs remain popular.

Weblogs have only recently become one of the hottest of Internet trends, but NetAction Notes first reported on their potential as a tool for activists more than a year ago in Notes 65. We revisited the subject earlier this year in Notes 83 to report on their use as a tool for real-time two-way communication at public meetings. More recently, a thought-provoking article about the media's use of weblogs got us thinking creatively about how activists could use weblogs.

In "Board The Weblog Bandwagon Now, Please," Editor & Publisher writer Steve Outing advises news companies to give weblogs to any reporter, editor, columnist, photographer -- or reader -- who wants one. This advice may be equally applicable to community groups and nonprofit organizations that want more inter-activity from technology.

Imagine the possibilities if you don't have to wait for your organization's webmaster to post an update to your organizations site.
For example, staff or volunteer members of community groups or advocacy organizations could use weblogs to post brief reports of breaking news such as a City Council decision on a local zoning matter, or a judicial ruling on an important lawsuit. As new information becomes available, the weblogs could be updated to include links to relevant web content such as news stories, government documents, or reaction statements from interested parties.

Membership-based organizations could offer weblogs as a perk to members who make an extra contribution, or to recognize and reward key volunteers.

With password protection or other appropriate security safeguards weblogs could also be used as electronic bulletin boards for staff to share news, or as forums for Board discussions.

Weblogs that offer Internet users access to the most up-to-date information are likely to attract more visitors to a site, which could help increase an organization's overall visibility. Links in weblogs could drive traffic to other items on the site.

Weblogs are most commonly described as online journals. Bloggers write about anything and everything. In "What We're Doing When We Blog, " Megnut columnist Meg Hourihan suggests that the common feature that characterizes weblogs is their format.

"Blog posts are short, informal, sometimes controversial, and sometimes deeply personal, no matter what topic they approach," she writes. Other common characteristics she identifies include the reverse-chronological order of the posts, the use of links, and a date header and time stamp. See our example of a weblog.

Weblogs may be the best evidence yet of the Internet's capacity for promoting unfiltered communication. In "Online Uprising," American Journalism Review writer Catherine Selpp examines the mainstream media's reaction to weblogs. (It isn't favorable.)

"... despite the attractive package of omniscient objectivity, every single thing we read in the paper, even hard news, is the product of many other people's opinions about what we should know," she writes. "Bloggers simply tear the wrapping off."

Which is exactly what activists do.

When Good Text Goes Bad

Do you ever wonder why email messages sometimes contain odd-looking characters, garbled text, and/or HTML code, like in the example below:

It⤁s always better to create email messages in your email browser. If you
create your message in Word, you⤁ll have some problems, such as:
¯ø Strange characters where you typed an apostrophe
¯ø Weird symbols instead of bullet points
¯ø Garbled text
¯ø Lost formatting
It⤁s also better to avoid bold text, italic text, bigger-than-normal text, or
smaller-than-normal text.

Reader Michael Stanek was getting so much activist email with garbled text like the example above that he asked if NetAction had any useful information he could pass on to the writers of these mixed-up-messages.

"I'm hoping you have a quick, easy answer (and solution) to why text from AOL addresses often gets garbled with strange characters where the sender intended there to be quotation marks, hyphens, colons, etc.," he wrote. "This is somewhat of an epidemic as far as I'm concerned. I receive postings all the time from local activists who use email for outreach. The content is important, but I suspect bad presentation may be hampering success."

Michael's concern is a valid one. If readers can't decipher your action alert, they're more likely to delete it than read it. But the problem isn't only with email from AOL users. One of the most common reasons for garbled text is that the email message was originally drafted in Word or another word processing application, then pasted into an email browser and sent as formatted text.

The example above was taken from an email test message that was created in Word 2001 for Mac. The text was formatted, then copied-and-pasted into an AOL email message, sent to a Worldnet address and read online using Worldnet's web-based email reader. The same message was even more garbled when the formatted text was pasted into Eudora, sent to an AOL address and read online using AOL's web-based email reader.

After contacting us about this problem, Michael forwarded a couple of examples of his own, with comments from the senders. One sender thought the culprit was an auto-correct feature in Word, the other speculated that it was a result of cutting-and-pasting text from an email message into a web-based list serve.

Whatever the cause, it's easy to avoid if you create your messages in plain text using your email application, rather than starting in Word and copying-and-pasting the text into your email application.

NetAction tested two popular email software programs (Eudora and Outlook Express) and two web-based email readers (AOL and Worldnet). In every case messages sent as plain text were received as plain text. But the results varied when the message was created in Word and pasted into the email application. Sometimes the text was okay; sometimes it was garbled. We've included some examples on NetAction's web site.

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