Geek alert: CNN builds the Holodeck

Apart from the historic nature of the U.S. election (which I will let others discuss), the coverage on CNN set new records as far as the coolness factor goes. Not only did the channel have the Magic Wall — which until recently was the height of geek-dom, with its multi-touch input and other features — but then the network whipped out a couple of holograms just to up the stakes a little. Like Mike Arrington at TechCrunch, even though part of me realized they could have done exactly the same thing with a remote camera, a much larger part of me was thinking: “Those holograms are cool.” Plenty of other people seemed to disagree, however, calling the hologram “creepy.” I was less enamored of the virtual Capitol building, which looked kind of cheesy, but the Will.I.Am interview (which is embedded here) was just extremely cool. Yes, I agree that the Jessica Yellin interview had more than a touch of Princess Leia about it, but it was still damn cool. That is all.


According to a professor of theoretical physics and an expert in holography, what CNN used were not really holograms, since they didn’t project a 3-dimensional image into the studio — they projected it into the camera feed, which is what viewers saw, while the actual hosts were talking to empty space. Okay, not quite as cool. More here.

CNN fires producer for being smart

If you follow the media business at all, you might have heard of Chez Pazienza — a CNN producer who was fired recently for having a blog. This isn’t that uncommon, sadly. In fact, it even has its own term: getting fired for your blog is called getting Dooced, after a blog of the same name got Heather Armstrong fired way back in 2002. So what happened to Chez is hardly unique. But for some reason it seems even more pathetic for something like this to happen to someone in the media — since blogs are just another medium, one you might hope outlets like CNN would be experimenting with. Or at least should be.

Heather Armstrong got fired for writing satirical blog posts about a place she worked. Why did Chez Pazienzia get fired? That’s not really clear. If you read his lengthy update about the situation — which I encourage you to do — he says it was made pretty obvious that while his blog technically broke the rules (which require that all outside writing be pre-approved by the network), the real reason he was fired was what he was writing about, i.e. the content of some of his blog posts.

It’s still not clear what was wrong with that content, however, other than the fact that he spoke his mind about various aspects of pop culture, the media, and occasionally political issues as well. I suspect it was when his posts started showing up at The Huffington Post (where some of mine also appear from time to time) that certain eyebrows started to be raised at CNN. But even that was never explicitly mentioned when he was given his walking papers. He was just shown the door.

As a blogger who also has a day job with a large media entity, I’m somewhat, er… sensitive to these issues, shall we say. I try to keep the things I write about on this blog focused on my beat, which is technology and new media, and when I stray from that I keep in mind that to some extent I represent the Globe and Mail and that they sign my pay cheques. That said, I think what CNN did to Chez Pazienza was pretty stupid. From reading his blog posts, he seems like a passionate guy, and a pretty smart guy as well. Isn’t that the kind of staffer they want?

Maybe he wrote some things that crossed the line into partisan ideology, things that CNN thought might make people question his ability to be fair or balanced as a producer. Or maybe he wrote some posts that the network thought made it look bad, by criticizing the popular media coverage of some issue. Either way, why not just go to him and ask him to tone it down a little? As far as I can tell, there’s no indication that anyone did that. And now, CNN just looks like a bully, and a stupid one at that.

Thanks for that question, ILoveObama1238

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

CNN — the real-time news star of a previous generation — has teamed up with YouTube, the king of “user-generated” video, to inject a little reality into the U.S. presidential debates (which are usually choreographed within an inch of their lives so that no one accidentally says what they’re really thinking). The two media giants have set up a joint venture in which average citizens will be able to submit questions, and CNN will choose two questions that will be played for the candidates during the upcoming Democratic debate.

citizentube.jpgAccording to a press release from the two companies, “select YouTube users” will also be in the audience during the live debate, which is scheduled for July 23 and will be moderated by Anderson Cooper. The plan is to do something similar for the Republican candidate debate, but one hasn’t been scheduled yet. According to a conference call with a CNN executive and YouTube CEO Chad Hurley, blog postings and discussion in online forums may also influence the debate.

YouTube political editor Steve Grove and Anderson Cooper describe how the video portion of the Democratic debate is going to work in (what else) a YouTube video. The YouTube Debate site joins several other YouTube “channels” related to the election: several months ago, the video-sharing site (owned by Google) set up a site called CitizenTube — which is moderated by Grove — and the site also has a channel called You Choose, where the candidates can upload videos.

Most of the candidates have embraced video to some extent, and both John Edwards and Barack Obama announced their candidacy with videos. Hillary Clinton recently recorded a video about her search for a new campaign song, in which she poked fun at her critics by using YouTube clips. But candidates have also been burned by video clips — such as the video of George Allen calling someone a “macaca,” which pretty much ended his campaign — and the public reaction to videos such as the Hillary1984 video (or the video mentioned in this blog post) is unpredictable.

For political purposes, the Internet is “a chaotic message environment,” Alan Rosenblatt says in a post on, “precisely because it enables anyone, as long as they have access to a wired computer, to post their own ideas and opinions.” Sometimes that can be good, and sometimes not so much.

Sandi Thom – not an Internet success story?

I posted a short link the other day – one of my “items that might grow up into blog posts” – about a Scottish singer named Sandi Thom, who decided to just play in her apartment and stream it over the Web instead of touring in an old broken-down van, and how she got 100,000 viewers and was then signed to a multimillion-dollar contract with RCA. Now it turns out that that great story reported by CNN and others may not be quite as clear-cut as it seemed at first.

The first inkling that this might not be quite so incredible a tale came when an old contact from years ago sent an email about it. Adrian du Plessis was a sort of freelance securities investigator when I dealt with him back in the late 1990s, when I was writing about the stock market for the Globe and Mail – he helped dig up some of the more salacious stock scams involving the then-Vancouver Stock Exchange, which was notorious for mining and penny-stock frauds. Anyway, somehow over the intervening years he had gotten into the music business, and he said there was more to the Sandi Thom story. As he put it:

“Contrary to the PR spin, Sandi Thom is an example of old-school PR/marketing dressed up as a viral campaign. Thom is at the centre of a well-conceived and realized marketing campaign, which has used traditional news media (newspapers, radio, tv) to create interest online. And, it’s been spun as happening the other way around. It’s a fascinating study, and, very much like a stock promotion!”

So I looked around on the Web a bit, and came across a post on the music blog Chartreuse, which gave a little more detail (which also apparently came from Adrian). Apparently, Sandi Thom signed a contract with a music publisher last year — a company called Windswept/Pacific Music, which has contracts with artists such as Beyonce Knowles and The Who. And traffic stats from Alexa seem to show that Sandi’s site started to get more traffic around the time press releases and news articles appeared about her playing in her apartment, not before. No signs of her getting 100,000 viewers, in other words.

There are also comments on Chartreuse from the publishing company that indicate Sandi Thom had already been approached by a record label after singing at a regular gig, and that she had already recorded a solo album, as well as being offered the chance to record with other prominent artists – before she started the “playing in my apartment” thing.

Is that fraud? Hardly. Good marketing? Maybe – but still kind of depressing, in a way. There’s more on Adrian’s new blog.