Netdiver magazine

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Web stars speak

continued / Interview with Lance Arthur

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/ How did you get involved in cross-media publishing?

I was writing things for myself on my own site and never considered that anyone else would give care about my words. The Web provided a window for me to throw things out of. I never really wanted anyone looking in the other way, I wanted to plaster the glass with my writing.

My friend Alexis Massie had just come back from San Francisco where she'd run into a guy working at the offices of Wired named Derek Powazek. Derek had an idea for a Web site called the fray that would feature first-person true stories that he would design around to present a sort of interactive conversation based around the story. She said I should submit something to him and I resisted for a long time because I didn't want to be rejected. Besides, I had my own Web site where I could write anything I wanted to, why submit to another site? But she kept after me and I finally did do it and he published my piece and that single action suddenly opened up this whole new world for me.

I had always assumed that writing for others meant writing their way, giving up some portion of what you think, surrendering your writing uniqueness to conform to how writers write. I wasn't a writer, I didn't consider what I did - writing. But I learned that the power of voice in writing was actually what others truly valued. Derek, in particular, wanted to hear my voice in my stories. It sort of gave me the courage to go ahead and write the way I wanted to and I started submitting stuff all over the place. Pretty soon, I started getting people asking me to submit stuff, which was even weirder. Because what they wanted, mostly, were opinion pieces. And I'd be thinking, "Well, what does my opinion count? What do I know?"

And what I discovered was that my opinion in this medium was as valid as anyone else's. All anyone was ever giving, even the so-called experts, was an opinion. And I had an opinion, and I could express it fairly well, and if I needed facts to back it up I was sitting on the frigging Web, right? Type in a keyword and go explore and investigate and gather the facts you need. Check your sources, verify, express your opinion.... Ta da! Instant pundit!

If you write well, you're 90% there. A talent with words is more valuable than being right. Amazing, but true.

/ What makes a good team?

A sense of humor is vital. Something is going to happen, and if you aren't getting along you need to be able to joke about it. I've heard it said that you don't need to get along with your co-workers, but I think that's bull.... A team is a team, you need to get along with each other. If you think someone else is stupid or an ass, the team isn't going to work.

Also, it's important to recognize that everyone has responsibilities and talents other than your own. You do not always know best. Know your role and know where it ends.

/ Describe what is *inspiration*.

Inspiration is 50% jealousy and 50% admiration. Jealousy plays an important part because without it, you aren't inspired to try something. You can admire something and walk away from it, but if you admire something and feel jealousy regarding its beauty, or the creator's ability, or your own reaction to it then you're inspired to go do something, make something.

Inspiration is always positive, even if the drive isn't. Many people consider jealousy to be a negative force, but I think you can make it positive by using it to propel your creativity.

/ Describe what is a top-notch client.

As before, I'd say they need to convey trust and that they listen. The best client I had, I ended up working for them because it was clear that they knew where they were smart and they recognized where they weren't, and that's why they wanted me. They weren't second-guessing my decisions, they weren't looking to assign blame or hand off responsibility. They wanted to do the best work they possibly could and their first obligation was to the audience, not the site.

What I mean by that is that it's easy to allow the design of a site or project, its beauty, its interactive tricks, its simplicity, to overshadow the ultimate goal which is *not* the building of the site itself but the *use* of the site. If you focus on the delivery date and forget everything that comes after -- which is everything -- you can start to lose sight of the bigger picture. You may end up concentrating on details and nuances as a sort of war to get your way, have your "vision" be realized when it was never your vision in the first place. You have a role to play, but the ultimate goal is to create something the visitors will want to use, will have pleasure using. Not just seeing, but using.

A top-notch client also recognizes that the audience is the ultimate critic. So when you're making decisions based on what's best for the project goals and not the site's design, they agree immediately. They take no convincing. They know you have their best interested in mind, and their customers'.

/ How do you protect clients from their own bad taste?

About the only way I know how to do that is to do what they ask and show them why it's a bad idea. That way you accomplish two goals; you've satisfied their request and made them happy, and you've managed to bill a few more hours onto your own overhead that weren't there before. You made more money (assuming you're billing hourly rather than project), you proved your point, and you did as your client asked.

Another unfortunate side-effect of this may be that you discover that they were right, and you were wrong. Sometimes it's hard to admit that, but I always think it's better to appease than argue and, ultimately, the answer is always the right one. If it's ugly, but it's what they want, you've doing your job. Your job is to deliver something your customer wants. If you add -- in writing, of course -- the drawbacks to a bad design decision then you've also done your job. Once the site launches and the problems you knew end up cropping up, you have a document to point to.

You don't, you point it out to them and instruct them. Protecting them, to me, means doing just as you please as you nod to their suggestions and ignore them. This is 100% wrong.

Firstly, you may want to work with them again. You never know where a person ill end up after they leave the company they're at. People appreciate being treated as smart. Validate their conclusions and opinions, then introduce reasons why they may not be the best solutions in this case. Explain why, document your own point of view -- document everything, just to be safe, plus you're usually more articulate in writing than in speaking -- and do what the client wants you to do.

Again, divorcing yourself from the designs you're selling is always a good idea. They aren't yours. If you like, show the rejected designs in your own portfolio with a link to the ultimate design and discuss with potential employers how it got from your concept to production. You'll show that you're intelligent, you listen to your client, and you're willing to compromise.

/ You have been invited to many web related events. Can you tell us why?

I think it's because I'm funny. Seriously, there are any number of people vastly more talented, more intelligent, more knowledgeable and with tons more experience than I have. They're probably all a lot nicer than me as well, come to think of it. But I'm "the funny one."

As I mentioned, I have no degree, no formal training, and not a lot to show for the years I've spent online. But I have no qualms about saying what I think. If you say you're an expert, you become one after a while. I'm comfortable in front of people -- probably that acting training helps. I'm what you call multi-talented, which means I do a lot of things well, but nothing spectacular. I'll never be Josh Davis or Matt Owens or Auriea Harvey. I don't try to be. But I think I speak well and present well, which is a talent in itself. I suppose I'm not the best judge to answer this question. Ultimately it's up to the attendees.

/ Explain the value of peers recognition.

This will sound elitist, I'm sure, but I'm of the opinion that elitism is a good thing. Elitism gives you something to shoot for. Why would anyone want to be "like everyone else." When was the last time someone said, "Oh, God, what I would give to be average!"

To put it another way, which would you rather have happen to you: You're standing on a street corner and you spot the person who inspired you to do whatever it is you're doing. This is the person whose talent seems preternatural and who moves in a different circle than you, a circle you dream of one day inhabiting. That person spots you, comes over to you and says, "I saw that thing you did, and I thought it was great! I loved it! I wish I'd done that!" They shake your hand, beam at you, and then you go your separate ways. Now, in a second scenario, someone you've never seen before, someone you wouldn't know from Adam or Eve, they come up and say the same thing. You could call them, I suppose, a fan of yours.

You get a sense of pride from both encounters, but you'd probably be more jazzed about your hero saying that to you than your fan. Humans are competitive by nature, and sometimes the only person to compete against is yourself, to make yourself better, to challenge yourself. To do that, you need something to shoot for, a goal, a symbol, a model. To spur you to challenge yourself, to do better, you need a reward and that can be that handshake on the street corner, or a gold statue awarded by your peers, or a monetary reward.

Now, why is peer recognition more valuable than popular recognition? Why is the Oscar more desired than a People's Choice Award? To be frank, people, in general, are ignorant. It's hard for anyone not in your field to appreciate what you went through to achieve what, on the surface, may seem very simple. But maybe its very simplicity is why it was difficult to achieve. And your peers will recognize this, the public won't. Again, would you rather accept an award in a room full of strangers, or in a room full of people you admire, people doing what you're doing? One is more meaningful than the other, and that meaning spurs us to be better at what we do, to achieve more, to enter the circle of the elite.

/ Is branding an important issue online?

Extremely. Branding is a term that's thrown around a lot with derision and bad-mouthing, but everyone likes it whether they admit it or not. Branding is the "feeling" you get about certain products or companies, and it can be attached to people as well. When you see the Nike swoosh or the McDonald's arches or the name George Clooney, you have certain preconceptions about them. You may not have those same feelings about Puma, or Burger King, or Michael Douglas. Those preconceptions are created in the media through the press and advertising, and that's branding. It isn't just the logo, it's everything about that thing.

On the Web, you're in competition with literally millions of other sites. Most of which are not in the same business as you, whatever that happens to be. But they are all competing for the same sets of eyes. You, as a designer, are also in competition with every other designer out there. If you want to become a "name" designer, someone who's always at the top of the list, you need to be cognizant of the power of branding and use it to your advantage. How will you set yourself apart? How will you set your sites apart? How will you integrate your client's needs into every design you make?

You must also be mindful of your client's branding. If they don't have any, maybe they need you to help define that for them through your design. If they had to describe their company as a person sitting across the table from them, what would that person look like? What would they be wearing? What would they drink and eat? What kind of car would they drive, if any? How would they speak, what would their vocabulary be like? When you start defining the "person" the business is -- and that *isn't* describing their customer, it's describing the company's personality -- you start defining brand.

/ What was the catalytic thought that gave birth to Glass Dog?

I was already doing a personal site at Hurricane Electric, which I believe is still in business. It was growing bigger and bigger as I was learning how to make pages and use Photoshop -- actually, I was using Aldus Photostyler at the time -- and I wanted my own domain. No one else I knew had one, I didn't even have an idea of what it took to get one, how to set it up or anything. All I knew is that I didn't want to be lancearthur.com because that seemed so egotistic and sort of distasteful at the time. And also not very creative.

On my "tilde account" I had invented a character called Glass Dog who would rant and whine about anything and everything. The idea of personal avatars was very prominent all over the place and I had been reading Sherry Turkle's "Life on the Screen" about virtual relationships and identity and decided I wanted an avatar to use to give voice to my most honest opinions. I was, and still remain to some extent, very leery about revealing too much about myself online. I realized the power of the Web and the possible ramifications of publishing your thoughts and opinions into a public space where those words could be recorded in perpetuity and I thought that if I, perhaps, put another identity on particular thoughts and ideas I could still publish them but lose some responsibility for them.

It made sense at the time, but I realized it was a cop-out and that if I wanted to voice my opinion it should just be mine, I had to own it. I think a big problem with the Web is that it welcomes anonymity too easily and people do feel as though they can say anything without ramification, which isn't true. But whatever, that's another discussion.

So I used the name of my avatar, which was based on the first thing I saw when I needed a name for it -- a small glass dog I've carried with me forever -- as my domain name. The idea of an all-consuming super corporation bent on world domination came later and as a result of Microsoft's foray into public advertising with its "Where Do You Want To Go Today?" campaign, which I retitled "World Domination Now. Is That So Wrong?" and I redesigned the site to mimic Microsoft's site at the time. That theme has remained constant because it's a fun character to play with, the global corporate entity trying to be serious and dominate everything while its employees have control of the Web site and take nothing, not even itself, seriously. That happens to be my own philosophy, of course. Never take anything seriously.

/ Describe what the internet means to you.

As a medium, it's the ultimate expression of the word "possible." When you feel you have no voice, there's a place for you somewhere on the Net, whether that's flaming your way through a newsgroup or explaining why you think Bush is an ass... in a forum or constructing a huge virtual edifice to self, putting up all those works of art and literature you never thought would get out of your school binder. The Net is an unpoliced landscape of freedom of everything.

As such, you have to learn, also, to take everything with a grain of salt. The Net also allows people, via its doorway to public anonymity, to be their "truest self," to let out all the vile and putrid and distasteful things they hold inside. The sexual fetishes, the racial slurs, the blue language and nightmarish visions can all be fed here as well. And you'll find outlets for that, too, so it can teach you better than almost any other thing -- TV, magazines, movies, books, pornography, what have you -- that the vast and beautiful spectrum of human nature includes things you wish you never knew existed and could push away from you.

But you'll also learn that you can't. The harder you tell someone to shut up, the louder they'll scream. The more you attempt to put down the things you don't agree with, the things that "should not be," the more people will find outlets to get exactly that. It's an historical truism written over and over and over. You can't put anything back once it's been released. Laws won't work. Elections won't work. Police won't work.

And, really, what we're talking about on the Net is thought more than deed. Images and stories of things. Once you start trying to police that, to say "you can't think that way, that way is wrong," then where does it stop. What else can't you think? Who's telling me what I can or can't think? The Internet's ultimate freedom is going to break things apart. We can already see this happening in issues of copyright and art versus pornography. You try to shut something down, someone else will just mirror it. You shut them down, ten more mirrors spring up. You try to shut down Napster, up pops Gnutella. You try to shut down Banzai Kitten, suddenly you have 25 banzai kittens to contend with.

It's wonderful and maddening. It teaches you to accept, or at least tolerate, ideas that don't agree with yours.

/ Describe 3 qualities necessary to succeed online.

A sense of humor, a willingness to release control of everything, and a recognition of the power of words over images.

You need a sense of humor just to survive life. The Web is like a big mirror you hold up to life. It reflects and magnifies everything. Whatever you love or hate or fear or feel inspired by is out there, and it's been distilled and concentrated. You can find the outlet for every fetish, stories that will tear your heart out and so much information and lies that you won't know which way is up. You have to take it all in with a grain of salt, and not get too upset about anything.

When you put yourself on the Web, you have to concede control over those pieces. People will steal from you, or borrow from you if you prefer, and reuse your words and designs and thoughts without your permission, and sometimes against you. Realize that it's an open environment and either come to terms with the fact that seizing control of anything once you've set it loose on the Web is nearly impossible. You give that up to a large extent because of the freedom we all enjoy. It backfires on you, that absence of the police force. You can literally say or do anything you want to, mostly. It used to be even less controlled than it is now. But it remains an environment where "borrowing" anything from anyone is extremely easy. If you're a corporation, you have the cash to pay a legal team to hunt down those borrowers and demand they give everything back. If you're me, you realize it's a losing battle and you hope there are enough good people on the Web to countermand the bad ones. The good news is, there are.

Finally, I've made pretty pictures and I've written lots of words, and far and away it's the power of the word that has a more lasting impact than event the prettiest image. I think maybe it's because we still like using our imagination. TV and movies are probably the most powerful medium to convey emotion and idea, but on the Web, it's words.

/ What is the single achievement that makes you most proud?

Haven't done it, yet.

/ If there were no budget limitations - which single dream project would you launch?

here's a project I've wanted to get off the ground for a while that's based around communication. It would include discussion forums and first-person articles regarding how we all communicate (or don't) but it's not only about communication but includes examples of communication, i.e. interviews. These would be like this one, email-based, but also audio and video interviews. The interviews would be conducted by anyone who wanted to of anyone they wanted to. I would also try to interview "famous" people about mundane things, not about the projects they're doing but more about a story they could tell or about a subject they're passionate about. Then those streaming interviews would be mounted on the site. Streaming and storage of media files is expensive, so I'd need a big budget.

/ Give a one line counsel to newbies.

Try everything; never think anything is beyond your abilities. Surprise yourself.

/ What is your opinion of the present situation in the dotcom industry?

I think it's a case of reality slapping us in the face, frankly. How did we ever expect most of the failed dot-coms to make any money? The dream was that by getting into a certain area of commerce first, like selling dog food or plants or furniture, that you could corner this new avenue of retail and make a fortune... eventually. But no one ever asked if this *was* a new avenue of retail and commerce. Did people want to buy furniture online? Were people willing to wait a week to get their garden supplies, and pay the shipping costs on top of the taxes? Why would anyone want to use a service to get something they could already get locally by getting in their car and driving to Walmart? Why would they be willing to wait a week to receive a CD they can get at the mall?

Then the answer was, we'll give it to them cheaper! 30% off, 40% off, 50% off. Free shipping! Every fourth order free! Okay, so you're enticing people to buy online because it's cheaper, but you weren't making money in the first place and now you just cut your bottom line in half? And this makes business sense how?

And then they forgot that on the Web, you can always shop for the lowest price by using MySimon or shopper.com or any number of other comparison shopping sites, so everything becomes a commodity. You can get anything for the lowest price without haggling or driving from store to store or opening the yellow pages and dialing up half-a-dozen clerks who put you on hold for 20 minutes. You can't guarantee the lowest prices anymore because I no longer have to trust you, I can find my own lowest prices. It's a retailer's nightmare!

So it's no wonder those sorts of sites failed left and right. The consumer never emerged to support the business model because the business model was insane. And the content-based Web started out by giving everything away for free and relying on advertising. But advertising doesn't work, everyone knows that. We turn down the sound on TV when ads come on. We deface billboards. We resent having our highways sponsored. Why the hell would anyone think we would suddenly enjoy advertising just because it was animated or allowed you to play golf or some such nonsense?

So what we'll be left with is companies that already know how to do business via delivery, like catalogs and outlet stores. They already have warehouses. They already have inventory. They already know how to manage that business. There are still lots of jobs for designers and IA people and coders. I think you'll end up working for "real" companies instead of virtual ones, is all.

/ In your view, explain what is convergence?

Everything is becoming digital. All media. Music, television, motion pictures, books, magazines, comic books, video games, everything. Once something is in the digital form, what it is otherwise becomes meaningless. All you need is a transport method and a storage method for that data, and then a database to organize it all. So you need a screen to view it, and speakers to hear it, and an input device to interact with it. So where we're heading is an entertainment center, or an information center, or maybe media center is the most apt term, that acts as the central interface for everything.

The internet becomes the transport method of choice because it's cheap, it's everywhere and it's easy to manage. Then you need a box of some sort to manage the connection and the traffic and the media. Some media you buy and hold on a drive. It includes an interface with the cover and the lyrics or details about the music or film and so on. Or, optionally, you buy a disc for your library. Other media streams in and you don't save it. Or you elect to save it for later viewing, like TiVo. You gain access to a universal library of literally everything ever produced, every album, every song, every book, ever magazine and newspaper. Maybe you pay a monthly access fee, maybe there are premium fees associated with some of the material.

Where we are now is at a piecemeal place where we have different devices for different media. A computer, a digital video recorder, a DVD player, an MP3 player, and so on. At some point, all those different things disappear and you have media players. You have a home media player, a car media player, a portable wireless media player. They all talk to each other, all access your media account, you can have anything anytime you want or need it. 

Convergence.

/ Is the www an international network?

If your primary language is English, then yes. That's the primary stumbling block, I think, to a truly international Web. We don't all speak or read the same language, so access is limited unless we produce content in a variety of languages and are cognizant of different cultures and nationalities. Obviously, access can be global. You can get the Web via satellite, now. But what is there for people in China to look at?

/ Tell us what the future (net) looks like.

You're paying for services. You're paying for access to content. You're paying for media. You're paying. The Web tried to achieve acceptance and garner growth by giving everything away. Now no one can sustain a presence because no one's making money. You have to pay something, whether that's giving away your personal information so marketers can more easily market to you, or signing up for subscriptions, or micropayments for access to pieces of information or entertainment, I think we'll start seeing more and more businesses charging access fees in one form or another.

The net as transport mechanism becomes more important than what's on it. Webcentric content disappears as it becomes integrated with other forms of digital media. CDDB is an example of that, already. Playstation2 and xBox are going to be broadband enabled and they are, for all intents and purposes, small computers. xBox comes with a hard drive built-in, it'll be an option on Playstation. Sony and Microsoft have already announced their intentions for these game consoles to become the central point of net access for the wired home. Sony has invested in TiVo and you can use that database currently used for television schedules for all sorts of things, Subscribe to onscreen magazines as well as TV shows. I would think they'd have TiVo'd televisions before the year is out, big flat screen beauties HDTV-ready with 1048 lines of resolution with hard drives built-in housing the TiVo engine and you tie your cable into the back of them, subscribe to cable broadband access, give your TV Web access, etc.

Either that or everything reverts to 1995 and the Web is nothing but a huge clique of personal spaces abandoned by business because of its inherent security flaws and continuous email worms. But I doubt that'll happen. The prospects are too valuable, and they still exist. What we've seen was a pre-emptive strike that failed. People aren't ready to change their habits just yet, and it's less convenient instead of more.

You know what I love about Amazon? The fact that it's a store that learns what I like. It isn't the prices, it sure isn't the waiting for delivery. It's that it knows, more or less successfully, what I would be interested in if I'm interested in something else. I can teach it more by rating things, writing reviews, telling it what I already own, stuff like that. It can keep track of my friend's birthdays, remind me when it's close and show me what they want. It'll gift wrap for me and deliver it directly to them. Where else but on the Web am I going to get that kind of service without paying for a personal shopper?

The Net is bound to survive and thrive. Once we get all the delivery and platform problems resolved -- meaning its continual failure to prove secure and reliable (thank you, Microsoft!) -- it'll live up to its promise. Until then, I'm going to keep using it as my playground and keep making new stuff. There's no reason not to.

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