Word Nerd News: California bill defines ‘hot dog’; The NYT insults Scotland; Washington state gets rid of sexist language

© elfivetrov - Fotolia.comCalifornia bill seeks to define ‘hot dog’

NPR reported on a recent California bill that, among other things, defines a hot dog as: “a whole, cured, cooked sausage that is skinless or stuffed in casing, that may be known as a frankfurter, frank, furter, wiener, red hot, Vienna, bologna, garlic bologna, or knockwurst, and that may be served in a bun or roll.” Sounds about right to me.

But why are legislators defining tasty meat treats, you ask? Well, the bill is actually about the California food code and this particular definition is being pushed by health inspectors who want to emphasize that hot dogs should be cured or pre-cooked. That means “street vendors who reheat them are held to different health standards than restaurants.”

The New York Times accidentally insults Scotland

Andy Murray  clinched the Wimbledon title on Sunday, making him the first British person (as in from Great Britain — including Scotland and Ireland) to win the title in 77 years. Despite the pressure placed on him from, well, just about everyone in Great Britain, he played the tournament of his life. Even coach Ivan Lendl couldn’t help but smile.

The New York Times heralded Murray’s win with this headline: “After 77 Years, Murray and England Rule” (they since changed England to Britain). This touched a nerve and set off a fury on Twitter because Murray is Scottish. And if you ask Scottish people, Scotland is not England. They are two separate entities that are both part of Great Britain.

Washington state removes all gender-biased language from the books

Reuters reported that earlier this month, Washington (my former home state with strong female political leadership) became the fourth state to officially remove gender-biased language from the law, joining Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. This means that 40,000 words in state statutes have been changed to reflect more gender-neutral language.

What exactly does this look like? Well, ‘penmanship’ is now ‘handwriting,’ ‘fisherman’ is now ‘fisher’, and ‘his’ is now ‘his and hers’, to name a few.  Lawmakers said this ended up being a much bigger project than they envisioned, but their hope is that removing sexism from official language is a first step towards combatting it in our daily lives.

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Sunil Tripathi reminds us of the (dangerous) power we have as publishers on the Web

missing_suniltripathi01When the news is filled with stories of explosions and gunfire and ricin-laced letters, it can be hard to remember that words still have power in this world.

But they do, for better or worse — and we saw the full force of this late yesterday and early today, when self-proclaimed social media vigilantes made a false connection between a photo of a Boston bombing suspect and Sunil Tripathi, a Brown University student missing since mid-March.

Based on the scattered information about this, it’s hard to tell how this pernicious idea took flight. It seems like a perfect storm of misinformation from several places: A disturbingly self-congratulatory Reddit thread (the Reddit moderator apologized to Tripathi’s family); Tweets saying that Tripathi’s name was supposedly mentioned on a Boston police scanner; a Twitter post from an old classmate of Tripathi’s who thought he looked an awful lot like one of the Boston bombing suspects; and the NBC Cleveland affiliate that made the erroneous leap of identifying Tripathi as a suspect despite the lack of any evidence.

There are so many horrifying things about this, I don’t even know where to start. But here’s my best shot at summarizing what we can learn from this shameful mistake:

1.) Just because we have access to the Internet, it doesn’t mean we’re “citizen detectives.” Salon.com published a great piece about how while the Web played an important role in rapidly disseminating information that led to the successful ID of the Boston bombers, it also led to an alarming number of “citizen detectives” who falsely identified and accused Sunil Tripathi. The fallout that followed was awful — Tripathi’s family had to take down the Facebook page set up to help find Sunil because of the abusive comments. Fortunately, the page is back up and the apologies are rolling in, but the Internet owes the Tripathi family a collective apology for this witch-hunt style behavior.

2.) Just because we have the ability to post breaking news whenever we want, it doesn’t mean we should do it without substantiating facts. The ability to share information across the world with the touch of a button is a good thing. Just look at the role Twitter played in the Arab Spring or how mass media alerts spread the word that Boston residents should stay inside due to one of the bombing suspects being on the loose in the area (let’s hope he’s apprehended quickly and that the city of Boston is able to begin healing soon). But we need to acknowledge the danger of this as well. What if Tripathi’s name hadn’t been cleared so quickly? Who knows how many people’s names live on on the Internet, connected to pasts or crimes that they have no part in?

3.) Just because you’re a “regular person” posting something on the Internet, it doesn’t mean you aren’t publishing for the world to see. In the age of the Internet, we are ALL self-published. Everything we post on Twitter, Facebook or a blog is a piece of content that’s published for the public to read. As an editor, I come across a lot of crazy comments on the Web every day — for better or worse, the Internet gives voice to any rant or rave by anyone who wants their ideas to be heard. Again, democratizing debate can be a good thing. But when we use these tools to slander or launch smear campaigns (however unwittingly) we should take pause and remember that the only publishers aren’t newspapers or book publishers. We need to take this responsibility seriously.

4.) Just because somebody has brown skin or seems different, it doesn’t mean they fit the profile of a terrorist. I shouldn’t even have to add this to the list, but the events of the last day prove that I do. As Angry Asian Man points out, Tripathi bears little resemblance to the photos released of the Boston bombing suspects. But that’s besides the point. When we let horrible acts carried out by a few disturbed individuals affect how we treat entire groups of people, our society continues to be a victim of terrorism every day by surrendering our sense of humanity. Remember the Saudi Marathon Man, whose unfair, harsh treatment after the bombing was so poignantly profiled by The New Yorker.

Lastly, as Angry Asian Man also points out, Sunil Tripathi is still missing — and he has been since March 16th. If we have to find a silver lining in the madness involving his name over the last 24 hours, let’s hope that the spotlight raises awareness and brings him home.

Is technology ruining the language of love in romantic movies?

© Callahan - Fotolia.comIn honor of Valentine’s Day, I wrote a piece for The Huffington Post called Love Notes From a Smartphone: Is Technology Ruining Romantic Movies?

It’s not because I think romance is dead (in the movies or in real life, for that matter). But it’s because how we communicate about love has changed significantly with the advent of smartphones and social media. This is especially noticeable in romantic movies, from comedies to dramas and everything in between.

Nowadays, love letters are relegated to period pieces and war movies, unless a writer finds a crafty way to work them into the script (think Big emailing Carrie love letters from famous men in Sex and the City). Our real-life expressions of love are much shorter, crisper, and less poetic (or less schmaltzy, depending on how you look at it) thanks to our cynical 21st-century sensibilities.

In The Huffington Post piece, I looked at four movies from days gone by that would be markedly different if the characters had smartphones and social media at their disposal. This raised some questions/comments about the loads of movies I didn’t chose. So, I thought I’d offer up a Part 2, if you will, where I give the same tech-savvy treatment to a few other classic romantic movies:

1.) Roman Holiday (1953)
Audrey Hepburn plays a princess who’s bored out of her mind and escapes from her guards during a trip to Rome. During her jaunt around the city, she encounters American journalist Joe Bradley, played by Gregory Peck, who shows her the time of her life. They gradually fall in love, and though Joe eventually realizes that his companion is the missing princess, he keeps her secret (and the photographs of their time together) safe. When he briefly encounters her at a royal press conference, they wonder what might have been.

21st century ending: A fake Twitter account about the princess’ romp around Rome immediately springs up, gaining 200,000 followers in under 5 minutes. Joe is offered $5 million for his photos of the princess and he refuses to hand them over. But his email is hacked and the photos are uploaded to the Internet anyway. The princess continues to be hounded by paparazzi and is named one of Barbara Walters’ most fascinating people.

2.) Coming to America (1988)
Eddie Murphy plays an African prince about to be married off to a princess who’s been trained to do whatever he wants. But ever the romantic, he wants to find true love and embarks on a quest to find his future in queen in, well, Queens. He gets a job at a McDonald’s rip-off and lives in the most meager accommodations he can find, in hopes of finding a woman who loves him for who he is. Eventually he finds Lisa, an intelligent and independent woman who steals his heart, much to the chagrin of his parents.

21st century ending: Prince Akeem (Murphy) goes on Match.com to find his bride. But his best friend Semi spills the beans on Twitter that Akeem is a prince. When word gets out, he’s offered his own reality series not unlike The Bachelor called Finding Prince Charming. He offers a rose/proposal to Lisa in the very last episode and she accepts. Their wedding inspires African prints on Pinterest wedding boards that year.

3.) Before Sunrise (1995)
This simple, charming tale takes place over the course of one day, when 20-somethings Jesse and Celine meet on a train in Europe. They’re immediately attracted to one another and spend the day in deep conversation as they roam the streets of Vienna. But as their romantic evening comes to a close, it becomes clear that this will likely be the only night they have to spend together since they have other lives to return to. Just before they bid farewell at the train station, they agree to meet in the same place six months to the day.

21st century ending: There’s no need for the heartbreaking sequels, Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013), because Jesse and Celine exchange email addresses before they go their separate ways. After getting back to their normal lives, they find each other on Facebook and start Skype chatting with each other. A serendipitous Facebook posts reveals that they’ll be in the same city again in a few months, so they decide to meet in person again rather than leaving it up to chance. They live happily ever after.

So there you have it. While technology is an amazing tool for couples separated by great distances, it doesn’t do much for epic romance movies. Just consider You’ve Got Mail, which doesn’t quite make the cut as one of Nora Ephron’s timeless romantic classics. Maybe that’s because the story gets overshadowed in our memories by the now outdated AOL references and dial-up Internet. Be still my beating heart.

The Atlantic’s Scientology advertorial doesn’t mean that all sponsored content is bad

atlantic scientologyIn the world of journalism, “sponsored” content is often treated like a dirty word — an untouchable that gets cordoned off, lest it tarnish the purity of true editorial content.

But the recent controversy around The Atlantic’s decision to run a bizarre and confusing advertorial from the Church of Scientology shows what happens when editorial thinking doesn’t play a role in sponsored content. This was neither a good ad, nor was it a good piece of content. And it runs the risk of giving a bad name to all sponsored content, which can actually be a useful way for publications to get revenue and brands or organizations to connect with their audiences. (For the record, I have a journalism background and work in sponsored content).

In a world where sponsored content is becoming so prevalent, what sparked the outcry around this particular advertorial?

The art and science of sponsored content
Let’s break this down. This isn’t the first time The Atlantic has run sponsored content. As other critics have noted, they had a series on innovation by Boeing and an IBM piece about the power of data. There’s a “Sponsor Content” call-out at the top of the page, and if you hover over it, The Atlantic explicitly states that it is “created by The Atlantic’s Promotions Department in partnership with our advertisers. The Atlantic editorial team is not involved in the creation of this content.”

This is a sound policy. You don’t want the editorial team directing the ads, and you don’t want advertisers influencing editorial decisions. But that being said, editorial thinking and content strategy should absolutely come into play — especially if you’re a highly-regarded journalistic publication that’s running advertorial content. In this case, the editorial reputation of The Atlantic took a hit anyway, despite this policy and their swift apology. Why is that?

Well, there are two main issues that caused readers to lash out at The Atlantic:

1.) Don’t try and trick people into thinking they’re not reading an ad. There were very few cues suggesting that this piece about the Church of Scientology was not an actual article, other than the tiny yellow “Sponsor Content” box at the top of the page (see the above image). But perhaps most controversial was the comment moderation for this piece — only comments supportive of Scientology were allowed to appear on the site. These tactics are unnecessary because, really, sponsored content should ideally be good content on its own that also happens to be sponsored.

2.) Just because content is sponsored, doesn’t mean it can be totally random. You can’t treat sponsored content the same way you would a traditional ad. It’s content, so it requires some finesse. It promises the reader information, so it should mesh with the brand image of the publication (for example, Foreign Policy had a special advertising section about Timor-Leste … you’re not going to see that running in Better Homes & Garden). But the actual copy of the Scientology advertorial  wasn’t good content — it was pro-Scientology propaganda (note that the Boeing series was about innovation, not airplanes). It would’ve better served Scientology’s purposes to think about the context, and develop content accordingly.

Don’t hate me because I’m sponsored
All that being said, there is such a thing as good sponsored content — and we shouldn’t let this one incident convince us that there’s no place for it. The moral of this story is that when  it comes to sponsored content, a.) don’t trick people and b.) make sure your piece fits in with the brand image of the publication in which it’s running. You’re only doing your brand or organization a service that way — otherwise, it’s wasted money and effort.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that sponsored isn’t always bad. Sponsorship is basically the new word for patronage — and it’s why Shea Stadium is now Citi Field and the American Tour de France team is called the U.S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a creative at heart, and I don’t think advertising should invade all aspects of life. I strongly believe in a free press that’s unattached from corporate and political pressures. But that being said, sponsorship can support projects that would otherwise never happen — and it presents a very real way for struggling online publications to earn some revenue.

One good example of sponsored content, in my mind, is Huffington Posts’s Global Motherhood channel, sponsored by Johnson & Johnson. It’s real content, written by experts in the field, on an important topic that likely wouldn’t get this level of coverage otherwise. It’s health-related, which fits with Johnson & Johnson’s brand, but they aren’t literally selling baby shampoo and bandages. It puts the content in sponsored content first.

Finally, while some of the greatest works of art from the renaissance were “sponsored” by patrons who wanted to assert their power and status, these patrons didn’t climb ladders and paint stick figures on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Michelangelo, someone with expertise, actually created the final product. Sure, we’re not painting the Sistine Chapel here. But there’s a lesson in this for brands seeking to create sponsored content — if you aren’t an editorial and marketing expert (or you don’t have any of those in-house), find someone who knows what they’re doing to help you.

Why? Because sponsored content is, in fact, content. And savvy readers will rip it apart if it’s terrible or insults their intelligence. Just ask The Atlantic.

Big Bird, Bayonets and Binders: The best debate memes of 2012

© James Steidl - Fotolia.comWho won the presidential debates of 2012, you ask? Sure, media and political analysts might be calling it 2 out of 3 wins for Barack Obama… But the real winner this year is the meme.

Put simply, a meme is “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, but the word has caught on today as Internet memes spread like wildfire.

Political debates have long been known for giving birth to memorable zingers like, Lloyd Bentsen’s “Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy” or Ronald Reagan’s “There you go again.” But in the age of Twitter, a gotcha zinger by itself just isn’t good enough. It needs to be meme-worthy — that is, easy to convert into 140-character Tweets, quippy soundbites, and animated or captioned images (my fave is the post-RNC “I’m with [picture of chair]!“) This debate season has been meme-tastic, so I thought I’d recap the best of them here:

1.) Binders full of women – When the candidates were asked during the second presidential debate how they plan to rectify gender inequality in the workplace, Romney’s answer stole the show (but not in the way he intended). He said his team brought him “binders full of women” so he could find qualified females to serve on his staff.  Oops. In about a nanosecond, the Binders Full of Women Tumblr blog and bindersfullofwomen.com had sprung up on the Web. Twitter was set ablaze, and reviews for Avery binders on Amazon would never be the same again.

2.) Horses and bayonets – During the third debate, Mitt Romney criticized Barack Obama for the Navy having fewer ships than it did in 1917. Where he was going with that, I don’t know — but the President struck back with, “we also have fewer horses and bayonets.” And with that, an Internet meme was born — the line won Obama the debate, and the phrase became an instant hit (soon after the debate, there were over 105,000 Tweets per minute about #horsesandbayonets). Just for the record, the military does still have some horses and bayonets

3.) Big Bird – Mitt Romney was on a tear during the first presidential debate, and one of his targets was PBS. Romney said that while he liked PBS, Big Bird and even debate moderator Jim Lehrer, he was going to stop the subsidy to PBS. A slew of angry Big Bird memes ensued, including an official Obama campaign ad (it later got pulled down, though, since Sesame Street is a nonpartisan nonprofit). So who won this meme war? Sorry boys, Sesame Street made out like a bandit with this one — Big Bird costumes are flying off the shelves for Halloween this year.

4.) The 1980s called – The third presidential debate was Obama’s turn to go on a tear, criticizing Romney for being stuck in the Cold War by calling Russia America’s “number one geopolitical foe.” Of course, the president said it with style and sarcasm: “The 1980s called — they’re asking for their foreign policy back.” If you ask me, this meme didn’t get the steam behind it that it deserved (Example: The 1980s called — they want to send you Trapper Keepers full of women…wearing shoulder pads.”) Still, #The1980sCalled was very much a meme of its own.

In the year of the meme, President Obama has been declared the clear winner of the Twitter war — now let’s see how that translates at the polls.