We Fear Change, Part 2: Netflix’s Interpretive Approach

I consider my well versed at making apologies. If there is anything that I have learned by apologizing, it doesn’t involve changing my name and creating a new identity for myself. Well maybe that’s not such bad idea after all.

Last week when I received an email from Reed Hastings, co-founder and CEO of Netflix, I treated it like one of the several hundred emails I get from Paul each day. I scanned it just closely enough to talk to him intelligently about it with him so when he calls five minutes after sending it, I can pretend like I really care. As a Netflix customer, I think that Reed’s email may have been misunderstood. It is my hope through this blog post that I can translate or read between the lines to help you understand the recent changes.

I try not to be one of those people (Paul Caputo) who fear change. The part that really bothered me about the change was the approach. Reed’s letter takes interpretive writing principles and uses them in an evil way. We all know that Jedi Mind Tricks are for the weak minded, so I wasn’t fooled by his red envelopes. Reed didn’t read the postscript in Freeman Tilden’s Interpreting Our Heritage where he unveiled his 7th principle of interpretation: “Remember, a Jedi’s strength flows from the Force. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Where he said Jedi, I’m pretty sure that was a typo that should have been interpreter. Who am I to question genius, though?

Here’s the letter and my comments are in parentheses (of course).

Dear Schafer, (Yes, my real name is Schafer. Insert your own jokes in the comments section.)

I messed up. I owe you an explanation. (Nice start, Roger Clemens should have taken this approach. Honesty goes a long way with readers, visitors, and baseball fans.)

It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing. (Building a relationship by saying “I have heard from you and I’m sorry.”)

For the past five years, my greatest fear (Anger, fear, aggression…okay we know what Yoda has to say about that, and I agree.) at Netflix has been that we wouldn’t make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great that new things people want. So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do. (Is he really just angry at the U.S. Postal Service or simply taking out aggression that DVDs are almost a thing of the past and they aren’t bringing in the cash they used to? The take home message here is: Daddy’s gonna get paid.)

So here is what we are doing and why. (Reed is setting the stage for meeting his objectives though this letter.)

Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies. (Trying to relate.)

I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service. (He wants to play for the Yankees and the Red Sox. Though I’m sure in the future the collapse of the 2011 Red Sox and Netflix will be used one in the same when describing failure.)

So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently. (See take home message above. Revelation coming now, please continue reading.)

It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming. (Okay, I’m lost. Wait, I see. Let’s take away any loyalty you have to “Netflix” DVDs because it is easier to kill something you don’t care about then you will come crawling to “Netflix” streaming video, your old red friend.)

Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to qwikster.com to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated. (Was he serious about the name Qwikster? I’m pretty sure that handle on Twitter is taken by my brother-in-law.)

There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the Qwikster.com website is up and ready.

For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you. (He’s right, we love those red envelopes. I’ve even heard Paul say “My marriage depends on those red envelopes!” I’m pretty sure Paul’s wife has him enduring some sort of post-baseball television sensitivity training that involves the movies Steel Magnolias, Beaches, and Fried Green Tomatoes. Don’t mind trick us here, we know they won’t be Netflix DVDs because of the new complementary color palette.)

I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly. (Uh, we are not the stickees but the ones being stuck. If he is trying to provoke here, he was successful)

Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions. (This taken from the New York Times bestselling Book of Bad Coaching Cliches in the chapter titled When You Care Enough to Say the Very Least.)

Respectfully yours (Stick it in your ear),

-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix

p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments. (Doesn’t he know that no one reads blogs anymore? What an idiot.)

Okay so this was more of a rant than a blog post, I’m sorry. I just needed to get this off of my chest. Lessons: realize your patrons are smarter than you, focus on what you are good at, be honest, and don’t use tested interpretive writing techniques for evil.

Grammar Pet Peeves: Nerds Unite!

The last time I wrote about grammar, anonymous commenter Shea Lewis of Hot Springs, Arkansas, asked this intriguing question: “Paul, are you serious with all of this?” To which I respond today: “Yes! On with the grammar pet peeves!”

Lets Go
I think there’s a perception that the only people who care about grammar are lonely nerds and retired teachers. I once got into a conversation about the use of less vs. fewer with a very nice lady in the express lane at a grocery store. She asked if I was a school teacher, and I said no. Then she smiled weakly and responded, “I got mace, you know.” To which I responded, “No, you have ma—AAAAAAAAAAAGH!”

But every once in a while, some jerk who was probably the captain of the high school football team and dated the cheerleaders and kicked sand in the nerds’ faces makes an embarrassing, high-profile grammar mistake. And then even regular people with social skills and friends talk about grammar. Then who’s laughing? Nerds, that’s who.

Well, nerds are still laughing at Old Navy, which is selling T-shirts that are an apostrophe short of being proper English. They mistakenly used Lets (as in, allows) instead of Let’s (let us) in designs on a series of college T-shirts. It got a lot of coverage, and of course, half the people I know emailed it to me. (See it on Gawker, Refinery 29, and the New York Daily News.)

Viola/ Voilà
This one occurs almost exclusively in the cooking column in your local newspaper. Every now and again, the author of this column, who is almost certainly named Mary Lou, writes something like this: “…and then you pour in the milk, and viola!, your cereal flakes are ready for breakfast!” In this instance, it’s likely that Mary Lou means to say Voilà (“Look there!”) instead of viola (“The violin’s dorkier older cousin!”).

If you’re annoyed when people misuse less and fewer, then this one will get you, too. As with less and fewer, amount and number can be addressed with what I call the Stuff and Things Rule. You should use amount with stuff that cannot be counted (an amount of sand, or milk, or work), and number with things that can be counted (a number of runs scored, or dollars in your bank account, or bricks thrown through your window for being an obnoxious blogger).

Anytime vs. Any Time
In the comments on a previous installment of this series, IBD reader “Susan” (name not changed because we’re unimaginative) asked, “Does anytime/any time work the same as everyday/every day?” The answer is yes. Anytime (one word) is an adverb that means whenever (“Anytime a former child star Tweets about IBD, Shea passes out.”), while any time (two words) is a noun phrase (“Dear Alyssa, I hear you’re a big baseball fan. Do you have any time to read all these other posts we wrote? Love, Shea. XOXOXO”).

You’re Going the Wrong Way
I wrote last week about how annoying it is to me that the Baltimore Orioles have a version of their logo with an apostrophe that’s facing the wrong way. The other time you see apostrophes facing the wrong direction is at the beginning of abbreviated years, as demonstrated above (the red one is incorrect and infuriating, the green one correct and soothing). Unfortunately, most fonts treat the apostrophe in this case like an opening single quote, so you have to trick your computer into turning it around. There’s a funny post about this called “Apostrophes don’t swing both ways” on the site I Love Typography.

That’s it for now!

Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus Says, “Don’t Steal!”

Earlier this year, I wrote a post about being plagiarized. In the comments on that post, I was particularly moved by this remark from IBD reader Heidi:

I agree with Karissa!

By way of context, I should point out that IBD reader Karissa had commented earlier on the same post:

Why not write a blog or two about copyrights and plagiarism in general? I would love to learn more about the challenges in the digital world regarding intellectual property.

Well, I’m not a lawyer, so I haven’t exactly written a post about copyright. But I’ve done the next best thing: I’ve stolen all of the text below from Dummies.com and claimed it as my own:

The Basics of Copyrights
A copyright protects an Original Work of Authorship (OWA) — think short story, computer program, or song lyrics, for example — which must have tangible form, be a result of significant mental activity, have no inherent technical function, and be the author’s original creation.

This seems pretty straightforward, though some might debate whether IBD is the result of actual “mental activity.” The most important thing to note here is that when you create something—anything—through your own “mental activity” (or in Shea’s case, randomly mashing his computer keyboard and punctuating it with “Go Yankees!”), you own the copyright. You don’t have to register it with any government agency (though you can; in the United States, visit the U.S. Copyright Office website to learn about that), and you don’t even have to put that © symbol on it. You own the copyright as soon as you create it, assuming you created it on your own time rather than on the job or under some other form of contract.

One obvious problem is that bad people steal things—be it money, intellectual property, or that parking space that I was clearly waiting for with my blinker on. Another less-obvious problem is that good people steal things without realizing what they’re doing.

Friend of IBD Amy Lethbridge shared this fascinating story from the Utne Reader about a mild-mannered guy named Noam Galai who posted an image of himself screaming on Flickr, only to find months later that it had been used around the world without his knowledge on everything from magazine covers to T-shirts to political posters. There’s a terrific video about it on the Digital Photography School website. (I’ve reproduced this poster from Uruguay in the name of fair use, which I’ll discuss below.)

In terms of technology, it’s extremely easy for me to download a photograph from a website and use it. But even if I credit the photographer and include a link to the website where I found the image, I’ve still used another person’s intellectual property without permission. I can legally use another person’s photograph if its owner has released the copyright (like some of those found on sites like Stck.Xchng or Wikimedia), if it is in the public domain (like many images created by government employees), or if I specifically request and receive permission from the copyright owner.

That said, copyright law does not always prevent you from reproducing another person’s work. The US Copyright Office says this:

It is illegal for anyone to violate any of the rights provided by the copyright law to the owner of copyright. These rights, however, are not unlimited in scope…. One major limitation is the doctrine of “fair use.”

Fair use allows you to reproduce another person’s intellectual property for the purposes of commentary, criticism, or parody. If I use an artist’s illustration without permission just because I need an illustration, that’s copyright infringement, even if I credit the artist. However, if a piece of artwork has been put out in the world for public consumption and I use it in the course of critique or commentary (as with the poster above), that’s fair use.

If I publish the complete lyrics of Alphaville’s “Forever Young” for no reason, that’s both copyright infringement and poor taste. However, if I quote the single line, “Let’s dance in style, lets dance for a while, Heaven can wait, we’re only watching the skies,” in the context of a post about how awesome senior prom was, that’s fair use.

If I write about certain design aspects of logos from Major League Baseball teams (which are trademarked rather than copyrighted, but fair use still applies), that’s fair use. However, if Philippe De Wulf of the Belgian design firm 6+1 takes all of the text from one of my blog posts and reproduces it in its entirety without my permission (even with that tiny little credit at the end), that’s copyright infringement.

In the end, the basics of copyright law are pretty simple: Don’t claim other people’s work as your own, implicitly or explicitly, and don’t use other people’s copyrighted material without permission. Unfortunately, technology has made copyright infringement extremely easy and far too common. If you’re an honest person, resist the urge to borrow copyrighted materials, even just this once, and even if they’ll never notice. If you’re a dishonest person, consider a career writing for the Belgian firm 6+1!

Note: The photograph of Wesley the Copyright-Free Walrus at the top of this post was taken by Captain Budd Christman in the course of his duties as an employee of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is in the public domain.

On a Plain

People say I have an accent that can make me hard to understand. I know that I speak plainly. They are just distracted by my southern charm and wit. I have also been accused of writing the way I speak. I do my best to keep contractions that make Paul cringe out of my writin’.  For those who work for the federal government, speaking or writing plainly is now a mandate signed by President Obama. On October 13, 2010, he signed into law the Plain Writing Act of 2010. The deadline for implementing portions of the law is fast approaching (July 2011).

When you look through the guidelines provided by the the Plain Language Action and Information Network (or PLAIN, which is not nearly as clever as IBD) you can see many common threads between the recommendations and interpretive writing. (Aside #1: I find it interesting that it took 112 pages for the federal government to outline how to write plainly.) (Aside #2: I also find it interesting that they recommend that you avoid the use of parenthesis in communication.) With topics like “Think about your audience, and organize” you can see the power of using interpretive techniques to improve communication.

There’s a section or two about grammar, nouns, verbs, and all that stuff that Paul loves to write about that I don’t really get but it must be important in some way to writing but I’m sure Paul will get around to writing a post about sometime between now and the next three years. (I wonder if Paul can resist editing this sentence?) I did read the first sentence of that section, which I liked: “Words matter. They are the most basic building blocks of written and spoken communication. Choose your words carefully – be precise and concise.”

The section on writing for the web makes some interesting points that Paul and I have ignored on this blog. This image from the website shows how the human eye tracks on websites. The area shown in red is where the viewer spent the majority of their time.

If we had room in the budget (or any budget at all) and had the exact same study done on IBD, it would be expected that posts such as Monday’s Pick a side: Do you indent the first line of your first paragraph? written by Paul Caputo would yield the following results (keep in mind the area shown in red is where the visitor spent the majority of their time).

Take some time and brush up on your plain writing skills. You may find validity in some of your tried and true interpretive writing techniques.

Grammar Pet Peeves: It’s All Right

You know what I think? People love grammar. With that, more grammar pet peeves!

Have Went
More and more often these days, I hear people say have went when they mean have gone. I don’t mean to overstate this, but this is one of those grammar mistakes that makes me want to stab myself in the neck with a fork—though it’s not as bad as Shea saying “Go Yankees” in his Southern accent. The past participle of to go is gone, which you would use with auxiliary verbs like has, have, is, am, etc. The simple past is went, which should not be used with an auxiliary verb.

So you would say, “I went to Yankee stadium and was surprised that they did not have grits at the concession stand.” Then you would say, “I should have gone to a Houston Astros game instead.” Every time you say “have went” instead of “have gone,” a little part of grammar enthusiasts dies inside, even if they don’t hear you say it. It’s like a disturbance in The Force.

Capitol Building
The dictionary definition of the noun capitol (lower case, with an O) is “a building occupied by a state legislature.” So the phrase capitol building is redundant, because capitol by definition is a building. It would be like saying, “I live in that house building” or “I’m going to see a baseball game in that stadium building.”

Similarly, the proper noun Capitol (upper case, still with an O) refers specifically to the building in Washington DC where Congress meets. So if you write, “National Capitol Building,” you’re being triply redundant, since Capitol by itself is already the national building you’re talking about. (If you click on the image here, you will see that Wikimedia user Scrumshus committed this error in the caption. Nevertheless, thank you, Scrumshus, for the copyright-free photo.)

Capital (with an A) can be a noun or an adjective and it means a lot of different things (it’s a little like Smurphy that way). As a noun, capital can be an upper-case letter, money, or a city that hosts the government of a political region. As an adjective, it can mean important, super-duper, related to money, or fatal.

In the most recent installment of Grammar Pet Peeves, Friend of IBD Greg wrote this in the comments section:

Why no mention of the most annoying (and unfortunately most popular) grammar flub out there: “myself”? What can we do about people’s obsession with this word?

Whenever I hear people say myself when me or I would work, it makes me think of the Austin Powers quote, “Allow myself to introduce…myself.” (For the record, Austin’s first myself is incorrect; the second is correct.) Here’s my theory: People are unsure about the appropriate use of me and I (which I wrote about back in the first installment of this series), so they use myself instead, just to be absolutely sure that they’re wrong.

If you’re in court, you might hear a mobster say, “He would not give the money that fell off the back of that truck to myself,” when what he really means is, “He would not give the money that fell off the back of that truck to me.” You might also hear him say, “Tommy and myself broke that jerk’s thumbs,” when what he means is “Tommy and I broke that jerk’s thumbs.”

As a reflexive pronoun, myself is correctly used as an object of a verb. For instance, “I hate myself for rooting for the Yankees” or “I smacked myself with a hammer.” Or if you are Austin Powers, “Allow me to introduce myself.”

A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.
Also in the comments of the most recent installment of this series, Friend of IBD Betty wrote, “I dislike sentences that end in prepositions.” Betty’s phrasing here is perfect, because while some people are surprised to learn that it is grammatically correct to end a sentence with a preposition, a lot of people simply don’t like it. (Betty didn’t say it was wrong; she just said that she doesn’t like it.)

The Grammar Girl blog lists the rule that you should not end a sentence with a preposition as one of the top 10 grammar myths. Author Mignon Fogarty explains it like this:

Here’s an example of a sentence that can end with a preposition: What did you step on? A key point is that the sentence doesn’t work if you leave off the preposition. You can’t say, “What did you step?” You need to say, “What did you step on?” to make a grammatical sentence…. Yes, you could say, “On what did you step?” but not even grammarians think you should. It sounds pedantic.

I reference Grammar Girl a lot in these pet peeve posts, and I wonder if you feel, as I do, that Grammar Girl (on the right) is the secret, daytime alter ego of the esurance girl. Or possibly vice versa. At any rate, the point is don’t be afraid to end a sentence with a preposition.

It’s hard to call this a pet peeve because I just learned about it, but it’s interesting (to me, anyway), so I thought I’d share. It seems that alright is not a word. Or to be fair, if it is a word, it’s recognized in most style guides and dictionaries as “nonstandard,” which means, “You can use it, but if you do you’re stupid.” We’re so accustomed to seeing words like altogether and already (which are indeed words), that we took the two-word phrase all right and made it alright. Again, there’s a good post on this on the Grammar Girl blog.

So now the stodgy prescriptivists (“Without grammatical structure and rules, language will cease to exist”) and the free-love descriptivists (“Language is a like an organism, man, and it can’t be restrained”) can argue over whether alright gets to be a word.

Well, alright, it’s a capitol idea for myself to stop now, because I have really went on. ‘Til next time!

Plagiarism: The “Orange is Controversial” Controversy

We love it when other websites link to IBD. Whenever we see that we’re getting hits from another site, we click right away to see if we need to alert our web host that we’re going viral. (“Batten down the hatches! Della Jane’s baseball quilting group posted a link on Facebook!”)

So when I saw a few weeks ago that we had gotten a couple hits from a site called Dream Stream, I went to check it out. It was a surreal, Inception-esque moment when I saw on this other site my own words from a recent post about the color orange. And not just a few of my words, but all of them from that post (though none of the images from the post were included, which is a little funny, because the text specifically references the images). I don’t want to link to the site, but you can see a bigger version of the screen capture below by clicking on it.

It was even more jarring to see that not only was I not credited for the article, but someone named Philippe was.

I should point out that I get called Phil all the time. One person I know has called me Phil for the better part of a decade, and I was once quoted on the front page of The Wall Street Journal (true story!) as “Phil Caputo.”

I have several theories for this: There’s a famous author named Philip Caputo (no relation). The names Phil and Paul are easy to confuse since they both start with P and end with L, and they have the same number of letters. And finally, I root for the Phillies. (I sometimes wonder if IBD Phil and Other IBD Phil root for the Paulies.)

But I don’t think it was confusion over my name that caused my intellectual property to show up on another website attributed to someone else.

It was difficult to find contact information for the site, which is run by a company in Brussels. Comments on the blog post were closed, so after some research, I found a general mailing address on the company’s Facebook page and sent a message indicating my displeasure and asking them to remove the post. I received this response:

Dear mister Caputo,

Please accept my apologies for this. We usually put the source of each article on our internal blog. We have added your source immediately to the article. I hope this suits your request.

Kind regards,
Philippe De Wulf

Philippe had added this attribution at the bottom of the article:

I debated writing back and saying that it was not enough, and I debated trying to start a Cooks Source magazine style Internet campaign against Dream Stream (see Nerd Rage: A Response to Internet Thievery). But the wind was out of my sails. I had received an apology and attribution, though not exactly in flashing neon lights (I should have asked for my name in an animated starburst), and the prospect of a trans-Atlantic copyright battle seemed fruitless.

So words that I wrote still exist on this other site, looking to all the world like they were written by Philippe. At the very least, Dream Stream’s use of my words falsely attributed to someone else is immoral. At the most, it’s illegal copyright infringement. I can’t say for certain whether the folks at Dream Stream are simply ignorant or actively malicious, but this episode is a reminder that it’s incredibly easy to steal copyrighted materials that exist online, and that there’s a gross misunderstanding of what that little copyright symbol at the bottom of the page means.

I likely never would have known that I had been plagiarized if Philippe had thought to remove links to IBD’s other “Get to Know a Color!” articles contained within “Orange is Controversial,” but I get the idea that he didn’t look too carefully at the article before taking credit for it.

All of that being said, I hope Philippe’s Belgian friends got a big laugh at his insightful and hilarious jab at the New York Mets.