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November 16 2010

17:00

“That heady feeling of being totally integrated”: The elusive promise of community, flattened and “real”

In the future-of-journalism business, we’re obsessed with adoption: getting online, getting hip to the web, leaving old analog practices behind, embracing the interactivity of social media. For a long time, not getting online — not getting hip to the digital program — seemed the provenance of clueless curmudgeons, middle-aged city desk editors, and Andrew Keen. Rightly, I think, we’ve devoted most of our energy to figuring out the details of what Jay Rosen has called “the migration point of the press tribe.” Getting to the other side of the chasm means getting wired in.

One of the things I always loved about Scott Rosenberg’s book Say Everything was that it covered enough historical time that it was as much a book about blogs ending as it was a book about the adoption of blogging. Over the last few weeks, we’ve been lucky enough to read several fantastic pieces that I think speak to this question of “getting offline” in ways that go beyond the usual curmudgeonly prattle. Two writers went down this road voluntarily: Marc Ambinder wrote a farewell post called “I am a Blogger No Longer,” and Zadie Smith, in a review of The Social Network, referred to herself a 1.0 person living in a 2.0 world, a person who killed her Facebook page after a few weeks. A third blogger, however — Ruth Gledhill of The Times of London — was forced to shut down her blog when the newspaper she worked for went behind a paywall. No openness to the Internet, no point in running a blog.

For me, it was Gledhill’s comments about “life behind the paywall” that got me thinking. “In one sense,” she wrote:

I have my ‘life’ back as my blog took up all of my waking hours when I wasn’t writing news stories and I was neglecting our son and other areas of my life outside work. It was definitely an addiction. When I was wired up, I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere. I still miss that heady feeling of being totally integrated with the ‘ether’.

Ambinder’s comments about non-blog journalism being “ego free” may have garned the most attention on Twitter, but I think Robin Sloan of Snarkmarket is right when he flags this as the piece’s key point. Ambinder’s point intersects well with Gledhill’s:

The mere fact that online reporters feel they must participate in endless discussions about these subjects is something new, a consequence of the medium, and is one reason why it can be so exhausting to do primarily web journalism. The feedback loop is relentless, punishing.

The fact that one of these comments is primarily positive (“wired up,” “physically part of the internet,” “heady feeling,” “totally integrated”) while the other is negative (“endless discussions,” “exhausting,” “relentless,” “punishing”) makes it clear to me that both writers are talking about the same thing. They’re talking about an intensive process of speaking and listening, grounded in a social network that is itself embedded within a dynamic community. In both cases, the journalist is open, responsive, locked in…and open and responsive to a network of ultimately real people, not to some abstract entity that looms just over your left shoulder. This would be a hard feeling to describe to someone who had never Tweeted, blogged, surfed an RSS feed, or gotten lost on Facebook, but if you’ve gotten this far you probably have some idea of what I’m talking about. There’s a certain frisson there. I can actually feel it as I write this post.

Having spent many years teaching and befriending journalists, and having participated in some poorly defined acts of citizen journalism myself, it seems that people generally go into journalism for a number of reasons. I’ve found that my would-be journalism students are usually curious. They want to get to the bottom of things; they deal in practical reality, not theory; and they (let’s face it) love to snoop. They’re practical, inquisitive, fact-minded folks.

In addition to them, though, I know a number of journalists who went into the industry because their communicative work gave them the chance to ground themselves in a particular community, to be embed themselves within a particular public. They want to stand near the center of the communications circuit. They want to listen to people and tell them things, all at the same time. They want to learn new things, things that matter to individuals and groups, and then tell them about it. They want to know that they’ve made a difference, that the people have heard them.

One of the things I think you realize as a journalist, however, is that your “public” quickly gets reduced to your beat, and your community most often consists of folks we might call “sources” (an ugly phrase). In everyday terms, the best journalists spend most of their time talking to a rather limited group of people — and even when that circuit of people expands they’re still primarily dealing with people they usually refer to as a “source.” Journalists are workers, and as workers, they become attuned to practices that make the most logical sense, that help them do their job, and get them out the door headed towards home as quickly as possible. For journalists, the practical necessities of journalism narrow the scope of the public.

This is why I think so many journalists get so excited about the social possibilities of digital technology. In the most basic sense, “the shock of community” that the Internet provides gets represented by quantitative audience metrics. Whatever audience-tracking tools may or may not be doing to the editorial process, there’s no mistaking the fact that when reporters first encounter those heady sheets of Omniture data, it blows their minds. “Finally! The invisible audience has returned! These are the people I cared about when I first went into reporting…I forgot about them — but here they are!” In more poetic terms, it’s what Gledhill talks about when she writes that “I felt physically part of the internet, the blogosphere…totally integrated with the ‘ether’.” It’s not just metrics, but it’s comments, links, email, and conversation.

When I was doing research in Philadelphia, this is how a local journalist/blogger described the evolution of his blog:

…the key lesson is that my blog got picked up and accepted as being an authentic part of the blogging community, which in his case was the left-wing blogosphere. And the way I did that was to link to these other blogs, to engage with them, and to seek them out. Some of our other blogs that are run by journalists are struggling with how to gain that acceptance. I remember a moment in September 2003 when one of my posts was linked by the leftwing website Buzzflash [which was popular at the time]. Comments came rolling in. Emails to me went through the roof — that was the kind of national attention I was looking for!

Ambinder, on the other hand, points to the aftermath of that social-network high: the endless comment moderation, the exhaustion that digital immersion can cause. And Zadie Smith goes one step further. For Smith, the community journalists have been so excited to rediscover isn’t actually real. It’s limited. It’s flattened. On Facebook,

If the aim is to be liked by more and more people, whatever is unusual about a person gets flattened out. One nation under a format. To ourselves, we are special people, documented in wonderful photos…Software may reduce humans, but there are degrees.

Smith’s point is philosophical: digital technology reduces us. Like any grand philosophical point, it’s ultimately unprovable, which is why I’ve tried to come at it from an oblique angle, by talking about publics and journalism. Does online journalism give us a community that’s more real, or less real, than the one we leave behind? I think that digital technology does flatten people. But it flattens more than just people. It flattens objects, concepts, publics, and relationships as well. And it’s not just digital technology that flattens things; the daily act of working, of day-to-day practical living flattens things too.

Reporters may go into journalism to be with the public; they eventually find beats and sources and the daily grind instead. Reporters may go online to find a community more responsive than the one they encounter in their daily work, but it’s a community that can be exhausting, pummeling, and not quite real. So get offline if you wish. Get online if you can. But in either case, never make the mistake in thinking that you’ve found a community, a public, a reality, that’s more authentic than the one you’ve left behind. We can’t will authentic community into being. It sort of sneaks up on us. And just as quickly — as soon as we turn our heads — it’s gone.

Photo by Matthew Field used under a Creative Commons license.

May 19 2010

15:30

Andrew Keen on why “the Internet is ideology”

Is the Internet technology or ideology? Is our media culture today really more meritocratic than it’s been in the past? And when we talk about the web fostering democracy, what kind of democracy, actually, are we talking about?

Worthy questions, I’d say. They’re ones that arose last night during a debate at the National Press Club — a debate sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, and centered on another question: Is democracy threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet?

Taking the “no” position in the debate were the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Taking the “yes” were Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist (and author of the homophily-focused True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur.

Unsurprisingly, given the topic, much of the discussion tread ground whose trail is, at this point, well defined. (As Sifry noted, “When I was asked to participate in this, I was astounded that there would be anybody who would defend the notion that democracy is threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet.”) Also unsurprisingly, while the participants’ contributions were uniformly smart, the most provocative comments came courtesy of Keen — gadfly, polemicist, “antichrist of Silicon Valley,” and, in this case, the debater who questioned the premise of the debate in the first place. (“I think the resolution is a little dodgy,” the Brit put it, British-ly.)

In that, Keen transformed what could have been an eloquent-but-musty debate — echo chambers, but, then again, diversity! homophily, but, then again, intensity! — into a lively exchange. And whether you agree with his perspective or (vehemently) oppose it, the ideas Keen discussed last night are worth consideration, as a countervailing presence if nothing else, as we navigate between the mass democratization of the web and the insistent particularities of American democracy. With that in mind, here’s a sampling of his commentary.

On the notion that the web can harm democracy:

It depends, of course, what you mean by democracy. Jimmy [Wales]’s definition of democracy was an anti-federalist position, a sort of an idealized, direct-democracy rhetoric which suggests (and I’m quoting him now) that “It’s all about the people deciding.” But of course at the foundation this country is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in which the federalists won over the anti-federalists.

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community. So I think Jimmy is falling into the old trap of appropriating democracy for his own ends.

On the notion that the Internet is, fundamentally, technology:

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise, on what Jimmy calls “the mainstream media,” which includes shows like this, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And the idea that representative democracy, experts — whether in media, in politics, in the arts, in legal affairs, in intellectual affairs — are unreliable and need to be replaced by what Jimmy calls “the people” is deeply dangerous.

What I most fear about the Internet — which…we all use; I’m as addicted as everybody else — is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy.

On the web’s facilitation of a mass meritocracy:

I think it’s one of the fundamental illusions — or delusions — about this critique of mainstream media: that somehow, before the Internet, it was just the rich, the privileged, who controlled the media — that it was a racket. And then the Internet came along, and suddenly the people had a voice. And that’s simply nonsense. I mean, we’re all — the four of us are all — part of an Internet elite, which is no more or less of an elite than in traditional media. But I am very troubled with this idea of the Internet replacing a flawed meritocracy. It’s simply wrong.

On the Internet’s need of a new social contract:

Many people see the Internet as a right and not a responsibility. Jeff Jarvis, who I think we’re all friendly with, said the Internet is the next society. And he may be right. In the 18th century, when we were figuring out modern industrial society, we came up with social contract theory about rights and responsibilities. I think the same is true of the Internet. It’s a reality, for better or for worse. It is perhaps the central fact of social and political life in the 21st century. And it needs to be understood not only in terms of rights — of taking, of stealing, of getting it for free, and all the other problems associated with the Internet — but also one of responsibility.

On the distinction between democracy and an informed citizenry:

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes and author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

March 19 2010

15:00

This Week in Review: Loads of SXSW ideas, Pew’s state of the news, and a dire picture of local TV news

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

A raft of ideas at SXSW: The center of the journalism-and-tech world this week has been Austin, Texas, site of the annual conference South by Southwest. The part we’re most concerned about — SXSW Interactive — ran from last Friday to Tuesday. The New York Times’ David Carr gives us a good feel for the atmosphere, and Poynter’s Steve Myers asked 15 journalists what they took away from SXSW, and it makes for a good roundup. A handful of sessions there grabbed the attention of a lot of the journalism thinkers on the web, and I’ll try to take you on a semi-quick tour:

— We saw some conversation last week leading up to Matt Thompson’s panel on “The Future of Context,” and that discussion continued throughout this week. We had some great description of the session, between Steve Myers’ live blog and Elise Hu’s more narrative summary. As Hu explains, Thompson and his fellow panelists, NYU prof Jay Rosen and Apture founder Tristan Harris, looked at why much of our news lacks context, why our way of producing news doesn’t make sense (we’re still working with old values in a new ecosystem), and how we go about adding context to a largely episodic news system.

Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center echoes the panelists’ concerns, and Lehigh prof Jeremy Littau pushes the concept further, connecting it with social gaming. Littau doesn’t buy the idea that Americans don’t have time for news, since they obviously have plenty of time for games that center on collecting things, like Facebook’s Farmville. He’d like to see news organizations try to provide that missing context in a game environment, with the gamer’s choices informed by “blasts of information, ideally pulled from well reported news stories, that the user can actually apply to the situation in a way that increases both recall and understanding.”

— NYU’s web culture guru, Clay Shirky, gave a lecture on the value that can be squeezed out of public sharing. Matt Thompson has a wonderful live blog of the hourlong session, and Liz Gannes of GigaOM has a solid summary, complete with a few of the made-for-Twitter soundbites Shirky has a knack for, like “Abundance breaks more things than scarcity does,” and “Institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.”

Once again, Jeremy Littau pulls Shirky’s ideas together and hones in on their implications for journalism in a thoughtful post, concluding that while the future of journalism is bright, its traditional players are clueless. “I just don’t see a future for them when they’re trying to protect information as a scarce commodity,” he writes. “The scarcity, in truth, is in media companies trying to create civic goods via user sharing.”

danah boyd, who studies social media and youth culture for Microsoft Research, gave a well-received talk on privacy and publicity online. It doesn’t have much to do directly with journalism, but it’s a brilliant, insightful glimpse into how web culture works. Here’s a rough crib of the talk from boyd, and a summary from TechCrunch. There’s a bunch of cool nuggets in there, like boyd’s description of the “inversion of defaults” in privacy and publicity online. Historically, conversations were private by default and public by effort, but conversations online have become public by default and private by effort.

— One of the big journalism-related stories from SXSW has been AOL and Seed’s efforts to employ a not-so-small army of freelancers to cover each of the 2,000 or so bands at the festival. The Daily Beast has the best summary of the project and its goals, and TechCrunch talks about it with former New York Times writer Saul Hansell, who’s directing the effort. Silicon Alley Insider noted midweek that they wouldn’t reach the goal of 2,000 interviews.

One of the big questions about AOL and Seed’s effort is whether they’re simply creating another kind of “content mill” that many corners of the web have been decrying over the past few months. Music writer Leor Galil criticized it as crass, complaining of the poor quality of some of the interviews: “AOL is shelling out cash and providing great space for potentially terrible content.” David Cohn of Spot.Us compared AOL to the most notorious content farm, Demand Media, concluding that journalists shouldn’t be worried about them exploiting writers, but should be worried about their threat to the journalism industry as a whole.

— One other session worth noting: “Cult of the Amateur” author and digital dystopian Andrew Keen gave a sobering talk called “Is Innovation Fair?” As Fast Company’s Francine Hardaway aptly summarized, he pointed to the downsides of our technological advances and argued that if SXSW is a gathering of the winners in the cultural shift, we have to remember that there are losers, too.

Pew’s paywall findings: The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism released its annual “State of the News Media” study, and it’s a smorgasbord of statistics about every major area of journalism, from print to TV to the web. A summary of summaries: The study’s six major emerging trends (expanded on by Poynter’s Bill Mitchell), some of its key statistical findings, and the Columbia Journalism Review’s seven eye-popping statistics from the study.

The biggest headline for most people was the study’s finding that only seven percent of the Americans who get their news online say they’d spring for a favorite news source’s content if it went behind a paywall. (The AP writeup has a few more statistics and some analysis about online loyalty and advertising.) Jeff Jarvis, a longtime paywall opponent, wondered why newspapers are spending so much time on the paywall issue instead of their “dreadful” engagement and loyalty online. Former WSJer Jason Fry breaks down the study to conclude that the basic unit of online journalism is not the site but the article — thus undermining the primary mindset behind the paywall.

Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, who writes the study’s section on newspapers each year, said he’s done with dead-and-dying as an industry theme. Instead, he said, the problem with most newspapers is that they are becoming insubstantial, shells of their former selves. “They lack the heft to be thrown up the front porch or to satisfy those readers still willing to pay for a good print newspaper.” Editor & Publisher pulled some of the more depressing statistics from Edmonds’ chapter. Yet Lee Rainie, who co-authored the study’s section on online economics, said he was still optimistic about journalism’s future.

A bleak look at local TV news: Another fascinating journalism study was released late last week by USC researchers that found disappointing, though not necessarily surprising, trends in Los Angeles local TV news: Crime, sports, weather and teasers dominate, with very little time for business and government. USC’s press release has some highlights, and co-author Martin Kaplan offers a quick, pointed video overview of the report, concluding with a barb about wants and needs: “I want ice cream. I need a well-balanced meal. Apparently the people of Los Angeles want 22 seconds about their local government. Maybe if they got more than that, they’d want more than that.”

FCC Commissioner Michael Copps was “flat-out alarmed” by the study and vowed some vague form of action. Jay Rosen was ruthless in his criticism on Twitter, and Los Angeles Times critic James Rainey used the study as the basis for a particularly well-written evisceration of local TV news. Rainey had the most promising suggestion, proposing that a cash-strapped TV station find a newspaper, nonprofit or j-school interested in partnering with it to build an audience around more substantive, in-depth TV news.

The iPad, magazines and advertising: As we expected, lots and lots of people have been ordering iPads since they went on sale — 50,000 in the first two hours and 152,000 in three days, according to estimates. We’re also continuing to get word of news organizations’ and publishers’ plans for apps; this week we heard that the AP will have an app when the iPad rolls out next month, and saw a nifty interactive feature for the digital Viv Mag. (The Guardian has a roundup of other video iPad demos that have come out so far.)

SXSW also had at least three sessions focusing on media companies and the iPad: 1) One on the iPad and the magazine industry focused largely on advertising — here’s a DigitalBeat summary and deeper thoughts by Reuters’ Felix Salmon on why advertising on the iPad could be more immersive and valuable than in print; 2) Another focusing on the iPad and Wired magazine, with Salmon opining on why the iPad is a step backwards in the open-web world; 3) And a third on iPad consumption habits and their effects on various industries.

Reading roundup: One ongoing discussion, two pieces of news and one smart analysis:

The conversation sparked by Netscape co-founder Marc Andreesen’s advice for newspapers to forget the printed paper and go all-in with online news continued this week, with Frederic Filloux noting that “there are alternatives to envisioning the transformation of the print media as only a choice between euthanizing the paper product or putting it on life support.” Steve Yelvington looked at setting up separate print and online divisions (been there, done that, he says), Tim Kastelle spun Andreesen and Google’s Hal Varian off into more thoughtful suggestions for newspapers, and Dorian Benkoil took the opportunity to marvel at how much things have changed for the better.

The first piece of news was Twitter’s launch at SXSW of @anywhere, a simple program that allows other sites to implement some of Twitter’s features. TechCrunch gave a quick overview of what it could do, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy looked at its targeting of Facebook Connect, and GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram was unimpressed.

Second, ABC News execs revealed that they’re planning on putting up an online paywall by this summer. The Guardian and paidContent have detailed interviews with ABC News digital chief Paul Slavin.

And finally, newspaper vet Alan Mutter examines the often-heard assertion that small newspapers are weathering the industry’s storm better than their larger counterparts. He nails all the major issues at play for small papers, both the pluses (lack of competition and broadband access, loyal readership) and the minuses (rapidly aging population, some local economies lacking diversity). He ultimately advises small papers to ensure their future success by innovating in order to become indispensable to their communities: “To the degree publishers emphasize short-term profits over long-term engagement, they will damage their franchises — and open the way to low-cost online competitors.”

February 24 2010

09:23

Technology: both good and bad for human rights

At an interactive event at Amnesty UK on Monday, the panel, audience and back-channel contributors (tweets were beamed up on a screen behind) discussed the pros and cons of using technology for human rights. The underlying conflict was this: repressive governments and regimes can make as much use of new technology as pro-democracy activists.

The panel included Google’s head of public policy and government relations, Susan Pointer; Guardian’s digital media research editor, Kevin Anderson; Annabelle Sreberny, professor of global media and communication at SOAS; and author and blogger Andrew Keen: who spoke from the US via an iPhone held up to the mic by the event chair, BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones.

At the end, the conversation turned to Amnesty’s own changing use of technology to fight battles: letters were still important, said Steve Ballinger from its media unit. While email now played an important role, there was still something very “physical” about sending a letter, he said.

The event was put on by the human rights charity to promote its annual media awards, which freelancers, or journalists at small online publications, may be able to enter for free.

Amnesty also used the occasion to remind us of the plight of two bloggers from Azerbaijan. After producing a spoof YouTube video critical of the Azeri government last year, the youth activists were sentenced to prison; Emin Abdullayev for 2.5 years; Adnan Hajizade for two years. An appeal hearing is due for 3 March. Amnesty is calling for people to send protest emails to the minister of justice in Azerbaijan at this link.

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