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May 09 2013

17:24

Diaries, the original social media: How our obsession with documenting (and sharing) our own lives is nothing new

If you’ve ever kept a diary, chances are you probably considered that document private. As in,

MOM I’VE TOLD YOU A MILLION TIMES MY DIARY IS PRIVATE SO DON’T FUCKING READ IT AGAIN PS THANKS FOR CLEANING MY ROOM IT LOOKS NICE

— Luke (@StereotypeLuke) March 24, 2013

But that wasn’t always the case when it came to personal journals. At least, not according to Lee Humphreys, a communications and media researcher at Cornell.

Humphreys led a conversation this week with Microsoft Research’s Social Media Collective on historicizing social media practices. Humphreys argues that, through journals and diaries, people have been recounting their daily activities and reflecting on them for much longer than Twitter and other social media platforms have been around.

But through her research, Humphreys found that it’s only been in the last hundred years that journalling has come to be considered a private practice. In the late 19th century, she says visiting friends and relatives would gather together and read each others diaries as a way of keeping up to date and sharing their lives. Journals were also kept in early American towns to mark and record important events: weddings, births, deaths and other events of community-wide importance.

“You don’t get a real sense of personal, individual self until the end of the 19th century,” Humphreys told the Cornell Chronicle in 2010, “so it makes perfect sense that diaries or journals prior to that time were much more social in nature.”

At Humphreys’ talk on Tuesday, some suggested that the advent of Freudian psychology — or perhaps the mass popularization of the novel — had contributed to this inward turn by America’s diarists. As the profession of journalism began to rise at the beginning of the 20th century, the independent writer was becoming increasingly self-reflective, creating the expectation of privacy that we were familiar with prior to the arrival of the Internet. But Humphrey is arguing that before we had a mass media, there was a system of personal writing that looked like a slower, more loosely networked version of Twitter.

people want to make twitter their diary but isn’t a diary suppose to be private?

— #slick (@rickstayslick) May 7, 2013

The similarities between Twitter and historic trends in diary keeping don’t stop there, according to Humphreys. She points to a surge in the popularity of pocket diaries, which, like Twitter, restricted the number of words you could write due to their small size, but also made them mobile. With 60 percent of tweets now being written on mobile devices, according to Humphreys, as compared to around 14 percent when she conducted the study in 2008, trends in Twitter behavior are in fact reflecting historical trends in self-reporting. So even the practice of making notes about your daily activities as they are happening isn’t a new behavior.

A second study Humphreys conducted revealed even more lessons about our drive to create personal records. Using the diary entires of a soldier in the Civil War, which he dutifully copied and turned into letters home, and the personal blog of an Iraq War soldier, Humphreys explored the reasons people feel compelled to record the events of their lives.

Primarily, she says, people journal as a way of strengthening “kin and friend” relationships. The soldier in Iraq, referred to as DadManly, originally began his blog as a way of keeping in touch with all of his family members at once. Charlie Mac, the Civil War soldier, exhibits a similar desire for communication and relationship maintenance by sending home a faithfully transcribed (we assume) copy of his diary. Both men, Humphreys says, described experiencing profound frustration and anxiety when the medium through which they communicated was disrupted, whether by an Internet blackout or a rainstorm that dissolved parchment and delayed the post.

The writings of Charlie Mac and DadManly shared another important similarity: Although both were writing for ostensibly private audiences, there was an implicit understanding that their words might someday reach a wider audience. When DadManly saw web traffic from strangers, he began to increasingly write about his political views on the war, providing what he believed to be a unique perspective of support at a time when very few journalists in the traditional media felt the same way.

Charlie Mac also had reason to believe his diary letters were being shared with an audience larger than the one he was directly addressing. In fact, he sometimes included parenthetical addresses to specific individuals, should they happen to come across the documents. But there was also a real possibility that his war correspondence would be picked up and reprinted by newspapers. (Or, as it happened, compiled, archived, and read by researchers hundreds of years later.) After the war, he ended up becoming a journalist at The Boston Globe. What more apt analogue to the media of today than a world in which one’s personal commentary on current events is so appreciated that they can be transformed into a lifelong career?

During the course of Charlie Mac’s budding career, he would have observed the budding of what we consider the traditional media hierarchy. Information would increasingly begin to flow from the top down, rather than be gathered voraciously from amateurs in the field. He would see news brands begin to shape and control narratives, and come to exist in an information system with less and less emphasis on personal interactions.

Of course, what we’ve seen in the decades since the dawn of the digital age is just the opposite. Humphreys said one of the early conclusions from her research is the possibility that the mass media of the 20th century was in fact a blip, a historical aberration, and that, through platforms like Twitter, we are gradually returning to a communication network that indulges, without guilt, the individual’s desire to record his existence.

Personal diarists are not only comforted by recording and sharing their experience, Humphreys says, but they are empowered by claiming their own narrative. She suspects it was for this reason that so many 19th-century women kept journals — in the hopes that they and their families would be remembered. Her point takes on contemporary significance when she points out that Twitter is more popular among African-American and Hispanic youths than among whites.

The most powerful argument for Twitter as a force of erosion of the public media is not, as we hear so often lately, that it feeds the fires of rumor and speculation. The argument that Twitter is facile is much more potent — that Twitter users are self-obsessed, that a minute spent tweeting is a minute wasted, that Twitter is the digital embodiment of the general degradation of intellectual society — many of the same arguments made a decade ago about blogging.

This is what I ate for breakfast… Greek potatoes, orzo, Greek salad, dolmades, and OJ. #Hmm yfrog.com/nxfktoej

— Miss Illinois (@StaciJoee) March 28, 2012

I’m going to be a total blogger today. This is what I ate for breakfast. LOL http://yfrog.com/h2tovdrj

— Holly Becker (@decor8) February 20, 2011

What Humphreys has found, instead, is that if we are all navel-gazers, it’s not Twitter that made us that way. And further, that we are tighter-networked, faster-responding, further-reaching navel-gazers, with a richer media experience, than ever before.

Image by Barnaby Dorfman used under a Creative Commons license.

September 01 2010

14:00

All the web’s a stage: Scholar Joshua Braun on what we show and what we choose to hide in journalism

Joshua Braun is a media scholar currently pursuing his Ph.D in Communications at Cornell. His work is centered at the intriguing intersection of television and the web: He’s currently studying the adoption of blogging software by network news sites, and the shifts that that adoption are bringing about in terms of the relationship between one-way communication something more conversational. At this spring’s IOJC conference in Austin, Braun presented a paper (pdf) discussing the results of his research — a work that considered, among other questions:

As journalistic institutions engage more and more fully in interactive online spaces, how are these tensions changing journalism itself? How do the technical systems and moderation strategies put in place shape the contours of the news, and how do these journalistic institutions make sense of these systems and strategies as part of their public mission? What is the role of audiences and publics in this new social and technical space? And how do journalistic institutions balance their claim to be “town criers” and voices for the public with the fact that their authority and continued legal standing depend at times on moderating, and even silencing the voices of individuals?

The whole paper is worth reading. (You can also watch Braun’s IOJC talk here.) But one aspect of it that’s especially fascinating, for our purposes, is Braun’s examination of TV-network news blogs in the context of the sociology of dramaturgy (in particular, the work of Erving Goffman).

News organizations are each a mix of public and private — preparing information for a public audience, but generally doing so in a private way. As with a theater production, there’s a performance going on for the audience but a big crew backstage. Blogging represents a potential shift in this dynamic by exposing people and processes that would otherwise be kept hidden behind a byline or a 90-second news piece.

And the blogging interplay — between presentation and communication, between product and process, and, perhaps most interestingly, between process and performance — is relevant to any news organization trying to navigate familiar journalistic waters with new vessels. I spoke with Braun about that dynamic and the lessons it might have to offer; below is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Megan Garber: I’m intrigued by the idea of theater dynamics you mention in the paper — in particular, the distinction between backstage and front-stage spaces for news performances. Can you explain that in a bit more detail?

Joshua Braun: This is Steve Hilgartner’s idea. He took this idea of stage management from classic sociology, which has normally been an interpersonal theory, and decided it worked for organizations. He looked at the National Academy, and noticed the way in which they keep all their deliberations effectively secret and then release a document at the end that gives the consensus opinion of the scientific community. And there are two aspects of that. One is that it’s intended to protect the integrity of the process. So when you’re a big policy-advisory body like the National Research Council, you have senators who will call you and tell you they don’t want you working on something; you’ll have lobbyists who’ll want to influence your results; you’ll have, basically, a lot of political pressure. So there’s this aspect in which this system of enclosure — in the Goffman/Hilgartner metaphor — this keeping of things backstage, really is meant to protect the integrity of the process.

But it also has the other effect, which is that it also gives the illusion of the scientific community speaking with a single voice. So basically, all the messy process of sausages being made — and all the controversial issues that, by definition, the National Research Council is dealing with — you don’t see reflected in the reports. Or you see it in very official language. So it gives them a tremendous amount of authority, this illusion of the scientific community speaking with one voice, and they cultivate that. I was actually a graduate fellow at the National Academies, and they definitely want that — they recognize that the authority of the documents rests on that.

And many organizations that deal with information and knowledge production, including journalism, operate in this way, frequently. The publication of the finished news item and the enclosure of the reporting process — there’s a very real sense that that protects the authority of the process. So if you’re investigating a popular politician, you need that. And at the same time, it protects the brand and the legal standing and the authority of the organization, and bolsters that. Those things are very reliant on this process of enclosure, oftentimes.

And so what you see in the new media spaces, and these network experiments with blogging, is that sort of process. They’ve taken a medium that they themselves talked about in terms of accountability and transparency and openness and extended it to this traditional stage management process. They continue to control what remains backstage and what goes front-stage. And there are good justifications for doing that. But they’ve also extended that to the process of comment moderation. You’ll get pointed to a description of why comments are moderated the way they are — but you’ll never see exactly why a comment is spammed or not. That’s not unique to the news, either. But it’s an interesting preservation of the way the media’s worked for a long time.

And this has been described by other scholars, as well. So Alfred Hermida has a really neat piece on blogging at the BBC where he talks about much the same thing. He uses different terms — he talks about “gatekeeping,” as opposed to this notion of stage management — but it’s a pretty robust finding across a lot of institutions.

And I don’t want to portray it as something unique to journalism. This process of self-presentation and this performance of authority is widespread — and maybe necessary to journalism. I think the jury’s out on that.

MG: Definitely. Which brings up the question of how authority is expressed across different media. Does broadcast, for example, being what it is, have a different mandate than other types of journalism?

JB: Right. One of the remarkable things about broadcast news is the amount of stage management that you see in the traditional product. So if you look at an organization like ABC News, for instance — before their recent mass layoffs — they have several dozen correspondents: 77 or so people. But they have 1,500 total staff. And when you’re producing for a visual medium, you’re very selective about what appears on front-stage — this mise-en-scène of network news: what appears on camera and what ends up on the cutting-room floor, and so on. The vast majority of their newsgathering operation — the desk assistants and the bookers and the people who do all the pre-interviewing and the off-air correspondents — are people who never appear on-air. No network is its anchor.

So there’s that aspect, in which a large portion of the news ecosystem isn’t visible to the public — and there’s an argument to be made that having a small set of news personalities with whom audiences can identify is good for the product — and there are a lot of organizations where the vast majority of people involved in things don’t really speak. So that was one of the interesting aspects of looking at the blogging efforts of network news: Once that somewhat natural distinction between on-air and off-air talent and support staff disappears, who becomes visible online?

And you do have a lot of producers, a lot of bookers and other types of professionals who appear on the blogs, which is a really fascinating thing. The blogs are an extension of the stage management thing, but also a challenge to that model.

Image from daveynin used under a Creative Commons License.

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