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April 08 2013

16:55

Emerging spaces for storytelling: Journalistic lessons from social media in the Delhi gang rape case

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DELHI — In December, the brutal rape and subsequent death of a 23-year-old female student quickly gained attention in Indian and foreign media. In the days immediately following the woman’s death, protesters staged large demonstrations at Delhi’s India Gate and outside government buildings, including Rashtrapati Bhavan, the official residence of India’s President.

During the protests, activists and journalists used social media to follow the protests and to discuss India’s problem of violence against women. This discourse highlighted how social media offer an emerging space for storytelling — remarkable in a country where social media hasn’t had the same impact it has elsewhere. To explore this case, we interviewed Indian and foreign correspondents who covered the protests in Delhi. They told us how journalists used social media during the protests, giving us insight into how a new medium is contributing to hard news coverage.

India’s digital divide and the challenge of representation

Social media hasn’t played anything near the role in Indian journalism that it does in, say, the United States. Supporters of social media often point to their inclusive and democratizing aspects — but in India, social media usage remains confined to a small percentage of the population. Nearly 80 percent of Indians now have a mobile phone, but only 11 percent have Internet access, and fewer than 5 percent use social media. In rural areas, these percentages are significantly lower. Information gathered from social media tends to come from a rarified segment of the population: the affluent, educated, English-speaking youth of India’s major cities.

When we asked journalists to what extent they use social media for news-gathering, some complained that social media discussions are narrow. As an India-based journalist for the Swiss Neue Zürcher Zeitung told us:

They don’t really represent the majority of the people. For example, if you read social media, you would think everyone was extremely shocked and devastated. But if you talked to people on the streets or in slums, you get the idea that many Indians have extremely backward and conservative idea about women and how they had to behave. Social media can not replace doing research on the ground, in slums and villages. That’s the most important thing for working in India.

The digital divide thus represents a sociocultural divide: In India, those who use social media are more likely to live in cities, hold a passport, and share values with social media users in the West. By relying too heavily on social media, journalists may find that their coverage skews toward a narrow readership. One Australian journalist told us that the rape protests gained prominence on Twitter “because [social media] is city-based and at the center of the life of the middle class, university students, and mobile professionals.” The journalist from Neue Zürcher Zeitung told us “it is easy to share ideas and read articles of colleagues or see what intellectuals think.” What’s more difficult is to get beyond that narrow demographic and understand the views of Indians whose voices are not heard on social media.

According to Rohan Venkataramakrishnan, senior reporter at the Mail Today, social media presents a challenge for nuanced debate: “If I wanted to write about how Indian society needs to change or how patriarchy needs to be dealt with, I cannot say it in 140 characters.”

While journalists may have personal affinity with social media users, several of them told us that to get a more representative understanding of issues, they pay attention to television and newspapers. Here’s the journalist from Neue Zürcher Zeitung: “Television, newspapers, and talking to people on the streets were much more important [in newsgathering]. Only a very small part of society has access to social media, but everyone watches television.”

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In addition to questions of representation, journalists have another reason to discount social media reporting. As we discussed in an earlier piece, India’s newspaper industry is thriving. With healthy growth in newspaper circulation and advertising, many journalists are skeptical about what social media can do for Indian journalism right now. When we conducted interviews with journalists at The Hindu, we encountered a widespread belief that social media is mostly for soft news. But that was before the Delhi gang rape and protests. The question now is: Will this event change the role of social media in Indian journalism?

New spaces, new beats for storytelling

In the past, television networks have been the largest players in Indian news coverage. Social media haven’t changed that, but have instead provided new avenues for news-gathering and story distribution. In the months preceding the events, Indian newspapers and television had covered a number of rape cases. But the December Delhi gang rape proved to be different. The brutality of the attack and the scale of the protests brought international attention to India’s problem of violence against women. Some journalists we spoke to highlighted the role of protest in democratizing India’s media.

The Delhi gang rape case prompted many journalists to use Twitter for updates on events and immediate responses from activists. To a greater extent than in previous protests, social media helped journalists keep a finger on the pulse of middle class India and get their immediate feedback on important issues. An Australian reporter said that “Twitter was really helpful to get a sense of the public sentiment and developments.” He followed the #delhigangrape hashtag, the official Twitter account of the Indian government, women’s groups, pressure groups, and Indian media on the subject.

Venkataramakrishnan, the journalist who found 140 characters limiting, nonetheless said that the protests have been incubators for social media sophistication in India. “Following the Anna Hazare case and the Delhi gang rape case, social media began to achieve a critical mass,” he told us.

Many journalists cited the importance of social media for background information. A journalist from The Hindu told us “I look at tweets by our own editor, editors from other newspapers, well known journalists such as Pritish Nandy [a columnist with The Times of India and the Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar], Abhijit Majumder [editor of the Delhi edition of the Hindustan Times], and Saikat Dutta [a Delhi-based editor of the newspaper DNA]. I also look up tweets by television journalists such as Shiv Aroor [deputy editor at Headlines Today]. You get a mix of opinions from their tweets. Knowing these people’s perspectives helps me during coverage — but only indirectly…I rely on what I see when I am on the ground.”

Here we see the emergence of new storytelling beats. Many journalists and activists discussed how they used Twitter to stay informed about the locations of the protests. In this sense, social media has allowed for a new type of beat as well as a new element in storytelling. A foreign correspondent told us: “Last week, one of the accused rapists died in his prison cell, I found out about it on social media. I logged on Twitter, found students, and from there, the media picked up in India and our news organization called sources and confirmed.” Social media also helped journalists learn what coverage audiences wanted to read and see. Zoe Daniel, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation Southeast Asia correspondent, told us that in response to demand from members of India’s social media-savvy diaspora, she’s made plans for a documentary on the Delhi gang rape case.

A common theme with journalists we spoke to is that social media have enabled wider conversations with audiences. Ruchira Singh, social media editor at Network 18, told us that during the protests

Our editors and reporter were tweeting individually — we had very hectic social media activity during the case. We were inviting opinions on the goings on in the case; we were asking questions, we were asking people what they think are the solutions to the problems. We were interacting with people, asking them if they are joining a protest and how they are reaching the protest grounds. We promoted certain petitions by change.org. We asked people if they felt certain provisions should be incorporated in these petitions. I tweeted on the organizational account. I also tweeted on my individual account, especially when the girl died.

These interactions reveal new interest in social media by both Indian and foreign journalists covering the protests. In India, social media is a nascent enterprise still finding its place in journalism. But in time, we may see the the 2012 Delhi gang rape protests as a watershed moment for social media in news gathering and distribution. This case demonstrates how journalists respond to social media and how social media allows for new spaces for storytelling in India.

The future of India’s public sphere

Social media has allowed a small but growing part of the Indian public to join in discussions of soft and hard news. To date, online storytelling has catered to certain demographic groups: the middle and upper classes, the intellectuals, activists, and journalists. Middle class discontent found a place on social media, but marginalized and subaltern groups had minimal representation or participation in social media discussions.

The Delhi gang rape case gives us insight into ongoing changes in India’s public sphere. Jürgen Habermas defined the public sphere as “a realm of social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed.” But what kind of public sphere? Today, social media offer (at best) limited access to marginalized groups. Journalists who want to know about those groups cannot rely on social networking sites; they must visit often-remote towns, villages, and slums where most residents remain disconnected from social media. In the Delhi gang rape case and many other stories affecting India, social media is essential in research and reporting. At the same time, perhaps the greatest lesson is the limitation of social media: They offer starting points for news-gathering and distribution, but they haven’t replaced traditional journalism.

Valérie Bélair-Gagnon is a Ph.D. candidate at City University London. Her research interests include new media, social media, journalism, public speech, sociology of news, sociology of work and organizations, ethnography and interviews, history of the media and ecology of communication.

Smeeta Mishra is an assistant professor at the Centre for Culture, Media & Governance at Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi. Her research interests include new media, research methods, Muslim studies, and gender issues.

Colin Agur is a Ph.D. candidate in communications at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and a visiting fellow at Yale Law School’s Information Society Project. He is interested in cultural and sociological aspects of mobile phone use in developing countries, and his dissertation research is based on ethnographic fieldwork in India.

Photos by Ramesh Lalwani and Biswarup Ganguly used under a Creative Commons license.

July 25 2012

15:12

Who should see what when? Three principles for personalized news

I really don’t know how a news editor should choose what stories to put in front of people, because I don’t think it’s possible to cram the entire world into headlines. The publisher of a major international newspaper once told me that he delivers “the five or six things I absolutely have to know this morning.” But there was always a fundamental problem with that idea, which the Internet has made starkly obvious: There is far more that matters than any one of us can follow. In most cases, the limiting factor in journalism is not what was reported but the attention we can pay to it.

Yet we still need news. Something’s got to give. So what if we abandon the idea that everyone sees the same stories? That was a pre-Internet technological limitation, and maybe we’ve let what was possible become what is right. I want to recognize that each person not only has unique interests, but is uniquely affected by larger events, and has a unique capacity to act.

If not every person sees the same news at the same time, then the question becomes: Who should see what when? It’s a hard question. It’s a question of editorial choice, of filter design, of what kind of civic discussion we will have. It’s the basic question we face as we embrace the network’s ability to deliver individually tailored information. I propose three simple answers. You should see a story if:

  1. You specifically go looking for it.
  2. It affects you or any of your communities.
  3. There is something you might be able to do about it.

Interest, effects, agency. These are three ways that a story might intersect with you, and they are reasons you might need to see it.

But turn them around and they say: if a story doesn’t interest me, doesn’t affect me, and there’s nothing I could do anyway, then I don’t need to see it. What about broadening our horizons? What about a shared view of unfolding history? The idea that we will each have an individualized view on the world can be somewhat unsettling, but insisting on a single news agenda has its own disadvantages. Before getting into detailed design principles for personalized news, I want to look at how bad the information overload problem actually is, and how we came to believe in mass media.

Too much that matters

A solid daily newspaper might run a couple hundred items per day, just barely readable from cover to cover. Meanwhile, The Associated Press produces about 15,000 original text stories every day (and syndicates many times that number) — far more than one person can consume. But the giants of journalism are dwarfed by the collaborative authorship of the Internet. There are currently 72 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, which now houses more video than was produced during the entire 20th century. There are 400 million tweets per day, meaning that if only one tweet in a million was worthwhile you could still spend your entire day on Twitter. There are several times more web pages than people in the world.

All of this available information is a tiny fraction of everything that could be reported. It’s impossible to estimate what fraction of stories go “unreported,” because there is no way to count stories before they’re written; stories do not exist in nature. Yet from the point of view of the consumer, there is still far, far too much available. Ethan Zuckerman has argued that the limiting factor in foreign reporting is not journalistic resources, but the attention of the consumer. I suspect this applies to most other kinds of journalism as well; raise your hand if you’ve been carefully following what your city council is up to.

Compared to the news, there is simply very little attention available.

For the single-issue activist, the goal is attention at any cost. But editors have a different mission: They must choose from all issues. There is a huge number of potentially important stories, but only a tiny fraction can be “headlines.” Most stories must languish in obscurity, because you or I cannot hope to read a thousandth of the journalism produced each day. But even the flood of global journalism is a tragically narrow view on the world, compared to everything on the Internet.

How, then, should an editor choose what tiny part of the world to show us? Sometimes there is an event so massive, so universal, it demands attention. Natural disasters and revolutions come to mind. For all other stories, I don’t think there is an answer. We can’t even agree on what problems are important. No single set of headlines can faithfully represent all that matters in the world.

There is more than one public

The Internet is not like broadcast technology — print, radio, TV. But the routines and assumptions of journalism were formed under the technical constraints of the mass media era. I wonder if we have mistaken what was possible for what is desirable.

The first technical limitation I want to consider was this: Everyone had to see the same thing. This surely reinforced the seductive idea that there is only one “public.” It’s an especially seductive idea for those who have the ability to choose the message. But there’s something here for the rest of us too. There’s the idea that if you pay attention to the broadcast or read the daily paper, you’re informed. You know all there is to know — or at least everything that’s important, and everything everyone else knows. Whatever else it may be, this is a comforting idea.

Media theorists also love the idea of a unified public. Marshall McLuhan was enamored with the idea of the global village where the tribal drums of mass media informed all of us at the same time. Jürgen Habermas articulated the idea of the public sphere as the place where people could collectively discuss what mattered to them, but he doesn’t like the Internet, calling it “millions of fragmented chat rooms.”

But the idea of a unified public never really made sense. Who is “us”? A town? A political party? The “business community”? The whole world? It depends on the publication and the story, and a few 20th-century figures recognized this. In The Public and Its Problems, written in 1927, John Dewey provided an amazing definition of “a public”: a group of people united by an issue that affects them. In fact, for Dewey a public doesn’t really exist until something affects the group interest, such as a proposed law that might seriously affect the residents of a town.

We can update this definition a little bit and say that each person can belong to many different publics simultaneously. You can simultaneously be a student, Moroccan, gay, a mother, conservative, and an astronomer. These many identities won’t necessarily align with political boundaries, but each can be activated if threatened by external events. Such affiliations are fluid and overlapping, and in many cases, we can actually visualize the communities built around them.

The news isn’t just what’s new

There was another serious technical limitation of 20th-century media: There was no way to go back to what was reported before. You could look at yesterday’s paper if you hadn’t thrown it out, or even go to the library and look up last year on microfilm. Similarly, there were radio and television archives. But it was so hard to rewind that most people never did.

Each story was meant to be viewed only once, on the day of its publication or broadcast. The news media were not, and could not be, reference media. The emphasis was therefore on what was new, and journalists still speak of “advancing the story” and the “top” versus “context” or “background” material. This makes sense for a story you can never go back to, about a topic that you can’t look up. But somehow this limitation of the medium became enshrined, and journalism came to believe that only new events deserved attention, and that consuming small, daily, incremental updates is the best way to stay informed about the world.

It’s not. Piecemeal updates don’t work for complex stories. Wikipedia rapidly filled the explanatory gap, and the journalism profession is now rediscovering the explainer and figuring out how to give people the context they need to understand the news.

I want to go one step further and ask what happens if journalism frees itself from (only) giving people stories about “what just happened.” Whole worlds open up: We can talk about long-term issues, or keep something on the front page as long as it is still relevant, or decide not to deliver that hot story until the user is at a point where they might want to know. Journalism could be a reference guide to the present, not just a stream of real-time events.

Design principles for personalized news

If we let go of the idea of single set of headlines for everyone based around current events, we get personalized news feeds which can address timescales longer than the breaking news cycle. Not everyone can afford to hire a personal editor, so we’ll need a combination of human curators, social media, and sophisticated filtering algorithms to make personalized feeds possible for everyone.

Yet the people working on news personalization systems have mostly been technologists who have viewed story selection as a sort of clickthrough-optimization problem. If we believe that news has a civic role — that it is something at least somewhat distinct from entertainment and has purposes other than making money — then we need more principled answers to the question of who should see what when. Here again are my three:

Interest. Anyone who wants to know should be able to know. From a product point of view, this translates into good search and subscription features. Search is particularly important because it makes it easy to satisfy your curiosity, closing the gap between wondering and knowing. But search has proven difficult for news organizations because it inverts the editorial process of story selection and timing, putting control entirely in the hands of users — who may not be looking for the latest breaking tidbit. Journalism is still about the present, but we can’t assume that every reader has been following every story, or that the “present” means “what just happened” as opposed to “what has been happening for the last decade.” But for users who do decide they want to keep up to date on a particular topic, the ability to “follow” a single story would be very helpful.

Effects. I should know about things that will affect me. Local news organizations always did this, by covering what was of interest to their particular geographic community. But each of us is a member of many different communities now, mostly defined by identity or interest and not geography. Each way of seeing communities gives us a different way of understanding who might be affected by something happening in the world. Making sure that the affected people know is also a prerequisite for creating “publics,” in Dewey’s sense of a group of people who act together in their common interest. Journalism could use the targeting techniques pioneered by marketers to find these publics, and determine who might care about each story.

Agency. Ultimately, I believe journalism must facilitate change. Otherwise, what’s the point? This translates to the idea of agency, the idea that someone can be empowered by knowing. But not every person can affect every thing, because people differ in position, capability, and authority. So my third principle is this: Anyone who might be able to act on a story should see it. This applies regardless of whether or not that person is directly affected, which makes it the most social and empathetic of these principles. For example, a politician needs to know about the effects of a factory being built in a city they do not live in, and if disaster recovery efforts can benefit from random donations then everyone has agency and everyone should know. Further, the right time for me to see a story is not necessarily when the story happens, but when I might be able to act.

These are not the only reasons anyone should ever see a story. Beyond these principles, there is a whole world of cultural awareness and expanded horizons, the vast other. There are ways to bring more diversity into our filters, but the criteria are much less clear because this is fundamentally an aesthetic choice; there is no right path through culture. At least we can say that a personalized news feed designed according to the above principles will keep each of us informed about the parts of the world that might affect us, or where we might have a chance to affect others.

Photo of zebras in Tanzania by Angela Sevin used under a Creative Commons license.

July 21 2011

17:00

Marshall McLuhan, Superstar

Today would have been Marshall McLuhan’s 100th birthday. Continuing our informal McLuhan Week at the Lab, we present this essay by Maria Bustillos on McLuhan’s unique status as a media theorist who was also a media star.

There was no longer a single thing in [the] environment that was not interesting [...] “Even if it’s some place I don’t find congenial, like a dull movie or a nightclub, I’m busy perceiving patterns,” he once told a reporter. A street sign, a building, a sports car — what, he would ask himself and others, did these things mean?

—Philip Marchand, Marshall McLuhan:
The Medium and the Messenger

The public intellectual was invented in the mid-20th century. Certainly there were others before that who started the ball rolling — talented writers and academics with flexible, open minds taking the whole culture into account, trying to make sense of things as they were happening — but few of them penetrated far beyond the walls of the academy or the confines of some other single discipline. We might count Bertrand Russell as an early prototype, with his prominence in pacifist circles and campaigns against nuclear disarmament, or better still G.B. Shaw, an autodidact of boundless energy who cofounded the London School of Economics and also helped popularize Jaeger’s “sanitary” woolen undies. Until Al Gore came along, Shaw was the only person to have won both a Nobel Prize and an Oscar.

Both Russell and Shaw gained a great deal of influence outside their own spheres of work, but remained above it all, too; they were “authorities” who might be called on to offer their views to the public on this topic or that. But it was a devoutly Catholic, rather conservative Canadian academic who first succeeded in breaking down every barrier there was in the intensity of his effort to understand, interpret, and influence the world. Marshall McLuhan was quite possibly the first real public intellectual. That wide-ranging role having once been instantiated, others came to fill it, in ever-increasing numbers.

Though he was an ordinary English prof by trade, McLuhan’s work had measurable effects on the worlds of art, business, politics, advertising and broadcasting. He appeared on the cover of Newsweek and had office space at Time. Tom Wolfe took him to a “topless restaurant” and wrote about him for New York magazine (“What If He is Right?”). He was consulted by IBM and General Motors, and he coined the phrase, “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” according to Timothy Leary. He made the Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, shave off his beard.

In 1969, McLuhan gave one of the most revealing and best interviews Playboy ever published (a high bar, there.)

PLAYBOY: Have you ever taken LSD yourself?

McLUHAN: No, I never have. I’m an observer in these matters, not a participant. I had an operation last year to remove a tumor that was expanding my brain in a less than pleasant manner, and during my prolonged convalescence I’m not allowed any stimulant stronger than coffee. Alas! A few months ago, however, I was almost “busted” on a drug charge. On a plane returning from Vancouver, where a university had awarded me an honorary degree, I ran into a colleague who asked me where I’d been. “To Vancouver to pick up my LL.D.,” I told him. I noticed a fellow passenger looking at me with a strange expression, and when I got off the plane at Toronto Airport, two customs guards pulled me into a little room and started going over my luggage. “Do you know Timothy Leary?” one asked. I replied I did and that seemed to wrap it up for him. “All right,” he said. “Where’s the stuff? We know you told somebody you’d gone to Vancouver to pick up some LL.D.” After a laborious dialog, I persuaded him that an LL.D. has nothing to do with consciousness expansion — just the opposite, in fact — and I was released.

Until the mid-century, there was a wall between what we now call popular culture and the “high culture” of the rich and educated, and there was another wall, at least as thick, between popular and academic discourse. Cracks had begun to appear by the 1930s, when the Marxist theorists of the Frankfurt School began to take on the subject of mass culture, culminating in works such as Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception (1944). These academics saw popular culture as a positive evil, though, undermining the chances of revolution; a new kind of “opiate of the masses.” Later critics such as Edward Shils and Herbert J. Gans would elaborate on the same themes. But none of these writers personally ID’d with mass culture in any way. Far from it. Indeed Shils said in 1959: “Some people dislike the working classes more than the middle classes, depending on their political backgrounds. But the real fact is that from an esthetic and moral standpoint, the objects of mass culture are repulsive to us.” To some degree, that academic standoffishness is with us even today. The sneering of the “high” for the “low”.

Marshall McLuhan’s first book, The Mechanical Bride: The Folklore of Industrial Man, was published in 1951, and it took a quite different approach to the task of lifting the veil of mass culture in order to expose the workings beneath. The chief difference was that McLuhan never saw or really even acknowledged that wall between the critic of culture and the culture itself. After all, he too was a human being, a citizen, a reader of newspapers and magazines. McLuhan’s critique took place from the inside.

“[B]eing highbrow, in McLuhan’s eyes, never conferred the slightest moral value on anything,” observed his biographer, Philip Marchand.

McLuhan’s student Walter J. Ong wrote magnificently on this theme in his essay, “McLuhan as Teacher: The Future Is a Thing of the Past,” published in the Sept. 1981 Journal of Communication.

When [McLuhan] did attend to [...] popular works, as in his first book, The Mechanical Bride (1951), it was to invest them with high seriousness. He showed that such things as advertising and comic strips were in their own way as deeply into certain cyclonic centers of human existence — sex, death, religion, and the human-technology relationship — as was the most “serious” art, though both naively and meretriciously. However, awareness of the facts here was neither naive nor meretricious; it was upsetting and liberating.

Marshall Soules of Malaspina University-College had this comment on the “high seriousness” with which McLuhan treated popular works:

It is this strategic stance which distinguishes McLuhan from many media critics — like those associated with the Frankfurt or Birmingham Schools, or like Neil Postman, Mark Miller, Stewart Ewen and others — whose views imply an idealized literate culture corrupted by popular, commercialised, and manipulative media. McLuhan used his training as a literary critic to engage in a dialogue with the media from the centre of the maelstrom.

The Mechanical Bride consists of a selection of advertisements with essays and captions attached.

“Where did you see that bug-eyed romantic of action before?

Was it in a Hemingway novel?

Is the news world a cheap suburb for the artist’s bohemia?

— from The Mechanical Bride

The playful and wide-ranging tone of The Mechanical Bride was entirely new, given that its intentions were as serious as a heart attack. McLuhan thought that the manipulative characteristics of advertising might be resisted once they were understood. “It was, if anything, a critique of an entire culture, an exhilarating tour of the illusions behind John Wayne westerns, deodorants, and Buick ads. The tone of McLuhan’s essays was not without an occasional hint of admiration for the skill of advertisers and capturing the anxieties and appetites of that culture,” Marchand wrote.

The Mechanical Bride was way too far ahead of its time, selling only a few hundred copies, but that was okay because the author was just warming up. McLuhan had found the voice and style of inquiry that he would employ for the rest of his career. In the Playboy interview he said, “I consider myself a generalist, not a specialist who has staked out a tiny plot of study as his intellectual turf and is oblivious to everything else [...] Only by standing aside from any phenomenon and taking an overview can you discover its operative principles and lines of force.”

This inclusiveness, the penetrating, metaphorical free-for-all investigative method that appeared in McLuhan’s first book would gain him increasing admiration, as an understanding of the “rearview mirror view” of the world he used to talk about gained currency: “[A]n environment becomes fully visible only when it has been superseded by a new environment; thus we are always one step behind in our view of the world [...] The present is always invisible because it’s environmental and saturates the whole field of attention so overwhelmingly; thus everyone but the artist, the man of integral awareness, is alive in an earlier day.”

Because he refused to put himself on a pedestal, because everything was of interest to him, McLuhan was able to join the wires of pure academic curiosity with the vast cultural output of the mid-century to create an explosion of insights (or a “galaxy”, I should say) that is still incandescent with possibility a half-century later. Simply by taking the whole of society as a fit subject for serious discourse, he unshackled the intellectuals from their first-class seats, and they have been quite free to roam about the cabin of culture ever since.

As his books were published, McLuhan’s influence continued to spread through high culture and low. He loved being interviewed and would talk his head off to practically anyone, about the Symbolist poets and about Joyce, about car advertisements and cuneiform. You might say that he embraced the culture, and the culture embraced him right back. The Smothers Brothers loved him, and so did Glenn Gould and Goldie Hawn, Susan Sontag, John Lennon and Woody Allen. (Apropos of the latter, McLuhan very much enjoyed doing the famous cameo in Annie Hall, though he had, characteristically, his own ideas about what his lines ought to have been, and a “sharp exchange” occurred between Allen and himself. McLuhan’s most famous line in the movie, “You know nothing of my work,” is in fact one that he had long employed in real life as a put-down of opponents in debate.)

An aside: In 1977, Woody Allen was very far from being the grand old man of cinema that he is now. He had yet to win an Oscar, and had at that time directed only extremely goofy comedies. It was a mark of McLuhan’s willingness to get out there and try stuff, his total unpretentiousness, that he went along with the idea of being in a Woody Allen film. Only imagine any of today’s intellectuals being asked, say, to appear in an Apatow comedy. Would Noam Chomsky do it? Jürgen Habermas? Slavoj Zizek? (Well, Zizek might.)

Even better was Henry Gibson’s recurring two-line poem about McLuhan on the U.S. television show Laugh-In:

Marshall McLuhan,
What are you doin’?

Last year, I briefly attended the Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles, met a number of eminent English scholars, and attended some of their presentations on Wordsworth and Derrida and on the development of that new, McLuhanesque-sounding discipline, the digital humanities. What I wished most, when I left the conference, was that these fascinating theorists were not all locked away behind the walls of the academy, and that anyone could come and enjoy their talks. The McLuhan manner of appearing anywhere he found interesting, which is to say all over the place, instead of just during office hours, does not diminish serious academics or writers: It enlarges them.

Is this, when it comes down to it, a mere matter of shyness? Or is it a matter of professional dignity, of amour-propre? The academy has so much to contribute to the broader culture; huge numbers of non-academics, I feel sure, would enjoy a great deal of what they have to say, and perhaps vice-versa. But somehow I find it difficult to imagine most of the academics I know agreeing to visit a topless restaurant with Tom Wolfe (on the record, at least). I hope, though, that they will consider venturing out to try such things more and more, and that today’s Wolfes will feel emboldened to ask them, and that the culture indeed becomes more egalitarian, blurrier, “retribalized” as McLuhan seemed to believe it would.

Personally, I have a great faith in the resiliency and adaptability of man, and I tend to look to our tomorrows with a surge of excitement and hope.

— from the 1969 Playboy interview

February 04 2010

19:00

Make your own game of Paywall!

By now, many thousands of you have had a chance to play Paywall!, the web game sweeping the newspaper industry. But some of you have asked whether you could rewrite its rules — to mess around with some of the underlying assumptions and run the maths your own way.

That all sounded like fun to us, so Jonathan Stray, the journalist/coder who built Paywall! for us, has kindly agreed to share his work, in the form of the original Flash source file (.fla) he created to build the thing. (Jonathan did this in between calls to Jürgen Habermas.) This’ll only be of interest to Flash jockeys and aspiring Flash jockeys, but if you do build something off of the code, do let us know. Here’s the file.

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