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October 14 2010

15:57

Mr. T, are you out there?

Once upon a time I had a principal I thought would make a difference – and he did for many. His dream was a non-traditional school which would reach students and give them both responsibility and freedom to learn and excel. But (my opinion) he moved on and back into the jungle of educationese and was lost amid the hoards. His legacy is a high school that almost is what could have been – although it is a remarkable school nonetheless.

Today I got an email about a school that is and may be everything a school should be.

Bob Greenman with visualthesaurus posted a story today that almost made me cry with joy.

Now I was only a teacher for eight years – three in a fairly non-traditional high school and five in what is termed a “comprehensive” high school. Schools where seat time and discipline were paramount. Rigid. By the BOOK.

Greenman’s story is about Edward R. Murrow High School.

“All of this — the absence of bells, bathroom passes and most regimentation, the college-like atmosphere, the subject titles — and the effect it would have on students’ lives, now and long after high school, existed because Saul Bruckner, Murrow’s principal, believed in the dignity of young people and the need to treat them with respect, understanding and compassion.”

A principal who valued freedom above order. Where chaos seems to be the order of the day, but learning IS the current that drives students.

The dream is possible. And it is all about freedom. To think. to grow up. To be responsible. (Transparency: I was NOT motivated to showcase this school just because of the name and the fact they prefer broadcasting over athletics. Not too much. My principal also valued technology and freedom, but was fettered by regulation and the ruts of time-word tradition.)


September 14 2010

20:00

More growth for Gawker comments, and more power to elite commenters

We’ve written before about the commenting system at Gawker Media’s family of sites, which for my money strikes the best balance between complexity and simplicity, between encouraging good behavior and policing bad. (I also just like that Gawker’s a company that really thinks about comments, that doesn’t just treat them as an expected annoyance/pageview driver.)

The chart above shows the growth Gawker comments over time; I’ve highlighted the section on the right that represents the continued increase since I last posted these numbers in April.

So it’s noteworthy that Gawker announced today a couple small tweaks to their commenting system.

First, they’ve added a few more gradations to the kinds of discipline available to wayward commenters. Before, commenters could be banned, and individual comments could be disemvoweled (rendered less legible by removing the vowels — although some would argue disemvoweling does more to draw attention to the bad behavior than it does to punish it). Now, commenters can also be officially warned for straying from proper behavior (with a link to official commenting policy) or suspended for a week. I’d imagine that these lesser punishments might discourage bad commenters from going through the bother of creating a new false identity and continuing to stink up the joint. And it could also help people who genuinely don’t realize they’re being bad.

Of note is that these power don’t just rest in the hands of Gawker Media staff: These tools are also available to the army of starred commenters who have impressed Gawkerites with their work. So here, for instance, Gawker user morninggloria has warned a commenter for daring to say Lady Gaga looked like John Lennon in drag. (I’d like to thank morninggloria for giving me an excuse to create a “John Lennon in drag” tag here at the Lab.)

That kind of decentralization makes it tenable to govern the huge crush of comments these sites get, and it also sets a goal that encourages good behavior: write enough good comments and you’ll get a gold star and some authority to shape the site you love.

The second major change is what they’re calling thread moving. Here’s an explanation from Gizmodo’s Jason Chen:

Then, there’s thread moving. That’s what we do if we think a comment is so egregious that it deserves both a warning and a moving to a tagpage, so it’s not cluttering up the discussion. Here are the main five tagpages we’ll be moving to.

• #trollpatrol. Originally we used this tag for identifying trolls, but we’ll throw actual trolls in there as well. But please, continue using that as a place to show us where the trolls are.

• #fanboys. Another obvious tagpage. This isn’t for people who use and enjoy products, it’s for people who lose their damn minds over a brand or idea and are blind to any other options or dissenting opinions. You should know who these are.

• #timeout. A place where we send commenters that need a little time away from typing words into boxes in order to think about whether or not this is the right place for them. This goes with a 7-day suspension—something milder than a ban, but still serves the purpose of telling them that we don’t like what they’re doing with their comments.

• #phantomzone. If you make uninformed, stupid or otherwise lousy comments, this is where that comment will be. Say hi to Zod.

• #whitenoise. Offtopic discussions go here. If a post is about keyboards and you talk about picking out new curtains, we’ll escort you over here.

• #dev/null. I just came up with this one, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to use it quite often.

Essentially, it’s a way to apply tags to individual comments, have them detach from their native post, and live another life in the Gawker Media forums, which are tied to the tags. This could separate off-comment topics without killing them off completely; one suspects the bad-behavior tag pages will have their own regular denizens. And the change could work to liven up the tag-based forum pages, which it appears have gained traction in only a limited number of cases. (See Deadspin’s #iwasthere tag page, or Gawker’s #tips page.) I love the concept of comment tag pages — treating the comment as an independent unit of content, opening up new avenues for involved commenters to create and contribute — but I’m not sure how well it’s worked in practice. It may be the point where the system grows too complex for most users.

Gawker Media CTO Tom Plunkett posted the above chart today and added this about the changes:

At Gawker Media, comment growth continues to be strong — both in volume and quality. It’s good to see validation of the processes we’ve introduced.

This week we’ve rolled out new features that will allow us to further improve the experience. It is now possible to move comment threads from posts to forums (think “off topic” threads: we’re happy to let you keep the conversation going, but it’d be better to continue the discussion in a forum appropriate to the subject). We will utilize thread moving for many situations (off topic, inappropriate comments, bannable offenses, etc.), and think it will only improve our platform.

If you are paying attention to beta.gawker.com or beta.jalopnik.com, you will see more improvements we plan to roll out in the future. Remember – these sites are beta (alpha may be a more appropriate description)! Don’t expect everything to work perfectly all of the time!

So if you want to see what Gawker’s thinking about for the future, the beta site features a more magazine-like front page (as opposed to straight blog hierarchy — the most popular recent story gets top billing), non-standard fonts via Typekit, a wider story well, smooth page transitions, a stationary sidebar, and a more prominent footer. We’ll see how much of that reaches the production sites of one of the more adventurous new media companies around.

18:30

“Squeezing humanity through a straw”: The long-term consequences of using metrics in journalism

[Here's C.W. Anderson responding to the same subject Nikki Usher wrote about: the impact of audience data on how news organizations operate. Sort of a debate. —Josh]

One way to think about the growing use of online metrics in newsrooms (a practice that has been going on forever but seems to have finally been noticed of late) is to think about it as part of a general democratization of journalism. And it’s tempting to portray the two sides to the debate as (in this corner!) the young, tech-savvy newsroom manager who is finally listening to the audience, and (in this corner!) the fading fuddy-duddy-cum-elitist more concerned with outdated professional snobbery than with what the audience wants.

Fortunately, actual working journalists rarely truck in such simplistic stereotypes, arguing rightly that there isn’t a binary divide between smart measurement and good journalism. As Washington Post executive producer and head of digital news products Katharine Zaleski told Howard Kurtz:

There’s news we know people should read — because it’s important and originates with our reporting — and that’s our primary function…But we also have to be very aware of what people are searching for out there and want more information on…If we’re not doing that, we’re not doing our jobs.

Or as Lab contributor Nikki Usher put it: “[I]f used properly, SEO and audience tracking make newsrooms more accountable to their readers without dictating bad content decisions — and it can help newsrooms focus on reader needs.”

At the level of short-term newsroom practices, I agree with Usher, Zaleski, and every other journalist and pundit who takes a nuanced view of the role played by newsroom metrics. So if you’re worried about whether audience tracking is going to eliminate quality journalism, the quick answer is no.

My own concerns with the increased organizational reliance on metrics are more long-term and abstract. They have as much to do with society than with journalism per se. They center around:

— the manner in which metrics can serve as a form of newsroom discipline;
— the squishiness of algorithmically-afforded audience understanding;
— the often-oversimpistic ways we talk about the audience (under the assumption that we’re all talking about the same thing); and, finally
— the way that online quantification simplifies our understanding of what it means to “want” information.

Big topics, I admit. Each of these points could be the subject of its own blog post, so for the sake of space, I want to frame what I’m talking about by dissecting this seemingly innocuous phrase:

“We know what the audience wants.”

Let’s look at the words in this sentence, one at a time. Each of them bundles in a lot of assumptions, which, when examined together, might shed light on the uses and the potential long-term pitfalls of newsroom quantification.

“We”: Who is the “we” that knows what kind of journalism the audience wants? Often, I’d argue, it’s executives in our increasingly digitized newsrooms that now have a powerful tool through which to manage and discipline their employees. In my own research, I’ve discovered that the biggest factor in determining the relationship between metrics and editorial practices are the ways that these metrics are utilized by management, rather the presence or absence of a particular technology. Philosopher Michel Foucault called these types of practices disciplinary practices, and argued that they involved three primary types of control: “hierarchical observation, normalizing judgment, and the examination.” Perhaps this is fine when we’re trying to salvage a functional news industry out of the wreckage of a failed business model, but we should at least keep these complications in mind — metrics are a newsroom enforcement mechanism.

“Know”: Actually, we don’t know a whole lot about our audiences — but there’s a lot of power in claiming that we know everything. In other words, the more data we have, paradoxically, the less we know, and the more it behooves us to claim exactitude. While smart thinkers have been writing about the problem of poor web metrics for years, a major new report by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia has thrown the issue into stark relief. As report researcher (and, full disclosure, friend and colleague) Lucas Graves writes:

The Web has been hailed as the most measurable medium ever, and it lives up to the hype. The mistake was to assume that everyone measuring everything would produce clarity. On the contrary, clear media standards emerge where there’s a shortage of real data about audiences…The only way to imbue an audience number with anything like the authority of the old TV ratings is with a new monopoly — if either Nielsen or comScore folds or, more likely, they merge. That kind of authority won’t mean greater accuracy, just less argument.

There’s a circular relationship here between increased measurement, less meaningful knowledge, and greater institutional power. When we forget this, we can be uncritical about what it is metrics actually allow us to do.

“The Audience”: What’s this thing we insist we know so much about? We call it the audience, but sometimes we slip and call it “the public.” But audiences are not publics, and it’s dangerous to claim that they are. Groups of people connected by the media can be connected in all sorts of ways, for all sorts of reasons, and can be called all sorts of things; they can be citizens united by common purpose, or by public deliberation. They can be activists, united around a shared political goal. They can be a community, or a society. Or they can be called an audience.

I don’t have anything at all against the notion of the audience, per se — but I am concerned that journalists are increasingly equating the measurable audience (a statistical aggregate connected by technology, though consumption) with something bigger and more important. The fact that we know the desires and preferences and this formerly shadowy and hidden group of strangers is seductive, and it’s often wrong.

“Wants”: Finally, what does it mean to want a particular piece of information? As Alexis Madrigal notes in this short but smart post at The Atlantic, informational want is a complicated emotion that runs the risk of being oversimplified by algorithms. Paradoxically, web metrics have become increasingly complex at the same time they’ve posited increasingly simplistic outcomes. They’re complex in terms of their techniques, but simple in terms of what it is we claim they provide us and in the ultimate goal that they serve. Time on site, engagement, pageviews, uniques, eye movement, mouse movement — all of these ultimately boil down to tracking a base-level consumer desire via the click of a mouse or the movement of the eye.

But what do we “want”? We want to love a story, to be angry about it it, to fight with it, to be politically engaged by it, to feel politically apathetic towards it, to let it join us together in a common cause, for it make us laugh, and for it to make us cry. All of these wants are hard to capture quantitatively, and in our rush to capture audience data, we run the risk of oversimplifying the notion of informational desire. We run the risk of squeezing humanity through a digital straw.

So — will an increasing use of online metrics give us bad journalism? No.

Will they play a role in facilitating, over the long term, the emergence of a communicative world that is a little flatter, a little more squeezed, a little more quantitative, more disciplinary, more predictive, and less interesting? They might. But take hope: Such an outcome is likely only if we lose sight of what it is that metrics can do, and what it is about human beings that they leave out.

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