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June 28 2013

15:00

This Week in Review: The backlash against Greenwald and Snowden, and RSS’s new wave

glenn-greenwald-cc

Greenwald, journalism, and advocacy: It’s been three weeks since the last review, and a particularly eventful three weeks at that. So this review will cover more than just the last week, but it’ll be weighted toward the most recent stuff. I’ll start with the U.S. National Security Agency spying revelations, covering first the reporter who broke them (Glenn Greenwald), then his source (Edward Snowden), and finally a few brief tech-oriented pieces of the news itself.

Nearly a month since the first stories on U.S. government data-gathering, Greenwald, who runs an opinionated and meticulously reported blog for the Guardian, continues to break news of further electronic surveillance, including widespread online metadata collection by the Obama administration that continues today, despite the official line that it ended in 2011. Greenwald’s been the object of scrutiny himself, with a thorough BuzzFeed profile on his past as an attorney and questions from reporters about old lawsuits, back taxes, and student loan debt.

The rhetoric directed toward Greenwald by other journalists was particularly fierce: The New York Times’ Andrew Ross Sorkin said on CNBC he’s “almost arrest” Greenwald (he later apologized), and most notably, NBC’s David Gregory asked Greenwald “to the extent that you have aided and abetted Snowden,” why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime. The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple refuted Gregory’s line of questioning point-by-point and also examined the legal case for prosecuting Greenwald (there really isn’t one).

There were several other breakdowns of Gregory’s questions as a way of defending himself as a professional journalist by excluding Greenwald as one; of these, NYU professor Jay Rosen’s was the definitive take. The Los Angeles Times’ Benjamin Mueller seconded his point, arguing that by going after Greenwald’s journalistic credentials, “from behind the veil of impartiality, Gregory and his colleagues went to bat for those in power, hiding a dangerous case for tightening the journalistic circle.”

The Freedom of the Press Foundation’s Trevor Timm argued that Gregory is endangering himself by defining journalism based on absence of opinion, and The New York Times’ David Carr called for journalists to show some solidarity on behalf of transparency. PaidContent’s Mathew Ingram used the case to argue that the “bloggers vs. journalists” tension remains important, and Greenwald himself said it indicated the incestuous relationship between Washington journalists and those in power.

A few, like Salon’s David Sirota, turned the questions on Gregory, wondering why he shouldn’t be charged with a crime, since he too has disclosed classified information. Or why he should be considered a journalist, given his track record of subservience to politicians, as New York magazine’s Frank Rich argued.

Earlier, Rosen had attempted to mediate some of the criticism of Greenwald by arguing that there are two valid ways of approaching journalism — with or without politics — that are both necessary for a strong press. Former newspaper editor John L. Robinson added a call for passion in journalism, while CUNY’s Jeff Jarvis and Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi both went further and argued that all journalism is advocacy.

edward-snowden-stencil-cc

Snowden and leaking in public: The other major figure in the aftermath of this story has been Edward Snowden, the employee of a national security contractor who leaked the NSA information to Greenwald and revealed his identity shortly after the story broke. The U.S. government charged Snowden with espionage (about which Greenwald was understandably livid), as he waited in Hong Kong, not expecting to see home again.

The first 48 hours of this week were a bit of blur: Snowden applied for asylum in Ecuador (the country that’s been harboring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange), then reportedly left Hong Kong for Moscow. But Snowden wasn’t on a scheduled flight from Moscow to Cuba, creating confusion about where exactly he was — and whether he was ever in Moscow in the first place. He did all this with the apparent aid of WikiLeaks, whose leaders claimed that they know where Snowden is and that they could publish the rest of his NSA documents. It was a bit of a return to the spotlight for WikiLeaks, which has nonetheless remained on the FBI’s radar for the last several years, with the bureau even paying a WikiLeaks volunteer as an informant.

We got accounts from the three journalists Snowden contacted — Greenwald, The Washington Post’s Barton Gellman, and filmmaker Laura Poitras — about their interactions with him, as well as a probe by New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan into why he didn’t go to The Times. In a pair of posts, paidContent’s Mathew Ingram argued that the leak’s path showed that having a reputation as an alternative voice can be preferable to being in the mainstream when it comes to some newsgathering, and that news will flow to wherever it finds the least resistance. The Times’ David Carr similarly concluded that news stories aren’t as likely to follow established avenues of power as they used to.

As The Washington Post’s Erik Wemple described, news organizations debated whether to call Snowden a “leaker,” “source,” or “whistleblower,” Several people, including The Atlantic’s Garance Franke-Ruta and Forbes’ Tom Watson, tried to explain why Snowden was garnering less popular support than might be expected, while The New Yorker’s John Cassidy detailed the backlash against Snowden in official circles, which, as Michael Calderone of The Huffington Post pointed out, was made largely with the aid of anonymity granted by journalists.

Numerous people, such as Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast, also decried that backlash, with Ben Smith of BuzzFeed making a particularly salient point: Journalists have long disregarded their sources’ personal motives and backgrounds in favor of the substance of the information they provide, and now that sources have become more public, the rest of us are going to have to get used to that, too. The New York Times’ David Carr also noted that “The age of the leaker as Web-enabled public figure has arrived.”

Finally the tech angle: The Prism program that Snowden leaked relied on data from tech giants such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and Yahoo, and those companies responded first by denying their direct involvement in the program, then by competing to show off their commitment to transparency, as Time’s Sam Gustin reported. First, Google asked the U.S. government for permission to reveal all their incoming government requests for information, followed quickly by Facebook and Microsoft. Then, starting with Facebook, those companies released the total number of government requests for data they’ve received, though Google and Twitter pushed to be able to release more specific numbers. Though there were early reports of special government access to those companies’ servers, Google reported that it uses secure FTP to transfer its data to the government.

Instagram’s bet on longer (but still short) video: Facebook’s Instagram moved into video last week, announcing 15-second videos, as TechCrunch reported in its good summary of the new feature. That number drew immediate comparisons to the six-second looping videos of Twitter’s Vine. As The New York Times noted, length is the primary difference between the two video services (though TechCrunch has a pretty comprehensive comparison), and Instagram is betting that longer videos will be better.

The reason isn’t aesthetics: As Quartz’s Christopher Mims pointed out, the ad-friendly 15-second length fits perfectly with Facebook’s ongoing move into video advertising. As soon as Instagram’s video service was released, critics started asking a question that would’ve seemed absurd just a few years ago: Is 15 seconds too long? Josh Wolford of WebProNews concluded that it is indeed too much, at least for the poorly produced amateur content that will dominate the service. At CNET, Danny Sullivan tried to make peace with the TL;DR culture behind Vine and Instagram Video.

Several tech writers dismissed it on sight: John Gruber of Daring Fireball gave it a terse kiss-off, while Mathew Ingram of GigaOM explained why he won’t use it — can’t be easily scanned, and a low signal-to-noise ratio — though he said it could be useful for advertisers and kids. PandoDaily’s Nathaniel Mott argued that Instagram’s video (like Instagram itself) is more about vanity-oriented presentation than useful communication. And both John Herrman of BuzzFeed and Farhad Manjoo of Slate lamented the idea that Instagram and Facebook seem out of ideas, with Manjoo called it symptomatic of the tech world in general. “Instead of invention, many in tech have fallen into the comfortable groove of reinvention,” Manjoo wrote.

Chris Gayomali of The Week, however, saw room for both Vine and Instagram to succeed. Meanwhile, Nick Statt of ReadWrite examined the way Instagram’s filters have changed the way photography is seen, even among professional photographers and photojournalists.

google-reader-mark-all-as-readThe post-Google Reader RSS rush: As Google Reader approaches its shutdown Monday, several other companies are taking the opportunity to jump into the suddenly reinvigorated RSS market. AOL launched its own Reader this week, and old favorite NetNewsWire relaunched a new reader as well.

Based on some API code, there was speculation that Facebook could be announcing its own RSS reader soon. That hasn’t happened, though The Wall Street Journal reported that Facebook is working on a Flipboard-like mobile aggregation device. GigaOM’s Eliza Kern explained why she wouldn’t want a Facebook RSS feed, while Fast Company’s Chris Dannen said a Facebook RSS reader could actually help solve the “filter bubble” like-minded information problem.

Sarah Perez of TechCrunch examined the alternatives to Google Reader, concluding disappointedly that there simply isn’t a replacement out there for it. Her colleague, Darrell Etherington, chided tech companies for their reactionary stance toward RSS development. Carol Kopp of Minyanville argued, however, that much of the rush toward RSS development is being driven just as much by a desire to crack the mobile-news nut, something she believed could be accomplished. RSS pioneer Dave Winer was also optimistic about its future, urging developers to think about “What would news do?” in order to reshape it for a new generation.

Reading roundup: A few of the other stories you might have missed over the past couple of weeks:

— Rolling Stone’s Michael Hastings, who had built up a reputation as a maverick through his stellar, incisive reporting on foreign affairs, was killed in a car accident last week at age 33. Several journalists — including BuzzFeed’s Ben Smith, The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman, Slate’s David Weigel, and freelancer Corey Pein — wrote warm, inspiring remembrances of a fearless journalist and friend. Time’s James Poniewozik detected among reporters in general “maybe a little shame that more of us don’t always remember who our work is meant to serve” in their responses to Hastings’ death.

— Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism issued a study based on a survey of nonprofit news organizations that provided some valuable insights into the state of nonprofit journalism. The Lab’s Justin Ellis, Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, and J-Lab’s Jan Schaffer explained the findings. Media analyst Alan Mutter urged nonprofit news orgs to put more focus on financial sustainability, while Michele McLellan of the Knight Digital Media Center called on their funders to do the same thing.

— Oxford’s Reuters Institute also issued a survey-based study whose findings focused on consumers’ willingness to pay for news. The Lab’s Sarah Darville and BBC News’ Leo Kelion summarized the findings, while paidContent’s Mathew Ingram gave an anti-paywall reading. The Press Gazette also highlighted a side point in the study — the popularity of live blogs.

— Texas state politics briefly grabbed a much broader spotlight this week with state Sen. Wendy Davis’ successful 13-hour filibuster of a controversial abortion bill. Many people noticed that coverage of the filibuster (and surrounding protest) was propelled by digital photo and video, rather than cable news. VentureBeat’s Meghan Kelly, Time’s James Poniewozik, and The Verge’s Carl Franzen offered explanations.

— Finally, a couple of reads from the folks at Digital First, one sobering and another inspiring: CEO John Paton made the case for the inadequacy of past-oriented models in sustaining newspapers, and digital editor Steve Buttry collected some fantastic advice for students on shaping the future of journalism.

Photos of Glenn Greenwald by Gage Skidmore and Edward Snowden stencil by Steve Rhodes used under a Creative Commons license. Instagram video by @bakerbk.

June 18 2013

15:37

The Times of London, navigating audience with a strict paywall, retires its opinion Tumblr

times opinionWhen you bet on a strict, un-leaky paywall as The Times of London has, you’re forced to get creative about how to put your work in front of new audiences — particularly if you’re trying to influence their opinions. Unlike its fellow Times across the Atlantic, the U.K. paper has chosen not to allow a set number of articles per month or a number of free routes around the paywall.

So a year ago, The Times set up a Tumblr for its opinion content, with the aim of giving “a flavour of what our columnists and leader writers do, how they think, and what influences their writing.”

After initially posting 80 times or more a month, posting fell off, and earlier this month, the Times Opinion Tumblr was shut down, with editors announcing they would be moving all opinion content back to its original home on the newspaper’s main site.

“We wanted to see if it attracted new readers to The Times and were very clear, with ourselves and our readers, that it was an experiment to see how it could work for us. It flourished in parts, but we’ve come to the conclusion that it wasn’t quite right for us,” communities editor Ben Whitelaw wrote in a post that also appeared on the Times Digital Development blog.

The Times reactivated its Comment Central opinion blog — behind the paywall — on the same day that the Tumblr blog was shuttered. Whitelaw wrote that posts to the blog would occasionally be free-to-access.

Nick Petrie, The Times’ social media and campaigns editor, told me that the Tumblr page was part of an effort to draw in new digital subscribers to TheTimes.co.uk. Regular Times columnists like Oliver Kamm and Daniel Finkelstein posted shorter “off-the-cuff” pieces on the page, which were freely viewable to all visitors. Times Opinion had amassed 66,000 followers since its launch, Petrie said, “but it wasn’t driving traffic back to the site.”

“Tumblr seemed like a good, light, easy-to-use platform that we could use to give people a taste of our comment and opinion, which is obviously the type of journalism that the Times is renowned for,” Petrie explained. “There was a hope that pushing out a small amount of original journalism, of original comment and opinion, would further enhance the idea of giving people a taste of what’s on offer if they became a subscriber.”

Reaching an audience to influence

What to do about opinion writing behind a paywall is a question newspapers have dealt with as long as there have been paywalls. Opinions, after all, are meant to influence, and influence would seem to grow along with the audience reading them. The Wall Street Journal, a paywall early adopter, committed early on to posting many of its opinion pieces online for free even while most news content was subscriber-only. Meanwhile, The New York Times took the opposite approach in the mid 2000s with TimesSelect, which kept the news free but put the newspaper’s columnist behind a paywall.

(The Wall Street Journal also began posting pieces from its editorial page on an Opinion Journal Tumblr, but back in 2007; like the U.K.’s Times, the Journal also stopped updating the page about a year after its debut.)

Petrie said that The Times had not specifically set up analytics for the Times Opinion Tumblr, so the editors aren’t sure what kind of traffic the page generated. According to comScore data, The Times has seen a substantial increase in traffic over the past year, from 748,000 unique worldwide visitors in April 2012 to nearly 1.5 million in April 2013 — but that’s still far behind other British newspapers without strict paywalls such as The Guardian, which has over 18 million monthly uniques in the United States alone and well over 30 million worldwide.

The Times, owned by the soon-to-split News Corp., remains on shaky financial ground; last week, acting editor John Witherow announced that the paper would be cutting 20 editorial jobs as a result of the parent company’s decision to separate its newspaper and entertainment holdings, The Guardian reported. The Times has seen a major decline in online readership since erecting the paywall in 2010.

“The idea is that everything that we publish is worth being paid for,” Petrie said.

Teaser pages, which allow readers to view the first 100 words of every article, were integrated into the Times site in October 2012 and may be a driver of The Times’ increased traffic. Only 881,000 unique visitors came to the site in October 2012 according to ComScore — a modest increase from the previous spring.

After the 100-word previews became a standard part of the site, Petrie said that the opinion Tumblr “became slightly defunct in that moment…We’re pursuing a strategy that essentially, we want to bring people in to see our journalism, rather than take our journalism out of our space — that’s why we’ve relaunched the Comment Central blog, which had been incredibly popular before we started charging.” That blog will soon feature podcasts on opinion topics, and Petrie noted that the Times is developing new strategies to attract paying subscribers to the site.

“That’s something we’re working on at the moment, but we’re not ready to talk about that yet,” he said.

November 12 2011

16:59

Readers request opinion and investigative reporting - stop to "report" only news

Forbes :: 95+% of journalists seem to only “report” the news, rather than give opinions or do investigative reporting. What's also annoying is, that the majority of journalists seem obsessed with “scoops.” There seems to be no higher honor in the journalistic profession than being recognized for getting a scoop and God save the other journalists who fails to recognize – and more importantly – credit a fellow journalist for his or her hard fought scoop.

[Eric Jackson:] The business world needs fewer journalists and more opinions and investigative reporting.

Continue to read Eric Jackson, www.forbes.com

April 14 2011

18:00

What works for news orgs on Foursquare? Opinion, reviews, evergreens, but maybe not the news

Editor’s Note: At the International Symposium on Online Journalism earlier this month, one of the most interesting papers presented was from Tim Currie, an assistant journalism professor at the University of King’s College in Halifax, Canada. His subject was newspapers’ use of the tips function in Foursquare to spread their content — what works and what doesn’t? And what does “works” even mean? I asked Tim to write a summary of his findings for the Lab; you can download the full paper here. I’ve also embedded his slide deck below.

Many news organizations, including The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and Canada’s Metro chain of free dailies, began experimenting with the location-based social network Foursquare in 2010. They were adding editorial content — mainly restaurant reviews — as tips at locations that people could check into using the Foursquare app on their smartphone.

The newspapers were trying to explore what some social media editors have called a promising tool for news organizations. These journalists say Foursquare offers the possibility of targeted news distribution and finding on-the-scene human sources during breaking news events.

Online editors at these outlets were putting only a fraction of their paper’s editorial content into Foursquare; the number of tips left by each of these newspapers in early 2011 numbered, at most, in the low hundreds. So I was interested in determining what it was about the articles they did choose that editors thought worked well in this location-based service. I also wanted to know how editors were crafting the tips and what their goals were.

I chose Canada’s Postmedia Network as a case study subject because its member newspapers were among the most active in North America for placing editorial content into Foursquare. As of early March, Postmedia newspapers had 1,901 tips cumulatively in Foursquare. I studied three newspapers — the National Post, the Edmonton Journal and the Vancouver Sun — through in-depth interviews with the online editors that were responsible for putting content into this social network.

Asked to characterize the articles they placed into Foursquare, the editors used phrases such as “feature-y”, “evergreen”, “opinion”, “not hard-core news” and “useful to people over a longer period of time.” They cited successful efforts in using editorial content such as a film festival guide, a commentary on transit users and reviews of hip urban restaurants.

In general, the newspaper content they placed into Foursquare had at least one of these five characteristics:

An opinion, review, guide, or first-person account: The articles had a strong narrative voice and usually offered recommendations. The editors said they were using lots of restaurant reviews — but also travelogues and commentaries.

Described with the goal of inspiring action: The articles contained opinions selected specifically to inspire interaction. The editors chose editorial content likely to spark an emotional response in readers. They hoped this response would lead users to click the “I’ve Done This” or “Add This To My To-Do List” buttons in Foursquare — or begin a conversation in other social networks such as Twitter or Facebook. The editors said they crafted their tips to highlight these opinions. One or two worked specifically to link editorial content with Foursquare’s interactive buttons. Some editors cited relatively weak functionality within Foursquare for discussion and traffic measurement. Consequently, they looked to push conversation to social services that had more robust support for interaction — and analytics.

Timeless — or about an event lasting more than 2 days: The editorial content had an “evergreen” quality” about it that made it relevant for a long period of time. Foursquare users value immediacy, the editors said, and articles about long-past events have little appeal. The editors said they rarely placed articles into Foursquare concerning events that took place on a single day. Some said they had initially placed profiles of single-day concerts at clubs or concert halls but ultimately found the workload demanding in light of low user response. One editor had also come to worry about “clogging up” entertainment venues with multiple tips. A majority of editors said they used articles about music festivals or sporting events — as long as the events ran for at least three days. One editor said that’s enough time to attract adequate attention within Foursquare and to use other social media services such as Facebook and Twitter to drive traffic to Foursquare.

About a specific location or an activity typically done at a location: Articles left as tips were about locations with a street address, such as a restaurant or a school offering a cooking class. However, they were also about activities typically done by people at a specific kind of location. For example, they were about things people do at light rapid transit stations or about issues of interest to people who shop at an Apple Store.

Placed at a location where people gather socially: Editors rarely placed articles at venues such as homes or small businesses. Instead they placed tips at venues where people gather in groups: at music and theater festivals, sports events, transportation hubs, educational classes — and restaurants. These are places where people interact in the real world and where the editors guessed people are likely to interact online as well.

News content rarely used

While most participants said they were open to the idea of putting news stories into Foursquare, few cited instances of doing it. One said it would be “jarring” to know someone had been robbed or beaten recently near where they were. This editor added that Foursquare’s nature as a tool for exploration (“unlock your city” is its slogan) was at odds with violent news content: “I think indicating where there have been shootings and where there are robberies would be indicating why you should stay in.”

The editors drew almost all of their articles from the newspaper or the website. They frequently used the headline or deck of a published article as their 200-character tip in Foursquare. Some, however, said they searched an article for vivid descriptions of physical surroundings or distinct flavours in a restaurant dish. They subsequently used these descriptions to craft a custom tip aimed at attracting a user who might be holding a menu or gazing around them.

A small number of editors said they were working with reporters to create content specifically for Foursquare — such as a guide to Christmas light displays in town or a list of travel tips integrated with Foursquare’s To-Do List. The aim was to prompt users to click Foursquare’s “Add This To My To-Do List” button or “I’ve Done This” button on each tip screen. However, some of the editors described these button-clicks as weak measurements of engagement. As one put it, “It’s an inaccurate term for what we have [published] because it isn’t really a ‘to do.’”

Here at the Lab, there’s been discussion about news organizations’ discomfort with the awkward nomenclature of social media sharing buttons, such as Facebook’s Like button. Buttons that signal agreement can be a tough fit with content from news organizations, which have been “traditional bringers of bad news.” There’s also been some emerging research, conducted by my colleagues at Dalhousie University and others, suggesting a link between positive emotion and online sharing.

The results of this study suggest editors have acknowledged this association. Their goal of promoting engagement seems to have influenced their selection of articles for use in Foursquare. They chose a narrow range of content that supported the mood of people out on the town, having a good time and looking to explore. In general, they indicated they looked for light-hearted recommendations users could mull over, not weighty, impartial reporting to digest.

This choice reflected an observation made by former NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the conference at which this paper was delivered. She called the notion of platform agnosticism “misguided.” News organizations need to tailor their content to specific platforms, she said. In this study, there was indeed a certain type of newspaper content that Postmedia editors thought was suited to this particular social platform.

In other findings:

— Some editors said they formatted key points with bullet lists to help users view recommendations on small screens.

— None of the participants used Foursquare to find sources for stories.

— A majority said they regularly removed tips from Foursquare to avoid presenting users with out-of-date articles.

Goal is engagement, not monetization

None of the editors I spoke with had made any attempt to monetize Foursquare content. They all cited engagement as their primary goal, with one saying, “The ROI on this stuff is going to be five or 10 years. It’s getting people reading your stuff [now] who would never normally read it in any way, shape, or form.”

This study did not investigate audience numbers. All of the editors suggested their Foursquare audience was relatively small — in keeping with a study that pegged the number of Americans who use a location-based service with their mobile phone at 4 percent of online adults.

In general, the editors said their main goal was simply to be present where people interact with each other. They framed this presence in geographic terms: at venues where people use their phones while eating, playing, shopping, and travelling. They also said it was simply important to be present in the social media spaces populated by young, connected adults — such as Tumblr or Foursquare — even if those spaces aren’t yet crowded with users.

This study used a very small sample size — five editors at three news organizations controlled by a single company. One can’t extend these results to other location-based social networks or to the use of editorial content in location-based services generally. Much more research is needed.

June 26 2010

15:21

The myth of the opinionless man*

The problem in the cases of ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and ousted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is not that they had opinions. Of course, they had opinions. Indeed, we should damned well want them to have opinions. If they each only accepted what they were told without doubts and complaints, without discrimination, they’d each be be very bad at their jobs, wouldn’t they?

The problem is not that those opinions were reported. Publicness — transparency, openness, authenticity, honesty — is good. It should lead to more trust. But here it didn’t. It led to public disgrace. Why?

The problem, then, is our myth of the opinionless man*.

I don’t think that is society’s myth. We all know better than to believe that men have no beliefs — because we are all merely men* with beliefs of our own.

No, the opinionless man is an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies. The opinionless man is meant to be an empty vessel to do the bidding of these hierarchies. But opinions and openness about them subvert hierarchies. Or to translate that to modern times, via the Cluetrain Manifesto, links subvert hierarchies. This is the age of links. So hierarchies: beware. One opinion leaks out of the opinionless man and it is shared and linked and spread instantly. The institutions treat this revelation as a shock and scandal — as a threat — and they eject the opinionated men. That is what happened to McChrystal and Weigel.

In my thinking for my book on publicness, I keep trying to look at such fears and offenses and turn them around to ask what they say not about the scandalous but instead about the scandalized — about us and about our myths and realities.

Former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the self-drawn archetype of the opinionless man. He famously refused to vote, thinking it somehow made him immune from opinions and their corruption of his journalism. That heritage is what led to Weigel’s ejection from the Post. But as Liz Mair argues (via @jayrosen_nyu), it’s ridiculous to assume that Weigel should accept and agree with everyone and and everything he encountered on his beat covering conservatives. He should be skeptical. Isn’t that a reporter’s job? And what is the source of that skepticism but opinions? We want to know.

Mayhill Fowler wrote a superb HuffingtonPost piece — inspired by McChrystal and her own experience in the Obama campaign — about journalism as a dance of seduction and betrayal. The corrupting temptation isn’t sex or beauty or wealth or even fame but access. Her perspective is so valuable because she came to journalism and politics as an outsider and maintained that perspective.

Michael Walsh, however, speaks for the institutions as he blows his vuvuzela until he’s red-faced warning of the dangers of such openness:

But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech — and thus of thought — is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: “executive privilege,” however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often “offensive”) conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling…

Still, the days when “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how “private,” is now potentially public — and potentially career-ending. That’s the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.

Whoa, boy*. I think exactly the opposite: that privacy for government and those who cover it is exactly what we do not need, exactly what we are working to eliminate with sunshine and publicness. Journalists should have been the ones opening the drapes on those dark rooms but they didn’t because they were seduced by their invitations in. So outsiders are forcing them open. Hurrah. Privacy is what protects the tyrants of North Korea and East Germany. Transparency is what kills them.

So if we want more transparency — and I believe that we, the people, do even if they, our institutions, often do not — then we must stop going along with the myth of the opinionless man and the scandal of the opinionated man. We should celebrate openness and honesty whenever they manage to break through. We should recognize that — to reform Walsh’s bottom line — transparency leads to trust. We should remind our institutions — government and the journalists who are supposed to cover them — that we expect them to judge and we will respect their actions more if we understand their judgment.

The institutions’ myth of the opinionless man is what is behind their disdain for the internet and its inhabitants — us. Don’t you hear it all the time: Oh, the internet is filled with nothing but opinions, as if opinions — our opinions — were worthless. But opinions and the arguments about them — and, yes, the facts needed to win those arguments — are the basis of decision-making in any organization and in society itself. Opinions are the soil of democracy. Publicness is the sunshine that lets it grow. (/metaphor)

What we’re witnessing in these cases is more than a mere two-day kerfuffle. We are witnessing small evidence of a cultural shift away from the privacy, secrecy, and control that empowered and protected institutions in a centralized, mass society to new cultural norms of publicness. That publicness grants us independence from the powerful; it wrests control from their hands. That is why we are grappling so with questions of privacy and publicness. (That is some of what I am trying to grapple with in my book.)

Alan F. Westin’s influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom expresses the view of the prior era: “The greatest threat to civilized social life,” he says in his gravest possible terms, “would be a situation in which each individual was utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.” Well, hasn’t he just described the internet? There we see our emerging social norm of publicness. There we see the war of the private and the public. It’s about more than Facebook photos.

Jürgen Habermas idealized the emergence of the (bourgeois) public sphere of rational discourse in the 18th century as a counterpoint to government authority and he lamented its eventual corruption by media and commercialization. I will argue in my book that perhaps now, in our post-institutional age, we may see his public sphere emerge after all. It’s not going to look idealized for it is built on discourse — on internet opinions — and to those accustomed to the neatness of control by government and media, that looks messy. But if we have faith in our fellow man* then we can at least hope that out of this discourse, rationality may emerge.

In such discourse, the opinionless man is silent. I’d rather hear him.

* You needn’t supply your rant about how I should not use the word “man.” I’m using it unapologetically — well, except for this footnote. I’m using it because there’s nothing wrong with the word man but moreso because if you take every instance of the word “man” in this post and replace it with “men and women” or “persons” or “humans” it would result in awkward English and lose cultural reference. Besides, in this case, we happen to be talking about two men. And I am one myself. I’m unapologetic about that.

March 15 2010

14:30

Global opinions, visualized: The State Department’s “Opinion Space”

How much do you agree with the following questions?

1. The most urgent security threat to the United States is a terrorist armed with a nuclear weapon.
2. Continuous diplomatic efforts are required to produce lasting, sustainable peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
3. Climate change poses a threat to political stability around the world.
4. Investing to increase food production in other countries will ultimately benefit me and my family in the future.
5. The best way to advance a country’s economic development is to empower its women.

We’re not asking; the State Department is. If you go to State.gov and answer the questions (via a ’strongly agree’ to ’strongly disagree’ slider), you’ll see your answers plotted as a single dot on a broad constellation of lighted, white orbs — some static, some pulsing. You’ll see where your opinions fall next to the opinions of others who have answered the questions…people, ostensibly, from around the world.

Welcome to Opinion Space, the State Department’s opinion-mapping tool — a collaboration with Berkeley’s Center for New Media — that launches, officially, this morning. The site describes itself as a “discussion forum designed to engage participants from around the world”; and, fittingly enough, the map it produces — in which every participant represents a point of view — is based more on geometry than geography: Its layout is constantly in flux, with each respondent plotted according to the responses of others. So if you find your own dot on the far right side of the constellation…no need to subscribe to The National Review just yet: The point is to transcend traditional liberal/conservative dichotomies. As the site puts it: “Opinion Space is designed to move beyond the usual left-right linear spectrum to display ‘constellations’ of opinions.”

New ways of generating input

That display, however, is only half the goal. The other half is more open feedback via a comment box asking for users’ responses to a specified question. (The inaugural query: “If you met U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, what issue would you tell her about, why is it important to you, and what specific suggestions do you have for addressing it?”) The site asks its users to rate each others’ comments, Digg-style, with the hope that the most insightful contributions will rise to the top. After Opinion Space has been up and running for a month, its coordinators plan to cull the hundred highest-rated recommendations and present them to Secretary Clinton and her staff.

The site’s immediate aim, says Ken Goldberg, a new media professor at Berkeley and the Center for New Media’s director, is to “find some good ideas that the State Department can act on” — diplomacy meets the wisdom of crowds. But it’s the approaches underscoring the project that may prove more meaningful. One of those is to find new ways to leverage the Web’s connective power to overcome the dilatory effects of Web-enabled scourges like cyber-polarization — and to re-imagine opinion itself as something that can be shared and even quantified. There’s information overload; but there’s also opinion overload. Too often, Goldberg told me, we “simplify things down to extremes where your position gets reduced down to ‘for’ or ‘against’” — to the extent that nuances, the atomic units of opinion, get lost. “It’s not that people are stupid,” Goldberg says, “it’s just that they’re overwhelmed.”

Opinion visualization suggests the same benefits that data visualization does: comprehensiveness, comprehension. And, yes, complexity. Simply to see “the sheer idea of diversity out there, on one plane,” can be eye-opening. And not just visually. “If you find someone far away from you who you find insightful, that means a lot,” Goldberg says. In rating comments, users are asked to separate agreement-with-argument from validity-of-comment: “How much do you agree with this comment?” is the first question the site asks in its feedback request; “How insightful is this comment?” is the second. That disaggregation — sympathy on the one hand, validity on the other — is a core premise of Opinion Space. As Katie Dowd, the State Department’s director of new media, put it to me: “Talking over the coffee table, we can agree to disagree but ultimately learn from one another.” Opinion Space, she says, is a test of whether that same tolerance can be leveraged online.

Mapping opinion in multiple dimensions

The project has its roots in Eigentaste, the eigenvector-based collaborative filtering algorithm that Goldberg and his colleagues developed in 1998. Back then, they applied the algorithm to Donation Dashboard, a tool that provided users with customized portfolios of charities based on their ratings of particular non-profits. They started thinking about how the algorithm could be used not just for recommendations, but for visualization — to map a range of opinions.

One challenge for such a map that lives on a State Department web page: figuring out which opinions to solicit in the first place. “It’s very delicate, as you can imagine,” Goldberg points out, “because there are so many issues, and protocol is everything — if you just phrase it wrong, you can create an incident.” At the same time, range is required, since “it works best when there’s a real diversity of opinions.” The final five questions were selected, Dowd notes, with the goal of “taking a breadth of issues” — and with the Department’s primary foreign policy objectives in mind.

Those questions will remain the same for the foreseeable future — “we really want to see how we keep people coming back,” Dowd says, and static questions make for a nice control factor in the Opinion Space experiment — but the open-ended discussion question will change every three to four weeks, meaning that the tool will test two different forms of user engagement over time. “Test” being the key word. As TechPresident’s Nancy Scola put it, “At this point, Opinion Space looks very much proof-of-concept. But what’s striking is that it seems a lot more like something that you expect coming out of the MIT Media Lab than the United States State Department. It’s a redefinition — or, really, one more tweak in a continuing redefinition — of the mission and means of U.S. development and diplomacy, and it’s been happening under the purview of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a pretty quick pace.”

At this point, indeed, it’s hard to know whether Opinion Space will redefine diplomacy or turn out to be another of Politics 2.0’s bright, shiny things. But the ideas anchoring the experiment are sound, and the goal inspiring it — comprehension, not just for world citizens, but for the people attempting to quantify their viewpoints — is a worthy one. “We really like the potential for this to scale,” Dowd says. For the State Department, the aim is “to reach a bigger audience and increase our transparency.” But opinion-mapping is a tool with applications that could extend far beyond statecraft. Through the project, “we’re hoping that we’ll understand these kinds of dialogues better,” Goldberg says — “and that we’ll be able to develop some new tools from them.”

November 06 2009

00:18

Google News embraces self-identification of content

Some online-only news organizations were upset when Google News began attaching a “(blog)” label to their content two months ago. Others, like me, complained the label was outdated and inconsistently applied.

Now Google News is asking publishers to label themselves. In an update to its sitemap standards announced today, Google News is requesting that sites explicitly tag content that’s published on a blog. Same goes for press releases, satire, opinion, user-generated content, and any articles that require registration or payment to read. The technical details are here.

Most of those labels will be visible to users of Google News, as they are now. Opinion and user-generated content won’t get a label but will presumably affect search results. And while tagging is voluntary, Google reserves the right to “add such designations to certain articles as necessary.”

I still don’t see why it matters if news is published on a blog or some other platform. (Google CEO Eric Schmidt ventured a distinction yesterday.) But allowing publishers to self-identify their content is a big improvement that should resolve most of the complaints Google News has been hearing — and which have been voiced to me in private. It’s a small issue with much bigger implications for how we consume, sort, and, yes, identify news in the future.

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