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September 01 2010

14:00

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image from daveynin used under a Creative Commons License.

May 04 2010

19:36

What are your caching (and cache-busting) tips and tricks?

Many of us work on database-intensive web apps and rely on caching for site performance. So what are the tips, tricks and tweaks you've developed to keep your apps humming along while avoiding database meltdowns?

From the big things (got a great strategy for caching server config?) down to little plugin approaches (like the example I'll put below).

December 21 2009

16:05

An Orchestra of Linux Laptops, and How to Make Your Own Laptop Instrument

L2Ork-1

For a generation of musicians of nearly every genre, the laptop has become an instrument. It’s easy to take for granted, but the rise of the computer for music has been remarkable. Less than twenty years ago, real-time digital synthesis and audio processing was the domain of expensive, specialized workstations. Now, $700 per seat can buy you a full-blown musical rig, with the computer hardware, gestural input courtesy the Nintendo Wii controller, and even a DIY speaker made from IKEA salad bowls. The next challenge is to make this setup as flexible and reliable as possible. Enter Linux.

According with the laptop’s graduation to instrument status, laptops orchestras have spread worldwide, inspired especially by the innovative Princeton Laptop Orchestra (“PLOrk”) directed by Dan Trueman and Perry Cook. PLOrk’s alumnus Ge Wang has even gone on to greater fame making applications for the iPhone via ocarina and T-Pain app developer Smule. The sounds of these ensembles may sometimes be strange, but by pushing laptop performance, the groups are a great place to look for how to get the most out of computer music, whatever your tastes may be.

Virginia Tech’s L2Ork’s claim to faim is that it’s a laptop orchestra powered by Linux. Why does that matter? For one, it makes a big difference on cost. By using Linux-powered netbooks, they’ve slashed the per-student cost from that of the Mac laptops used in some other ensembles, on a machine that’s more compact. Far from making sacrifices to save money, the result is actually  greater reliability, flexibility, efficiency, and audio performance.

L2Ork Debut December 04, 2009

As with the PLOrk ensemble, L2Ork combines expressive input with open-ended digital sound making production, localizing the sound near the computer itself using hemispherical speakers. In this way, the laptop instrument can attempt to learn something from acoustic instruments, which are played with human gestures and have sound sources that are positioned physically where the instrument is.

L2Ork

You don’t have to enroll at Virginia Tech to apply these lessons to your own music making, however. You can apply the lessons of the L2Ork ensemble to put together your own Linux audio machine. They’ve even further-documented the process of making PLOrk’s signature “salad bowl” speakers. And you can do it all without breaking the bank.

L2Ork-2

I got the chance to speak with Dr. Ivica Ico Bukvic, director of the Linux Laptop Orchestra and the DSISIS Interactive Sound and Intermedia Studio at Virginia Tech.

CDM: What is your software rig for this ensemble?

Ivica: We basically use Ubuntu 9.04 (vanilla) with our own custom-built rt kernel, which apart from solid performance also offers full support of standby/hibernate/external monitor, webcam, wireless, bluetooth, etc. We also have various patches/scripts that deal with chronic UI bugs (e.g. order of panel icons in gnome getting trashed whenever a resolution is changed).

Basically, our configuration supports every single functionality of MSI Wind netbooks, which we use as the backbone of the orchestra.

FWIW, our setup offers pretty darn cool price point. The entire setup (MSI Wind, UA-1G soundcard, hemi speaker, [Nintendo] Wiimote/Nunchuk, all the cables/accessories, headset, and case) comes down to approximately $700/seat which arguably makes it as cheap as an iPhone setup, except you get to enjoy flexibility of using a laptop (ok, a netbook :-).

L2Ork-3

What music software are you using?

Our audio platform is currently exclusively [multimedia patching environment] Pd-extended 0.42.5 (running through [low-latency audio server] JACK) which we’ve also customized to allow advanced GUI setup (e.g. per-patcher configurable background, menu/ontop/resize/scrollbar toggles, what is IMHO better scrolling algorithm than what we currently have) as well as integrated several new objects whose source we are about to release (our multithreaded version of the Wiimote object for Linux has been already posted on the Pd-list a couple weeks ago, and it fully supports Wiimotes/Nunchuks without any interruptions to the Pd’s audio thread).

What do you do to get Ubuntu running properly?

Basically, it’s lightly-modded Ubuntu 9.04 that allows us to support all the hardware on the netbook, thus offering a quality desktop experience as well as RT audio performance. The kernel is custom-built 2.6.29-rc6-rt3. We have it available for download from a temporary folder off of my personal site
(http://ico.bukvic.net/Linux/). Once we clean everything up we will actually generate a full HD image and offer it for public download in hope to allow people to load that thing and thus allow them to have the best possible out-of-box experience (obviously as far as MSI Wind is concerned).

Is the hemispherical speaker something readers could build?

There are probably dozen videos on the VTDISIS Youtube channel that are designed to help potential L2Ork adopters build their own speakers, from cannibalizing/retrofitting the amps to improve their performance, to building cables and final assembly.
L2Ork-5

L2Ork-4

Videos

Rehearsal video shows how the L2Ork work out playing and soundmaking as an ensemble.

A quick look at how to make your own hemispherical speaker pod:

Local news coverage:

Virginia Tech students demo new laptop orchestra [WSLS10 NBC]

Laptop orchestra at Virginia Tech gives people an affordable alternative [WDBJ7]

More videos, and lots of how-to’s on the speakers (including the conclusion of the video above), are available on the VTDISIS channel:

http://www.youtube.com/user/VTDISIS

Got more questions for the ensemble? Let us know.

I’d definitely like to offer, as well, some information on how to make Ubuntu work this well for you, and how to learn Ubuntu, Pd, JACK, and other free tools, in a way that’s beginner-friendly. That sounds like a decent New Years’ Resolution.

In the meantime, it’s worth mentioning that if you aren’t excited about the prospect of custom-configuring kernels yourself, the Indamixx Linux laptop we’ve featured previously is pre-configured in a similar way; the netbook I’m testing now even runs on the same MSI netbook. And that also, in turn, illustrates how research and volunteer efforts can go hand-in-hand with commercial solutions:

http://www.indamixx.com/

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