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September 01 2010


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.

August 10 2010


All Our Ideas facilitates crowdsourcing — of opinions

What do readers want from the news?

It’s a hard question to answer, and not only because we don’t often know what we like until we find ourselves liking it. To figure it out, news outlets have traffic patterns on the one hand, and, if they choose, user surveys on the other; each is effective and unsatisfying in its own way. But what about the middle ground — an analytic approach to creative user feedback?

Meet All Our Ideas, the “suggestion box for the digital age“: a crowdsourcing platform designed to crowdsource concepts and opinions rather than facts alone. The platform was designed by a team at Princeton under the leadership of sociology professor Matt Salganik — initially, to create a web-native platform for sociological research. (The platform is funded in part by Google’s Research Awards program.) But its potential uses extend far beyond sociology — and, for that matter, far beyond academia. “The idea is to provide a direct idea-sharing platform where people can be heard in their own voices,” Salganik told me; for news outlets trying to figure out the best ways to harness the wisdom and creativity and affection of their users, a platform that mingles commenting and crowdsourcing could be a welcome combination.

The platform’s user interface is deceptively simple: at each iteration, it asks you to choose between two choices, as you would at the optometrist’s office: “Is A better…or B?” (In fact, Salganik told me, All Our Ideas’ structure was inspired by the kitten-cuteness-comparison site Kittenwar, which aims to find images of the “winningest” kittens (and — oof — the “losingest”) through a similar A/B selection framework.) But the platform also gives you the option — and here’s the “crowdsourcing” part — of adding your own idea into the mix. Not as a narrative addition — the open-ended “Additional Comments” box of traditional surveys — but as a contribution that will be added into the survey’s marketplace and voted up or down by the other survey-takers. (The open-ended responses are limited in length — to, natch, 140 characters — thus preventing modern-day Montaignes from gumming up the works.) You can vote on as many pairings — or as few — as you wish, and contribute as many/few ideas as you wish.

That contribution aspect is a small, but significant, shift. (Think of All Our Ideas, in fact, like Google Moderator — with a cleaner interface and, more significantly, hidden results that prevent users from being influenced by others’ feedback.) Because, it should be said: in general, from the user perspective, traditional surveys suck. With their pre-populated, multiple-choice framework, with those “Additional Comments” boxes (whose contents one assumes, won’t be counted as “data” proper and so likely won’t be counted all), they tend to preclude creativity on the part of the people taking them. They fall victim to a paradox: the larger the population of survey-takers — and thus, ostensibly, the more rigorous the data they can provide — the less incentive individual users have to take them. Or to take them seriously.

But All Our Ideas, with its invitation to creativity implicit in its “Add your own idea” button, adjusts that dynamic. The point is to inspire participation — meaningful participation — by a simple interface with practically no barriers to entry. The whole thing was designed, Salganik says, “to be very light and easy.”

Here’s what it looks like (you can also test it out for yourself using All Our Ideas’ sample interface — a survey issued by Princeton’s student government asking undergrads what improvements it should make to campus life):

The ease-of-use translates to the survey-issuers, as well: All Our Ideas is available for sites to use via an API and, for the less tech-savvy or more time-pressed, an embeddable widget. (Which is also to say: it’s free.) Surveyors can tailor the platform to the particular survey they want to run, seeding it with initial ideas and deciding whether the survey run will be entirely algorithmic or human-moderated. For the latter option, each surveyor designates a moderator, charged with approving user-generated ideas before they become part of a survey’s idea marketplace; for both options, users themselves can flag ideas as inappropriate.

So far, it’s been used by organizations like Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, which used the platform to survey more than 4,000 employees — based out of 150 offices worldwide and speaking several different languages — about what makes an ideal relief worker; Columbia Law School’s student government used it to find the best idea for improving campus life (that survey got 15,000 votes, Salganik told me, with 200 new ideas uploaded in the first 48 hours). And the Princeton student government survey got more than 2,000 students to contribute 40,000 votes and 100 new ideas in the space of a few weeks.

A new way to survey

All Our Ideas, Salganik says, “deals with a fundamental problem that exists in the social sciences in terms of how we aggregate information.” Traditionally, academics can gather feedback either using pre-populated surveys, which are good at quantifying huge swaths of information, but also limited in the scope of the data they can gather…or, on the other hand, using focus groups and interviews, which are great for gathering open, unstructured information — information that’s “unfiltered by an pre-existing biases that you might have,” Salganik points out — but that are also difficult to analyze. Not to mention inefficient and, often, expensive.

And from the surveyers’ perspective, as well, surveys can be a blunt instrument: their general inability to quantify narrative feedback has forced survey-writers to rely on pre-determined questions. Which is to say, on pre-determined answers. “I’ve actually designed some surveys before, and had the suspicion that I’d left something out,” Salganik says. It’s a guessing game — educated guessing, yes, but guessing all the same. “You only get out what you put in,” he points out. And you don’t know what you don’t know.

But “one of the patterns we see consistently is that ideas that are uploaded by users sometimes score better than the best ideas that started it off,” Salganik says. “Because no matter how hard you try, there are just ideas out there that you don’t know.” But other people do.

Conceptual Crowdsourcing

That utility easily translates to news organizations, who might use All Our Ideas to crowdsource thoughts on anything from news articles to opinion pieces to particular areas of editorial focus. “Let’s say you’re a newspaper,” Salganik says. “You could have one of these [surveys] set up for each neighborhood in a city. You could have twenty of them.”

The platform could also be used to conduct internal surveys — particularly useful at larger organizations, where the lower-level reporters, editors, and producers who man the trenches of daily journalism might have the most meaningful ideas about organizational priorities…but where those workers’ voices might also have the least chance of being heard. News outlets both mammoth and slightly less so have been trying to rectify that asymmetry; an org-wide survey, where every contribution exists on equal footing with every other, could bring structure to the ideal of an idea marketplace that is — yes — truly democratic.

But perhaps the most significant use of the platform could be broad-scale and systemic: surveying users about, yes, what they want. (See, for example, ProPublica’s employment of an editorially focused reader survey a couple months ago.) Pose one basic question — broad (“What kinds of stories are you most interested in knowing?”) or narrow (“Whom should we bring on as our next columnist?”) — and see what results. That’s a way of giving more agency to users than traditional surveys have; it’s also a way of letting them know that you value their opinions in the first place.

December 27 2009


November 06 2009

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