Though I’ve avoided year-end best-of lists – there’s just too many channels, and I’m trying to move on from 2008 – I did appreciate National Geographic’s Editor’s Picks for 2008. NGeo also has a most viewed list, and top ten space photos. Here’s a Martian landslide:
My pal and rock journalist extraordinaire, Ed Ward, is leaving Berlin and putting his Berlinbites blog to rest. He’s setting up in Montpellier, France, and will have a new blog soon. Ed’s been planning this move for several years. Why is he moving?
Ultimately, the city and I just didn’t get along. I became unhappy with the picture Berlin was painting of itself to the world, emphasizing the negative, emphasizing death over life, always twisting the narrative to avoid mentioning things the city should have been proud of. The weather, of course, could be brutal in the winter, and the winter seemed to last for seven months. The food, for most of my stay, was awful, although I have to say that’s one thing which was definitely on the upswing in my last couple of years there. The architecture was relentessly grim, and, with the city sprawled out over an area that seemed the size of Los Angeles, there was an awful lot of it: this past March I’d just returned from Texas and France when I agreed to meet friends at a recently-discovered Chinese restaurant in Neukölln and took the Ringbahn from Schönhauser Allee to get there. I was really demoralized by the time I arrived from the endlessly repetitive vistas of depressing buildings and squalid streets, and this just fuelled my need to get out even further. And I saw all of this reflected in the faces of the residents, so many of whom look either desperately unhappy or lobotomized. I couldn’t see myself getting older there, and given that one of my not-so-unconscious goals in moving in the first place was to find female companionship, I’d long since given up on finding a German woman who wasn’t consumed with self-loathing or incipient mental illness. Not to say that they don’t exist, but the only one I found wasn’t a romantic prospect, although it was encouraging after all those years to discover there were occasional nonconformists.
I’ll post here when Ed’s new blog is up. Meanwhile Ed has a regular rock ‘n’ roll spot on NPR’s Fresh Air. (Photo: Ed Ward and Curra’s in Austin during SXSW 2008, by Jon L.)
Jay Rosen understands better than anybody the distinctions between traditional media and social media, and he’s written a great post about it, called “If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue.”
He writes about trust, quoting Dave Winer, who says “a blog is not defined by the software or features in the format (like comments) but by a person talking: ‘one voice, unedited, not determined by group-think’…. To trust a blogger is to trust in a person, talking to you, who is working without the safety net of an institution.”
In talking about gatekeepers and filters, he makes a really important distinction
In closed systems, editorial production is expensive, so we need good gatekeepers. We solved that problem by having professionals do it.
Bloggers have ethics, or practices that lead to trust. They practice “the ethic of the link,” pointing to other thoughts and ideas – Jeff Jarvis talks about a Golden Rule of links in journalism: “ink unto others’ good stuff as you would have them link unto your good stuff. This emerges from blogging etiquette but is exactly contrary to the old, competitive ways of news organizations: wasting now-precious resources matching competitors’ stories so you could say you’d done it yourself.” They readily correct themselves, “they don’t claim neutrality, but they do practice transparency,” they converse openly with each other, they point to each others’ sites as frames of reference, and when they have a story, they keep it alive until naturally cycles out. “In all these ways, good bloggers build up trust with a base of users online. And over time, the practices that lead to trust on the platform where the users actually are… these become their ethic, their rules.”
Social media people still haven’t shaken broadcast thinking. So many still think there’s a relationship between attention and credibility. If I write a bestseller, I’ll be smarter than I was before I wrote the book, and a guy who writes a very smart book that doesn’t quite take off can’t be as smart as I am. Cream rises to the top. In the social media world, if I’m an A-list blogger, I’m smarter and cooler – even more so, because there’s so much more competition for attention in the blogosphere.
I think there are a lot of factors in producing success in the economy of attention, and being the smartest guy in the room ain’t necessarily one of them. Working hard and even working smart won’t necessarily do it for you. Talent isn’t enough. Having a smart PR person or machine will help. Luck is a big part of the deal – right place right time etc.
Someday I’ll talk about ways to get attention for yourself, but that’s not what I was thinking about when I started writing this post. The point I really want to make is that there are a lot of really smart, talented, and capable people in the world that nobody knows. They have zero visibility, and they don’t even try to get attention. In fact, real wisdom would probably suggest you don’t want the attention unless that happens to be your thing. Getting real attention – fame – is a lot of work and could get in the way of anything else you might want to do.
What I’m thinking about today is how we leverage intelligence and talent that we don’t necessarily see, and how we establish credibility for smart thinking that isn’t acknowledged by the media (or social media) machine. We like to think that social media is about crowdsourcing and brings more people into the conversation, but I’m not sure this is true. Consider the concept of the a-list blogger and Clay Shirky’s application of power law thinking to the blogosphere:
Though there are more new bloggers and more new readers every day, most of the new readers are adding to the traffic of the top few blogs, while most new blogs are getting below average traffic, a gap that will grow as the weblog world does. It’s not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it’s harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year. At some point (probably one we’ve already passed), weblog technology will be seen as a platform for so many forms of publishing, filtering, aggregation, and syndication that blogging will stop referring to any particularly coherent activity. The term ‘blog’ will fall into the middle distance, as ‘home page’ and ‘portal’ have, words that used to mean some concrete thing, but which were stretched by use past the point of meaning. This will happen when head and tail of the power law distribution become so different that we can’t think of J. Random Blogger and Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit as doing the same thing.
At the head will be webloggers who join the mainstream media (a phrase which seems to mean “media we’ve gotten used to.”) The transformation here is simple – as a blogger’s audience grows large, more people read her work than she can possibly read, she can’t link to everyone who wants her attention, and she can’t answer all her incoming mail or follow up to the comments on her site. The result of these pressures is that she becomes a broadcast outlet, distributing material without participating in conversations about it.
Meanwhile, the long tail of weblogs with few readers will become conversational. In a world where most bloggers get below average traffic, audience size can’t be the only metric for success. LiveJournal had this figured out years ago, by assuming that people would be writing for their friends, rather than some impersonal audience. Publishing an essay and having 3 random people read it is a recipe for disappointment, but publishing an account of your Saturday night and having your 3 closest friends read it feels like a conversation, especially if they follow up with their own accounts. LiveJournal has an edge on most other blogging platforms because it can keep far better track of friend and group relationships, but the rise of general blog tools like Trackback may enable this conversational mode for most blogs.
Clay wrote this in 2003; what we’ve seen since then is pretty consistent with his predictions.
The short version of what I’m thinking about is this: how do we find and leverage real intelligence within the long tail of bloggers, and how do we extract and process useful knowledge from larger ongoing conversations on the web. One way might be to depend quite a bit on writers who filter – who are exploring and crunching the larger conversations, placing them in context, and interpreting their meaning and relevance. We depend on thought leaders and intelligent aggregators.
And we still probably miss the thinking of some of the smartest people who for whatever reason don’t release their thoughts into the wild.
At the Texas Community Media Unworkshop last Saturday, I posted several notes to Twitter from a talk by Gary Chapman of the 21st Century Project at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. By popular demand, here’s those notes, with some additional material…
Kevin Martin from FCC was at UT [last] week. He said Democratic members of the FCC had been trying to increase minority ownership of broadcasting, but his philosophy had been instead to expand the space and the opportunities. Gary had previously had concerns about Martin, but found himself agreeing with much he had to say. Martin is considering how to increse the availability of broadband as well as the bandwidth, something the Obama administration also wants. (See my previous post about white spaces.) Gary also heard Martin propose free national public broadband.
The LBJ School is working with Obama transition team. There’ll be a White House CTO. http://change.gov/ has info about transition.
The Federal government has already put spending data online and has created APIs, ways for programmers to access and use for that data, which anyone can also download. Obama drove legislation to do this – transparency in government is a top priority for the new administration.
OMB watch has created a site, FedSpending.org, using that data.
Data about the Federal budget is also online, but not in an accessible way – as pdf documents. The LBJ School has prposed working on a transparent onine budget similar to the spending data, and is working with the Obama transition team on the concept. This should open a new era of transparency and accountability. People will be able to monitor what’s happening at all levels of government. The most compelling applications will tie the spending data to the budget for analysis… connecting the dots for real transparency.
The LBJ School is also seeking funds for a lab to create tools for bloggers, activists, etc. Get programming talent to build new tools. For instance, the want to take a wiki model of collaborative space and flip that into specfic applications for collaboration and for doing processing online. Gary mentioned as a similar tool Wikicalc, Dan Bricklin’s collaborative spreadsheet absorbed by SocialText. Another exampnle: Google is creating APIs for its spreadsheet.
The next phase of public media will blur boundaries between government and citizens using online tools, Gary says. We’ll see a transition from e-government, which is merely transactional (renew your driver’s license online) to i-government, or information based government. Government shouldn’t just build PR web sites, it should be guarantor of data quality for access by tool builders. This is the next phase of democracy, and the ext stage in the fight against corruption. We won’t need to file freedom of information access requests, because the information will already be online and accessible.
This is all high on the Obama transition team’s agenda. They’ve been working on this for months already. Obama is also reestablishing status of science – planning to bringing on a science advisor.
A citizen activist asked my opinion of adopting an online televsion platform for activist work. Example: CitizenSolutions.tv, “communicating what works for America.”
My response: if you’re asking me if I think a citizen’s group should adopt a web version of one-to-many broadcast technology and support efforts to turn the web into television, I have to say no.
I had a conversation not long ago about a diet with meat vs no meat, and the nutritionist I was talking to said that meat should be used as a condiment, not a main dish. That’s probably how you should approach video.
There’s a lot of interest in adding video to web sites, and we’ve worked on projects where it makes good sense to do that. I’ve also worked on activist projects where we used video effectively. You might use video to show irregularities at the polls (something we did in 2004 and others have done since – Video the Vote is a good example. You might also use video to show what mainstream media chooses to ignore – as Indymedia, for instance, has done.
There will inherently be more and more video and rich media online, but we have to think about the context we’re creating. I know there are ways to be interactive in and around video, but I’m still concerned that more video = more passive watching, less interaction. The web promised more: I’m remembering the tag line Paco Nathan came up with for our media company, FringeWare: “Because your television doesn’t love you anymore.”
(Disclosure: I actually do watch televsion, probably far more than I should.)
What do you think?
At CNN’s iReport.com, a “citizen journalist” calling himself “Johntw” posted a report that Steve Jobs had been rushed to the ER following a heart attack. Word spread to and beyond Digg, across Twitter. Apple stock dropped quickly, a $9 billion loss based on the rumor. Though iReport posts aren’t vetted, the CNN association probably lent credibility to the report. [Link]
The Jobs incident was the second time in a week that mainstream media organizations have been embarrassed by their online citizen journalism arms – sparking debate about the accuracy of reports from these Web sites and showing how it takes only a few minutes for a scurrilous rumor, placed on a site without sufficient editorial checks, to inflict damage.
So what’s the cure? A dozen years ago Bob Anderson and I were talking about the emerging new media ecology and the question of information authority in that context. We figured media literacy should be taught alongside reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Support critical thinking, not censorship or authoritarian structures for distributing information.
Education isn’t always enough, sometimes you really do need moderators, hopefully with a light touch. The SFGate story linked above says how sexually explicit photos were posted at CBS’mobile phone application site, after which CBS promised “to redouble its efforts to police content.” A moderator had quickly removed the photos. Some might argue that photos should be screened before they’re posted, and some sites would do it that way, but that’s a daunting task, especially where you may have thousands of posts, and it’s not in the spirit of the many-to-many mediasphere. CNN does have moderators for iReport, but they’re not checking facts… “mostly, it is the job of iReport users themselves to weed out erroneous or inappropriate material.” That’s the social media way – the “vetting” is crowdsourced, and the reader must read critically, never assuming that the “news source” is correct. I would argue that’s always been the case, even with the best journalists. I’ve never been close to a news story that wasn’t wrong in some of the particulars, at least from my perspective. And that’s part of the problem – perspectives and interpretations differ. That’s why I left journalism behind – when I was in journalism school, it seemed pretty clear that it would be hard to tell the truth. Only a few gonzo journalists, a la Hunter Thompson, realized they, and their biases, had to be transparent within the reporting…