Archive for February, 2009

We the Media – Part II

February 25, 2009

            While I am hopeful about the power of the internet and its promise to level the playing field of knowledge, I am also a bit skeptical about it in some regards.  My skepticism lies in the tremendous amount of useless information sharing and time-wasting that blogs, messaging, and other such technologies have spawned.  (These, at least, are relatively benign negatives.  There are of course other more harmful and malicious by-products as well, from the prevalence of internet porn to the facilitation of child predation to the incredible breach of privacy that impacts pretty much everyone – internet users and non-users alike.  But that’s a whole other topic.)

            Of course the benefits of productive information sharing and of empowering citizen journalism probably far outweigh the costs, and I am encouraged to see the positive and productive effects that are possible.  Politics is an obvious example.  George Allen may not be as impressed by the power of internet technology as some others, but his opponents were certainly happy to capitalize on it after his “macaca” comment during a Senate campaign stop in August 2006, in what Rolling Stone called  “the first YouTube election.”  His comments to a Webb staffer of Indian descent who was videotaping him were quickly posted on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI), and the topic spread like wildfire through the blog world (http://news.cnet.com/8301-10784_3-6107987-7.html, http://www.politicstv.com/blog/?p=1239, http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2006/08/new_postmacaca_.html), forcing an initially reluctant big media to pick up the story as well.  Thus ended Allen’s hopes not only for the Virginia Senate race, but for a possible presidential run in 2008.  On the flipside, of course, an understanding of new web and media technologies and effective utilization of them were a key factor in Barack Obama’s success in his 2008 presidential run.  Though relatively unknown at the beginning of the race, in a field of heavy-hitter candidates – among whom Hillary Clinton was presumed to be the automatic front-runner – Obama managed to connect with voters, get out his message, and raise funds in a way that his opponents simply couldn’t compete with.

            Perhaps the most impressive grassroots effort I’m aware of that owes its success to the use of digital media was the “No Más FARC” movement in early 2008.  Four young Colombians came up with the idea to stage a protest march against the terrorist guerrilla group FARC to show, despite FARC claims of representing the people, that the people of Colombia do NOT support the FARC.  Within a month of creating their Facebook page for “Un Millón de Voces Contra Las FARC” (“A Million Voices Against FARC”), they had signed up hundreds of thousands of members around the world, leading to successful public rallies in cities across the planet.  Estimates of turnout ranged as high as 10,000,000 in Colombia alone (roughly a quarter of the country’s total population!).

            One of the more useful topics that Gillmor discusses in We the Media is the wiki phenomenon.  Of course most regular internet users are familiar with Wikipedia, but the WikiTravel site was a new one to me and one that I found to be surprisingly useful.  I checked its content on traveling to Colombia (where I lived and worked for two years and thus had some inside perspective) and found it to be much more useful and insightful than the average travel guide one might find in a bookstore.  It truly reflected the knowledge of people who are familiar with the country more deeply than simply as tourists.

            As for the issue of sifting through the glut of useless information on the web to get to what’s really valuable, I think the most promising potential lies in the refinement of tools like RSS, aggregators, and newsreaders, as well as the development and refinement of recommendation and reputation tools, as Gillmor discusses, to assist in judging the value of any particular web content and the like, that will help (impatient) people (like me) to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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“We The Media”

February 23, 2009

          Dan Gillmor’s “We the Media” attempts to describe broadly how technology is impacting journalism, not only in terms of the journalists themselves but also in terms of the subjects they write about as well as their “former audience,” which he says has now become part audience and part journalist.  His highlights the changes caused by the internet and all of its related aspects and technologies – mail lists, forums, blogs, wikis, SMS, RSS, P2P sharing, etc. – and discusses how the internet has broadened the traditional media communication modes of “many-to-one” and “one-to-one” to include “many-to-many” and “few-to-few.”

            Gillmor feels that the best way for companies to take advantage of the new technologies that some of them view as a threat to their established business model and way of life is to embrace them.  He discusses the effectiveness of companies that scan the blog world for criticisms but then capitalize on those criticisms by addressing them and responding to them, recognizing that they can improve as a company by incorporating the good ideas of their users, supporters, and even detractors.

            Likewise for anyone else in the public eye, not the least of whom are politicians.  He shows how use of the internet in politics, after some initial successes by John McCain in 2000 and various other lower-level politicians, took off with the Howard Dean campaign in 2004, taking a Washington outsider and virtual unknown (at least on a national stage) to what it seemed was going to be his party’s nomination, before some political missteps stopped his momentum.  Gillmor accurately predicted that the internet would play a much more central role in the 2008 election cycle, though even he would probably have been surprised to know just how big it would actually be.

            I must say that I was hoping for a more conclusive “a-ha” kind of takeaway from the book and haven’t really found it, but that is not necessarily a criticism – I think the book simply presents the good and the bad of these technologies and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.  The author is clearly on the side of technology and the interests of the “former audience” over the interests of a handful of powerful media conglomerates, as, probably, are most people not inside the world of those media giants.

            While I certainly believe that the internet does redefine the nature of journalism and news, I think it is a most definitely a supplement to the contributions of professional journalists and media organizations, not a replacement for them.  It will be difficult for individuals to muster the resources of a major media organization when it comes to covering big investigative stories (like Watergate, Iran Contra, etc.), and reporting of this nature is a full-time occupation (i.e., one that requires a full-time commitment and probably a salary, unless there are a lot of independently wealthy bloggers out there willing to pick up the slack).  I think the key for media company success in this area will be to find the right mix of old-fashioned big media and cutting-edge interactive journalism.  I think it’s too early to tell what this mix will be, however, and most of the efforts so far seem like knee-jerk reactions to incorporate the ramblings of every Tom, Dick, and Harry with cell phone messaging capability or a Twitter account (case in point, http://twitter.com/ricksanchezcnn or http://www.cnn.com/ireport ).  These are just new-technology versions of man-on-the-street interviews, most of which are equally unenlightening.  This is not to say there’s no place for these contributions – they can be great for eyewitness reports of breaking news stories, for example – but to make them a routine and mandatory part of a news broadcast simply for the sake of paying homage to the medium is just excessive.