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January 5, 2013

[2b2k] Science as social object

An article in published in Science on Thursday, securely locked behind a paywall, paints a mixed picture of science in the age of social media. In “Science, New Media, and the Public,” Dominique Brossard and Dietram A. Scheufele urge action so that science will be judged on its merits as it moves through the Web. That’s a worthy goal, and it’s an excellent article. Still, I read it with a sense that something was askew. I think ultimately it’s something like an old vs. new media disconnect.

The authors begin by noting research that suggests that “online science sources may be helping to narrow knowledge gaps” across educational levels[1]. But all is not rosy. Scientists are going to have “to rethink the interface between the science community and the public.” They point to three reasons.

First, the rise of online media has reduced the amount of time and space given to science coverage by traditional media [2].

Second, the algorithmic prioritizing of stories takes editorial control out of the hands of humans who might make better decisions. The authors point to research that “shows that there are often clear discrepancies between what people search for online, which specific areas are suggested to them by search engines, and what people ultimately find.” The results provided by search engines “may all be linked in a self-reinforcing informational spiral…”[3] This leads them to ask an important question:

Is the World Wide Web opening up a new world of easily accessible scientific information to lay audiences with just a few clicks? Or are we moving toward an online science communication environment in which knowledge gain and opinion formation are increasingly shaped by how search engines present results, direct traffic, and ultimately narrow our informational choices? Critical discussions about these developments have mostly been restricted to the political arena…

Third, we are debating science differently because the Web is social. As an example they point to the fact that “science stories usually…are embedded in a host of cues about their accuracy, importance, or popularity,” from tweets to Facebook “Likes.” “Such cues may add meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” The authors cite a recent conference [4] where the tone of online comments turned out to affect how people took the content. For example, an uncivil tone “polarized the views….”

They conclude by saying that we’re just beginning to understand how these Web-based “audience-media interactions” work, but that the opportunity and risk are great, so more research is greatly needed:

Without applied research on how to best communicate science online, we risk creating a future where the dynamics of online communication systems have a stronger impact on public views about science than the specific research that we as scientists are trying to communicate.

I agree with so much of this article, including its call for action, yet it felt odd to me that scientists will be surprised to learn that the Web does not convey scientific information in a balanced and impartial way. You only are surprised by this if you think that the Web is a medium. A medium is that through which content passes. A good medium doesn’t corrupt the content; it conveys signal with a minimum of noise.

But unlike any medium since speech, the Web isn’t a passive channel for the transmission of messages. Messages only move through the Web because we, the people on the Web, find them interesting. For example, I’m moving (infinitesimally, granted) this article by Brossard and Scheufele through the Web because I think some of my friends and readers will find it interesting. If someone who reads this post then tweets about it or about the original article, it will have moved a bit further, but only because someone cared about it. In short, we are the medium, and we don’t move stuff that we think is uninteresting and unimportant. We may move something because it’s so wrong, because we have a clever comment to make about it, or even because we misunderstand it, but without our insertion of ourselves in the form of our interests, it is inert.

So, the “dynamics of online communication systems” are indeed going to have “a stronger impact on public views about science” than the scientific research itself does because those dynamics are what let the research have any impact beyond the scientific community. If scientific research is going to reach beyond those who have a professional interest in it, it necessarily will be tagged with “meaning beyond what the author of the original story intended to convey.” Those meanings are what we make of the message we’re conveying. And what we make of knowledge is the energy that propels it through the new system.

We therefore cannot hope to peel the peer-to-peer commentary from research as it circulates broadly on the Net, not that the Brossard and Scheufele article suggests that. Perhaps the best we can do is educate our children better, and encourage more scientists to dive into the social froth as the place where their research is having its broadest effect.

 


Notes, copied straight from the article:

[1] M. A. Cacciatore, D. A. Scheufele, E. A. Corley, Public Underst. Sci.; 10.1177/0963662512447606 (2012).

[2] C. Russell, in Science and the Media, D. Kennedy, G. Overholser, Eds. (American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Cambridge, MA, 2010), pp. 13–43

[3] P. Ladwig et al., Mater. Today 13, 52 (2010)

[4] P. Ladwig, A. Anderson, abstract, Annual Conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, St. Louis, MO, August 2011; www.aejmc. com/home/2011/06/ctec-2011-abstracts

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June 28, 2012

Woohoo! Let’s all go out and get sick!

Holy cow! I did not see that coming.

Amusingly, at 10am this morning, I was giving my talk here at the Aspen Ideas Festival about knowledge in the age of the internet. I’d asked someone to interrupt when the news came through. So at 10:05, someone said: “The court overturned the individual mandate!” And someone else said, “No, they upheld it.” It turns out that CNN got it wrong, but a blogger got it right. Pretty much made one of my points right then.

Anyway, pretty amazing outcome.

And, please, let’s NOT all go out and get sick! Stay well and healthy, my friends.

2 Comments »

April 16, 2012

Media reports its reaction as news…again

Secret Service scandal eclipses Obama trip

That’s the headline in USAToday. It’s typical of the news coverage of the Secret Service scandal before the President arrived in Colombia.

Let me fix that for you:

Media’s decision to focus on the Secret Service scandal eclipses Obama trip

The eclipse has only to do with how the media have chosen to cover the trip. And with headlines like the one in USAToday, the circle is complete: the media reporting on the media’s coverage as if they were actually reporting an event.

Sheesh.

4 Comments »

February 26, 2012

[2b2k] Linking is a public good

Mathew Ingram at GigaOm has posted the Twitter stream that followed upon his tweet criticizing the Wall Street Journal for running an article based on a post by TechCrunch’s MC Siegler, who responded in an angry post.

Mathew’s point is that linking is a good journalistic practice, even if author of the the second article independently confirmed the information in the first, as happened in this case. Mathew thinks it’s a matter of trust, and if the repeater gets caught at it, it would indeed erode trust. Of course, they probably won’t, and even if you did read the WSJ article after reading the TechCrunch post, you’d probably assume that the news was coming from a common source.

I think there’s another reason why reports ought to link to their, um, inspirations: Links are a public good. They create a web that is increasingly rich, useful, diverse, and trustworthy. We should all feel an obligation to be caretakers of and contributors to this new linked public.

And there’s a further reason. In addition to building this new infrastructure of curiosity, linking is a small act of generosity that sends people away from your site to some other that you think shows the world in a way worth considering. Linking is a public service that reminds us how deeply we are social and public creatures.

Which I think helps explains why newspapers often are not generous with their links. A paper like the WSJ believes its value — as well as its self-esteem — comes from being the place you go for news. It covers the stories worth covering, and the stories tell you what you need to know. It is thus a stopping point in the ecology of information. And that’s the oeprational definition of authority: The last place you visit when you’re looking for an answer. If you are satisfied with the answer, you stop your pursuit of it. Take the links out and you think you look like more of an authority. To this mindset, links are sign of weakness.

This made more sense when knowledge was paper-based, because in practical terms that’s pretty much how it worked: You got your news rolled up and thrown onto your porch once a day, and if you wanted more information about an article in it, you were pretty much SOL. Paper masked just how indebted the media were to one another. The media have always been an ecology of knowledge, but paper enabled them to pretend otherwise, and to base much of their economic value on that pretense.

Until newspapers are as heavily linked as GigaOm, TechCrunch, and Wikipedia, until newspapers revel in pointing away from themselves, they are depending on a value that was always unreal and now is unsustainable.

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December 28, 2011

The end of blogging’s golden age

Brian Solis has responded to Jeremy Owyang’s provocative post declaring the end of the golden age of blogging. Here’s the comment I posted on Brian’s site:

I think in a sense it’s true that the golden age of blogging is over, but that’s a good thing. And not because of anything bad about blogging. On the contrary…

Blogging began when your choices were (roughly) to dive into the never-ending, transient conversational streams of the Internet, or create a page with such great effort that you didn’t want to go back and change it, and few could bother to create a different page in order to comment on yours. Blogs let us post whenever we had something to say, and came with commenting built in. The Net was already conversational; blogs let us make static posts — articles, home pages — conversational.

Thanks to that, we now take for granted that posts will be conversational. The golden age ended because when a rare metal is everywhere, it’s no longer rare. And in this case, that’s a great thing.

Yes, that metaphor sucks. An ecosystem is a better one. Since the Web began, we’ve been filling in the environmental niches. We now have many more ways to talk with one another. Blogs continue to be an incredibly important player in this ecosystem; thank of how rapidly knowledge and ideas have become part of our new public thanks to blogs. But the point of an ecosystem metaphor is that the goodness comes from the complexity and diversity of participants and their relations. I therefore do not mourn the passing of the golden age of any particular modality of conversation, so long as that means other modalities have joined in the happy fray.

Blogging isn’t golden! Long live blogging! :)

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December 23, 2011

[2b2k] Is HuffPo killing the news?

Mathew Ingram has a provocative post at Gigaom defending HuffingtonPost and its ilk from the charge that they over-aggregate news to the point of thievery. I’m not completely convinced by Mathew’s argument, but that’s because I’m not completely convinced by any argument about this.

It’s a very confusing issue if you think of it from the point of view of who owns what. So, take the best of cases, in which HuffPo aggregates from several sources and attributes the reportage appropriately. It’s important to take a best case since we’ll all agree that if HuffPo lifts an article en toto without attribution, it’s simple plagiarism. But that doesn’t tell us if the best cases are also plagiarisms. To make it juicier, assume that in one of these best cases, HuffPo relies heavily on one particular source article. It’s still not a slam dunk case of theft because in this example HuffPo is doing what we teach every school child to do: If you use a source, attribute it.

But, HuffPo isn’t a schoolchild. It’s a business. It’s making money from those aggregations. Ok, but we are fine in general with people selling works that aggregate and attribute. Non-fiction publishing houses that routinely sell books that have lots of footnotes are not thieves. And, as Mathew points out, HuffPo (in its best cases) is adding value to the sources it aggregates.

But, HuffPo’s policy even in its best case can enable it to serve as a substitute for the newspapers it’s aggregating. It thus may be harming the sources its using.

And here we get to what I think is the most important question. If you think about the issue in terms of theft, you’re thrown into a moral morass where the metaphors don’t work reliably. Worse, you may well mix in legal considerations that are not only hard to apply, but that we may not want to apply given the new-ness (itself arguable) of the situation.

But, I find that I am somewhat less conflicted about this if I think about it terms of what direction we’d like to nudge our world. For example, when it comes to copyright I find it helpful to keep in mind that a world full of music and musicians is better than a world in which music is rationed. When it comes to news aggregation, many of us will agree that a world in which news is aggregated and linked widely through the ecosystem is better than one in which you—yes, you, since a rule against HuffPo aggregating sources wouldn’t apply just to HuffPo— have to refrain from citing a source for fear that you’ll cross some arbitrary limit. We are a healthier society if we are aggregating, re-aggregating, contextualizing, re-using, evaluating, and linking to as many sources as we want.

Now, beginning by thinking where we want the world to be —which, by the way, is what this country’s Founders did when they put copyright into the Constitution in the first place: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts”—is useful but limited, because to get the desired situation in which we can aggregate with abandon, we need the original journalistic sources to survive. If HuffPo and its ilk genuinely are substituting for newspapers economically, then it seems we can’t get to where we want without limiting the right to aggregate.

And that’s why I’m conflicted. I don’t believe that even if all rights to aggregate were removed (which no one is proposing), newspapers would bounce back. At this point, I’d guess that the Net generation is primarily interested in news mainly insofar as its woven together and woven into the larger fabric. Traditional reportage is becoming valued more as an ingredient than a finished product. It’s the aggregators—the HuffingtonPosts of the world, but also the millions of bloggers, tweeters and retweeters, Facebook likers and Google plus-ers, redditors and slashdotters, BoingBoings and Ars Technicas— who are spreading the news by adding value to it. News now only moves if we’re interested enough in it to pass it along. So, I don’t know how to solve journalism’s deep problems with its business models, but I can’t imagine that limiting the circulation of ideas will help, since in this case, the circulatory flow is what’s keeping the heart beating.

 


[A few minutes later] Mathew has also posted what reads like a companion piece, about how Amazon’s Kindle Singles are supporting journalism.

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December 16, 2011

Terry Heaton on the misleading year coming up

Terry Heaton provides some broad context in a provocative post about the coming year of media turmoil. He writes in an email:

2012 is a dangerous year for all mass media, because decay in our core competency will again be hidden by record revenues (in some cases) due to what promises to be a huge political year. Despite advances in communications’ methods, politicians fall back on the tried and true during elections, and that means big money for an industry that’s struggling. The money will distract us from the real issues, and before you know it, 2013 will be here. It’s time to do something completely different.

The actual post is about the media issues the political year will distract us from.

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October 10, 2011

Erik Martin on what makes Reddit special

Erik Martin, the general manager of Reddit, explains what’s so special about the discussion site. I’m particularly interested in the nature of authority on the site, and its introduction of new journalistic rhetorical forms.

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September 11, 2011

With a little twist of Heidegger

I’m giving a talk in Berlin in a week. My hosts want me to talk about the evolution of media, but suggested that I might want to weave some Heidegger in, which is not a request you often get. It’s a brief talk, but what I’ve written talks about four pairs, all based on Shannon’s original drawing of signal moving through a channel. 1. The medium and bits as idealized abstractions. 2. The medium and messages: How McLuhan reacts against information theory’s idea of a medium, and the sense in which on the Internet we are the medium. 3. Medium and communication: Why we think of communication as something that occurs through a medium, rather than as a way in which we share the world. 4. Medium and noise: Why the world appears, in its most brutal facticity, in Shannon’s diagram as noise, and how the richness of the Web (which consists of connections intentionally made) is in fact signal that taken together can be noise. (I know I am not using these terms rigorously.)

At the end, I’ll summarize the four contrasts:

Bits without character vs. A world that always shows itself as something

The medium as a vacuum vs. We are the medium that moves messages because we care about them

Communication as the reproduction of a representation in the listener’s head vs. Turning to a shared world together

World as noise vs. Links as a context of connection

Not by coincidence, each of these is a major Heideggerian theme: Being-as or meaning, care, truth. and world.

And if it’s not obvious, I do not think that Heidegger’s writings on technology have anything much to do with the Internet. He was criticizing the technology of the 1950s that scared him: mainframes and broadcast. He probably would have hated the Net also, but he was a snobby little fascist prick.

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August 13, 2011

Reddit and community journalism

I’ve come to love Reddit. What started as a better Digg (and is yet another happy outcome of the remarkable Y Combinator) has turned into a way of sharing and interrogating news. Reddit as it stands is not the future of news. It is, however, a hope for news.

As at other sites, at Reddit readers post items they find interesting. Some come from the media, but many are home-made ideas, photos, drawings, videos, etc. You can vote them up or down, resulting in a list ordered by collective interests. Each is followed by threaded conversations, and those comments are also voted up or down.

It’s not clear why Reddit works so well, but it does. The comments in particular are often fiercely insightful or funny, turning into collective, laugh-out-loud riffs. Perhaps it helps that the ethos — the norm — is that comments are short. Half-tweets. You can go on for paragraphs if you want, but you’re unlikely to be up-voted if you do. The brevity of the individual comments can give them a pithiness that paragraphs would blunt, and the rapid threading of responses can quickly puncture inflated ideas or add unexpected perspectives.

But more relevant to the future of news are the rhetorical structures that Reddit has given names to. They’re no more new than Frequently Asked Questions are, but so what? FAQs have become a major new rhetorical form, of unquestioned value, because they got a name. Likewise TIL, IAMA, and AMA are hardly startling in their novelty, but they are pretty amazing in practice.

TIL = Today I Learned. People post an answer to a question you didn’t know you had, or a fact that counters your intuition. They range from the trivial (“TIL that Gilbert Gottfried has a REAL voice.”) to the opposite of the trivial (“TIL there is a US owned Hydrogen bomb that has been missing off the coast of Georga for over 50 years. “)

IAMA = I Am A. AMA = Ask Me Anything. People offer to answer questions about whatever it is that they are. Sometimes they are famous people, but more often they are people in circumstances we’re curious about: a waiter at an upscale restaurant, a woman with something like Elephant Man’s disease, a miner, or this morning’s: “IAmA guy who just saw the final Harry Potter movie without reading/watching any Harry Potter material beforehand. Being morbidly confused, I made up an entire previous plot for the movie to make sense in my had. I will answer your HP Series question based on the made up previous plot in my head AMA.” The invitation to Ask Me Anything typically unfetters the frankest of questions. It helps that Reddit discourages trolling and amidst the geeky cynicism permits honest statements of admiration and compassion.

The topics of IAMA’s are themselves instructive. Many are jokes: “IAmA person who has finished a whole tube of chapstick without losing it. AMA” But many enable us to ask questions that would falter in the face of conventional propriety: “IAmA woman married to a man with Asperger’s Syndrome AMA”. Some open up for inquiry a perspective that we take for granted or that was too outside our normal range of consideration: “IAMA: I was a German child during WWII that was in the Hitler Youth and had my city bombed by the U.S.”

Reddit also lets readers request an IAMA. For example, someone is asking if one of Michelle Bachman’s foster kids would care to engage. Might be interesting, don’t you think?

So, my hypothesis is that IAMA and AMA are an important type of citizen journalism. Call it “community journalism.”

Now, if you’ve clicked through to any of these IAMA’s, you may be disappointed at the level of “journalism” you’ve seen. For example, look at yesterday’s “IAMA police officer who was working during the London Riots. AMA.” Many of the comments are frivolous or off-topic. Most are responses to other comments, and many threads spin out into back-and-forth riffing that can be pretty damn funny. But it’s not exactly “60 Minutes.” So what? This is one way citizen journalism looks. At its best, it asks questions we all want asked, unearths questions we didn’t know we wanted asked, asks them more forthrightly than most American journalists dare, and gets better — more honest — answers than we hear from the mainstream media.

You can also see in the London police officer’s IAMA one of the main ways Reddit constitutes itself as a community: it binds itself together by common cultural references. The more obscure, the tighter the bond. For example, during the IAMA with the police officer in the London riots, someone asks if they’ve caught the guy who knocked over the trash can. This is an unlinked reference to a posting from a few days before of a spoof video of a middle class guy looking around an empty street and then casually knocking over a garbage can. The comments devolve into some silliness about arresting a sea gull for looting. The police officer threads right in:

[police officer] I do assure you we take it very seriously, however. Here, please have a Victim of Crime pack and a crime reference number. We will look into this issue as a matter of priority, and will send you a telegram in six-to-eight-weeks.
permalinkparent

AmbroseChapel
Telegram? Are you that cop who got transported back to the 1970s?

[police officer]
My friends call me Murphy.

derpedatbirth
Lawl, I’m watching RoboCop right now.

This community is both Reddit’s strength as a site, and its greatest weakness as a form of citizen journalism. Reddit illustrates why there are few quotes that simultaneously delight and scare me more than “If the news is important, it will find me.” This was uttered, according to Jane Buckingham (and reported in a 2008 Brian Stelter NY Times article) by a college student in a focus group. In my view, the quote would be more accurate if it read, “If the news is interesting to my social group, it will find me.” What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.

And here’s where I think Reddit offers some hope.

First, it’s important to remember that Reddit is not intending to cover the news, even though its tag line is “The front page of the Internet.” It feels no responsibility to post and upvote a story simply because it is important. Rather, Reddit is a supplement to the news. If something is sufficiently covered by the mainstream — today the stock market went up dramatically, today the Supreme Court decided something — it exactly will not be covered as news at Reddit. Reddit is for what didn’t make it into the mainstream news. So, Reddit does not answer the question: How will we get news when the main stream dries up?

But it does make manifest a phenomenon that should take some of the gloom off our outlook. Take Reddit as a type of internet tabloid. Mainstream tabloids are sensationalistic: They indulge and enflame what are properly thought of as lower urges. But Reddit feeds and stimulates a curiosity about the world. It turns out that a miner —or a person who works at Subway — has a lot to tell us. It turns out that a steely British cop has a sense of humor. It turns out that American planes dropping bombs on a German city did not fly with halos over them. True, there’s a flood of trivial curios and tidbits at Reddit. Nevertheless, from mainstream tabloids you learn that humans are a weak and corrupt species that revels in the misfortunes of others. From Reddit you learn that we are creatures with a wild curiosity, indiscriminate in its fascinations. And you learn that we are a social species that takes little seriously and enjoys the multiplicity of refractions.

But is the curiosity exhibited at Reddit enough? I find this question rocks back and forth. The Reddit community constitutes itself through a set of references that belong to a particular group and that exclude those who just don’t get nods to Robocop. Yet it is a community that reaches for what is beyond its borders. Not far enough, sure. But it’s never far enough. Reddit’s interests are generally headed in the right direction: outward. Those interests often embrace more than what the mainstream has found room for. Still, the interests of any group are always going to reflect that group’s standpoint and self-filters. Reddit’s curiosity is unsystematic, opportunistic, and indiscriminate. You will not find all the news you need there. That’s why I say Reddit offers not a solution to the impeding News Hole, but a hope. The hope is that while communities are based on shared interests and thus are at least somewhat insular, some communities can generate an outward-bound curiosity that delights in the unabashed exploration of what we have taken for granted and in the discovery of that which is outside its same-old boundaries.

But then there is the inevitability triviality of Reddit. Reddit topics, no matter how serious, engender long arcs of wisecracks and silliness. But this too tells us something, this time about the nature of curiosity. One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.

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