The rise of the Internet has threatened and transformed many institutions but perhaps none so much as journalism.  Technology has blurred the lines of who they are, what they provide and where they are going.  The latest batch of readings has explored what has already happened to journalism, what journalists are doing (or not) about it and where the industry might go.  Dave Winer’s “Readings from News Execs” showcases today’s top editors as seriously in denial.  Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” talks about the death of newspapers as a revolution, a shifting of the news industry so great that we may not see its results in our lifetime.  Newspapers, he says, are already dead, but journalism isn’t.  But newspapers have spent so much time worrying about preserving their status quo that they’ve failed to realize that the unthinkable has already happened: they are all but obsolete.   The next set of readings focus in part on what these changes mean for the business of news.

Kevin Kelly, in his 1,000 True Fans suggests using The Long Tail as a way to make a living as an artist and that theory could easily be applied to journalists as well.  Report on something that only 1,000 people care about but if those 1,000 people are dedicated enough, they will sustain you financially.  There are a few people who have been wildly successful using that methodology; one of them is Nick Denton, head of Gawker Media.  Ben McGrath outlines Denton’s road to success in his piece “Search and Destroy: Nick Denton’s blog empire.” Denton has exploited several niche markets, aggregating several “1,000 True Fans” into a very lucrative business model.

A lot of the pieces we read posit that journalists have so far served as middlemen; they have gathered, organized and disseminated information to the public.  But the Internet has created an environment whereby journalists no longer have a monopoly on access.  So what is the journalist’s role now? Stephen Berlin Johnson proposes a plausible solution in that the old news institutions be the navigators for the new news platform, the web.  Because now we need organizers for both the long and the short tails.

One of the most compelling readings assigned is Peter Daou’s assessment of the limits of blogs.  It is true that technology is transforming our institutions but the revolution, as Shirky says, is ongoing.  For now, the institutions and the new technologies exist together and the power is shared.  The result of this revolution won’t be the fall of institutions and the rise of technology, it will be how they will inevitably merge to become the institutions of our future.  What Daou doesn’t talk about is that the three sides of the triangle are already merging.  The White House has a blog, every presidential candidate has a Twitter feed and campaigns are looking to the netroots for their hiring. The three sides are slowly but surely beginning to overlap.

Daou talks about politics in particular but his triangle theory and the questions he poses could be applied elsewhere as well.  For example, Amazon uses the three sides of the triangle too.  Its old establishment is its product — books.  It’s still a big part of what they sell; they are the world’s largest bookstore.  But it has used its netroots to become their media.  When users post product or book reviews, they are the journalists and Amazon.com is the newspaper.  I agree with Daou that these three components are the key to the institutions of our future, be it in politics, business or anything else.  But they are morphing and merging faster than Daou predicted in 2005.

 

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I grew up in a small suburb of Rochester, New York called Brighton.  Brighton is a tightly knit community with a lot of hometown pride and yet when I looked at its Wikipedia page, I found it pretty thin.  Almost everyone I know who lives or has lived there loves the people, the history and the landscape but that was not really reflected in the Wikipedia page.   For that reason, I chose to evaluate the Brighton page and suggest some improvements.

For starters, the page is just not very comprehensive.  There is an outline of what Brighton is all about, but very little detail under any of the sub-headers with the exception of Demographics.  Though it’s good to have a thorough Demographics section, listing a lot of statistics without giving them a context that describes what the place is actually like doesn’t offer much insight.  The Demographics section should remain as is but the other sections should be supplemented.

Upstate New York has a lot of history to it and the current Wikipedia page does not expound upon that enough.  For example, Brighton’s first settlers were Native American; they belonged to the Seneca tribe, which is part of the Iroquois confederacy.  Brighton also houses Monroe County’s oldest landmark, the Stone Tolan House, built in 1792.  Originally specializing in grain farming, Brighton shifted to fruit, dairy and seeds in the mid-nineteenth century.  These are just a few parts of Brighton’s history that aren’t really laid out in the current Wikipedia page.

Brighton only has one school system and one high school so it’s a huge part of the town’s identity.  The school has long had the reputation of being one of the best public options in the country but its rankings have fluctuated over the years.  The page mentions this, and cites some dated rankings from when it was placed higher on Newsweek’s list.  But it doesn’t focus on the other aspects of the high school that are big parts of the town specifically sports.  Brighton has always had one of the best girl’s lacrosse teams in the country and it regularly sends its players to top lacrosse universities after graduation.  Other sports fluctuate more regularly but would still be worth mentioning; with only one high school, the sports teams are a big part of the town’s identity.  Interestingly, the Wikipedia page on Brighton High School is much more comprehensive than the one on the town itself.  Some of the information there should definitely be added to this page.

There is no section on the industry and commerce of Brighton.  Not so long ago, Rochester was home to Kodak, Xerox and Bausch & Lomb (Xerox has moved its headquarters) so many Brighton residents work for one of these three companies.  There is also a big medical community affiliated with the University of Rochester and many residents are practice in that field.  A section on industry and commerce is definitely necessary for any area’s Wikipedia page.

Sourcing for this page is good but thin, though there are not that many reputable sources to choose from.  The page gets its information from reliable sources but it should include greater detail (which some of the sources provide, it just hasn’t been added to the Wikipedia page).  The page is notably missing anything from the Democrat & Chronicle, Rochester’s local newspaper, a very reputable publication and a big part of the town of Brighton.

The article is largely written from a neutral point of view with one glaring exception, the education section.  Brighton Central School District’s ranking among the nation’s public schools, particularly in Newsweek’s annual poll has long been a source of pride especially because it has historically beaten its rival and neighbor Pittsford.  However, over the past decade or so, its ranking has slipped and the article talks about the old rankings without mentioning the more recent ones.

Readability is good; the information given is interesting and well written there just isn’t enough of it.  The one exception is the Demographics section, which is just a list of statistics that goes on too long.  But, more importantly, expanding on the other sections, which might give those statistics some context, is what this page really needs.

Formatting is standard Wikipedia and works well but the page could definitely use more illustrations.  Pictures of the town’s center, the landscape, a better picture of the high school or some of the historic landmarks are just a few suggestions.

I would recommend adding information from the following sources:

http://www.historicbrighton.org/

http://education.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-high-schools

http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/features/2011/americas-best-high-schools.html

http://www.bcsd.org

http://democratandchronicle.com

More illustrations can be added from here:

http://www.historicbrighton.org/architecture/

http://www.townofbrighton.org/DocumentView.aspx?DID=894

All of the sources already cited on the page should be drawn from in greater detail.

Here is my Wikipedia user page. 

Steven Levy’s “In The Plex” covers the evolution of Google from a dissertation idea at Stanford to a company that has influenced this country in an unprecedented way.  Levy explains the technology of search and the foundation of Google, PageRank, whereby a series of algorithms aggregates the data of the users and uses it to rank websites.  He also explains the flip side of the Google coin, the business model, which is based on advertising buying and selling with prices determined by auction.  He delves into Google’s famously unique culture of “engineers rule,” free food and company massages and notes the interesting culture shift that occurred when the company went public and the personnel went from middle class to decidedly not.  Levy describes how Google flourished by slowly seeping into hundreds of small markets; they have so many projects going that their failures are largely negligible from a business point of view.  He then turns to the privacy issues and the disaster in China and how the company was forced to look at the social implications of its technology, particularly in restrictive countries.  Of course, in the end, they decided to withdraw from the biggest emerging market in the world, an innovative solution although questionably sustainable.  Levy writes about Google’s current battles; its exponential success has triggered distrust among the public, the government and, of course, its tech rivals.

Levy’s examination of Google is impressively thorough and he generally does a good job of explaining the technical aspects of its product in a way that feels relevant, interesting and digestible for those of us without a computer science background.  But, his writing doesn’t appear objective; Levy seems like a huge Google fan and someone in awe of their technology, success and omnipresence.  That point of view leads him to harp on the amazing technology and unique management style and culture and gloss over problems within the company.  He hardly ever criticizes Page and Brin; though he acknowledges they aren’t perfect, he gives them a free pass because he’s deemed them technology and business wunderkinds.   (That’s not to say they aren’t but the lack of criticism for them throughout the book is suspicious).  Furthermore, he only touches on the seismic implications of a company who has infiltrated the lives of 218.5 million Americans.  He constantly reiterates Google’s various mantras:  What’s good for the public, the internet, the users…is good for Google but fails to really question whether or not that’s true.

Levy quotes one of the Google execs as imagining a world in which Google can predict the exact information you’re searching for before you finish typing your own thought.  So search results will come up for you to choose before you even have time to think about whether that’s what you’re looking for.  And even if it’s not, you’re thinking about it now.  Google would literally be finishing your thoughts.  The idea of a complex algorithm determining the actual thoughts of millions of people is pretty disturbing not to mention the implications if it could somehow be weighted or rigged, even in a small way.  For example, say ten people separately go to Google and start their search with the word “chicken.” One person is looking for chicken recipes, one is looking for information about chicken farms, another is looking for the book chicken little, etc.  Still, they each start by typing the word chicken and Google instantly shows results before they finish their search term.  Now, all of these people are seeing the same search results, the most popular ones for chicken.  Perhaps, nine of these people don’t pay attention and simply finish narrowing their search.  But one gets distracted and, pushing aside his or her original thought, clicks on one of the initial search results.  Suppose this happens over and over again as the thought processes of the searcher and the Google algorithm become harder to distinguish.  That could slowly squeeze out alternative points of view, in effect, the opposite of the long tail but for thought.

In the 2008 article Is Google Making Us Stupid? in The Atlantic, Nicholas Carr cites sociologist Daniel Bell who says there are certain “intellectual technologies” that cause humans to inevitably take on some of their qualities.   Carr also talks about the human brain and how malleable it is.  The Internet has certainly changed the way we think but is that a good thing? If we are all taking on qualities of the same technology, couldn’t that mean a decline in the diversification of thought?

The same thing is happening with Facebook.  Facebook wants to help you determine your likes, dislikes and activities by showing you what your friends are doing.  But, assuming your Facebook friends are people pretty similar to you isn’t following their lead going to discourage alternative ideas and perspectives? Essentially, it’s like being a Tea Party member and only tuning in to Fox News – you’ll never get the full story.  In that sense, what’s good for Google and Facebook may not be so good for the public after all.

Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody is essentially a list, with explanations and illustrative anecdotes, of the ways the Internet has changed the way we communicate with one another and thus upended the notion of a traditional organization.  The book encompasses the idea that groups of individuals, formerly latent, are now able to come together and harness power in a way that wasn’t possible before.  He illustrates how collective action no longer means literally marching in protest – in fact; the idea of a protest is in some cases obsolete now that groups of people can come together, circumvent the old institutions and get things done themselves.  He also discusses how the media has morphed into something that has yet to be defined because everyone can be a media outlet and there is no longer a ‘filter, then publish’ standard.  He cites the Power Law of participation to show how websites like Wikipedia and Meetup aggregate people and the knowledge they have as individuals and then, somewhat counter-intuitively, self-edit into a quality product.  Shirky uses the Birthday Puzzle and the Six Degrees rule to illustrate the Small World network, wherein small groups are densely connected and large groups are sparsely connected.  Essentially, we are all connected in closer ways than we might think – the Internet has just made it easier for us to discover and utilize the connections we may not otherwise have realized were there.   Overall, the book emphasizes how the Internet has awakened the power of the individual in ways that at best change and at worst threaten major institutions in existence today.

Here Comes Everybody covers a lot of ground in a relatively succinct way but there is no order to it.  He accurately identifies large shifts in social organizing, professional organizing, industry, etc. but he doesn’t tie them together well except when he reiterates themes he’s mentioned previously.  True, it’s hard to create a timeline of when each of these shifts first occurred but, for example, using the anecdotes as a way to set up a chronology would have made it easier to understand the arc of the evolution.  However, the anecdotes themselves are the best part of the book; Shirky is good at illustrating larger themes with interesting, relevant stories.  He also does a great job of at least mentioning every major effect social media has had in changing the landscape of communication.  I can’t think of anything he completely missed, which is impressive for a few hundred pages.

Shirky’s analysis of the new media (Chapter 3 – Everyone Is A Media Outlet) ties in well with Jeff Jarvis’ post on BuzzMachine last week But is it journalism? (Damnit) where he asks What Is Journalism? And, more importantly, Does It Even Matter? Jarvis and Shirky both point out that anyone can now publish information.  So, either everyone is a journalist or no one is and the profession is quickly becoming obsolete.  Which is true? What is journalism? Jarvis doesn’t know and neither do I.  But it seems like the industry needs to remake itself entirely if it wants to stay relevant.  As is obvious by their waning viewer/readership, the old guard of networks, newsweeklies and the like is doing a poor job of that.  That’s probably why, even as a former network TV journalist myself, I check Twitter for the latest earthquake updates and Wikipedia to read up on a presidential candidate.

Shirky spends some time on a concept he calls “the promise, the tool and the bargain,” something that can be applied to pre-Internet circumstances.  Now, though, the tool is the Internet and it has drastically changed the plausibility of the promise and thus the conditions of the bargain.  Shirky says that the promise has to convince an individual that a service will be useful, satisfying and effective not only to him/her but also to his/her peers.  So, social media is in part contingent upon the bandwagon effect.  In Noah J. Goldstein, Steve J. Martin and Robert B. Cialdini’s Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, the authors conduct a study at a hotel where half of the patrons have cards in their rooms encouraging them to recycle their towels to help protect the environment.  The other half have cards in their rooms encouraging them to recycle their towels for the environment and citing the fact that most people who had previously stayed in the room had opted to recycle.  Those whose cards had the latter message were more likely to recycle their towels.  This illustrates the bandwagon effect.  People are inclined to think and behave as others do.  So if the promise, in Shirky’s words, can convince an individual that others will like a service, he or she will be more likely to sign up thereby causing others to sign up for the same reason.  The Internet means that growth potential for the bandwagon effect is now exponential (see: Facebook) and, according to Metcalfe’s Law, more valuable (see: Facebook when it goes public).