I read a book: Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age

Until recently, Clay Shirky was best known as the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. The book  was widely praised (seriously, Boing Boing calls it a “masterpiece”) and is still referenced  by social media strategist/expert/guru types as a must-read for anyone looking to explore the social dynamics that drive the use of technology, which at the time (and even now, to a certain extent) is not what drives most conversation about the internet and social media in particular.

Rather than focusing the catalyst of online social behavior on specific technologies  (i.e. what makes Facebook so popular?) Shirky argued that social tools facilitates common group behavior, conversation and social interaction. At the time, the beginning of Facebook’s online dominance and in the midst of growing fascination and panic about social media from the mainstream press. Shirky presented a reasoned, articulate and well-researched argument that the idea of “crowdsourcing” was not a new idea, but actually rooted in common, even traditional social interaction. The Internet just made that interaction happen more widely and more rapidly.

If you talk to any social media/internet  “expert” or “enthusiast” these days, this perspective is seen as common knowledge, but without Shirky’s well-presented theory and research to bolster this theory it wouldn’t have taken root.

In 2010, you’d think that this argument wouldn’t need repeating or clarification, but as traditional media continues to evolve and digital use continues to grow and become more ubiquitous, the panic of social theorists and mainstream media commentators continues unabated. The continuing debate of whether the Internet makes you smarter or more stupid seems to have a new chapter each day, but in Cognitive Surplus, Shirky’s latest book, he does add fuel to that fire, but also offers a modified version of his Here Comes Everybody thesis: The Internet has given us the tools to create, publish and share media  faster, cheaper and with more people than ever before

Shirky’s revised thesis is the reason that I think Cognitive Surplus is a must-read (there’s that term again) for media professionals in every field.

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Planet Money: NPR’s digital stepchild?

So I wasplanet-money-200x200 late to the game regarding the giant kerfuffle between NPR reporter Adam Davidson and Congressional Oversight Panel chairperson Elizabeth Warren. If you didn’t hear it, here it is, but to make a long story short, on the May 8th production of Planet Money, Davidson and Warren sparred heatedly about the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). It didn’t get personal, but it was pretty damn close.

Some PM listeners were offended by the aggressive tack that Davidson used to question his guest. It did get a bit FOX news at times and Davidson did cross the line a couple of times into condescension (would he have been so cavalier with a male guest?) Overall, it was a rare misstep from what is normally an informative and even-keeled production.

Alicia Shepherd, the NPR ombudsman, weighed in after an investigation of the production:

Planet Money is a relatively new venture for NPR, and the network is still experimenting with the format. “Planet Money has been an extraordinarily successful, popular project, with all it does,” said Uri Berliner, deputy national editor who edits Planet Money. “If you look at the way it has built an audience that responds and is engaged, it is pretty much without precedent at NPR.”

Here at TLF we are both fans of Planet Money, as a production, and as an effective model for traditional media outlets to engage listeners via social media projects. So it dismayed me (K.) to read the following:

Planet Money’s podcast does not have the same degree of radio production or intense editing and supervision as NPR’s regular shows.

In my months of listening to Planet Money, it did not occur to me that the podcast was not subject to the same level of editorial scrutiny as any other NPR broadcast. Honestly, I never thought of PM as anything less than an NPR show, albeit a show that was not being aired on terrestrial radio. Davidson was appropriately repentant, and  even admitted that he chose to edit the interview in a way that highlighted its most confrontational moments. But it did trouble me that Davidson, for whatever reason felt like Planet Money was a good place to check his journalistic integrity at the door. Because, you know, it’s only a podcast.

The admission of NPR’s ombudsman that the organization sees the podcast as a “lesser entity” of sorts is a bit disheartening for me as a listener, because I afforded the podcast producers the same level of trust, despite its digital roots.

In general, I do think NPR handled the situation well, by making the entire interview available for listeners, but I do feel like this is a bit of a blow for Planet Money‘s journalistic reputation and for the reputation of online-only news podcasts to be respected as real journalism, rather than just being a digital playground for amateurs. I keep making the argument that it’s about the content, not the medium, but if NPR doesn’t see Planet Money as “real NPR” then why should I?

#Amazonfail, the Google Books Settlement, and the importance of open access for preserving cultural heritage: In honor of National Library Week

Over the past two years for National Library Week, I have posted about the importance of openness of publication and accessibility of government information and the limitations of relying on Google. Free Government Information, Public.Resource.org, OpentheGovernment (PDF),  and others, are continuing to do a great job of promoting openness in regards to government (and scholarly) information. Unfortunately, most people are not aware of the great usefulness and importance of government information. But they do know about Amazon, Google, and YouTube, with many among us using them everyday. What would many do to find information if they stopped working?

The #Amazonfail censorship/ glitch / griefing situation last weekend shows the power of publics working together and the organic nature of much of tagging and movementsourcing; people will often be able to create a simple way of communicating information with each other (the first person to use the #Amazonfail tag on twitter used it because it worked as a folksonomy of the situation and it spiralled from there because it was effective). But it also shows the difficulty for all when most rely on one source — Amazon — for information about bestsellers and similar items.

Siva Vaidhyanathan says that #Amazonfail is more than just about crowdsourcing and user tagging, it is about “metadata, cataloging, books, Web commerce, and justice.” A commenter quoted in the New York Times states that “We have to now keep a more diligent eye on Amazon and how they handle the world’s cultural heritage.”

Have we really placed Amazon (and similar companies) in charge of our cultural heritage? Perhaps not directly, but many people have high expectations for these companies’ ability to make information accessible –even if this does not take into account most of the aspects of information literacy.

But libraries differ from these for-profit companies in how they organize information and why they exist. Most libraries are not-profit and their goal is to serve some type of public (what librarians call a patron group). Libraries are generally built on similar organizational systems to each other– such as Library of Congress or Dewey classification, but libraries are intentionally duplicative in their collections. Not only do libraries often have the same item in their collections, but through interlibrary loan, libraries are tied together in a larger network.  And unlike Amazon and Google, even if a library’s online catalog wasn’t working, a user could still use the organizational system to find useful information.

But another major difference is that libraries — and even twitter — directly rely on people for the system to work, not a algorithm, as with Amazon and Google. As we’ve seen with Googlebombing and likely with #Amazonfail, it is possible for an algorithm to be fooled. Or provide inaccurate information.

We rely on Google quite openly, even though sometimes the information is not right. For example, as of when this post is posted, the top result when googling “four stages of tornadoes” gives the blunt answer of “u suck balls” from wiki.answers. This can’t possibly anywhere close to the correct answer to this scientific question, but it is the one Google’s algorithm is choosing!

In my previous posts, I mentioned how what Google has promised from Google Books isn’t what is actually available in many cases. However, some are expecting this settlement between two private/non-public entities to somehow also be a settlement that protects the interests of the public, though there are many that disagree, including Siva Vaidhyanathan, some vehemently. There is a group of professors attempting to intervene in the Google settlement on behalf of the public:

“The proposed settlement will make Google the only company in the world with a license to use orphaned works.  No other company will be able to buy a similar license because, outside the context of the proposed class-action settlement in this case, there is no one from whom to buy such a license….The settling parties plot a cartel in orphaned works.

…  Because exclusive rights in orphaned works do not serve the ultimate purpose of copyright, the public domain has a claim to free, fair use of orphaned works.

We have the right to intervene to present the public domain’s claim to free, fair use of orphaned works.  None of the present parties will present our claim….”

And what about YouTube? While there is much government information on YouTube, what happens if the company goes out of business? Free Government Information ponders whether

agencies that rely on YouTube as a channel of communication keeping copies of the videos they post there? Would they make them available through another channel? What if … libraries had copies?

Relying on private companies — like Google, like YouTube, like West — to give us access to government information — leaves us without options if these access points disappear.

Presently under challenge is access to government-funded scientific information by H.R. 801 – The Fair Copyright in Research Works Act introduced by Rep. John Conyers. If enacted, the bill would reverse the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Public Access Policy regarding public access to taxpayer-funded research and make it impossible for other federal agencies to put similar policies into place. Publicly funded medical research is the metadata of our lives — we don’t see it, but it affects our health and how we live our lives.

Many oppose this bill, including Harvard University, which has written a letter opposing this legislation:

The NIH public access policy has meant that all Americans have access to the important biomedical research results that they have funded through NIH grants. Some 3,000 articles in the life sciences are added to this invaluable public resource each month because of the NIH policy, and one million visitors a month use the site to take advantage of these research papers. The policy respects copyright law and the valuable work of scholarly publishers.

[Instead of passing this bill], Congress should broaden the mandate to other agencies, by passing the Federal Research Public Access Act first introduced in 2006. Doing so would increase transparency of government and of the research that it funds, and provide the widest availability of research results to the citizens who funded it.

Google, Amazon, and the publishing industry — are highly valuable and useful tools and services — but we should not allow closed proprietary systems to determine how we address information that belongs entirely or in part to the public — like the public domain, government publications, and publicly funded studies. And even when “public” information is not at issue, we need to become more wary on relying solely on these systems.

Multiple systems, locations, and means of access are essential to preserve our cultural heritage — as Free Government Information discusses in regards to government information, yet applicable to so much more:

… no single digital archive or repository can ever be as secure and safe as multiple archives, libraries, and repositories. … The nature of digital information is that it can easily be corrupted, altered, lost, or destroyed. It can become unreadable or unusable without constant attention. Relying on any single entity is simply not as safe as relying on multiple organizations. … But this is about more than redundant copies. It is also about relying on different organizations because they have different funding sources, different constituencies, different technologies, and different collections. No single digital collection can ever be as safe as multiple, reliable digital collections.

Kill Social Media! Kill it Dead!

burning-house1I know this will sound crazy coming from someone who spends 12-14 hours a day working and socializing online in social media (including writing for this social media focused-blog) but, boy I am really ready to see this sucker die.

In fact, I’ve personally declared 2009 as The Year of Killing Social Media (make a note of it) because it’s really time to put a fork in “social media” as a term, a concept and a professional field.

Bogged down by meaningless buzzwords and riddled with experts, social media is in danger of becoming just as tedious, as insular and as conventional as the much derided MSM, in just a fraction of the time.

Don’t believe me? Start a Twitter account, then tell me how long it takes before a bunch of  “social media expert” types start following you. I’ll guess about half a day. And it just gets boring. At some point, there are only so many tweets about transparency, about social media optimization, about the “semantic web” before you just stop caring.

This blog post at fanboy.com calls it “social media deafness,” and yeah, it’s happened to me. With all of the industry talk about social media, the enthusiasm about it, the potential of online communications to really democratize media is being lost in the noise of social media hype and navel gazing.

Don’t get me wrong, I do still love this stuff; I still read Mashable every day, I still talk about this stuff with co-workers and geeky friends, I still ogle my Google Analytics dashboard everyday and update my Twitter/FB status regularly. Hell, I am still blogging. It’s my job to know about this stuff, to do this stuff, to find out what the so-called experts think.

But I’m also tired. I’m tired of reading about the rules of blogging, about who’s really working their “personal branding opportunities,” on how to replicate the social media success of the Obama campaign to sell widgets or raise money for homeless puppies (note to all: unless your widget/puppy comes with Barack Obama, don’t even bother trying.)

I’m sick of the discussion of how to leverage the influence of social media for immediate profits, without any discussion about actually creating a dialogue with your audience. That’s just too scary for some folks.

If the future of social media means sitting around all day talking about one’s “retweetability”, then bump that noise: let’s burn that house down now. Or perhaps it will choke on its own hype, the way the dot-com boom did in the late 90’s/early 00’s.

Right now, “social media” is shiny and new for the general population that recently discovered Facebook and Twitter; it means executives are starting to take notice, at least superficially, and want to slap up a Facebook page and watch the money roll in.

What I am looking forward to is the day social media is fully and seamlessly integrated into the traditional media ecosystem; it’s already happening, for good or ill. This is the year we’ll see many print papers move to an online-only format, and adopt user-generated content into their mix. Millions of people already go online as their main source for information. “Social” media is becoming the media.

It can’t happen soon enough for me. But the novelty needs to wear off of social media, the shine needs to fade so that fads and buzzwords can settle into action and progress, and we’ll see media professionals adopt these tools as a regular part of their work. It will happen, mostly out of necessity.

I think the future is bright, once the social media hype runs its course, I am just eager for someone to pull the trigger so that we can watch the rebirth happen.

Whitehouse.gov and our first social media presidency

white-house-pictureLike a lot of geeky people, I spent much of Inauguration Day (and night) online, riveted to the live streaming feed on CNN and also following the commentary of friends and strangers on Facebook. It was well noted that the transition of whitehouse.gov to reflect the Obama administration occured at noon, before Barack Obama even finished taking the oath of office.  

Of course we should have expected nothing less from our online-savvy President’s communication team. Social media was such a core part of the success of his presidential campaign and continues to be a  key element of his communications strategy. Check out this first post on the Whitehouse.gov blog from Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media (lucky guy):

Millions of Americans have powered President Obama’s journey to the White House, many taking advantage of the internet to play a role in shaping our country’s future. WhiteHouse.gov is just the beginning of the new administration’s efforts to expand and deepen this online engagement.

medium_whscreenshotAnd it seems off to a good start, with this seamless transition of the web site and the launch of the new blog.  According to Phillips,  the new Whitehouse.gov plans to focus its communication strategy around three priorities: communication, transparancy and engagement, which should be the three crucial priorities  for any organization’s social media initiatives.

I’m interested to see how all of this will pan out in the next four years, when the Obama presidency will surely face new and underheard of challenges. Social media can be a boon as well as a burden to an organization’s communications when it comes to crisis management and damage control. We’re in the exciting honeymoon phase of  the Obama presidency now; how the White House’s  new media team handles its first major crisis will be the truest test of the strength of this new approach to government online communications. 

Also, I just have to note that thus far, the Whitehouse.gov blog is still looking pretty Web 1.0 in its approach; it’s essentially just a glorified press release archive, and I’m not seeing much opportunity for authentic dialogue. Even so, this statement from the first blog post is encouraging:

Like the transition website and the campaign’s before that, this online community will continue to be a work in progress as we develop new features and content for you. So thanks in advance for your patience and for your feedback.

A work in progress. That’s what most online communities are, even the bottom-up communities that emerge organically by necessity and/or mutual enthusiasm (say for example, most online fan communities.)  

But for top-down online communities, organizations looking to create and engage an online community built on two-way communication, it’s an uphill battle, particularly if the organization has a history of ignoring or supressing public dialogue.  You don’t get more traditional top-down communications than the White House; there’s a lot of communication strategy that may need to be unlearned here.

But it’s what most organizations who are experimenting with social media are attempting to reconcile in their own strategies, and whitehouse.gov is wise to acknowledge the potential roadbumps early, and in a very public way.

Blogging May Not Be Dead But Live Journal Could Be

alivejournal2Uh-oh. According to Mashable, LiveJournal, of blogging’s old warhorses, is in some big financial trouble:

The company has reportedly laid off 20 of 28 employees, “leaving only a handful of finance and operations workers.”

As the Mashable article implies, MySpace and Facebook currently dominate when it comes to social media, and personal blogging is on the wane, for the most part. Most non-fandom oriented bloggers I know abandoned LJ for Blogger or TypePad years ago.

I joined LJ back in 1999-2000, mostly to follow specific fan communities that made a home there at the time, but even then I did my personal blogging on Blogger, and only kept up my LJ account to follow “Friends Only” accounts and communities like Oh No They Didn’t or Fandom Wank, when it was housed there. But blogging – and fandom activity – has certainly changed, much as it did when many e-mail discussion groups were abandoned for LJ in the early ’00’s.

LJ’s impending demise has been a long time in coming, I believe, considering the steady account erosion that started several years ago, and it certainly may have some correlation to the fans that abandoned LJ in the wake of “Strikethough/Boldthrough”, the primarily fan-community driven backlash was spurred by LiveJournal’s parent company, Six Apart, suspending user accounts deemed sexually explicit or “harmful to children.” Since a lot of fan-fiction writing communities (particularly the Harry Potter fanfic writers) were among the few that remained on LJ after the blogging masses moved on, Strikethrough was kind of the death knell for LJ, when those communities eventually moved on to open-source alternatives like GreatestJournal, insanejournal, JournalFen, etc., especially after Six Apart sold LJ to Russian software company SUP.

There’s a lot of contention about Six Apart/SUP and how the companies dealt with some of their most dedicated consumers – fangirls, for the most part. But regardless of that, with the fluid migration of social media audiences and fan communities being a constant, I think the eventual decline of LJ was inevitable.

MIT’s Comparative Media Studies Conference — Futures of Entertainment 3

While we can’t make it to every great conference held at MIT by the cutting-edge Comparative Media Studies program, they have put on another great Futures of Entertainment 3 conference (discussion of Futures of Entertainment 2). And upcoming this year is Media in Transition 6, which we are planning to attend.

Interestingly, the Conferenceis first is being released on video through MIT’s homegrown TechTV site and then will be released through other means — but you can add it to your ipod. Surprisingly, the podcasts are listed as having the copyright status of “all rights reserved” — yet embedding is not only allowed, but listed as an option, Therefore, it seems as if the conference is being released more like a Creative Commons attribution-sharealike license. An unanswered question — if the conference is copyrighted, who owns the copyright? The speakers? MIT — of the whole or only of the compilation? If you would rather read about the conference, the liveblogging summaries are also available.