Monday, October 26, 2009

From the telephone tree to eHow

Woo hoo! Finally someone that makes absolute and perfect sense to me. I knew when everyone discussing social and emerging media @sciwri09 kept quoting Clay Shirky that he must be important, but I never imagined that I'd find my head shaking in agreement throughout most of his 2008 book entitled Here Comes Everybody.

Throughout Here Comes Everybody, Shirky uses Internet mainstays such as MySpace, MeetUp, and Wikipedia to evaluate how the Internet impacts current - i.e. modern - group dynamics. His key premise - that "revolution doesn't happen when society adopts new technology, it happens when society adopts new behaviors" (Shirky, 160) - is actually quoted on the book's cover.

I was particularly intrigued by his discussion in Chapter 5 where he argues that despite the fact that everyone has access to the same tools to contribute to an online space equally, it has yet to lead to a "huge increase in equality of participation" (123).

According to Shirky, less than 2 percent of those who use Wikipedia ever contribute anything to the ecosystem yet millions derive information and resources from the site. The same could be said of Flickr or any of a number of mailing lists that I've joined over the course of my professional career to keep up on topics in journalism, public relations, science writing, etc. For example, whereas I might occasionally contribute a handful of photos to the public Flickr stream or a comment on a PR listserv, my contributions pale in comparison to the more active participants who are posting hundreds of photos at a time and/or actually initiating discussions on the listserv.

As Shirky states:"The most active contributor to a Wikipedia article, the most avid tagger of Flickr photos, and the most vocal participant in a mailing list all tend to be much more active than the median participant, so active in fact that any measure of 'average' participation becomes meaningless...As we get more weblogs, or more MySpace pages, or more YouTube videos, the gap between the material that gets the most attention and merely average attention will grow, as will the gap between average and median" (127).

Though Shirky didn't mention eHow, it seems an apt comparison because it encourages users to submit answers to questions/problems they're knowledgeable - or think they're knowledgeable - about. Some might argue that the site operates differently because writers are offered either a small stipend upfront or nothing, in exchange for a share of ad revenue, but I would disagree, to a point. Yes, eHow offers some writers a stipend - but it's small enough to be laughable given the submission requirements. Others with less popular posts/submissions may never see dime.

In a recent USA Today article, eHow founder Richard Rosenblatt credits his success with his decision to be a different type of publisher. Rather than guess what users want to read, Rosenblatt scours the Internet to gauge the most popular Web site links, clicks and searches. "We only make content we know there's a need for," he told USA Today writer Jefferson Graham.

According to stats posted in the USA Today article, attracts about 50 million users a month - more than, and even

The site works somewhat like Wikipedia. Anyone can post an article on eHow and see it on the Web site almost instantaneously. Where eHow differs from Wikipedia is that instead of letting other users edit and revise the content, though, a team of paid employees actually patrols eHow and removes roughly a quarter of unsolicited posts for reasons including inaccuracies.

Though I have rarely used eHow, I like the fact that at least 20 percent of the answers/articles are penned by real people who have some knowledge of the particular topic, whether it be how to apply wallpaper, make low-sodium smashed sweet potatoes or write an eHow article. It's peer-to-peer sharing rather than the talk-down approach often perpetuated by the mainstream media (no offense to my MM buddies, who really do push the powers-that-be to let them write above the seventh-grade reading level.) The style of writing is much like blog posts; succinct and conversational. The site's submission guidelines strongly suggest that writers keep their articles to between 400 and 600 words, so the content is generally heavy on facts instead of fancy writing. One critical downside is that, unlike Wikipedia, the articles are generally short on source and/or reference material. (This is why I don't look to eHow for health information.)

All in all, I think Shirky is right on in his final assessment that for those born before 1980, new technology will "always have a certain provisional quality...When a real, once-in-a-lifetime change comes along, we are at risk of regarding it as a fad, as with the grown-ups arguing over the pocket calculator in my local paper." Having been born in late-late 1978, I tend to live in both extremes - I remember life pre-Internet, yet my professional experiences working for TV, wire service and newspaper companies have exposed me to these new tools and often trained me to use them as they emerged. It's a strange line to straddle, but one that like Shirky I hope to maintain so that I don't ever believe that one ideologys about technology is absolute.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The public sphere at #sciwri09

One idea that I found particularly interesting is Poster's claim that "the internet is above all a decentralized communication system...Anyone hooked up to the Internet may initiate a call, send a message that he or she has composed to one or multiple recipients, and receive messages in return."

To me, one of the key problems w/ this argument is that this particular communications system is only accessible by those "hooked up to the Internet." While the number of people with no Web is at its lowest point in history - particularly in the West (developed countries) - those in the developing world generally don't fare nearly as well in terms of access. Since one of Habernas' central ideas is that the "quality of society depends on our capacity to communicate, to debate and discuss," the fact that only a fraction, albeit a large one, of the world's population can communicate via the Internet seems to indicate that the Internet does not in fact contribute a "new quality to the public sphere" in all areas of the world. It does in the United States, but not so much globally.

Boeder gets at this notion that the public sphere - much like the Internet - is transnational yet not global , but his argument begs the question whether the Internet is really a public sphere as defined by Habernas. To Habernas, the public sphere involved face-to-face discussions about the important issues of the day. He described it as "an area in social life where people can get together and freely discuss and identify societal problems, and through that discussion influence political action." (Wikipedia, public sphere) Boeder, on the other hand, argues that the public sphere is and has always been "more virtual: It's meaning lies in its abstraction...groups and individuals can indeed accomplish change by communicative action, and digital communications technology may empower them to do so."

I would argue, much like Poster, that the Internet is a modern-day public sphere for a number of reasons, chiefly that the "prevailing hierarchies of race, class and especially gender" don't matter. There is no social hierarchy on the Web. Instead, anyone can be anybody they want by merely stating that they are that gender, age, race, nationality, etc. Yes, power relations still exist in the sense that not everyone has equal access to the Internet and some only have access courtesy of a governmental or educational entity, but the general principle that everyone on the Internet is viewed as an equal seems to hold true.

This has become more apparent the past few days as I've been attending the annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers/Council for the Advancement of Science Writing in Austin. Probably 50 percent, maybe more, of the attendees have been tweeting the meeting. The rest have either refrained from entering the Twitter/FB/YouTube world, or like me, got away from home without their laptops and/or Twitter-enabled PDA's. What I find intriguing about the two groups is the fact that those who are tweeting from the meeting have formed an online community in which they're discussing good lectures, interesting points made by speakers, key ideas... they're helping shape future meetings and providing input on the current one for meeting planners/attendees and those who couldn't make it. In essence, they're using the communicative tool of the Internet to support and enable change, leaving the rest of the attendees essentially out of the process/conversation.

Another interesting trend I've noticed addresses Poster's argument that everyone is equal on the Internet. A cursory glance of those using the hashtag #sciwri09 definitely supports this theory. For example, unless the individual indicated their name/position/title in their Twitter profile, I didn't necessarily know before the conference whether someone I was following was a PhD astrophysicist or a fellow public information officer. @physicsdavid is but one example - and someone I urge you all to follow. (He participated in a great panel discussion on social media.)

Overall, I think that Poster was pretty much right on when he claimed that the Internet is a "decentralized communication system" but only to the point in which he's speaking about those with Internet access. Without Internet access, people have no way to enter into this modern-day public sphere and their lack of access/participation undoubtedly has at least a small implication on how our global society operates and will continue to operate.

That's all for now. Back to #sciwri09. See you all next week.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Objectivity/transparancy is impossible.

Karl Marx is not my friend. Granted, this is my first real exposure to Marx. Though I've heard a lot about his theories through the years, this is the first time I've ever actually sat down and read something by him. Needless to say, I now know why I've consciously avoided him all these years and I'm particularly glad to hear that I'm not the only newbie in the class.

Enough mindless ranting. I may be completely off-base here, but based on some crowd sourcing with classmates Aline McKenzie, Gary Hardee and some FB friends, it seems like Marx 's main argument is that classes, particularly lower classes, exist primarily because their membership accepts the class structure and buys into its existence. Rather than instigating a revolution by demanding equality, they accept the social order as life and continue plodding along. While Marx limits his discussion to earlier time periods, his argument could be compared to the status of women's rights pre-feminism.

Marx also argues that those who control the means of material production do the same for idea production. This can be seen in the section of Part B titled "Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas" when he states:
"The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force. The class which has hte means of material production at its disposal, has control at the same time over the means of mental production, so that thereby, generally speaking, the ideas of those who lack the means of mental production are subject to it."
I think what he's trying to say here is that the ruling class, whatever it may be, uses its status to control not only the media but also the message delivered by the media in order to prop up its own beliefs/ideology. Today, we'd blame it on the corporate owners and our modern-day trend of corporate ownership of media!

Hall makes a similar claim throughout "Encoding/Decoding. " Like Marx, he seems to argue that how someone identifies himself or herself influences how they interpret the information fed to them by the media. He also argues that because of this, the mainstream media plays into the very power structure that it so often claims to denounce.

Since the general public has essentially become the "media" in recent years, this leads me to assume that if Hall were writing the same article today, he would argue that Hall everyone with a Web site/Twitter account/FB page has a vested interest in society's power structure. Having written this piece before "we" became the media, though, Hall instead focuses his attention on how traditional broadcast media tries to meet a very utopian ideal that everything they present is completely transparent, ie. objective.

Hall argues that broadcasters fail miserably because they don't acknowledge that their ties to the ruling class (i.e. corporate owners) prevent them from being completely objective/transparent. They also fail because they're unable to recognize and address the fact that they cater to a specific audience of like-minded individuals rather than the general public they claim to serve. This last point can be seen when he states:
"More often broadcasters are concerned that the audience has failed to take the meaning as they - the broadcasters - intended. What they really mean to say is that viewers are not operating within the 'dominant' or 'preferred' code. Their ideal is 'perfectly transparent communication." Instead, what they have to confront is 'systematically distorted communication...' "
Now, I'm not as familiar with broadcast news outlets as I am with print ones, but the problems facing mainstream media today are hardly relegated to one particular medium. Newspapers, TV and radio stations, and magazines are all victim to the current climate in which a few individuals/corporations own multiple media outlets, giving them much more control over content than in years past when few people owned more than a single entity in the same market.

Today, several major corporations own television, radio and print media outlets in the same market - something almost unheard of when credentialed journalists weren't constantly battling community bloggers for scoops. Federal law does limit what an individual or individual corporation can own, so many mainstream media outlets have simply started sharing content with their competition rather than shutting their doors. For instance, the San Antonio Express-News and the Houston Chronicle share feature stories. And locally, the Dallas Morning News and Fort Worth Star-Telegram share features, reviews and even sports coverage. The editors of both papers report that it's purely a cost-saving measure, but it also limits diversity. This is particularly apparent in arts coverage, which used to involve multiple critics from multiple news. Though they often covered the same events, their varied insights and critiques served an important cultural role in that one person or organization wasn't either blessing or condemning a particular show/event/performance. Though KERA and D magazine have stepped up their arts coverage since the DMN and Star-Telegram began sharing content, the diversity of opinion that once existed is but a fraction of its former glory.

In addition, as much as I'd like to say that the owners of mainstream media outlets have little, if any, influence on content, I'd be lying if I said so. Despite assurances that the "newsroom makes all editorial decisions," every mainstream media organization has what it calls its "sacred cows," - the stories that the publisher/managing editor/owner thinks are worth coverage so they're assigned and printed with little regard to their actual news value.

These examples are meant to serve as evidence that aspects of both Marx and Hall's arguments remain in play today, much to my disappointment. As we move forward and media conglomeration continues to accelerate, I think the key point to remember is that we must recognize that mainstream media outlets do generally have a point of view and that the best recourse is to be a fan of multiple outlets - radio, television and print - preferably ones with different leanings.

Sunday, October 04, 2009

Pure data yet unquantifiable?

I know we're not supposed to delve too deeply into the structure or validity of these readings, but I have to say that I was extremely frustrated by Manovich's work. Not because of his arguments - which make perfect sense - but because of his use of the English language. Of the chapters we were asked to read, I had to read at least half the sentences two, three or even four times in order to have some vague idea what Manovich was talking about. The whole book was filled with extraneous words, misused words, bad grammar, etc. There are too many instances to mention here, but needless to say I found most of the text extremely frustrating. Did anyone else find themselves questioning whether an English-speaking editor ever glimpsed at this book??

Now that my beef with the author's grammar is out of the way, let's get on to the actual reading.

As so eloquently noted by Wikipedia, Manovich uses his 2001 book, The Language of New Media, to argue that there are five general principles underlying new media. These principles include:

  • Numerical representation: new media objects exist as data
  • Modularity: the different elements of new media exist independently
  • Automation: new media objects can be created and modified automatically
  • Variability: new media objects exist in multiple versions
  • Transcoding: a new media object can be converted into another format
I am particularly interested in his argument that new media objects are nothing more than data. He supports his argument by stating that
"All new media objects, whether created from scratch on computers or converted from analog media sources, are composed of digital code; they are numerical representations. This fact has two key consequences:
1. A new media object can be described formally (mathematically)...
2. A new media object is subject to algorithmic manipulation... we can automatically remove "noise" from a photograph,... In short, media becomes programmable." (27)
What strikes me about this is that if new media is nothing more than data and can be described mathematically, why is it that we have yet to come up with any good, solid way to quantify the successes of social media - arguably the newest form of new media?

As a member of the social media team at UT Southwestern Medical Center, I am constantly asked by colleagues and higher-ups how we can quantify whether any of our Tweets, FB posts and/or YouTube videos are driving traffic to our clinics and hospitals. My explanation that there's really no good way to do that has sufficed for now, but it's only a matter of time before that excuse runs its course. At this time, the best way to calculate the impact of our efforts is to ask every single patient who walks through the doors whether they came to UT Southwestern because of a tweet. Obviously, this is nothing short of impossible. Even if we were to use our electronic medical records system to track the response, it would still be incredibly challenging to garner enough response to make the effort worthwhile.

Luckily for my team, we're not the only ones facing this challenge. Public relations groups and companies worldwide are struggling to explain to clients that while investing in social media is a smart move, it's not necessarily one that's easily quantified in terms of success. Yes, it's possible to generate reports on traffic for particular Web sites and you can also gauge success by tracking the number of followers (Twitter), fans or friends (YouTube and Facebook) a particular company/group/cause enlists. However, trying to determine whether someone bought Huggies over Pampers because they saw a positive tweet is impossible without communicating directly with that particular consumer. So, here you have a medium that's supposedly pure data but whose results aren't quantifiable - at least in terms of social media.

A recent AdAge article touched on this discrepancy as the writer tried to explain how the advertising/public relations industry is trying to navigate the challenges posed in part by social media.

In this article, Tim Marklein, exec VP- measurement and strategy at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Weber Shandwick, said that "getting clients to understand the benefits of engagement over impressions is the biggest challenge agencies have."
"The beauty of engagement is that it's a deeper level of involvement with a brand than you had in the eyeball or impressions world," Mr. Marklein said in the same article. "People were comfortable knowing the value The Wall Street Journal had for whatever vertical they are in. But with the number of blogs out there and traditional media putting more emphasis on web properties, marketers are unsettled on the traditional things they believed in but now know they need new approaches to figure this out."
Another expert quoted in the article, Allyson Hugley, VP-insight creation at Publicis Groupe's MS&L Worldwide, said that the "rise of digital and social media has caused everyone to rethink their approach to measurement."

"We had to fine-tune our approach to measurement not as something that happens at the end of the discussion but from the beginning and throughout the process," Ms. Hugley said in the AdAge article.

Though social media isn't addressed in Manovich's book, I do wonder how he would explain this conundrum or whether he would simply call it irrelevant. After all, social media in itself clearly meets Manovich's definition of new media. My question is whether the manifestation of social media also meets his definition and can be quantified.