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Blogging the Void - Return to Index


Book Review: We the Media

Dan Gillmor says the moment everything changed for him was when he noticed a small button at the bottom of a web page that said "edit this page". Unlike most typical technophiles, Gillmor is concerned foremost with the human side of things - not the technology behind the button, but the impact it could have on society. For this reason, he is well-suited to write a synopsis of the technological breakthroughs that have allowed ordinary citizens to stand up to "Big Media" and become their own information outlets. Although written in 2004, We the Media is a good account of the revolution of citizen-journalism that has occurred through blogs and other devices. Gillmor is a journalist himself, but he believes the ordinary blogger has the ability to make journalism better, breaking it out of the mold of institutionalism and corporate governance. His idea of a new "renaissance" would be a "truly informed citizenry". Gillmor might be seen as a traitor to journalism, or its savior. Either way, the book is generally loved by bloggers, not to mention that is free on the web. Gillmor makes the point that technology is "relentless and unstoppable", touching upon Metcalfe's law to show that the web is becoming more valuable as more users take part. The more numerous its "nodes" are the richer its supply of information and abilities will be. The value of the web will inevitably overrule mass media sources like the TV and newspaper. However, Gillmor does not imagine the web being able to replace live TV for coverage of events, citing bandwidth costs. But the explosion of YouTube following the book's writing proves this case is weak. YouTube Live! is not a far-off concept. Nevertheless, Gillmor has written a book that bloggers can find empowering yet not totally self-indulgent. Gillmor is aware of the pitfalls of news and information coming from the bottom-up. But he believes the dismantling of authoritarian mass-media control of the news is truly democracy-in-action. I share his notion that we might be at the tip of a renaissance. In the same way the value of the web increases with its involvement, the value of society and government could grow as ordinary citizens continue to dramatically take part in ways impossible without an editable web. As Gillmor concedes:
Only one thing is certain: we'll all be astounded by what's to come.


The 95 Theses of The Cluetrain Manifesto

In 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg Castle, continuing a powerful debate that eventually became known as the Protestant Revolution. In 2000, a group of tech/marketing guys from Silicon Valley believed they were the ones witnessing a profound transformation. Except this revolution had nothing to do with penance or the Pope, but everything to do with Big Business, which at the end of the Millennium, is the true religion of the masses. Like Luther did 500 years before, these techies, who called their movement "Cluetrain", decided to take their new, updated 95 Theses to the High-Priests and Priestesses of the business world. Instead of the church door, they posted their ideas on the world wide web for all to discuss. And this was precisely their point: thanks to the Internet, human conversations now defy traditional notions of time and space and are linking people and ideas all over the world. And most importantly, these conversations are affecting how people act, what they buy. And this is the "Cluetrain Manifesto" - businesses in the internet age must accept that markets are conversations. If they want to survive, they must listen and join in. But the ideas in The Cluetrain Manifesto can applied way beyond business. I will note two of the 95 Theses that are especially impacting. Number 6:

The Internet is enabling conversations among human beings that were simply not possible in the era of mass media.

Yes. Statements like these are what keep a lowly blogger like myself going. Gone are the days in which mass media controlled our political conversations by giving us five bullet-points to discuss around the water cooler at work. Humans can now find practically ANY conversation on the internet and join in. From a business perspective, this means that companies selling products to the masses will now have to answer to an online debate about their products and business practices. The days of the silent, blind consumer are gone. Before people buy it, they talk about it. Imagine this applied to politics and government: before we vote it, we talk about. Nonsense, you say! Political discussions have occurred for thousands of years before the stupid internet came about. Yes, they did. But were they totally free conversations? Could anyone listen to them? More importantly, could anyone join in at any time? Not exactly. True freedom of expression - the ability to add your opinion to a global conservation with the click of a keyboard - is new phenomenon in its most embryonic stages. Events like the YouTube debates are the beginning stages of life for the idea of real democracy. No longer will the corporate media, which is in the Church of Big Business, be the gatekeepers of our political discourse. When it comes to Big Business, we will all be agnostics. This brings us to Theses 91:

Our allegiance is to ourselves - our friends, our new allies and acquaintances, even our sparring partners. Companies that have no part in this world, also have no future.

Ouch! Again, imagine this from a political perspective and in the future. Are Americans going to continue to divide their support between two political parties when their national conversation transcends the red/blue confines put in place by the corporate media? I'll let you field that one. Leave a comment. That is the essence of this revolution, isn't it?


The Interplay of Influence

http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/17520000/17528719.JPGI just had the honor of reading a book published in 1988 called The Interplay of Influence: Mass Media and Their Publics in News, Advertising, Politics by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. It is possible that a more updated version was meant to reach my eyes, but alas, it didn't. Nevertheless, my time-traveling exercise has given me some interesting perspective on today's issues of mass media manipulation in politics and advertising (and vice and versa). The bottom-line is that things are not dramatically different then they were in 1988. I know, we have blogs and YouTube debates in 2007. Now it's We, the Media, right? Unfortunately, no. The web and blogs, etc. contribute to the diversity of news, including forcing out stories that otherwise would be buried. The term "mass media" now has an entirely different meaning. But people still get news from the news. Regardless of what people ask in their YouTube debate question video, CNN is still the one deciding if it goes on the air. It is the CNN/YouTube debate, afterall. In this sense, the news is working in the same way it has worked since the advent of modern mass communication. Jamieson breaks down just what "news" really is:
News is what reporters, editors, and producers decide is news. [It] is selected, even created by newspeople. It claims that news is not just 'the facts' but also rhetoric- messages influencing how readers and viewers perceive reality. News is gathered, written, edited, produced, and disseminated by human beings who are part of organizations and who have beliefs and values. Organizations, such as networks, have functions and goals as well as relationships to government, to regulatory agencies, to advertisers, and to the vast audiences they seek to attract. These beliefs, values, functions, and interests are bound to influence the messages these networks publish and broadcast.
In this sense, news is no different now than it was in 1988. Cable news is all about rhetoric. They've got it down pat. Look at Fox News. Jamieson wonders if Fox is becoming "another network" in 1986. Yikes. Unfortunately, rhetoric-heavy, highly-corporate-influenced, government-connected news sources like Fox are still the source of "the news" for millions of Americans. PBS did an interesting study here. And corporate consolidation of networks continues. CNN, although not as bad as Fox, is still the perfect example of what Jamieson was describing above. Nevertheless, I commend them for the YouTube debates. Much like they was the first 24 hour news channel, CNN has broken new ground again by recognizing the democratic potential of video uploading websites. But imagine a YouTube debate without the "interplay of influence" of a large media network like CNN. Could it be possible? Time will tell.

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Book Review: Unleashing the Ideavirus

In 2000, at the peak of the dot-com bubble, Seth Godin wrote Unleashing the Ideavirus, a self-described "manifesto" supposed to revolutionize marketing tactics in the Internet age. The thesis of the book is that ideas are the central commodity being traded now, and that, in order to be successful, ideas must be marketed by people, not at people. In the online idea market, Godin suggests, the consumer is also the producer. Rather than staring passively at the television, Consumer 2.0 is active and influential. Godin considers Amazon's user-rated review system and mentions the top-rated reviewer at the time, a retired librarian who had written 500 book reviews. The same person, Harriet Klausner, remains the top-rated Amazon reviewer today, now with over 15,000 reviews under her belt. The point is that the Web is made up of millions of Harriet Klausners, all willing to market your product or idea for you. The secret to success, according to the book, is allowing these "sneezers", as Godin calls them, to infect the rest of the world with your idea. This, of course, is not an entirely new concept, Godin admits. But writing in the late 90s, Godin was astute in measuring the impact of the Internet in the development of a new consumer identity. The book is an interesting trip back to when the Web first seemed new and exciting. It's funny to hear Godin discuss start-ups like "the Google.com search engine" (like what Bush uses) or referrals.com (didn't survive). With the Internet now entering a second phase of appearing new and exciting, Godin's advice may be more useful this time around:
...the future belongs to marketers who establish a foundation and process where interested people can market to each other. Ignite consumer networks and get out of the way and let them talk.
In the first phase, the Internet was new and exciting simply because it existed. But Web 2.0 is different. It's new and exciting because people have figured out how to be a real part of it. Web 1.0 was all about websites like Pets.com, where you were supposed to go and spend money. But that was all you could really do, and that's why sites like that failed. Sites like Amazon.com survived because visitors didn't just spend money but also contributed to the conversation and influenced sales. In Web 2.0, it's all about the active network. The larger and more active the network is, the more value the site has. This is why a free site like Facebook is the ultimate ideavirus. So what happens when the ultimate ideavirus sells its members down the river to big corporations by trying to make them all into little, corporate ideaviruses? Just today, Facebook announced a new advertising strategy:

Facebook Puts Users to Work Pitching Products

http://www.dech.co.uk/images/posts/logos/facebook_logo_240.gifHas Facebook not learned anything? The whole point of Web 2.0 is that we won't play this game anymore. Sure, Facebook may be a "foundation and process where people can market to each other", but they forgot to part about getting out of the way. Do they think they can skirt the rules of marketing 2.0 and exploit their network of users with artificial ideaviruses? This insults the core ideavirus that is Facebook. It works because people can communicate for free and link to each other just for the Hell of it. When a viral craze like Zombies sweeps through Facebook, it does so simply because it is pointless and fun. So because I have zombies on my page, they think I'm also going to spread the word about coca-cola's latest gimmick? It's not going to work, Facebook. I am canceling my account right now. How's that for an ideavirus?

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Book Review: News that Matters

The exhaustive experiments and surveying conducted by Shanto Iyengar and Donald Kinder in the late 1970s and early to mid 1980s conclude that television news certainly impacts public opinion - not telling people what to think, but telling them what to think about. Inyengar and Kinder mention the work of Walter Lippman, who in the 1920s concluded that mass media such as newspapers had the power to set agendas. In News that Matters, the newspaper has been replaced as the most trusted source of news by something much more captivating and convincing: television. As Inyengar and Kinder explain, television sets the order of priorities for the American public comfortably seated in front of the tube every night. In effect, it tells Americans what to care about. News that Matters introduces the concept of "priming", the notion that television news dictates to its viewers the standards by which to judge government policies and political leaders. Overall, it's not a pretty picture. But it's a clear one. Television news takes advantage of the fact that humans are inherently weak when it comes to knowing what is going on in the world at all times. To be able to do so, as the book explains, would be "paralysis". However, our reliance on television news has made us paralytic in another way: we are unable to think outside the boundaries the news sets for us. The lead story on the unemployment crisis, for example, makes us believe unemployment is what matters the most. In this regard, television news decides the news that matters. The problem is, it often doesn't matter. And this couldn't be more true today. Despite the emergence of blogs and YouTube, television still influences what Americans concern themselves with, whether it's Paris Hilton or Bin Laden. Cable news channels recycle the same twenty minutes of news for 24 hours a day. The major networks, now combined with various other media sources into giant corporations, still have the authoritarian control over what we talk about it. I believe they actually go further than that and actually pick our political candidates for us as well. Using certain polls, conducted by their own corporations, corporate news sources rule out certain candidates and prop up others. As Inyengar and Kinder conclude, "the health and vitality of any democratic government depends in part on the wisdom of ordinary citizens". News that Matters does a great service by highlighting the enormous influence of authoritarian television news on American society. Is there a light at the end of the tunnel? I believe there is. The increased and dynamic use of the internet is slowly breaking us free from the parameters set for us. The ordinary citizen is beginning to realize he or she is not just, as Lippman says, a "deaf spectator", but an important, functional component of democracy whose consciousness, not the news, is what matters. I hope so. If we allow it to become another version of television, the consequences could be fatal to our already fragile democracy. News that Matters leaves us with this warning:
Television is now an authority virtually without peer. Near the close of the twentieth century, in the shadow of Orwell's 1984, it would be both naive and irresponsible to pretend that such an authority could ever be neutral
Yikes. If you look at the state of television news today, it seems this warning must have gone unheard. I guess it didn't make the news.