Archive for the 'politics' Category

What the Structure of Content Means for Context

My hero was perched high up in journalism. The writing he left behind is deep and broad. In so many ways, to read his writing is just to think and see more clearly.

Journalists, it seems to me, fancy themselves explainers. They are great synthesizers of the world—at length. It is a wonderful calling for those who choose it.

Print was a great boon to that self-image. Print may even have allowed it. It was a fine world, mostly.

But then came the interwebs and google and adversarial search, which foisted on journalists the great tyranny of pageviews. Click.

Suddenly, it seems, the world moves faster. Its pieces are smaller. Its harried citizens’ attentions are diced or crushed or pointed only inward. We are distracted.

Chasing after readers as only they know how, cheered along by SEOs, journalists and publishers of news are looking for content that fits the new us, distracted. It’s an arms race to the bottom.

But we are not at the bottom. Nor are we at the top. For the news doesn’t so simply fit us, as we don’t so simply fit the news or so thoroughly morph our minds to information or its forms or media. Were it only that simple!

*     *     *

The Least Publishable Unit is funny thing. The concept refers to a thing that’s in fact publishable—but only barely.

Here’s the contrasting picture, set up by Michael Scherer of TIME: “Once upon a time, the incentive of a print reporter at a major news organization was to create a comprehensive, incisive account of an event.” Again, that was their calling, enabled by print.

What matters now, however, is “the news nugget, the blurb, the linkable atom of information.” Why? Because “a click is a click, after all.” News “is increasingly no longer consumed in the context of a full article, or even a full accounting of an event, but rather as Twitter-sized feeds.”

Are the interwebs, ineluctably, making the news shallow and narrow? The answer is unequivocally yes and also no. We now have more choice, a vastly wider, and growing, array of options for publishing. Our once-private gossip, carried in spoken words from neighbor to neighbor, is now online, in text, inviting misinterpretation from strangers. This song is not about you.

As certain as humans are petty, narcissistic beings, so impressed with their own lives and confident in their supreme ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be shallow and narrow. Please don’t read it, unless its brevity is the soul of wit.

But so, too, as certain as humans are profound, altruistic beings, so inspired by the world around them and hopeful of their modest ability to take it all so seriously, the news will be deep and broad. Please do read it, unless its length is the apppetite of self-infatuation.

Here’s the nut: The news will also be deep and narrow. And it will be shallow and broad.

The interwebs give us those options too. Let’s not forget about them, or forget that they are different from their purer counterparts of longing and loathing.

*     *     *

I’ve been thinking about this for a while, inspired by @mthomps and this and other posts at newsless.org and by this post of @jayrosen_nyu‘s. Of course, the critical piece of the backdrop is a spectacular story by This American Life, called The Giant Pool of Money.

I agree with Jay that “Explanation leads to information, not the other way around.” I certainly agree that news often misses the forest for the trees. If I were a student at j-school, I’d want my profs showing me how to create omnibus stories like this. All writers—no, many writers!—pine for that awesome control over structure and narrative.

Cutting somewhat against the grain, however, I don’t think “Giant Pool of Money” should be the aim of all our ambitions. Which is certainly not to belittle it. Quite to the contrary, its status as masterwork is what makes it really, really hard for us to emulate. That’s asking too much—being a “national explainer” is too tough. Even the brightest among us, in memoriam, perform such dazzling feats of synthesis only occasionally. That’s not good enough for those of us who like important, responsible, thoughtful news all the time. And even This American Life’s story came after the disaster. Warning of the dangers of wildly complex securities and derivatives before they come crashing down is an even taller order—on the level of the GAO, for instance.

Here’s my chart illustrating why “national explainer” is really hard.

newsmatrix

“Deep” and “shallow”? “Broad” and “narrow”? Huh? We’re talking scope here, folks.

“The Giant Pool of Money,” in the lower-right quadrant, is “broad” in its subject and “deep” in its container.

When something is “broad” in subject, it engages a complex, multi-faceted, sweeping subject. It’s a work of synthesis, taking multiple angles on and bridging between and weaving different constituent subjects. It aims to be comprehensive—the stuff of the glory days, however real or imagined they may be, of print journalism.

When something is “deep” in its container, there’s something a bit more prosaic going on. Essentially, each discrete work is thorough unto itself. One document—whether it’s text, audio, or video—aims to say more or less all there is to be said about its subject—to connect all the dots in one place. If there’s very much to be said about a subject, as in “The Giant Pool of Money,” the document will be long.

Consider the alternative: shallow containers. They’re not an insult! When we say something is “shallow” in its container, we mean simply that one document doesn’t attempt to say all there is to be said about a subject. Josh Marshall’s reporting, especially on the US Attorney Scandal, is a high-profile example that bloggers invented.

“We have kind of broken free of the model of discrete articles that have a beginning and end,” Marshall said, talking to the New York Times about the Polk Award. “Instead, there are an ongoing series of dispatches.”

Each dispatch isn’t comprehensive. They catch the reader up on past reporting with a few links to previous posts. Or they start off with a link or two to others’ posts or articles, promising to pick up the issue where they left off. Then they take a deep look at a small set of questions, teasing out contradictions, and end up with a set of conclusions or a new, more pointed set of questions for the next post.

The point is that the containers are small—shallow in the sense that they’re often only exposing a few dots at a time and not necessarily always trying to connect them all up as they go along. These posts don’t feign omniscience the way some, though certainly not all, traditional journalistic pieces do; they admit doubt and highlight confusion. The goal is to isolate facts, issues, and relationships, not always synthesize them.

But a critical characteristic of the form is that Josh Marshall’s dispatches on fired USAs compose a series. Each post extends previous ones or adds more to the same canvas. They’re all part of some bigger picture; they’re cumulative. And that is why, taken together, they amount to journalism that’s broad in subject. The bits of content may be fractured over author, space, and perspective, but they’re one work—one “text” in the fancy sense. Josh Marshall’s infusion of himself and his joys and outrages into his blog do the human work of pulling together the moral logic that invites readers to be patient while he unfolds the political logic one small piece at a time.

The last of the three interesting quadrants contains Wikipedia. Here again, “narrow” is not an insult. More than anyone, Wikipedians know “What Wikipedia Is Not.” It’s not for original research or reporting. It’s not for opinion or analysis. It’s for documenting these things. It’s domain is facts—but not nearly all facts. It’s not a directory or a guidebook or a textbook. Wikipedia works because it factors out, as much as possible, the kind of human reason that we colloquially call “wisdom” or “insight.”

As Farhad Manjoo explains in his Slate piece, “perspective and style don’t scale.” So you may “learn much more from David Foster Wallace’s appreciation of the star athlete than from the Wikipedia entry” on Roger Federer, but “writing is hard even for the world’s greatest wordsmiths.” Metaphorical reasoning, subtle thought, subjective analysis, and artful synthesis—these are happily banned from Wikipedia.

For Wikipedia, NPOV is hard enough to enforce. Disputes over NPOV erupt every day, probably many times a day. Multiple people collaborating, mostly strangers, often anonymous, are woefully inefficient writers of an encyclopedia. Revert wars abound. So does self-promotion. Vandalism is rampant. All manner of muddy, crummy, and scattered contributions insist their way into Wikipedia, every day, thousands upon thousands of times a day. There is a popular myth, too, that Wikipedia is a flat organization that reaches consensus among co-equal members. In fact, Wikipedia has a wildly complex hierarchy of admins, mediators, and an arbitration committee. It’s not hard to get lost extraordinarily quickly poking around the various administrative, advisory, and community groups, like the now-inactive Esperanza.

And yet, as Manjoo writes, the Wikipedia whose fluid articles we know so well “works amazingly well.” I hope that’s not controversial. Wikipedia is a profoundly inspiring testament to human knowledge, warts and all. Hierarchies haven’t vanished, squabbles have multiplied, and all the messiness may be incredibly salient to the average person who pays a bit of attention to Wikipedia. Aside from the inventing a technology that makes cleaning up vandalism cheaper than to creating it, Wikipedia’s central success is discovering both that its subjects must be wickedly narrow and that wickedly narrow articles are wildly informative. As we’ve found with twitter, sometimes constraints set us free.

*     *     *

It’s extraordinarily important to remember the virtues of the deep and narrow and the shallow and broad. The Politico’s snack-sized news may be cheaper than the New Yorker’s longer fare. But the Politico can’t compete on price with Wikipedia or on community with Josh Marshall. It turns out, as well, that there’s more than one way to put an explanation on offer to the world. The fact that we associate the role of the “great expainer” with the long-form narrative, contra the Least Publishable Unit, grows out of the fact that we overlook hybrid forms.

Josh Marshall’s won’t be the last shallow and broad news. Storymaps and the Las Vegas Sun’s topic page on water are experiments. Wikipedia won’t be the last we hear of narrow and deep news and content.

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Super Simple Behavioral Advertising Made Easy

So simple it hurts, from Yahoo by way of the New York Times.

The gist? The seemingly simple ability to remember the higher-value pages a user views lets you serve that user those higher-value ads on all pages. Tada!

So travel pages often fetch the highest rates from advertisers. Let’s say a user checks out some travel articles about Nicaragua and surfing, where you serve some awesome ad from some awesome hotel chain. Then the user reads about President Obama. It turns out—by virtue of the great good blessings of technology—that you can still serve the same awesome hotel ad, not some barrel-bottom trash, even though, all else equal, advertisers don’t care so much for the attention of users who care about civics.

Who knew, right?

Quick Thought on the New Likeness of Politics and News

Here’s a PDF to check out: Digital Government through Social Networks: A Natural Alliance?

If you’re crunched for time or lazy as can be, here’s the punchline (emphasis mine for those really, really in hurry):

For the past four years, the authors have been working on (as principle designer and as advisers) on a software platform designed to tap the “participatory surplus” of the citizenry. But, our experience and research has shown that to accomplish the aims of such a system, it is not enough simply to put citizens together into a large, open, virtual space. A social networking system designed for participatory governance needs to mirror some of the structure of the government itself, and needs to provide a range of structured ways by which the government and the citizens can affect one another.

Maybe that seems obvious, or maybe not. I happen to think it’s the whole enchilada. If you know the deep structure that underlies the activity or practice on top of which you want to build a business or a project, you’re halfway to knowing what your business or project should look like and how it should generally work.

That’s why Blaser, Weinberger, and Trippi identify what they call the “four reality principles” that “govern every campaign.” They identify viewpoints (aka issues), money, votes, and careers as the fundamentals. I’m not sure that’s correct, but getting to four is pretty good if it is.

Note that is is also why, thinking about journalism and the news, Dave Winer writes posts like this one, in which he identifies “sources, facts, ideas, opinions, [and] readers” as the fundamental “constituent components.” I tried to do the same thing here, here, and here.

So, is it the case that P, where P follows the structure of the tried and true SAT analogy?

news : journalism :: politics : governance

It’s the fundamental constituent components, stupid.

What we talk about when we talk about community news

I hate to bicker with someone who’s obviously on the good guys’ team, but I also find that being clear, and only as clear as the facts allow, is an pretty full-on insatiable desire of mine.

And thus I submit that using a term like “intimacy” doesn’t work as a term to describe what geography-based community news sites need to work or what they need to aim to achieve. I further submit that this isn’t just an academic exercise. It matters because folks into the future of news have a tough enough time relating the importance of what we’re talking about. It’s easy for curmudgeons to brush off “intimacy” because it rings of hype to them; it fits neatly into their mindset of techno-utopians offering false promises.

I’m not nit-picking words here, either, or being uncharitable. I don’t take intimacy to mean something super deep or profound like love or friendship or piety. Following @lisawilliams, I take it to mean something like the what the members of an Elks lodge share. They all know one another. They all share a pretty serious mission. Leaving aside the standard language used by fraternal organizations—”inculcation” and “indoctrination”—members of the Elks share a significantly thicker bond than neighbors who vote in the same mayoral race, cheer for the same sports teams, suffer the same air pollution, enjoy the same parks, or whose kids go to the same school.

Members of a geography-based news community don’t need to know one another. They just need to believe that there’s a pretty good chance that they know someone who knows them both. Or they need to believe that there’s a pretty good chance that they might want to know one another. (These beliefs probably don’t even need to be justified or true, in the epistemic jargon.)

Members of a geography-based community need only trust and have some regard for one another. I suspect that this trust and regard require more than a thin explanation like liberal cosmopolitanism’s basic respect for persons. There’s got to be a neighborly connection—a sense of common civic purpose and a sense of shared space, resources, and destiny. But I do not believe that this trust and regard require a thick explanation as implied by a notion of “intimacy.”

Obstreperous Minnesota

Every once in a while—and maybe more often than I’d like to admit—I re-read Clay Shirky. Today, I re-read “Ontology Is Overrated.”

And today, I’m ready to disagree with it around the margins.

On fortune telling. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will sometimes mis-predict the future, as when we infer that some text about Dresden is also about East Germany and will be forever. But, no, that doesn’t have to be a very strong reason for us not to have some lightweight ontology that then inferred something about a city and its country. We can just change the ontology when the Berlin Wall falls. It’s much easier than re-shelving books, after all; it’s just rewriting a little OWL.

On mind reading. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will lose some signal—or increase entropy—when we mistake the degree to which users agree and mistakenly collapse categories. And, yes, it might be generally true about the world that we tend to “underestimate the loss from erasing difference of expression” and “overestimate loss from the lack of a thesaurus.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and for two reasons.

First, why can’t we just get our estimations tuned? I’d think that the presumption would be that we could at least give a go and, otherwise, that the burden of demonstrating that we just cannot for some really deep reason falls on Shirky.

Second, we don’t actually need to collapse categories; we just need to build web services that recognize synonymy—and don’t shove them down our users’ throats. I take it to be a fact about the world that there are a non-trivial number of people in the world for whom ‘film’ and ‘movies’ and ‘cinema’ are just about perfect synonyms. At the risk of revealing some pretty embarrassing philistinism, I offer that I’m one of them, and I want my web service to let me know that I might care about this thing called ‘cinema’ when I show an interest in ‘film’ or ‘movies.’ I agree with Shirky that we can do this based solely on the fact that “tag overlap is in the system” while “the tag semantics are in the users” only. But why not also make put the semantics in the machine? Ultimately, both are amenable to probabilistic logic.

Google showed it is the very best at serving us information when we know we care about something fuzzy and obscure—like “obstreperous minnesota.” I don’t think Shirky would dispute this, but it’s important to bear in mind that we also want our web services to serve us really well when we don’t know we care about something (see especially Daniel Tunkelang on HCIR (@dtunkelang)). That something might be fuzzy or specific, obscure or popular, subject to disagreement or perfectly unambiguous.

People and organizations tend to be unambiguous. No one says this fine fellow Clay Shirky (@cshirky) is actually Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu). That would be such a strange statement that many people wouldn’t even understand it in order to declare it false. No one says the National Basketball Association means the National Football League them. Or if someone were to say that J.P. Morgan is the same company as Morgan Stanley, we could correct him and explain how they’re similar but not identical.

Some facts about people and organization can be unambiguous some of the time, too. Someone could argue that President Obama’s profession is sports, but we could correct her and explain how it’s actually politics, which maybe sometimes works metaphorically like sports. That doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t like basketball or that no one will ever talk about him in the context of basketball. There may be more than a few contexts in which many people think it makes little sense to think of him as a politician, like when he’s playing a game of pick-up ball. But I think we can infer pretty well ex ante that it makes lots of sense to think of Obama as a politician when he’s giving a big televised speech, signing legislation, or meeting with foreign leaders. After all, what’s the likelihood that Silvio Berlusconi or Hu Jintao would let himself get schooled on the court? Context isn’t always that dependent.

That’s one small step for Google, one giant leap for text-audio convergence

So you’ve seen the cult classic youtube video “The Machine Is Us/ing Us.”

It’s mostly about the wonders of hypertext—that it is digital and therefore dymanic. You can remix it, link to it, etc.

But form and content can be separated, and XML was designed to improve on HTML for that reason. That way, the data can be exported, free of constraints.

Google’s now embarked on a mission to free the speech data locked up in youtube videos.

There’s no indication that it’ll publish transcripts, which super too bad, but it’s indexing them and making them searchable. Soon enough every word spoken on youtube will be orders of magntitude more easily located, integrated, and re-integrated, pushed and pulled, aggregated and unbundled.

Consider a few simple innovations borne of such information.

Tag clouds, for instance, of what the english-speaking world is saying every day. If you take such a snapshot every day for a year and animate them, then you get a twisting, turning, winding stream of our hopes and fears, charms and gripes.

Clusters, for another, of videos with similar topics or sentiments. Memetracking could move conversations away from the email-like reply system in youtube to being something more organic and less narrowly linear.

Advertisements, for a last, of a contextual nature, tailored to fit the video without having to rely on human-added metadata.

Wait, announcements, for a very last, of an automated kind. If you create a persistent search of ‘obama pig,’ grab the rss feed, and push it into twitter, then you’re informing the world when your fave presidential candidate says something funny.

Pictures! to Accompany Words! about brands!

I won’t rehearse what I wrote before about brands and advertisers and content-producers and so forth. I just want to add a picture I’ve been sketching out in my head over the past few days.

Here’s roughly how the triangle of publishing-advertising-consumer, for instance, has worked and works now:

And here’s roughly how the triangle of publishing-advertising-consumer will come to look, to the extent that “advertising” and “consuming” are still relevant terms:

Other than the color of the magic sparkles—going from green to purple—what’s changed? Well, the direction of the arrows around them, of course!

Companies, says my interpretation of Haque, will be listening to consumers beliefs about their products. Consumers will have cause to air those beliefs, in a conversation among themselves, the publisher, and the company as well, because a publisher will “seed” that conversation and host it.

I don’t know how this will work beyond obvious examples of product reviews. But there are other possibilities that come to mind. What if an earnest politician paid an editorialist to start a conversation about some policy in order to elicit his constituents’ beliefs about it?

I may be pushing the limits of reasonability here, but what if a government paid journalists to write about its war-planning because it actually wanted its citizens’ opinions about it?

The point is to imagine a world in which it doesn’t pay to keep secrets. The point is to imagine a world in which, on the contrary, openness pays and listening pays because talking fails.


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