CAT | Blogging
Is print dead? This has been constantly asked, re-asked and over-analysed during the last few years with the expansion of current media developments. However, focusing on the traditional newspaper’s death sentence precludes us from examining the real and very exciting changes that have taken place – and are currently taking place – in the news industry as a whole; that is, how newspapers and news sites are interacting with social media creating news that is centred on your photographs, your videos, and perhaps most importantly, your opinions.
Newspapers and news sites have responded to demands with a new age of digital, personalised and unedited news. Whilst sites are exploring different angles, the overall agenda is the same; giving us an enhanced experience of the news where we all take part. The BBC News website’s ‘Have your say’ and ‘Your pictures and stories’ sections are just a couple of examples amongst countless. CNN uses ‘iReport’ – a user-generated site where ‘the way people like you report the news’ – influencing the way that CCN itself reports the news. And perhaps most groundbreaking is the ‘Guardian Zeitgeist’, a news feed application that literally captures the spirit of the times, pulling in stories from the main site according to ‘social signals’ (i.e. reader trends and mentions on Twitter). The day’s ‘Zeitgeistiness’ is calculated at midnight each day and is frozen in the archives for posterity. We create each day’s Zeitgeist; the news has been democratised.
Since news is now presented as something to which we should respond, actively contribute, and shape, the traditional client-editor relationship in the media has been overhauled. We now expect to have a voice in the news – to play a part in the debate – whereas in the ‘Letters’ section in traditional newspapers, the editor decides which of our opinions are worth publishing. The power has shifted from the editor to us; our opinions have become part of the news and the way it is told.
The relationship between news sites and social media is therefore ever-changing and increasingly significant. Recent turmoil has proved this: the London riots showed the BBC to be getting much of their information from Twitter, enabling journalists to collate news from many different places simultaneously; and Twitter is particularly useful in covering the Middle Eastern conflicts, as Syria for example have banned journalists. Twitter has become a new Reuters. Does this make the journalist redundant by simply using information from tweets? News sites certainly no longer appear to be the front line for news. However, we perhaps need journalists more than ever to sift through the copious amounts of information; not only creating a story, but actually providing an analysis.
If sources from ‘non-professionals’ have become the norm, can we trust the news? What are people’s Twitter agendas? There is no regulating body – or even necessarily an incentive – to maintain a reputable journalistic standards on Twitter. In which case, perhaps we should be increasingly sceptical of the news the more democratised it becomes. Whilst we assume news sites check their sources, these are becoming increasingly difficult to track down with the anonymity of the internet. Or, alternatively, should we potentially regard tweets as having less of an agenda than journalists’ articles, allowing Twitter and its counterparts to provide an oasis of democratisation in the agenda-driven world of journalism?
If recent years have indeed seen the democratisation of the news, can we say that this is for the best? Inevitably, new media can be used for good and bad, but where can the media go from here? Whilst having space to voice our opinions is undeniably significant, is there perhaps too much equality, and have we lost a sense of what is important news and what is self-important rambling?
As the court trial over his extradition to Sweden kicked off last week, and with Panorama exploring his leadership and motivations, again WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has found himself amongst the headlines. His controversial actions have provoked a strong public response; his supporters proclaim the innate value of liberating information while his opponents believe that information that could have a negative (or even catastrophic) effect should remain private.
So do we judge the morality of an action on the action itself, or on the consequences it could bring? If we take the view that WikiLeaks should not be publishing anything that could consequently damage national security or interfere with international diplomacy, they are suddenly burdened with the huge responsibility of deciding what information is and is not in the public interest, which is the very role of the organisations they are trying to decentralise. On the other hand, if we believe that WikiLeaks should be truly indiscriminate, then it should have no political agenda and expose all types of documents in all types of organisations, including human rights campaigns and democratic movements, as well as personal information on individuals. Can we really accept this as a moral obligation?
Let’s leave the philosophy debate aside for now. WikiLeaks’ leaking of information is just one example of vigilante-style use of the internet. One of the most intriguing aspects of this trend is that a code of ethics seems to have arisen among groups who use the internet in this way. A loose-knit group of hackers who operate under the name ‘Anonymous’ have been responsible for a number of controversial internet campaigns, but they tend to adhere to a shared philosophy, known as the hacker ethic. Central to this are the principles of information sharing and decentralisation of authority, so the fact that they support Julian Assange should come as no surprise.
Many of Anonymous’ attack targets are organisations that they perceive to threaten civil liberties in some way – yet another demonstration of their subjective ethical code. Not only did they declare war on the Church of Scientology for alleged censorship and exploitation, they mobilised in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian protesters calling for democracy. However, not all of their causes could be considered so noble. Attacks against YouTube (for the removal of music videos) and security firm HBGary Federal (for claiming to have infiltrated Anonymous) received widespread criticism, as have the group’s methods of attack, which tend to involve obtaining control of a website and then posting offensive material.
There are fears that the ‘collaborative people power’ of the internet will soon come to an end. Studies show that more and more activity online is spent on fewer and fewer websites, so that a small number of huge websites dominate most traffic. Even though some of these sites, such as Facebook, focus on user-created content, the information is controlled and restricted by the owners of the site. This means that the very characteristics of the web which made it so popular (openness, access to unlimited and uncensored information, freedom of interaction) could potentially be limited by large corporations and governments. With proposals for a US ‘kill-switch’ which could be used to shut off parts of the internet, censorship is becoming more and more of an issue as governments recognise the power of the web as a vehicle for political mobilisation.
Young people are often labelled apathetic, and older generations reminisce about the days of student political activism. Whilst you may not agree with their causes or methods, there is no denying that ‘hacktivists’ such as Anonymous represent a form of cyber-rebellion that is the digital manifestation of the spirit of revolution about which people are nostalgic. In fact, because so many organisations are heavily dependent on computerised systems, even individual hacktivists who gain control of these systems could cause a devastating amount of damage and have a much more direct impact than their street-protesting counterparts. Moreover, the ability of the internet to connect like-minded people means that hacktivists with a common goal can group together and acquire an unprecedented amount of power. Perhaps this is why authority figures appear to feel so threatened.
Glancing through the myriad predictions which are spat out every January (“The 37.5 Biggest Things in Digital in 2011!”), an interesting trend emerges – namely, counter-trends. 2011, say some commentators, will be the year that people turn off. The arduous quest – for information, for connectivity and for communication – has reached a kind of saturation point. People have had enough.
That is not to say that there isn’t a wealth of new, exciting tech waiting to invade our collective consciousness in 2011. Near Field Communication (NFC) looks set to make a big impression this year. The wireless data exchange technology inside Oyster cards is rumoured to be a feature of the iPhone 5, with Google Android and RIM also announcing that they will be releasing NFC-enabled phones in 2011. By this time next year, tapping your phone will probably be the standard way of negotiating such troublesome physical obstacles as train barriers, hotel doors and venue bouncers. Likewise 3D printing is deemed so important by one tech blog that it is afforded its very own 2011 preview list.
But despite (and partly because of) all these exciting advances, along with the falling price and rising availability of 2010’s technologies, another pattern is appearing. Influential agency JWT identify ‘digital downtime’ as one of their 100 Things to Watch in 2011. Their prediction that such breaks from the technology will be commonplace in an attempt to ‘foster creativity’ seems to unfairly pre-suppose that ‘digital uptime’ (a real feature of 2010) somehow stifles creativity. But you can see the point – there are already signs of a growing nostalgia for traditional practices (personal service, knitting) and things (vinyl, physical books).
Likewise, there has been a decline in the fervour for transparency which characterised the politics of those most unlikely political bedfellows, Barack Obama and Boris Johnson. Remove from your mind the image of those two fellows sharing a bed for a moment, and you will realise that developments in 2010 have changed people’s attitudes to the distribution of information. As the WikiLeaks saga developed at the end of 2010, perceptions of Julian Assange’s role became more ambiguous. Leaving aside security concerns around the disclosure of some pieces of communication, international diplomacy operates on the basis that some things should remain private. Similarly, Vince Cable received criticism when his comments about Rupert Murdoch were revealed, but there was also a feeling that private conversations between politicians and their constituents should remain just that: private.
And this, of course, leads us to Facebook. The controversy over its privacy settings has raised serious concerns about the ways in which personal data is collected, stored and shared on the internet. David Fincher’s excellent The Social Network interestingly highlighted Mark Zuckerberg’s ideological belief in the sharing of information – this belief is not, it turns out, shared by everyone. Facebook’s complicated web of privacy settings is seen by many as pernicious and exploitative. It has led some users to look to alternatives. Elsewhere, as previously discussed in this blog, concerns have been raised about location services.
All of this presents a challenge to all those involved in shaping the way that people use the internet. For me the answer can be found not in switching off completely, but in two other new developments. Firstly, the establishment of clearer and firmer rules on how users are ‘used’ by the big players – and secondly the acquisition of more power and independence by those users.
Social media has already destroyed the traditional one-way relationship between brands and consumers, between broadcasters and audiences. Now, with the coalition government championing a big society (whatever your views on that), 2011 will see the growth of businesses, outlets and schemes set up by the people, for the people. WhipCar, the p2p car sharing network, is a good example. Freecycle, which allows users to donate unwanted items rather than discard them, is another. Meanwhile Made.com and Naked Wines have enjoyed great initial success by taking consumers direct to manufacturers – cutting out the middlemen and bringing down prices. With developments like these, 2011 promises to be an exciting year for digital.
At the risk of sounding like an Edwardian school boy, I think Twitter is magic. I mean this in the supernatural sense (fitting, as it was Halloween last weekend). The mysteries of the internet have always struck me as evidence of occult intervention somewhere - some particularly intuitive websites send my eyes scouring the page for evidence of pentagons – but Twitter really takes the biscuit.
Twitter gives words the sort of power that has traditionally been associated with witchcraft. When a tweeter writes a particular formula, their words create a genuine effect. However, ancient runes have been replaced by a very modern symbol: the hashtag. This tool bridges the divide between words that communicate and words that perform an action. The hashtag may have originated as a way for participants to organize material on Twitter, but it has developed real power.
When Livestrong wanted to raise awareness of cancer, they tweeted the words #beatcancer. Each time the hashtag was consequently repeated, PayPal and SWAGG donated $0.05 to cancer charities. Suddenly, words didn’t just say something, they did it. Formerly only magic users have been attributed the power to use words to such tangible effect.
It could be that this unprecedented power is a symptom of larger scale decline. For a time the internet was fertile ground for writers. Text-only blogs abounded as technological restrictions limited communication to text. Now however, many brands use text merely as a gateway into a multimedia experience. Thus we come to another use of the hashtag. Recently, an Orange campaign offered to record certain hashtagged tweets as songs. In doing so, the campaign reduced text to the status of prototype; not quite the real thing.
Of course, there are benefits to an increasingly visual online experience. Key examples are increased usability and ease of access. Firstly, in contrast to a dense paragraph of text, video narratives require less initial commitment from the user. Thus, in using visual media, designers and developers are reacting to the requirements of casual web users. Another instance of these benefits is something we at Open CC have developed with the Whitechapel Gallery. We have enriched an exhibition with additional text, images and film which are accessible to smart phones. This is enabled by QR Codes – 2D barcodes which, when scanned, circumnavigate the need for a textual URL. The aim is to provide the user with engaging content immediately – without the requirement to type an address on a fiddly keypad interface. The reward, without the effort.
All this goes some way to explaining why, when I read media blogs, I am often struck by the apparent consensus that text will soon be obsolete. The future, we are told, lies in digital rich media – brimming with images, videos and interaction. We have seen that whilst text is used increasingly as a tool for linking one source to another (rather than as a reliable documenter itself), it may soon become redundant even for this purpose. Perhaps, then, the magical power of the hashtag is not only a triumph, but a swansong.
Most of you will be familiar with Foursquare, which allows its users to check-in at various places around town, and share favourite locations with their friends in real-time, while they’re already at the pub, the park or the gig. The point is to connect friends and places with one another – a bit of ‘planned serendipity’, the buzzwords so frequently tossed around by the architects of this and similar services.
Facebook has decided to enter the location-sharing social media market. The company has unveiled a new feature it calls ‘Places’, which functions a little like Foursquare, but with more emphasis on sharing the quality and stories related to particular experiences, in particular places, with particular people, particularly. The first concern which normally emerges with applications like Foursquare and Facebook Places is, naturally, privacy: Is my every location being broadcast to complete strangers? Will I be digitally cased by prospective thieves who know when I’m home and when I am not? Or, rather than being held up at a late-night meeting in lieu of attending her exhibition opening, will my girlfriend accidentally find out that I’m in the pub with my mates through an automatic check-in notification? Don’t let the specificity of the last example mislead you – these are just a few hypotheticals to meditate on (but for the record, the late-night meeting DID take place).
Nevertheless, there’s no question that over-sharing in social media is the result of both the products and services themselves – and how they’re used. Shortly after Foursquare’s release, a campaign called ‘Please Rob Me’ launched. This site did nothing more than aggregate publicly shared check-ins upon its launch, but its name and the design of the website (for would-be robbers and thieves to see who isn’t home) illustratrated its real purpose: to educate people on some of the more dangerous effects of location-sharing.
Point taken. But defenders of services like Foursquare and the newly-minted Facebook Places also are right to point out that the privacy risk is generally based on how these services are used – and the way users configure their privacy settings. Besides, is it any more dangerous than telling someone you have a 9-5 job in town? Or updating your Facebook status to let people know you’re on holiday in Spain? In some ways, no – although the ability for Facebook users to check their friends in without their permission is one issue centred on by critics.
While discussion of these location-sharing services is generally dominated by privacy and the dos-and-don’ts of trumpeting one’s every movement (bowel included), it was actually the words “planned serendipity” used briefly in the marketing video demonstration of Facebook Places which struck me. In fact, they bothered me. Why, beyond the fact of their wilfil self-contradiction, did they bother me? The short answer: because serendipity is fun as it is.
Serendipity is one of the things in life I tend to embrace. How often is it the case that the best people you meet, the most interesting facts, the most engaging events, the most enjoyable and fulfilling jobs you undertake, are happened upon by a seemingly random series of events? Serendipity has also served me well when it hasn’t produced the most satisfying or enjoyable outcomes. All the accidental wrong-turns and (so it seems at the time) dead-ends I’ve encountered in my life, figuratively and often literally, were enriching experiences because (I’d like to think) I’ve learned from them and grew as a result. Failure, which is almost never planned for, is one of the most enriching experiences one can have – even if it may not seem like that at the time.
Colleagues and friends of mine claim they use Foursquare more often than not to see what places to avoid: a certain ex has checked in to the Starbucks down the street; a work colleague – to whom a report is owed – just checked in to the restaurant at which you were planning to eat; and so forth. The downside of being constantly aware of the location of your ‘friends’ (in Facebook parlance – not to be confused with actual friends, obviously) might be the impact this has on your choice to seek out or avoid certain spaces.
Contrary to the intent of its architects, Foursquare – when used like this – does exactly the opposite of what it originally set out to do: open the doors to all kinds of new experiences, and connect them through a variety of overlapping networks. Facebook Places attempts to emphasize the attachment of stories and experiences to various locations – like a running review of existence. The service hasn’t landed in the UK yet so it’s a bit early to tell whether or not it will be used in a more interesting way than comparable predecessors.
A close friend of mine who teaches adult education in Canada is trying to use Foursquare as a force for good, with fairly positive results. His students – all of whom have BlackBerrys, iPhones and Android devices – receive points each time they check in at a museum or art gallery around town, but they can only collect and exchange those points – largely in the form of Starbucks gift certificates – by volunteering a five to ten minute presentation on an exhibit or feature piece at one of these places. Many of his students do in fact visit these places – and use Foursquare to see if their friends are checking (in and) out (of) the same spots as well.
It’s not quite planned serendipity, but as a result of his little experiment the number of half-open bloodshot eyes visible during the early morning portion of his class has dropped by over half. Like myself, he hopes that someone will produce an application that brings serendipity back to location-sharing social media products – kind of like if stumbleupon, Facebook and Foursquare had a baby. Facebook Places is in the early stages of its conception – perhaps this is the child we’ve been looking for.
More nuggets from the blogs…
Twitter to show photos and videos in the stream: Twitter experimenting with inline multimedia, but ‘Tweet Media’ setting was only an experiment. http://mashable.com/2010/07/26/tweet-media/
What do you get from participating?: Understanding the benefit of joining online communities. http://flux.futurelab.org.uk/2010/07/28/what-do-you-get-from-participating/
Infographic – The Social Landscape: A graphic showing each social website and how it is rated with marketing objectives. http://www.dontwasteyourtime.co.uk/social-network/infographic-the-social-landscape/
Spreading the message – Growth opportunities in text: Text messaging is still the universal lowest common denominator in communication using a phone other than voice. http://www.msearchgroove.com/2010/07/28/guest-column-spreading-the-message-why-the-major-growth-opportunities-are-still-in-text-messaging/
Hidden YouTube game: New ‘secret’ addition to YouTube allows users to play game while videos load. http://www.socialtimes.com/2010/07/youtube-easter-egg-play-snake-while-you-watch/
We at Open CC like to keep abreast of the latest developments in our sector – and one of the ways in which we do this is to keep a keen eye on some blogs that we like.
We have an internal newsletter which features the headlines from these blogs.
We thought it might be nice to share this newsletter with the readers of our own blog.
Simple as that. Enjoy!
Apple’s 4th-generation iPhone revealed: Gizmodo has revealed images of the new iPhone after one of Apple’s engineers left it in a pub. http://www.engadget.com/2010/04/19/apples-4th-generation-iphone-revealed/
LinkedIn makes new connections: Following Twitter’s announcement last week, LinkedIn announces new sponsored groups ad model. http://www.adweek.com/aw/content_display/news/client/e3i3a5406892176b1a13aebfc0791db3154
Ingenious: Free music if you talk about it on Facebook or Twitter: Tweet-for-Track and FBConnect-to-Track mean artists can encourage their fans to spread the word about them in exchange for free music. http://www.wired.com/epicenter/2010/04/ingenious-free-music-if-you-talk-about-it-on-facebook-or-twitter/#ixzz0leC1eEaY
Twitter’s @Anywhere service goes live: This service allows third-party websites to integrate Twitter functionality and content. http://www.nma.co.uk/news/twitter%E2%80%99s-@anywhere-service-goes-live/3012339.article
iPhone and iPod applications for schools: Useful applications for teachers and schools, ranging from an app for managing timetables to a curious ‘PhoneBook’. http://www.teachingnews.co.uk/2010/02/iphone-and-ipod-apps-for-schools/