May 30, 2009

Twitter: Cons and… pros?

Posted in Business & technology, Global discourse, Public discourse tagged , , , , at 1:20 pm by Maggie Clark

It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of Twitter. I have no account, and despite the number of friends who “tweet” with vigour, no desire to acquire one. If I can conveniently ride out this latest bandwagon to the next, Google Wave, I’ll consider myself very lucky.

From this vantage point, it’s very easy to seize upon any awful news about Twitter and twist it to further my stance. Which is what I was quick to do, when I learned Ashton Kutcher and wife Demi Moore (with 3 million Twitter followers between them) tweeted last week that they would have to leave the site in protest if Twitter pursued plans to make a reality TV show out of the website.

Yes, you read that right: Twitter has in many ways usurped the role of paparazzi, allowing celebrities more direct control over their interaction with fans (so we can all follow the tedious minutiae of their day-to-day lives) — and even leading celebrities to do the unthinkable: post pictures of themselves in less than flattering lights. They’ve become, in other words, almost human.

But, hey, there’s no money in that sort of social convergence, right? So why not turn that nigh-on-egalitarian collective into citizen paparazzi, pitting twitterers against one another in an epic competition to stalk celebrities through the website? Wouldn’t that be fun?!

Do I have a deep and abiding concern for Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore? No. Do I find it typical of the application to progress actively in directions that yield financial gain at the expense of the community itself (and the welfare of members therein)? Yes.

Heaven knows, Twitter wouldn’t be the first website to invade people’s privacy. One need look no further than the origins of Facebook — the initial website a vicious Harvard version of Hot-or-Not? entitled “Facemash,” drawing from the official photos of students at the university and tasking site visitors to decide which student in a pair was hotter than the other — to realize that, even in our purported age of enlightenment, technological advancements don’t always emerge from altruistic roots.

So yes, many a time the social benefit needs to be generated by those participating therein. But there’s fighting tendencies towards elitism and exclusion in supposedly egalitarian circles, and then there’s fighting a company seeking to change much of its original premises.

Users of LiveJournal, for instance — a blogging site that has remained conspicuously off the grid despite the readiness of most sites to link up through Facebook, YouTube, Digg, de.licio.us, VodPod, and other aggregation modules — know the latter fight all too well. Though founded on a pro-user model wherein developers promised to listen to the needs of actual users, and protect them from the pressures of outside interests, LiveJournal eventually found itself compromising these promises time and again — and not just for financial gain.

Many of these changes arose from a simple transition of ownership: for instance, when Six Apart first bought Danga Interactive, Livejournal’s operator, it introduced a sponsored ad system — despite the site’s earlier promise of remaining advertisement free — and eliminated basic accounts for half a year so only paid users could be assured of ad-free space, before eventually reversing the decision. (The above link has a far more nuanced list of compromises therein.)

But Six Apart’s real mistake was mass suspending a slew fan fiction accounts, among other accounts deemed in conflict with the obscenity category in its Terms of Service. Had the company issued warnings, so said communities could properly label and restrict access to controversial content, there might not have been such an uproar; as it was, however, this scandal most assuredly played some role in Six Apart’s decision to sell LiveJournal to SUP, a Russian company interested in the product because of LiveJournal’s huge Russian contingent — and which has since carried on in the tradition of trying to get users to pay for products they’re used to receiving for free.

And yet, oddly enough, the case of LiveJournal allowed me some measure of perspective in response to Twitter’s misfiring play at a reality TV show — because when LiveJournal was sold to SUP, it wasn’t added costs users feared: it was the possibility of censoring and curtailing the expansive voices of Russian dissent that had gathered on the website. As the SUP owner is closely tied to the Russian government, many feared that the sale would serve to break down the walls of freedom of speech and, well, a kind of assembly that had emerged in LiveJournal’s walls.

Similarly, Twitter has done incontestable good in providing a public forum for countries that otherwise lack the same extensive rights to freedom of speech and assembly. In countries like Moldova, for instance, Twitter provided a means for outsmarting government censors, allowing protesters to co-ordinate a rally against “disputed legislative elections.”

And you needn’t ask Jean Ramses Anleu Fernandez if he thinks governments are starting to realize Twitter’s democratic power: For a single tweet urging citizens to withdraw all their money from the state-run bank in response to charges of government involvement in a series of related murders, the Guatemalan faces a ten year sentence for “inciting financial panic.”

Even Starbucks has reason to dread Twitter, the make-up of which allowed a promotional topic (#starbucks) to be “hijacked” by critics of the company’s union-busting tactics.

Of course, no new technology is completely safe from censorship — especially from pros. So, yes, China censors Twitter content — big surprise there! Nonetheless, Twitter’s use and reach in many other regions is quite striking, and deserves to be taken into account.

At the end of the day, though, I still chafe at the direction in which Twitter leads journalistic narrative. It especially dismays me that while we as a society claim awareness of the complexity of contemporary socio-political and cultural issues, members of the media have nonetheless latched on to a medium that allows no more than 140 characters to summarize the gist of any one story.

As a big proponent of the philosophy that writers teach readers what to expect of the media (i.e. with an excess of short pieces acclimatizing readers to shorter attention spans), this seems an agonizing exercise in the death of sustained interest. Studies like this one, amply represented in graph form, serve only to confirm the frenzy with which Twitter allows people to latch on to, and then drop off from, topics of note.

So, no, you won’t find me on Twitter. Like I said at the start, I’m hoping to ride out this service to the next big thing. But in the meantime, is Twitter really all that bad?

Like so much of Web 2.0 technology, it depends what its users make of it.

May 6, 2009

Calm before the swine

Posted in Global discourse tagged , , , , at 9:59 am by Maggie Clark

There is reason to think positively about the strength of citizens en masse. There is reason, too, to think positively about the benefits of our new networking technologies. And one need look no farther for proof of this than the confrontation between panic and perspective in relation to the swine flu epidemic.

Swine flu had, and still has, all the earmarks for a perfect shock story: The strain, H1N1, afflicts the healthy, the strong, by over-stimulating the immune system’s response. It’s an inter-species mutant, so you can imagine the inference that it must surely be three times as strong as its avian, human, and swine strain predecessors. And the outbreak has been tied to Mexico — just one more illegal immigrant to worry about, right? (It’s even being called the “killer Mexican flu” in some circles.)

As I write this, according to the Canadian Public Health Agency, there are 165 reported cases of this H1NI strain in humans in Canada. The U.S. claims 403 cases, and between the two of us we have exactly two confirmed deaths. According to WHO statistics (current to May 5) Mexico has 822 cases, with 29 deaths; in the whole world, 21 countries share a collective case count of 1,490, with no other confirmed deaths.

If scientists declare that the strain has established itself outside of North America, the flu will reach pandemic status. In theory, that sounds terrifying, but really, the meaning extends no further than the fact that the illness can be found across the globe. The term pandemic says nothing, for instance, about how lethal or non-lethal said condition is; and though some sources are fond of speculating worst case scenarios, this means that the death rate is still very low. How low? Let’s take the U.S. numbers to illustrate: Annually, there are some 200,000 cases of hospitalization due to typical flu types in the U.S. — and 36,000 deaths. By this measure, swine flu has a long way to go before being anywhere near as serious a threat as its local, home-grown competitors.

And yet all this, for me, isn’t where it gets interesting. Not even close. Rather, what continues to surprise and impress me is our capacity for self-regulated response to the initial panic invoked around this illness. Yes, the media was talking up a storm about Influenza A H1N1. Yes, doomsday speculation was abounding. And yes, many industries — sanitation and pharmaceutical groups especially — have profited greatly in terms of market shares and business from all this panic.

But also abounding was — and still is — a countering force of calm. And it takes some truly extraordinary forms: For instance, mainstream news articles taking other articles to task for the lack of coverage about all the good news we have about Influenza A H1N1, and ethical deliberations about whether or not laughing at this illness (its name, its origins) is acceptable. And then there’s the really fun stuff: Stephan Zielinski applying the amino acid sequence for Influenza A H1N1 to ambient music. Gizmodo posting a hauntingly beautiful video demonstration of how the virus gets released. xkcd.com aptly encompassing the typical range of responses to Swine Flu on Twitter.

In other words, for all the panic we’ve had thrown at us about this illness, many have responded with a measure of fearlessness at least a hundred times as infectious. Does this mean everyone is rid of that panic? No, of course not: these reactive trends are often regional and compartmentalized due to varying interests and complex investments. The mass killing of all pig herds in Egypt, for instance — a perfectly rational response to a disease that, at that time, had no cases of pig-to-human infection manifested in the world, and absolutely no cases of human infection in the country itself — leaves huge consequences for the pig farmers, who with 300,000 animals killed have lashed back at the government in the form of protests: doubtless this panic attack on the part of officials will leave a long list of social consequences in its wake.

But think back, for comparison’s sake, to our global reaction to SARS — the extreme panic, the devaluation of tourism in heavily affected cities and regions, the dramatic quarantining procedures. Globally, the disease racked up 8273 cases, with 775 direct deaths (a death rate of 9.6 percent, weighted heavily toward seniors). Though clearly a more serious disease than Influenza A H1N1, the overall death rate of Americans due to seasonal influenza was still much higher; and yet our panic was long-standing and far-reaching, in large part because we were given no room for questions of doubt: only more panic.

Similarly, I’m not convinced the relative calm in this case emerged from the ground up: rather, I suspect news articles first had to present seeds of doubt about this issue, as forwarded by scientists reacting to the extent of media spin. I think room for doubt had to emerge from these sources first; and then the average reader, artist, and blogger could follow after — in turn serving to create more room to maneouver, rhetoric-wise, in future works by the mainstream media. But regardless of speculation about just how, and in what order, these groups fed off each other — the scientists, the media, and the participatory citizenry as a whole — what’s more striking is that they fed off each other at all to produce this ultimately calming effect.

We have, in the last 8 years, kicked ourselves over and over again for allowing flimsy excuses for war-mongering to stand; for allowing freedoms to be stripped from us in the name of security; for permitting, in general, the hard polemics of with-us-or-against-us to divide the population. And rightly so: When we go along with fear-mongering, we can be, en masse, pathetic excuses for an advanced and critically thinking civilization.

But cases like our reaction to swine flu should likewise give us cause for hope — and should be treated as such, with praise for measured response wherever it emerges. For as much as we can act like sheep if treated like sheep, it nonetheless takes precious little in the way of tempered social rhetoric for us to realize our own, independent engagements — fearless, inquisitive, and inspired alike — with the world instead.

May 11, 2008

The need for more, and better, mainstream media criticism

Posted in Media overviews tagged , , , , , , , , , at 10:21 pm by Maggie Clark

“You know what the worst part of that is? It’s not that the speeches have gotten better; it’s [that] media criticism isn’t as good as it used to be.”

— Robert Schlesinger, guest author, The Daily Show

Within the last two years, the Columbia Journalism Review, the Ryerson Review of Journalism, Adbusters, the Tyee, the New Yorker, and the Walrus have written extensively about the challenges facing contemporary media in its on-going bid at maintaining relevance as both political watch-dog and central arbiter of social discourse. Newsroom cutbacks, expansive media monopolies, weak protectionist policies from the government, social pressures from extremist interest groups, and the advent of New Media (and with it, a rapidly transforming revenue structure) are all aspects of a journalism culture that is presently tasked with re-branding itself without ready access to all the resources such an effort requires.

And indeed, many feel this lack of resources is ultimately to blame for the deficit of effective media criticism at crucial North American turning points in the last fifteen years, but one could just as easily argue — and I would — that a lack of effective media criticism in and of itself marked the industry as “ripe for the picking” by corporations increasingly unfamiliar with journalism’s non-entertainment responsibilities. To elaborate on that reversal, though, I should first deliberate a little on what constitutes “good journalism.”

To that end, consider a recent Globe & Mail article, which notified readers of the paper’s dominance at the 2008 National Newspaper Awards. One online respondent commented: “take it easy globe, you’re faaaaaar from perfect.” But is perfection even a reasonable aim for journalism? When by its very nature news media is tested every single day, with every single news report it issues, it can’t be: stories necessarily develop over time, new facts regularly emerge to supplant the old, and self-correcting mechanisms are an intrinsic part of the process, thereby confirming the necessary incompleteness of any one day’s product, no matter how thoroughly researched or reasonably presented. No, there is no resting on one’s laurels in an organization constantly tasked with proving itself anew, and so the measure of good media has to be based more on its commitment to that process itself. How tireless is it? How well does it resist complacency, revisit entrenched internal biases, question assumptions, and respond to outside criticism? Good journalism is fallible; but good journalism also knows how fallible it is, and strives very hard to account for subsequent lapses. And when good journalists internalize this state of constant questioning, this aversion to complacency, they can fight even the most aggressive of pressures to the contrary.

In 2001, for instance, CanWest Global Communications tried to impose a national editorial in its constituent papers — the same editorial, written at CanWest headquarters, for papers all across Canada. Its inclusion would be mandatory, and while local op-ed pieces would still be accepted, they were not allowed to contradict the opinions expressed in the corporate editorial. In the name of maintaining an open forum for public debate, reporters and editors resisted: they went on a byline strike and raised public awareness — especially when a spate of CanWest firings were tied to similar attempts at curtailing different opinions and approaches to the news (with criticism of the Liberal Party and pro-Palestinian comments proving especially dangerous for CanWest staff).

The CanWest corporation embodies a series of on-going problems for Canadian journalists, but at least where corporate editorials are concerned, journalists can — for the moment — claim victory: CanWest dropped that intended policy the moment public pressure became too much. But here, too, there is no such thing as a “perfect” victory: the freedom of the press, as the fourth pillar of democracy, must be tested and affirmed on a regular and rigorous basis. This is where media criticism comes in — journalism’s answer to the ancient question, “Who will watch the watchers?”

I can’t say for certain that media organizations would have suffered fewer newsroom cutbacks, or that corporate owners wouldn’t have interfered as much with their editorial decisions, if there had been a more entrenched culture of media criticism in the early 1990s. But to have someone keeping tabs on other organizations, and teaching readers to keep tabs too — this, to me, is a crucial part of journalism’s internal, self-correcting mechanisms, and one I hope very much to participate in throughout my life.

It is also one that has flourished, oddly enough, in its own absence. When mainstream publications proved unable to provide this public service, the public — settling very easily, and very prominently, into the age of New Media — began supplying this service on their own. Now, in 2008, we see military blogs about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rivaling information released through standard channels; the Huffington Post and the Drudge Report heading a broad spectrum of “Second Gen” blog aggregate sites (ones which, unlike Digg or Redditt, have an editorial team setting the front page content); and the Talking Points Memo especially empowering citizens by showing how public pressure can, in fact, improve political accountability.

Whether or not journalists within mainstream publications are ready, the realm of discourse has broadened, and readers today are far from their passive cousins of yesteryear. To this end, the role of traditional journalism is still changing — still being “re-branded” — but not in any way that really lies outside of its original precepts. Journalism has always been something taken day-by-day — something that requires regular adaptation, and constant self-correction. And so long as Canadian journalists are willing to avail themselves to the new demands and needs of our population — and especially to acknowledge and make up for the lack of entrenched media criticism within its walls — we’ll never be perfect, but at least we’ll be far more likely never to forget that fact.