musings of a mediabot

Archive for September 2008

I am not a fan of trends.  If I were, what would happen if I were to miss the memo that metallic snakeskin and excessive cleavage was no longer in?  Bad news, I tell ‘ya.

Some trends are worth a nod, and for the business moguls, it can mean millions of dollars in profit.  This is good for corporations and various business entities.  When are trends good for the average Joe?

Robert Scoble and Shel Israel are adamant that the online explosion of blogging is a trend worth celebrating, particularly for business reasons.  The basic message of their book Naked Conversations is You, whoever you are.  Do Not Miss the Blogging Train.  Get on board; start writing; start exchanging stories.

Scoble and Israel challenge the idea that a formal marketing/public relations department can positively promote, disseminate information, and maintain a top-of-mind presence about a featured product or service from Company X on a consistent basis.  Instead, they argue that members of the bloggers can.   A simple exchange of dialogue can do more for a product than mistargeted direct-mail pieces or one-time ad placements in a local newspaper.   It can create buzz, start an unstoppable wave of conversation that reaches a tipping point, and make Company X the topic of the day at the water cooler.  The key is that the buzz is born from blogging.

I am not anti-blog.  I agree that the power of blogs to connect people, to strengthen relationships between consumer and company, to strip CEOs of false authority and have them talk to their customers in pajamas (and let’s not forget the dramatic potential it has for opening doorways of communication in international spheres that we would otherwise have no entry) is something to treasure and to make the most positive of changes with its use. 

When blogs serve their purpose, and stir conversation about topics like Sarah Palin’s apocalyptic worldview, then I’m all for them.  This is why we should blog about what we see or read, and start important conversations. 

My concern for Scoble and Israel’s taking the bullhorn and advising companies to blog is that it sounds like they’re pumping steroids into the art.  If every single company were to start their own blog, wouldn’t they just get lost in the already cluttered Internet?  True, there are tools we use to filter through the dense digital information highway, such as RSS, but I’m not the only one to question the authors’ overzealous love of the online pastime.

If we’re blogging simply because we have “tool lust,” penned by Yossi Vardi, then we’re no more than following a trend.  But, if we’re blogging to contribute something worthwhile, then the trend is necessary for our survival.  Yes, survival.  What are we as people if we do not communicate and that communication does not enhance our lives?

The question is What is worthwhile?  For me, some days this works.

I received the following response (via email) to my last post:

I worry that the media is stuck right now between trying to be both all-knowing professional gatekeepers as well as just folks. They are so strongly influenced by citizen journalism, they may lose their internal compasses. What do you think about that? What about the role of popularity, ratings, money, and feedback in shaping how the modern journalist works?

This introduces the inevitable twist in journalism that results from the multi-directional feeding of information into various, and sometimes overlapping, digital forums. Has the internal compass shifted direction for the traditional journalist? If we take a look at the formal Code of Ethics for journalists, we can see where exactly the rules have been challenged. Journalists, no matter which platform they choose to publish their story, want to be heard, and not only that, but heard through a bold, capital headline. In the print media industry, one or two people choose which stories appear on the front page. In the digital media industry, anyone can force a story as the headline. It depends on how loud of voice the contributor has and how large of a buzz he or she can create.

I fear it is too tempting for the modern journalist to maintain an honest internal compass. By honest I mean to report facts that are newsworthy and have the potential to better the lives of its readers. It is the “bettering” people’s lives with which the modern journalist seems to have more difficulty handling. There are countless blogs, and more created each day; there are competing online news sources, both mainstream and below the radar; and then, there are the historical challenges to face. Which story gets read? Which story gets the most web traffic? Which stirs discussion? Which makes money for the parent company? But the modern journalist need not get tangled in these superficial reasons for informing the public.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is necessary, but what about the Why? Why do we need journalists?  Interestingly enough, the New York Times devotes only one line to address this question (see section A1 of The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism). 

We need them because we need to be held accountable for what we do, how we treat each other, how our decisions impact others. We need journalists because we need to see ourselves objectively, in black and white, and be held up to scrutiny if our actions do harm to others. We need journalists because we need others to hear and read about how generous and caring we can be to our neighbors, both local and overseas. We need journalists because we need to continue to be inspired and reminded that we are all humans, and we are all connected – in one way or another.

Someone has been picking up my haggard criticisms of the Internet and technological gizmos that keep us connected to others even if we don’t want to be.  Am I really wrong for being suspicious of the possibility that giving people more freedom will reap digital unicorns and rainbows (and maybe, just maybe, actual news I care about?), and not this crap?

Gillmor takes the hopeful stand that “the audience will make the decisions,” and that online media sources will be the cornerstone of our daily news-getting because the audience demands it.  How?  By reading, listening, and watching it, by posting comments about it, by writing their own blog posts about it. 

Gillmor concludes that we make our own news.  Sometimes, we do it consciously.  Sometimes, we do it without knowing we’re doing it, and then have to face the consequences.   Sometimes, it’s not really news at all, but important to Mom and Aunt Sally, and dammit still news because we deem it so.   So, what makes news newsworthy?  Does it even matter anymore? 

The Internet-loving people are taking over web caverns by storm and news is now whatever the hell we want it to be. Some of us still read newspapers (What are they? you ask), or piece together what’s going on in the world by scanning headlines of the Express. Some of us even find out about serious happenings such as the presidential debate by reading our friends’ Facebook comments.

I am all for unity and for people from around the world to participate in a conversation. But, if the conversation is considered newsworthy, I want it to be important and to affect more than a handful of people who have time to banter back and forth about whether or not the iPhone is better than Google’s Android. Ok, maybe more than a handful of people are interested, but still…What happened to critical thinking?

To answer such questions as:

  • What is the role of journalism with all of the changes in the digital media landscape?
  • Who is the reporter when anyone can make news on the Internet?

I offer one direct and simple answer.

To the journalists: Don’t stop working your asses off to help us be informed citizens. Don’t stop engaging us and making us think.

To the readers: Keep reading what the journalists say. Read a lot and from different sources. Read, period. Think.

So do I think the definition of audience and reporter should be considered one and the same?  No way.

There appears to be blurred boundaries on what exactly is a blogger.  Corey Doctorow et al. explain this very point in Essential Blogging (ch. 1) and conclude with various descriptors – “hunks of information,” “a soapbox” where editors and authors can post “whatever the hell we feel like,” etc. 

Regardless of the difficulty to really dissect a blog and what it is, – How can you dissect something that transforms with such ease and within nano-seconds of a collective experience? – it is clear that a powerful monster (interpret it as you will) is at play and quickly maturing at lightening speed. 

There are many questions to be pawed at and toyed with and regurgitated for further discussion when it comes to blogs.  But one that particularly has been nagging me is How can a simple statement of a handful of sentences long give birth to a discussion of anywhere from 2-50 (or more!) people, strangers no less!, and how do these collection of perspectives, and sometimes very colorful personalities, add value to anyone’s life? 

Dan Gillmor in We The Media points out that members of today’s online community who contribute to our understanding of the world, and react to and interpret what the media offer to that understanding, are in fact getting sucked into a black-hole of sorts.  A most interesting passage that brings this to mind is Gillmor’s attribution to Marshall McLuhan in his work Understanding Media where McLuhan explains our adoption of digital media as a “technological simulation of consciousness, when the creative process of knowing will be collectively and corporately extended to the whole of human society.” 

Holy crap, that is deep.  And very, very true.  The rapid explosion of blogs attest to this.  I once thought of blogs as random touch-points where you could hop into the brain of this stranger who obsesses about food or into the brain of this geek who likes to spill secrets about this new gadget or into the brain of this pissed off consumer who bought stale rice cakes.  I was wrong to think that, surely, blogs cannot be true reflections of our reality.

People lie out there.  Not everyone has their facts; not everyone researches before making claims, not everyone apologizes when they misguide others.  However, I would be an ignorant citizen if I thought that blogs are random thoughts that random people contribute to out of boredom, out of selfish money-hungry reasons, out of a need to get noticed.  Maybe I should stop being so cynical, don’t you think?  And maybe, alas, I am starting to.

So, back to my question: Do blogs and the elements that make up the blog (the original author, the commentators, the links, the various wikis, etc.) add value to our lives?  Gillmor and Doctorow et al. would say Yes.  I say Yes. 

And this one (pro)blogger would say Hell yes! and would yell out from the rooftops that blogs = reality.

It is clear that we blog (including yours truly) because we feel compelled to the mysterious force of the Internet that has woven itself into the fabric of our daily lives.  We are a technologically-creative race.  We are a new hybrid of people, half-temporal and responsible for everyday functions, and half-everlasting – part of a digital landscape that will never die as long as there is the Internet and portholes to the complex web of blogs.