Tag Archives: new media

The Myth of the Open Data Mob: a response to Mike Ananny

I recently discovered that Mike Ananny wrote this response to a piece I initially posted here and then on The Mark titled Let Us Audit Parliament’s Books. I encourage you to read both my piece and Ananny’s thoughtful response. And, in the spirit of dialogue, I have two thoughts in response.

First, Ananny misrepresents the thrust of my argument. He suggests that I only want crowds and that my goal is to replace public institutions with amorphous “crowds.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, I say, at the end of the article, that the Auditor General should do her own audit – using the same information that is available to everyone. I’m not in favour of replacing institutions with crowds, or democracy with populism. What I am in favour of is ensuring their are checks on institutions.

Second, Ananny creates a straw man of my arguments painting the picture of a single monolithic crowd. These misrepresentation can be found in lines such as this from his piece:

It’s okay that we do this. But in the kind of crowd-sourced audit Eaves describes, who are the “others” that we trust to discover on our behalf and teach us what they learn? At least we know who the auditor general is and how – cumbersome as it might be – she and the government can be replaced.

This is certainly not what I sought to describe nor is what I think I did, but as an author I share responsibility in being clear.

Do I believe there will be no single amorphous crowd? No. I believe there will be the public much like today. And it will discern the debate in the same way it currently does. What does this mean? I suspect that if the expensess were public there might be numerous audits, and that those will find it easiest to earn the public’s trust will be those conducted by “others” who first and foremost declare who they are. The most obvious candidate for this would be the Globe and Mail. (Wouldn’t it be nice if they had access to MP expenses)? Of course, the Globe may not have the resources to go through every line of every MP’s expenses so they may ask people to flag lines that seem to be of particular importance. This is, of course, how  The Guardian newspaper in the UK exposed some of the most problematic expenses in their MP expense scandal. In short, this isn’t a single faceless mob, this is about allowing numerous people, from public institutions to the media to self interested private citizens. Some will self-organize, others will not. But there will be a diversity of perspectives.

Second, and more importantly, is that these competing audits would be good for democracy and for public institutions. I completely agree with Ananny’s quote from Bentham. A perfectly knowledgeable public is a myth. Yes, most of us, on most issues, knowingly or not, do delegate responsibility for forming our beliefs to others. The challenge is, to whom to delegate? Ananny seems confident he knows exactly who it should be (an AG who, actually, only has the power to shame). He wants us to place our faith in a crowd of one – the AG – who no one gets to choose and who herself has no oversight.  I’m interested in a different outcome. We live in a world where it is easier to allow more than one resource to which citizens can delegate their trust. More importantly, by sharing the expenses different parties can assess how others conduct their audit – biases, different assumptions, flaws and more clear comparisons – in short a public debate, could take place. Giving everyone access to MP expenses will, admittedly, be messy, but then so is democracy. The point is you either believe in public debate or you don’t.

Encouragingly, this is ultimately what Ananny seems to want as well, as he states:

I know we don’t have to choose between crowds or experts – I want both – but if it’s a question of emphasis, I’d much rather be the constituent of an AG who can be legally reprimanded and dramatically fired than an unwilling patron of a crowd that may or may not know what it’s doing.

I want both as well. I’d also love to see a supportive infrastructure that helps people contribute to audits. Indeed, this was the thrust of my June 10th piece Learning from Libraries: The Literacy Challenge of Open Data. But you don’t create that infrastructure by not sharing the the accounts openly. As my libraries piece argues, sharing is a precondition to developing such an infrastructure.

So if, as suggested, this is a question of emphasis, why did Ananny choose to use my piece as a launchpad for his own? We seem to be on the same page (we both appear to want to improve public institutions and public debates). I think the ultimate reason lies in this last point. Ananny’s examples refer to crowds or institutions that are deemed expert by somebody. But the public’s trust in an institution or resource or even a crowd isn’t granted or ordained, it is earned. Ananny’s solutions keep returning to the notion that we need to ordain trust and delegate whereas mine is that we need to enable emergent systems so that many actors can attempt to earn trust and we can debate. This is why I agree that the AG’s office should, as he suggests, provide a program to help people learn how to do audits. But I also I think society will be best served when a diversity (of particularly emergent) approaches are possible, perhaps involving actors like accounting firms and universities. This would allow others to be a check on the AG which will enhance, not destroy confidence. But again, this is only possible if we all have access to the information.

And that ultimately is my point. Access to information is a precondition that enables us to engage in better debates, foster systems that support alternative perspectives and also provides a check on public institutions. It is these checks and debate, not blind delegation, that will improve confidence.

Some Thoughts on the Walrus Response

Here is a response to Jeremy Keehn (Senior Editor at the Walrus) thoughtful response to my post The Walrus, Fair Dealing, and the Culture of Journalism this morning.

A few leading points.

1) I’d like to echo Jeremy’s request, if there is a literary-loving Web 2.0 billionaire out there interested in endowing the Walrus, please click here.

2) While my original post refers to The Walrus, I definitely want to be clear – the challenge of not participating in the online link economy is endemic among main stream media publishers generally. Most main stream media never link away from their site (except, oddly, on their “blogs” which are somehow treated differently…)

At the risk of misrepresenting Jeremy (not my intention) I’m going to edit his piece down so as to respond to some specific arguments as to why the Walrus doesn’t link or cite in print. Worse still, I may make a suggestion or two.

First, in print:

It was more a question of how including that information would affect the flow of the narrative, and what readers needed to know for the quotation to have its intended effect. Insofar as I was making a conscious decision as an editor, I would have been asking myself whether mentioning eaves.ca bolstered the authority of the quotation or added narrative value. Ultimately, I concluded that David’s credentials were all readers needed to know. In hindsight, I might have chosen otherwise, in part because the quotation wasn’t a spoken one, and in part because this is a rare instance where the source actually ended up caring.

This I completely get. It is important that the piece read easily. Reading this I see how much the web has changed how I read – I look for “links” now even when reading a print edition of something. (Wow it is hard to have this discussion without sounding ungrateful for the quote – hoping that is still coming through – this is a discussion about the culture of journalism as it plays at out that Walrus, not about the quality or intentions of the Walrus)

Online linking:

David also asks in his post why The Walrus hasn’t linked to his blog in the online version of the story. “When The Walrus doesn’t link to others, it is a policy decision,” he writes. “They believe in the myth that they need to keep people on their website — which means they also believe in keeping their readers away from the very material that makes their stories interesting.”

I (guiltily) jumped to a conclusion there – should have led with more inquiry. Jeremy explains that this is because:

We don’t go in and insert links into our magazine pieces because we don’t have the resources, and because the decisions about what and where to link would be difficult and time-consuming to navigate, especially given that we rely on freelance writers, who might have opinions about what should be linked to or not. It’s certainly not policy.

However, this is where things become a little harder for me to decipher.

On the one hand the no-linking at the Walrus seems to be due to limited resources (this I understand and respect). However, tracking down and inserting the links into my blog for the webpages the Walrus piece references took me 45 minutes – and that was without the benefit of having the author on hand who mostly likely has them in their notes. An intern could find and insert the links into a piece in 30 minutes. This may still be too onerous but the benefit to readers feels significant. But this calculus becomes even easier if the Walrus simply asked authors to supply the links (the task would then drop to mere minutes). Moreover, the costs of consistency feel pretty low. People are unlikely to be upset of The Walrus over linking… they’ll just not click on them. Plus, The Walrus’s authors probably have the best sense of what is interesting and should be linked to… why not simply trust them?

On the other hand, the above sentence hints that the no-linking is also due to the fact that getting a clear consistent policy would be difficult – especially with so many freelance writers in play. I read this as saying that The Walrus is claiming it is better off not linking than having potentially inconsistent linking. Why not start simple with bare bones policy: Every time The Walrus quotes someone, and that quotation is available from an original source online, the author should endeavor to link to it. The great thing about being online is different than print. Omissions are easy and quick to fix. If the author misses some link, an intrepid reader may email The Walrus the link (especially if you ask them to) at which point an intern could add it.

There are advantages to this. Over time, by looking at The Walrus’s web stats the editorial staff will see what their readers click on, and so what they find useful and be sure to include more of those types of links in the future. The value add for readers might become significant, At the moment, the Walrus has no idea what its readers find interesting in the pieces they read other than what they say in comments (and far, far fewer people comment than click on links they like).

Finally, this should be applauded but is not a defense:

We do plenty of linking on our blogs, and the magazine’s Twitter feed (not to mention my own) is generally abuzz with links to and from other media.

Two thoughts: First what is the policy around linking on The Walrus blogs? And providing links in Twitter is great (I do like how The Walrus twitter account points to interesting pieces everywhere). The point here is that (online) readers have a world to explore in every article The Walrus publishes – if they are given a chance to explore it through hyperlinks – hyperlinks that are embedded in the text where their mice and eyes are at the moment of reading.

How an old media drudge's actions explain the death of newspapers

Taylor and I have received a lot of link love, comments, and emails since posting the piece Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy not a symptom of its death, but one commentator has been the standard bearer in the defense of the traditional newspaper: copy editor and blogger for the Baltimore Sun John McIntyre.

John and I are are involved in a healthy debate over the future of newspapers. In addition to commenting here at eaves.ca, he’s written two critical piece on his own blog. What is most interesting however is that while John disagrees with us in his comments and blog, his actions demonstrate our point. Democracy is better served by the rise of the internet – even if that comes at the cost of the physical newspaper. Why? Because our audiences are better served – and informed – by observing (and participating) in our debate.

Consider our exchange in the abstract. Here are two differing perspectives (mine and John’s), which would never share the pages of even his newspaper. Not only are they directly engaged with one another, but we link to one another – sending readers to one another! We may disagree, but the act of linking requires us (and asks our readers) to acknowledge and engage the other.

But consider too, the very practical. The centerpiece of John McIntyre’s attack on our post was his claim that the US constitution does protect the freedom of the press. In countering our assertion that “Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is” John argues that:

“The Constitution does in fact protect newspapers. The First Amendment prohibits Congress from “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Or of the press. Newspapers. Over the past couple of centuries, the legal understanding of the press has been expanded to include, for example, broadcast. But it is clear in the text that the authors of the Bill of Rights foresaw a need to protect the press — what we could now understand as organized journalism — in specific language beyond the protection of the individual right.”

But this is actually a misreading of the constitution. The term “the press” wasn’t referring to newspapers or claiming that they are necessary for democracy (or that even journalism is for that matter). It was stating that Americans have the freedom of expression both in speech and in writing. In this manner, the constitution could have said “abridging the freedom of speech, or of blogs, or word documents, or PDFs.” Indeed, it was one of John’s own reader’s (slugwell) that supplied the legal analysis from Princeton University that confirmed his misinterpretation:

“Despite popular misunderstanding the right to freedom of the press guaranteed by the first amendment is not very different from the right to freedom of speech. It allows an individual to express themselves through publication and dissemination. It is part of the constitutional protection of freedom of expression. It does not afford members of the media any special rights or privileges not afforded to citizens in general.”

This back and forth – this focusing of the argument, the identification of errors and misunderstandings – is physically impossible in the traditional newspaper, and for reasons of culture and pride, remain rare in online editions. And yet, this is what makes blogs so compelling to their readers. Readers are able to learn more, dive deeper and participate in the evolving product (there is no final product on the internet). Alternatively, if they aren’t interested (as many readers of both John and my blog probably aren’t) they move on.

In his second post, John decries Wikipedia because “it advises its readers not to rely on the accuracy of its entries.” At least it advises its readers! But John himself benefited from (or was victim to) the very forces that make Wikipedia trustworthy – others came to point out the errors of his analysis. This is, paradoxically, what makes Wikipedia so trustworthy (and the Baltimore Sun less so – their retractions and errors are printed discretely, away from the prying eyes of readers). Even as he decries “new media” he enjoys and takes part in its benefits.

But let me finally return to this notion of respect. I don’t agree with John, but I respect him – which is why I link to and write about him. More importantly, I think we agree on more than we disagree. John states that he was responding to “a Canadian blogger’s post rejoicing in the death of the newspaper.” Let me concede that our tone sometimes makes it seem we are gleeful about the decline of newspapers, this is not the case. Let us be clear, Taylor and I aren’t celebrating the death of the newspapers. While we take issue with the industry’s argument (and hubris) that they are a precondition or necessary for democracy, anyone who reads our piece, Missing the Link will note this line:

“However, unlike the work of our techno-utopian contemporaries, our critique should not be seen as a jubilant celebration of a dying industry. Traditional media has served society well, and with the right attitude and adjustments, could continue to do so for the foreseeable future.”

As avid newsreaders and commentators, our problem is with how newspapers – and the news industry in general – has been profoundly unimaginative, blind, angry and reactionary towards new technology and possibilities. Our goal in bursting bubbles is to focus the debate on what’s possible and what’s next. Above all, we want news writers to once again talk about how they can better serve the public, not on how the public should serve them.

Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model (or, on why being online is better than than paper)

Two years ago Taylor and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR’s faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for reading and commenting. It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it. Here is a link to the full version of Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn’t Get the Internet.

And here’s another of my favourite passages, (written before the arrival of the kindle!):

Print Media: Nostalgia is not a growth model

Mostly, it is baby boomers who are nostalgic for newsprint, and they are not a growth industry. Sure, there are some, younger, holdouts. But these are generally students of the Columbia Journalism School, not those they hope to write for. Yes, the texture of a newspaper is nice – but the newspapers can’t afford to print and distribute them and, so far, you’ve been unwilling to pay a premium for it.

More seriously, media traditionalists often cite two examples— incidental reading and ideological objectivity—to explain why physical newspapers will and should remain the main distribution channel for print media. However, the purported value of physical newsprint simply doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Scanning the pages of a newspaper is indeed a virtue. It exposes readers to articles they might not seek out, broadening their range of news and opinion. However, this process is no different from what happens online. Links, aggregators and email steer readers to a far broader range of articles than they could conceivably imagine by simply flipping through a newspaper. Indeed, the internet enables this incidental reading better than newspapers. Take the BBC website, where any given article has links to related pieces both across the internet and in different sections of the site. A political article might cause a reader to click on a link to a related piece in the Science/Nature or Africa sections. Once there, they are confronted with an array of ‘incidental’ headlines. The tunnel syndrome argument simply doesn’t hold weight.

The other oft-cited example of the value of newspapers is that they prevent readers from falling into self-selected ideological silos. The argument follows that, when left to their own devices, innocent readers will gravitate towards the poles of their ideological bias. What they need, and should pay for, is a physical entity that provides them with a limited, but ‘healthy’, range of information.

This argument ignores the fact that many newspapers operate as ideological poles themselves. The New York Times clearly favors the left whereas the Wall Street Journal appeals to the right. More importantly the internet, unlike print media, provides tools to overcome these silos. Not all content delivered through an aggregator will be consistent with a reader’s perspective (indeed, one can imagine a customized aggregator that specifically targets news pieces that challenge its readers). More importantly, the internet gives readers the freedom (and safety) to select content from a broader range of perspectives. Most liberals wouldn’t be caught dead with an issue of the National Review in their hands, and when was the last time you saw a pinstriped Wall Streeter reading the Nation? But thousands of liberals read the Corner (the group blog of the National Review). This is because the ease, speed and anonymity of the web stimulates exploration that the physical world prohibits. In addition, many posts are written in response to other pieces, to whom they inevitably link (imagine the Nation sending readers to National Review!). Neither traditional nor New Media can single handedly mediate or resolve political difference, but at least New Media links the poles to one another, rather then creating isolated playgrounds where pundits can safely take shots at one another.

While sometimes seen as nostalgia, these arguments are simply a proxy for a deeper set of concerns felt by elites who fear the day the unkempt masses are finally freed to choose and read what they will. Controlling your customer has a never proven to be a sustainable business strategy, and for a business deeply concerned with freedom, it is disturbingly anti-democratic.

This piece is pulled from a longer piece we wrote called Missing The Link: Why Old Media still doesn’t get the Internet.

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy's health, not a symptom of its death

Two years ago Taylor and I wrote a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review (which they opted not to publish) critical of Kuttner and the CJR’s faith in the print-hybrid model for media.

After having it sit on our hard drives all this time we are putting it up for download (back story on my next post). It is, sadly, more or less as relevant today as it was when we wrote it.

Here is a link to the full version of Missing the Link: Why Old Media Still Doesn’t Get the Internet.

And here’s one of my favourite passages:

Newspapers’ decline is a sign of democracy, not a symptom of its death

A recent Columbia Journalism School panel on the future of the newspaper industry ended with a solemn and bold pronouncement: “If print newspapers disappear, it will be a fundamental threat to our democracy.”

Such statements made many of New Media participants roll their eyes—and for good reason. Are newspapers really a precondition for democracy?

This type of irrational hyperbole discredits traditional media’s claim to rational objectivity. Newspapers are not a precondition for democracy—free speech is. This is why the constitution protects the latter and not the former. It is also what makes the internet important—it provides a powerful new medium through which free speech can be transmitted. As we argued earlier, the internet offers its own democratic way of filtering content, allowing what people think is important, relevant and interesting to be aggregated and heard. It may be messy and far from perfect, but then, so is democracy.

Newspapers, in contrast, are many things, but they are not democratic. They are hierarchical authoritarian structures designed to control and shape information. This is not to say they don’t provide a societal benefit—their content contributes to the public discourse. However, how is having a few major media outlets deciding “what is news” democratic, or even good for democracy? The newspaper model isn’t about expanding free speech; it is about limiting it to force readers to listen to what the editor prescribes. When is the last time you had an opinion piece or letter published in a newspaper? There are many more voices in America that deserve to be heard aside from Ivy League educated editors and journalists.

The “necessary for democracy” argument also assumes that readers are less civically engaged if they digest their news online. How absurd. Gen Y is likely far more knowledgeable about their world than Boomers were. The problem is that Boomers appeared more knowledgeable to one another because they all knew the same things. The limited array of media meant people were generally civically minded about the same things and evaluated one another based on how much of the same media they’d seen. The diversity available in today’s media—facilitated greatly by the internet—means it is hard to evaluate someone’s civic mindedness because they may be deeply knowledgeable and engaged in a set of issues you are completely unfamiliar with. Diversity of content and access to it, made possible by the internet, has strengthened our civic engagement.

Far from a prerequisite, traditional media is to democracy what commercial banks are to capitalism. Are banks necessary for capitalism? No. Have they sped up its growth and made it more effective? Definitely. But could some better model emerge that performs their functions more effectively? Absolutely. Much like claiming “you’ll never get by without me” rarely reignites a relationship, fear mongering and threatening your customers won’t bring readers back. This approach merely demonstrates how scared old media has become of its readers, their free speech, and the type of democracy they want to build.

YouTube used right

So the academics over at Nottingham University in the UK had a simply and brilliant idea. Create a YouTube video for each element on the table of elements. Pure genius. Can you imagine an easier way for a kid in Grade 9 to learn the elements than a bunch of fun 2 minute videos? For some reason I feel like I had the table of elements drilled into in Grade 9… maybe I was younger… or older…?

Speaking of using YouTube, I also stumbled upon this Atlantic article in which the James Fallows reviews presidential debates. Part of what makes it so great is that he has YouTube clips of all the important moments that come up – both during this primary season and from earlier presidential debates – so you can see what he is referencing. The Atlantic is one of the few old media outlets that really seems to grasp the potential of new media…

Newspapers as the jilted ex…

Oh newspaper, despite your protestations I’m not so sure I’m going to miss you. That said I’m not sure you are actually going anywhere – you may be getting a massive make over though. But then, I think a new you is exactly what you need. Everybody else seems to agree.

Of course, the TV news guys said the same thing when I broke up with them. And other than the odd fling once or twice a year, I’ve never looked back.

Plus, trolling? That’s the best you could come up with? And you really believe that only a print newspaper journalist could have snagged that story? Sigh, we really live in different universes (or at least mediums) now.

Please stop. All this  complaining just makes you less attractive.