The Individual In the Aggregate

Juli, Matt, and Gabe are writers and avid readers.  They are also proud Midwesterners.  The three of them believed there are other individuals out there who are also writers, avid readers, and proud Midwesterners.  So, they started a literary journal—endearingly called Ugly Accent—to fill this intriguing niche.  The printed copies of the journal are popular in the locally-owned coffee shops in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago, but the financial burden is becoming too much to continue printing the quarterly issues.  Therefore, Ugly Accent is joining the trend many literary journals and magazines and going exclusively online.  When it comes down to it, the cost/benefit analysis is clear:  Go online.

The long tail, as described by Chris Andersen in The Long Tail, is an interesting concept from a social perspective.  The power of the individual in the aggregate is not only illustrated in the economy through the statistical representation called long tail distribution, but also in society, at large, through open source software programming.  The individual has always been an economic and social force to be reckoned with, but with the advent of new mass collaboration tools, the aggregate has a much larger scope with the ability to pull from the smallest of niches.

As Anderson notes in his introduction, niche markets have always existed, but they were constricted in their scope since they were locally based.  As we see a rise in niche-fillers online, we are conversely seeing small, locally established storefronts disappear.  Perhaps these businesses have just replaced their storefronts with websites, but then we must ask: What is happening in the physical space left behind?  If you have internet access, a credit card, a mailing address, and are computer-literate, you’re all set.  You can shop online to your heart’s content.  But, what if you don’t have these things?  With the niche and small business flight, all that’s left to fill our physical consumer realm is big box retailers.  The loss of small, independent businesses not only shifts the local economy to corporate headquarters, but it drains the local personality.  The irony is in the paradoxes:  The rise in small online businesses causes a loss in small local businesses; The rise in online innovation and creativity causes a loss in local innovation and creativity and personality.  Are we investing in our online community at the expense of our physical community? 

For many, like Juli, Matt, and Gabe, this is a question that they can’t afford to ask.  For Ugly Accent, it is either online or nothing.  I am optimistic, however, that there will come a time when the paradoxes do not exist—when we can shop online and in-person at small, independently-owned niche businesses and innovation and creativity will not be exclusive to one realm of our lives.

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We the economy

The theoretical basis of wikinomics is not new.  And it is not revolutionary.  Inventions that have greatly impacted society and created new verbiage tend to be met with similar hope for (or fear of) a paradigm shift that will topple the elite and allow for the voice of the masses.  The printing press.  The radio.  And now, the world of wiki.  Each of these has indeed shifted the power structure, but only shifted.  Heads of State and CEOs remain, and the voice of the people is only as a whisper when we are at our loudest.

“We the people” already hold the potential for a great deal of power; we just haven’t understood the power we hold.  Americans buy things everyday and drive our economy and that of the rest of the world.  And yet, we continue to ignore the fact that our dollars are our voice.  The internet is a new forum for us to express our power, but it is not the only way.  Just as our collective dollars drive our economy, our collective brain-power (in the form of wikis) has great potential to drive it as well. 

I find the authors’ (of Wikinomics) attempts to maneuver through their description of mass collaboration quite interesting.  They, like so many others, are so afraid of the word and idea of communism that they must debunk any potential attributes immediately, lest they be labeled communists.  Communism, like anarchy, are both such loaded terms that the authors cannot even publicly recognize that there are, of course, elements of both within mass collaboration. 

Mass collaboration—as a movement, so to speak—has instead adopted words like “collaboration” and “open.”  Both of these words, as the authors point out, have positive connotations.  “Peering” is also a perfectly positive word, even if inherently unrealistic.  Peering, one of the four principles of wikinomics, tries to transcend our human need for hierarchy.  I do not assume that there are no viable alternatives to hierarchy, as the authors suggest, I just believe it is human nature to fall into hierarchical patterns.  As with communism, “though egalitarianism is the general rule, most peer networks have an underlying structure, where some people have more authority and influence than others” (25).  We will always identify the natural leaders in the group and recognize that certain people have strengths that we do not have, and this is how hierarchy is created…even online.

The technology that allows for open source and wiki-ing is not revolutionary; it has built upon itself for years and developed into a form that has immense potential.  The desire for people to collaborate and explore and think and be challenged is also not revolutionary.  So, while we have seemingly ventured upon a new horizon in human history, I believe it is just another mountain we have climbed.

Privacy in the digital age

We seem to think about privacy a lot in America. We go to great measures to ensure our privacy is protected. We have even seen our Supreme Court consider the extent of our privacy. When we discuss advances in technology, we cannot ignore how those advances affect our privacy.

As Howard Rheingold states in Smart Mobs, “Loss of privacy is perhaps the most obvious shadow side of technological cooperation systems…The surveillance state that Orwell feared was puny in its power in comparison to the panoptic web we have woven around us” (xxi).

We value privacy so much and yet, we are willing to give up certain aspects of our privacy in order to be linked into the social networks occurring with technology. Posting my photo under my name and the college I’m currently attending is okay…but my phone number better not be listed in the phonebook! We want to have control over the privacy we protect and the privacy we let slide.

Technology can also free us from the limitations of ourselves and our physical space and, in deed, offer us greater privacy. While not mentioned in Smart Mobs, the privacy that comes with the Internet can be very liberating and beneficial. Take for instance an HIV+ person who wants information about how to have safe sex and yet is too embarrassed or ashamed to ask a doctor or friend. The privacy of the Internet provides the ability to search for answers to embarrassing, yet imperative questions. The most poignant example of the brighter side of the privacy-technology issue is Rheingold’s discussion of the privacy mobile phone use affords teenagers in Japan. Private conversations via SMS can take place in a busy household or public space.

Teenagers’ desire to hold private conversations with their friends is not a new phenomenon, nor one limited to the Japanese. In Kenya, the urban youth have developed their own language in order to talk to their friends in their small, private-less homes. Shang, as it is called, is a mix of English and Swahili and is constantly changing so as to throw off the adults. Shang is also used via SMS, but with the purposes of using the shortest word possible in order to save space in the message. In a country where it is hard to find a landline and functioning, cheap Internet access, SMS is an ideal method of communication for everyone, not just teenagers. In addition to socializing, a lot of business, banking, and politicking occurs via text messaging.

As technology shifts the paradigm of how we communicate, I believe it will also shift the paradigm of how we view our privacy.

See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil

Advocacy: What is it exactly? Is it not the promotion of something? Google’s policy against allowing “advocacy” on its AdWords is the most ridiculous thing I’ve read in a very long time. What happened to their motto: Do no evil? Although Google would no doubt disagree, I would consider the promotion of things and services—marketing, as we tend to call it—advocacy. I would also consider editorializing by news organizations advocacy. And yet, their ads are full of marketing and news organizations. Since Google partially depends on searching news, it couldn’t possible consider news organizations “advocacy” organizations. In Battelle’s blog, he states, “Guess it all comes down to who’s giving them the money.”

As we read on the first page of Dan Gillmor’s We the Media, September 11, 2001, shifted the paradigm for online news (blogs and news organizations) and, therefore, online news search. Since then, news organizations have had to change the way they present news to their consumers. Battelle points to the example of the Economist as a news organization that hasn’t gotten on the online bandwagon. However, has he states, a year is a very short time and a lot has changed. The Economist has reached out to online news consumers while at the same time promoting their online services in their print editions. As an Economist subscriber, I can attest to the fact that each issue has a teaser that sends the reader online to read more on a unique story not found on the pages of the print edition. So, while they may be slow to be proactive about their online services, news organizations have no choice but to go online and hope there are enough people like me who are willing to pay for the tactile satisfaction of print editions.

With even the dinosaurs of the news organizations going online, this opens up more options for our searching tentacles to find. Our post-September 11th culture more than craves searching for news, but feels it is owed news—owed answers. In deed, we are owed answers. We are owed transparency in our government’s actions and we are owed understanding of the world’s events. But, we search for information that is not always owed to us. When search crosses that sometimes hazy line between seeking information that we have a right to and seeking information that we may not have a right to, privacy issues turn up. Battelle states, “…as many privacy advocates fear, perhaps it has noting to do with a right to know—but rather simply the ability to know” (193). As is always the question when we are on the threshold of innovation: Just because we can do it, does it mean we should do it? Evil, after all, is obsessed with the “can” and ignores the “should.”

Immortality.

Google’s socially penetrative power is exemplified in the fact that it has recently been added to the dictionary as a noun and a verb. As one article in Sci-Tech Today noted, Google has joined the ranks of Kleenex, Xerox, Band-Aid, and other companies or products to have become so deeply ingrained in our culture that they no longer exist as a brand, but as the catch-all for their product relatives.Google’s rise to preeminence in the world of online search engines is not news. We have increasingly become accustomed to its existence and to its addition to our social lexicon. However, how many of us have stopped to ask “why”? Why has an Internet search engine become so popular? Why has Google infiltrated our culture with such vigor? The most intriguing aspects of John Battelle’s book, The Search, are his existential musings on these very questions. His answer: Humanity’s unrelenting quest for knowledge.Unfortunately, this existential premise was only his entry point for setting the stage for and then discussing Google’s rise as THE means through which most of us search the Internet. While interesting to some, no doubt, what I find more curious than the life stories of the most valuable players in the world of Internet search, is how Google has shaped how we think of each other…and how we think ourselves.

When we “Google” ourselves, we are seeking to know how the world views us. We are intrigued by the notion that we can see how we are seen beyond our own eyes. This cultural anthropological search of ourselves allows us to view our place in society through the eyes of Google’s results. Before Google, newspaper clippings tucked away in a dusty scrapbook were our only proof that those beyond our small world knew we existed. We held those clippings tight and passed them on to our children so they too could know that we did, in fact, have a place in society—that we mattered.

A metamorphosis has occurred. We have woken up to find our immortality no longer contained in a scrapbook, but in an entity without any physical properties. We imagine this entity, cyberspace, has no barriers. We have woken up to find our ability to be known and to be viewed is infinite. Google has given us a sense of immortality.

Towel-clad conversations

Scoble and Israel discuss blogging in the context of corporations and business practices, but their main themes have implications for personal and political blogging, and especially blogging that walks a fuzzy line between all of these.

The US Peace Corps does not fit easily into the standard corporate-America box.  Nor do the majority of its employees—Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs).  Yet, it is worth examining the blogging needs and restrictions of PCVs while discussing Scoble and Israel’s book because of the fuzzy line that separates a PCVs work life and non-work life.    

PCVs are in a precarious position.  They are on the job for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, for the two years they live in their host country.  They are always working.  In addition, one of the three goals of Peace Corps is to share knowledge and experiences of the host country with Americans.  PCVs are on the ground, living at the level of local people in developing countries—what they experience cannot even come close to anything Americans see in movies or on TV.  It is in sharing two years of living in a developing country that makes Peace Corps such a unique program.  Yet at the same time, Peace Corps is a diplomatic agency in many respects.  PCVs represent the American government abroad and may be the only American their community may ever meet.  Because of this diplomatic nature, Peace Corps must retain a certain image.  And to retain this image, messages about the program and the countries in which it serves must be regulated. 

Since sharing experiences is written into the work plan for a PVC, regulating becomes tricky.  Peace Corps policies on regulating, prior to the blogosphere, have been limited to reviewing written material before submitting for publication.  As a PCV that had to go through this process, I was not censored.  Rather they wanted to review my work to ensure I would not jeopardize the standing Peace Corps had in the host country, nor in the world, by writing something blasphemous about the country’s government or Peace Corps’s work in the country. 

As more and more PCVs have better access to the internet, more Peace Corps-experience blogs  are appearing, such as my former village-mate’s.  It was during my service from 2004-2006 that blogging became popular and have served to vastly improve the ability for PCVs to engage in goal #3.  Before blogging, the conversations in which PCVs engaged were one-to-one or one-to-a-few.  One-to-many (i.e., print communications) were regulated by Peace Corps.  Now, with an abundance of many-to-many conversations occurring online, new forms of regulation must be developed to retain diplomatic relations…yet not censor. 

Peace Corps issued policies regarding blogging while I served, as I believe have other US international agencies (and the military).  In these policies, blogs are likened to print publications with regard to regulation.  The policy includes requiring PCVs to get approval from their country director before posting their blog, not include pictures or last names of other volunteers without their written permission, and other specific guidelines.

The authors of Naked Conversations recommended, “If you want to be a top-level blogger, you need to get over your fear of breaking the rules.  At the end of the day, you need to tell an interesting story” (185).  While some of my friends did break Peace Corps’s rules for blogging, I would suggest that one tread very carefully when doing so.  It is one thing if you risk being fired by breaking the rules; it is quite another if you risk international diplomacy and national security by breaking the rules. 

However, due to the potentially sensitive nature of topics PCVs can write about, how do the principles of Scoble’s manifesto fit into this tricky dichotomy of Peace Corps?  I would venture to say that all of the principles outlined (on page 193-94) by the authors apply.  And more must be added…but what?  When one walks this fuzzy line of work and non-work life, bears the weight of diplomatic relations, and is obligated to share their experiences as part of their job, how should their story-telling best be approached?  Where is the how-to manual for towel-clad conversations?

A Story to Share

Dan Gillmor discussed in We the Media the importance the anonymity of the internet provided bloggers.  He suggested that this anonymity allowed bloggers the freedom to push the media, policy makers, and corporations to be better institutions and people.  As I mentioned before, the power these bloggers have to push the envelope can be very beneficial, especially in situations where anonymity is the only protection the bloggers have from retribution.

With such an emphasis by Gillmor on the importance of anonymity, I was surprised to read the seemingly contrary attitude taken by Scoble and Israel’s in their book Naked Conversations.  They discuss, at length, the humanizing aspect of corporate blogs.  In fact, they quote Lenn Pryor as saying, ‘”I wanted everyone to have a face on the site to eliminate anonymity’” (17).  I can’t help but wonder:  How can blogs be anonymous and give a face in order to take away anonymity at the same time? 

After musing over this dichotomy for a few days, the only conclusion that I can come to is that it is a matter of semantics, not contradiction.

Gillmor discusses anonymity in the sense that there is no face or voice attached to the blog, but there is a person with a story to tell and experiences to share.  It is after all, only a person that can call us out on our actions or challenge us to be better—not a computer.  Scoble and Israel (and by extension, Pryor), however, discuss eliminating anonymity by showing there is a person on the other side of the computer.  Their “face” is just a façade for a person telling their story and sharing their experiences.  It is through blogs, Scoble and Israel assert, that corporations show that they are filled with everyday people and thus greatly benefit. 

As the authors note in their discussion of the benefits blogs would bring to plumbers and Gillmor, a journalist, shows through example, other professions should explore and utilize blogs.  The authors brought up Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point, to illustrate how blogs have increased and gained recognition at a exponential rate.  I bring up Malcolm Gladwell to illustrate the benefits of a blog for a writer.  In his blog, he discusses his reasons for starting his blog:  to provide a forum to continue the conversation started in and to amend or correct contents of his books.    

Through Gladwell’s blog, as well as those out of corporations, we are able to see that these people are, in fact, people and that they have stories to tell and experiences to share…just as we all have.

The Conversation Continues

Dear Mr. Gillmor:

            At the conclusion of your book, We the Media, you challenged your readers to continue the conversation.  As one of your readers who is stuck somewhere between antiquated and digital communication methods, I thought a blog-letter would be my way of continuing the conversation.

While I am still uncomfortable with some aspects of the blogosphere, your book has elucidated some beneficial aspects of this new world.  One point to which you continually return is the role of blogs in grassroots journalism and, specifically, blogging as means of civil engagement.  You state, “In country after country where free speech is not given, the blogsphere matters in far more serious ways” (140).  The bloggers in Burma and Kenya, for example, have illustrated your statement to the rest of the world.  The government in Burma was so threatened by bloggers that blogs were banned and cyber cafes were closed.  The government’s actions speak to the power of the blogosphere to incite uprising, spread awareness, and illicit change.  While most of Kenya is offline, there are some Kenyans who are able to utilize the internet to discuss their country’s current volatile situation.  There are many blogs covering the post-election violence, some more peacefully-minded and reflective than others.  In a country that censored the media’s reporting of the controversy, blogs have filled a hole for Kenyan perspectives for the international community. 

The ability for bloggers to remain anonymous is a great benefit of the blogosphere, as you noted in Chapter 9.  In countries such as Kenya and Burma, bloggers could be taking far more serious risks if they aired their grievances without the anonymity of the internet.  

While these two countries are examples of people who have incorporated blogging in their political uprisings, it is important to remember this resource is still out of reach for many.  As you noted Amy Goodman as saying, most people still don’t have access to computers; therefore, grassroots journalism must continue to promote mediums that are historically accessible to the masses.  Thomas Paine’s pamphlets and Ben Franklin’s newspaper are not obsolete quite yet.  With the advent of new mediums, we shouldn’t shrink our toolkit, but widen it. 

During the course of your continuous discussion of blogs, you theorize about a future where “people can bring serious alternatives to the public and get paid for what they do” (157).  Yet, I have to wonder:  What will happen to the grassroots feel of blogs when their writers get paid?  Will they just become the new Big Media?  Will a new grassroots, of-the-people forum have to emerge in order to combat the everlasting paradigm of Big Media?  I think you find optimism where I cannot.  Maybe it is the voluntary nature of blogging that is at the heart of the blog’s benefits.  Once bloggers become paid for their work, are they not then professional journalists and at the mercy of their funding source?          

As I mentioned in my last post, it is clear that our global society is still trying to understand the scope and ramifications of the internet, generally, and the blogosphere, specifically.  It is obvious it will take many more continuations of this conversation to come to any conclusions. 

Sincerely,

Emily

First steps in the digital age

As a newbie to blogs and the technical aspects of the digital world, I have found myself quite intimidated by this class.  However, I found the first half of Dan Gillmor’s “We the Media” refreshingly digestible and interesting.  He starts with a cursory look at how we have arrived at this interconnected digital period in journalism’s history.  By first discussing the once-distinct line between the newsmaker, the news distributor, and the news consumer and then describing how the line has blurred, Gillmor cements his point that we have experienced a true “evolution” in journalism. 

            Gillmor is not shy in his belief that the field of journalism has benefited from increased competition from who he calls the “former audience,” but he seems to waver on defining them as journalists.  He states, “…[L]ike mail lists, blogs, Wikis, SMS, and the other tools of our journalistic future, they are only tools.  They must not be confused with journalism itself.  Certain values must remain: fairness, accuracy, and thoroughness” (pg42).  Despite the blurry line between news distributors and news consumer with the advent of these tools, Gillmor seems uncomfortable defining the former audience as journalists.  While I find this to be a tricky line to walk, I too would find discomfort in this.  As I stated, I am very new to the world of blogs and am, therefore, still trying to understand the systems that are in place, if any, to regulate them.  Gillmor asserts that fairness, accuracy, and thoroughness must continue to guide the work of the former audience.  But, are these values the only regulation that can be placed on blogs?  How will this new era of “many-to-many” communication continue to evolve, and will we all be considered journalists one day? 

            In addition to the news-exchange aspects, the tools on the internet are now available are changing how we relate to and are marketed by the biggest forces in our society, politics and business.  From Ron Paul and Barack Obama being on Facebook to being able to blog about Hillary Clinton on her website, political campaigns have had to adopt new tactics online in order to campaign effectively.  As Gillmor mentioned, we saw the power of the internet in campaigns for the first time during Howard Dean’s bid in 2004.  Then it was so revolutionary that it seemed almost odd; now it is expected and socially mandatory to have a strong online presence.  A blog on blogherald.com noted that Hillary Clinton recently discussed how she would promote a transparent government via government bloggers.  As the blogger mentioned, blogging isn’t quite a perfect solution to a transparent government.  Propaganda can come in all forms, including that of a blog or internet posting, as exemplified by the Kenyan government’s website.  This posting shows the negative effects the internet can have, including inciting violence in a volatile country. 

            While Cory Doctorow’s, et. al “Essential Blogging” (chapter 1) was full of very useful information regarding blogs, Doctorow does note that blogs can be very self-indulgent.  He also notes that there isn’t the same sense of needing to be careful about conflicts of interest.  As the posting by the Kenyan government shows, conflict of interest isn’t always adhered to on the internet.  Doctorow’s musings on the ability to write about any topic in any manner struck me as contradictory to Gillmor’s “fairness, accuracy, and thoroughness” plea. 

            Both readings provide a sense that there is a lot still unknown about the new tools available to us and how to navigate them—both digitally and responsibly—but that regardless of how we manage this, we will do it as an interconnected community.