My Intro to Computer Science course and my Intro to Digital Communications courses are linked a whole lot more than I would have thought. We were just reading about Milgram’s Small World experiments in computer science, and it’s shown up again in digicom. In this week’s response, I read Jill Walker Rettberg’s book on Blogging. More specifically, chapters 2 and 3 of the book.
Rettberg starts out by quoting Plato on his problems with the written word. To Plato, if you ask text a question it will “preserve a solemn silence.” These days with blogs, you’re encouraged to talk back and ask questions, and the writer will usually respond. If not, someone else probably will. When you ask a question, everyone around will see it, and anyone can respond, creating the dialogue that Plato spoke so highly of.
Radio, as Rettberg pointed out, could have become interactive, having transmitters as well as receivers, it was too expensive and thus only the elite owned their own long-range transmitters. In place of ham radio, talk shows allowed the same ability to respond to what you hear, but they are moderated and not as open as ham radio was.
The biggest gains in the introduction of the Internet to communication are the vast dissemination powers it contains. Rettberg examined the blogosphere as a few vastly popular sites and a very long tail of less popular sites, but “Despite each of these blogs having only a few readers, all of them put together have more than the New York Times has readers or the BBC has viewers.” The blogosphere has many small communities which link to each other, and having in-links is power. Someone on Facebook with over a thousand friends will get their message out there way more easily since they have a lot of connections.
On the other hand, since everything you publish on a blog usually sticks around, you need to be careful about your content and linking to friends. Rettberg highlighted a few examples of people who posted something stupid online and got fired or got into hot water for linking with inappropriate friends. An out-of-context post can stick around for many years, and might be seen by people who don’t know the context and might be off-putting.
That said, I can see the advantage to having this long-term retention on blogs. I got a comment a while ago on a post I’d written months earlier. You don’t know who your readers will be.
I’m starting to get a bit mentally exhausted. I’ve noticed that as I continue with these posts, it gets harder to be as creative as I was the previous time around. That’s why I found the quote at the beginning of chapter 7 of Writing for Digital Media to be reassuring:
“It’s easy to write poorly, but it’s hard to write poorly every day … It’s hard to write every day.” – Rebecca Blood, pioneering blogger
Now, I’m not writing every day, but I am writing more than I used to. Months have gone by since the last time I sat down to write, and it’s a bit like exercising every day: the first few times I’m energetic and eager to begin, but after dragging myself to the gym every day for a week I’m about ready to resign myself to the couch.
In chapter 7, Brian Carroll discusses the concept of blogging and journalism, and says that not everyone with a blog is a journalist, just as anyone with a camera is not a photographer. In fact, most bloggers rely on journalism for the content that they critique and respond to. Carroll pointed out severalexamples of bloggers calling people out and doing fact-checking in response to the news of the time.
Bloggers also help to add a personal context to the news, summarizing it and making it more accessible and understandable. They’ll link to an article and respond to it, just like how I’m responding to my readings.
Carroll also says that news organizations use blogs as supplements to regular news articles, providing a director’s cut version with extras that were omitted from the article. Making these extra resources on-demand instead of putting them into the paper or on TV means that those who want more can check it out, and others won’t be bored by too much information.
The number one thing about blogs according to Carroll is that they must be updated frequently. As per the quote above, that isn’t always easy, but it is easier when you have a source to respond to, like something in the news or a reading for instance.
The second characteristic I drew from the reading is that everything you say should be true, or at least you shouldn’t lie. If you link your source, then people will be able to decide for themselves what is true and what isn’t. If you make a habit of linking to unreliable sources, however, you’re putting your reputation in jeopardy.
If you publish something that’s wrong, be sure to burn the evidence. Another important point is to call yourself out on any corrections you make. Instead of just deleting your posts, consider crossing them out or writing an update to correct your mistake.
All throughout our history, mankind has developed new and innovative technology. It’s a noble pursuit, and we’ve spent billions to create the backbone networks to support national and international communication capable of sending unimaginable amounts of data every second. Even though these systems were designed for a serious purpose, however, people always seem to find a way to use them to goof off.
After reading Wired magazine’s article on early social networks and prototypes from the 1960’s onward, I was actually a bit surprised by some of the technologies showcased. The Community Memory terminals from 1973 really look at least 10 years ahead of their time, and the iMode phone that could be used in place of cash at vending machines in 1999 makes me wonder why NFC still hasn’t really taken off like it could.
What I got out of seeing all these innovations the most, however, is that a lot of ideas we think of as cool and new are really being borrowed from the past. Consider Nintendo’s DS handheld console from 2004 and its unique dual screen setup. It’s not as unique as you might think; Nintendo drew from one of its earlier systems, the 1982 Donkey Kong Game and Watch.
Borrowing from older ideas and fleshing out prototypes and proof-of-concept ideas is something we’ve always been doing, and technology always tends to evolve from earlier concepts. Consider your standard QWERTY keyboard, for example. It was modeled after terminal keyboards, and terminal keyboards were modeled after Teletype keyboards, and teletype keyboards were modeled after typewriters. Our phones today still follow the conventions that the old Bell phones had back in the day.
The thing about many of these concepts is that people have envisioned them long before they’re actually feasible. Take a look at AT&T’s 1993 commercials predicting the future. Notice that they’ve got GPS, video-on-demand, teleconferencing, touchscreens, text-to-speech and other various concepts in that video, but at the time none of them were highly accessible. Vehicle navigation systems, in fact, were around since 1985, but most people didn’t even have a GPS in their car until the early 2000’s.
As far as communications and sharing are concerned, as long as people have been social beings we’ve had the urge to communicate with each other, and as long as we’ve had the technical means to do so we’ve created new ways to share. Before means existed, we dreamed about them and made prototypes. The future is largely the past being realized and made commercially available.
Would you continue reading your favorite news website if you found out that they make everything up? Or that they quote everyone out of context? Accuracy is an important goal in journalism, and it can make or break your reputation.
Kovach and Rosenstiel write in “Journalism of Verification” that journalism is different from entertainment and other expression because it “alone is focused first on getting what happened down right.”
The overarching solution I gathered from “Journalism of Verification” to the problem of inaccuracy and unchecked facts is that journalists need to have more of a “scientific method” regarding objectivity, including the following guidelines:
“Never add anything that was not there.
Never deceive the audience.
Be transparent as possible about your methods and motives.
Rely on your own original reporting.
Seems like a good plan to me. Embellishing stories is great for fiction, or works that are “based on a true story”, but not in the news. As far as deceiving the audience, it’s very easy to accidentally misquote someone by getting one or two words wrong.
If you’re getting second-hand information, it would make it even harder to get the right quotes, which is why doing your own work is so important, or at least not accepting blindly what others have written. Consider the Twitter rumor I wrote about earlier, I blindly retweeted false information because I didn’t verify it myself.
In terms of transparency, letting your readers know everything up-front makes you appear more credible and trustworthy. Hiding information usually means that you’re up to no good. I particularly liked the part in the article in which Kovach and Rosenstiel say to release the name of your anonymous source if it turns out that they’re misleading you or aren’t being truthful, because it means that you won’t let a lie go unpunished.
After reading chapter 4 of Brian Carroll’s Writing for Social Media, I realize that I’ve done myself a disservice with a previous post regarding headlines. I titled the post “Can you believe it?” because I was trying to be “cute” with the post title. I did this at the cost of SEO, though.
Using a Google page ranking service, I put in the keywords “can you believe it” and my post’s URL. The post’s title is very generic, and didn’t show up on the first 10 pages of Google. My more recent post on website credibility shows up on page 1, though, and in just 3 keywords. In fact, for just the phrase “website credibility impressions” I’m up there on the front page.
I’m just a college student, and I wouldn’t consider myself an expert on website credibility. At least, besides my best guesses and intuition and attending one formal lecture on website credibility, I’ve never done serious study on the topic. Since I titled my blog post relevantly, however, Google thinks my article is important enough to put up on page 1. My other cutely-titled post, however, doesn’t get any respect. 10 pages of searching and it’s just not there. What I’d make of this is that Carroll is absolutely correct: title your pages relevantly instead of trying to be clever or cute.
What I did better in my last post
Besides just a better headline, I tried to do other things better to conform to Carroll’s recommendations about links, lists, and length. I’ve tried to break up paragraphs and have subheadings instead of just one long block of text.
(For this assignment, we were given a website address and had to answer some questions. Since this isn’t really a response to reading and just the result of a group project, the results are posted after the jump.)
(One of the books assigned to us in Communications class is Brian Carroll’s Writing for Digital Media. I’m going to be responding to it throughout the semester.)
As I said in my introductory post, anyone in the world can publish content to the Internet! For the first time, ordinary citizens can disseminate information just as fast as the major news networks, if not faster. Indeed, there is a multitude of information out there, but like Arthur said in the video above: how do you know if any of it’s true? After a devastating tsunami hit Japan in 2011, I was reading Twitter and came across some disturbing news:
This tweet really hit home for me, because I was walking to Gamestop as I read it to pickup Pokemon Black, and the creator had just died. I decided to check the details for the tweet, and found that over 200,000 people had retweeted it, confirming in my mind at least that it was a fact. I retweeted it as well, meaning that everyone who follows me will get the message as well. I did some Googling and found a few bloggers already confirming the fact, based only on the tweet. I found reputable news blogs linking to the tweet as their source. There was no doubt in my mind as I walked into Gamestop 15 minutes later that the creator of Pokemon was dead; killed in the tsunami.
That is, until a random stranger responded to me with something along these lines:
NOT DEAD! Yuko Yamaguchi (Hello Kitty) + Satoshi Tajiri (Pokemon) creators are alive. Please stop spreading death rumors. #earthquake#japan
Well drat, I got myself caught up in a rumor. Turns out this tweet was real, and the previous one wasn’t. Still, how can I believe this tweet without doing some fact checking? I checked the same blogs, and found that many of them had redacted or changed their stories to reflect this new information. Why should I trust them at all if they can’t make up their minds? Why should anyone trust me if I’m spreading these rumors as well? I retweeted the first tweet! I’m part of the problem! I quickly deleted (detweeted?) the false tweet from my timeline, but how many hundreds of people had read it? Enough for someone to reply directly to me to tell me I was spreading lies.
In his book, Brian Carroll quotes Phillip Meyer as saying “the more users rely on Weblogs, the higher their assessment of credibility.” I’d agree with this statement, as in my case whenever a news story breaks, I’m on Twitter searching for reactions. I tend to read the same technology blogs day by day, and have come to generally trust anything said on the bigger ones, or ones from people who’ve written quality articles in the past. Still, however, I have my limits. Carroll argues that if a website looks unprofessional or requires you to pay or register to view its contents, you’ll probably doubt its overall quality. I mentioned in my earlier posts that content is king, that even if you have a really poorly designed website, if you write excellent content you’ll still have a chance. I’m not so sure anymore, as it does seem that well designed sites appear more credible. Consider an e-commerce site that looks like it was designed by a middle-school student or doesn’t have SSL encryption. Would you trust them?
Page design aside, Carroll also discusses how when you’re writing for the web, you should write in a way that can be easily scanned. The average web reader skims content vertically as well as horizontally, and may not want to search long prose to find their answer. At almost 600 words so far, I’m not doing a great job of keeping my writing concise, but I am trying to bold the main points. Carroll points out that abstracts are great because they satisfy impatient web users who want the main points as fast as possible.
The web should be interactive!
Unlike in print media, Carroll points out that we have the power on the web to send out unlimited amounts of color images, sound, and video. Since we have all this power, we should take advantage of it. In fact, people expect us to take advantage of it, and they might go elsewhere if we don’t deliver. Many times I’ll find myself searching for information on the Internet and will come across multiple articles covering the same thing, but one of them will happen to be in image or video form. I’ll almost always take the video rather than a long article. They tend to deliver all the information I need in a shorter amount of time with fewer words and more enthusiasm. Exactly what I need when I’m trying to get information right away.
(As part of my communications class, I am to write responses to all required readings and post them on my blog. In short, the entire world can read my homework, so I’d better make it good!)
Before I started reading Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” I instinctively looked at my browser’s scroll bar to get an estimate of how long the article would be. Concerned when I realized the bar spanned 37 pages, I scrolled down to where the article ended and realized most of the pages are comments. Suddenly I felt relieved, since I now knew how long the article I was about to read would be.
This pre-reading behavior of mine went well with one of Carr’s main points: it’s harder for people today to immerse themselves in longer readings. I couldn’t just start reading the article, it seemed too long at first to just dive into. When I got to the article, I expected to extract the main points immediately, rather than searching for them across many pages.
Carr points out studies that show that while people are reading more than they used to, they aren’t reading to retain information, rather that they “power browse horizontally through titles, contents pages and abstracts going for quick wins.” This type of behavior sounds exactly like the type promoted by StumbleUpon, in which you have a big button that will take you to a random website, and you look at each site for maybe a few seconds each. Sure, you can save pages and go back to them later, but I never really did when I tried it. There’s just too much information out there to skim to go back and study anything in-depth. Even when reading Google News I rarely click past the headlines; why slow down when there’s an endless ticker tape of one-sentence factoids to consume?
The Internet also seems to be reducing our sophistication. Gregory Ulmer’s “The Learning Screen” features a table of apparatuses common to citizens of the Internet, and “Entertainment” is featured as the main practice of electracy. Even though the initial vision of the ARPANET was to link universities and government agencies and put information at our fingertips, but if you look at the most popular sites on the Internet it would seem most people use it for browsing cat pictures. Ulmer explains that electracy is usually introduced through TV, video games, and various other entertainment venues while “literacy often begins in the home as well, but is fully implemented when the child starts school,” which creates problems for electracy since the school doesn’t endorse it. I’ve written in the past about how computers and education don’t seem to get along, and this seems to hold true today. Ullman and Carr both point to Socrates and Plato, and how they weren’t treated very well back in the day because of their ideas and teachings were corrupting the youth, but how many centuries later we recognized the importance of their ideas. On the topic of Electracy, Ullman says that we should “appreciate the potential of Entertainment, not to judge it exclusively by its present accomplishments, but to imagine what it might be two millennia into the future,” just as we did with literacy.
Carr mentions how the invention of the mechanical clock is a historical example of inventions changing how our brain functions, that “in deciding when to eat, to work, to sleep, to rise, we stopped listening to our senses and started obeying the clock.” I would agree with this sentiment as well. Early in my life I got into the habit of wearing an electronic wristwatch wherever I went. The watch was very advanced, and had a timer, a stopwatch, 3 alarms, and 2 different time zones. As much as I just played around with it, I also used it to get my life into a routine. By the first alarm I’d wake up, the second alarm would signify breakfast, and the third would indicate when I had to go off to school. After school, I’d set a stopwatch to track how long I did homework for, stopping for TV breaks every 20 minutes, and a timer that would indicate how much time till dinner, till I had to go to bed, etc. I tried to synchronize my life to meet the demands of this technology.
I found Carr’s passage about Google’s motives behind their drive to get us instant information particularly interesting, as it’s true that the more we hop from page to page, the more advertising dollars Google gets. The idea of getting what you need and moving on seems a bit like answering to the demands of a timer or an alarm on your watch. No time to sit around if you’re on the clock, and no real reason to keep reading if you’ve gotten what you need. It’s a double edged sword: on one hand, you can be more efficient but on the other you don’t get as rich a content. If I want today’s weather forecast I don’t even need to go past Google, but what I don’t see is the weather maps, the extended forecast, the air pollution index, or anything else that might enhance my knowledge. If I ask Siri if I need a jacket this evening, it’ll tell me yes or no, which is the answer I’m looking for, but that’s about all I’ll know.