Archive for May 2009

Clay Shirky on Information Overload

May 31, 2009

He makes a good point:

By the time that the publishing industries spun up in Venice in the early- to mid-1500s, the ability to have access to more reading material than you could finish in a lifetime is now starting to become a general problem of the educated classes. And by the 1800s, it’s a general problem of the middle class. So there is no such thing as information overload, there’s only filter failure, right? Which is to say the normal case of modern life is information overload for all educated members of society.

If you took the contents of an average Barnes and Noble, and you dumped it into the streets and said to someone, “You know what’s in there? There’s some works of Auden in there, there’s some Plato in there. Wade on in and you’ll find what you like.” And if you wade on in, you know what you’d get? You’d get Chicken Soup for the Soul. Or, you’d get Love’s Tender Fear. You’d get all this junk. The reason we think that there’s not an information overload problem in a Barnes and Noble or a library is that we’re actually used to the cataloging system. On the Web, we’re just not used to the filters yet, and so it seems like “Oh, there’s so much more information.” But, in fact, from the 1500s on, that’s been the normal case.

So, the real question is, how do we design filters that let us find our way through this particular abundance of information? And, you know, my answer to that question has been: the only group that can catalog everything is everybody. One of the reasons you see this enormous move towards social filters, as with Digg, as with del.icio.us, as with Google Reader, in a way, is simply that the scale of the problem has exceeded what professional catalogers can do. But, you know, you never hear twenty-year-olds talking about information overload because they understand the filters they’re given. You only hear, you know, forty- and fifty-year-olds taking about it, sixty-year-olds talking about because we grew up in the world of card catalogs and TV Guide. And now, all the filters we’re used to are broken and we’d like to blame it on the environment instead of admitting that we’re just, you know, we just don’t understand what’s going on.

Yes!  I think Google’s success, in part, is that it has been in the lead when it comes to effective and intuitive information filtering.  Think about where it started, with the search algorithm – that’s all it was.

Though I do disagree with Shirky in thinking that the only way information can be catalogued is socially.  I think there will be some ways in which and some things that can only be catalogued by people, but for the most part, algorithms and other automated process will be able to handle it.  They’ll have to.

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Two good posts on journalism

May 25, 2009

Both from Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism; the first deals with the value of journalism:

And that’s what too many journalists do not seem to understand – people never actually paid for the journalism. If they had, we could have been out selling our work individually on the streets (why have a middleman?). They paid for the aggregation, the convenience and the filtering function — yes, the packaging, as much as anything .

Journalists needed the middleman. So did consumers. It was a nice symbiotic model. But consumers no longer need it so much. The business only works so long as both sides of the equation are in equilibrium.

I’ve been making this point for some time now, that what’s especially important journalism post-Internet is the ability to filter information and point readers/subscribers to what’s important  Just because the world’s information is at my fingertips does not mean I have the time to sort through it all myself.  In a way, the question “Is this newsworthy?” is becoming even more important.

The second post is a reprint of a column that breaks down journalism into four parts.  A taste:

To do that, I‘ve proposed four broad areas: acquiring information, analyzing and interpreting information, presenting information and finding an audience.

This isn’t just academic, however. It can be useful in assessing your newsroom. We discovered, for instance, that we put a lot of effort into showing students how to present information, but perhaps not enough into acquiring and analyzing it and very little into helping these young journalists understand the audience.

A-freaking-men to that.  Again, analysis – what am I looking at and why should I care? – is important and underrated.  It’s not a new idea, but I’d love to see a journalism/tech pairing, where one writes the stories and the other does data mining and prepares the information for presentation.  Or perhaps a degree geared towards that.

Go read both.

One distinction about the future of work

May 25, 2009

From a Slashdot summary:

Princeton economist Alan Blinder argues that the crucial distinction in the emerging labor market is not between those with more or less education, but between those whose services can be delivered over a wire and those who must do their work in person or on site.

I tend to think that given the way things are going, this could be pretty true.  However, I don’t necessarily think that should or has to be the case.  But it’s an interesting way to think about it.

Ira Socol on the web, meaning, and connectivity

May 25, 2009

Some very, very sharp things are said in this blog post.  I’m not sure I agree with them, completely, but they are definitely worth thinking about.

Found via A Collage of Citations.

[LCSD] LT on the Election

May 25, 2009

LT has a very pragmatic – sobering? – post on the election that you should read.

Oregon Taser Death

May 24, 2009

From the O:

Officers were called to an apartment in the 1200 block of Royvonne Avenue Southeast in Salem about 7:38 p.m. following a report of a man who was trespassing. They encountered Rold, who Okada said “violently” resisted arrest.

That prompted officers to shoot him with a Taser and strike him with their batons. After he was handcuffed, officers realized Rold was unconscious. According to Okada, they immediately called for medical help and gave emergency aid to Rold. Rold was then taken to Salem Hospital where he died.

Read between the lines a bit – they didn’t realize until after he was handcuffed that he was unconscious.  That means they tasered and/or beat him so hard that his not moving at all while they were down on the ground with him, up close, moving his limbs around to place handcuffs on.

This is disgusting.

h/t KD.

Local newspaper comment threads – a suggestion

May 23, 2009

Rhetorical question:  Why don’t I seem to have as much free time as I used to?  Anyway…..

Recently, I’ve had a few discussions about comment threads and having comments on newspaper websites in general.  Said discussions were prompted, in part, by both the GT story on the Sako case and by a typically ignorant and banal editorial that ran in the DH (no link).  Let me see if I can reproduce the gist here.

1.  The local Lee papers currently have automated comment moderation system.  This means that no one manually reviews the comments that are left on the MVV site or news stories unless someone complains, meaning comments that get past the moderation system but are clearly not cool get posted and may stay posted for some time.

2.  The comment threads on many of the news stories at the GT, DH, and LE are dominated by the same few (maybe few dozen, at most) people.  These folks also happen to be, for lack of a better term, haters – that is, they attack anyone and each other over relatively minor things, make plenty of factual errors, and engage in ad hominem attacks quite frequently.  The overall result is that most of the comment threads on most of the stories (and especially editorials and letters to the editor) are really unpleasant.  The Sako case story thread is a great example.

3.  I believe that to build a good commenter base – commentariat – takes conscious decisions, time and effort on the part of whoever is hosting the website.  Someone has to step in and model the desired behavior the hosting organization wants to see, and not be afraid to play bad cop when necessary.

4.  No one at Lee is doing that.  I don’t blame the local staff; it takes a lot of time and training they, to the best of my knowledge, have not been granted.  But the fact remains that the comment threads hosted by their newspapers are crap threads, and they will stay that way until someone comes along and makes a conscious effort to change them.

And unfortunately, ignoring the threads and the commenters is not an option.  Whether people like it or not, those commenters reflect on the newspapers.  If the local Lee newspaper websites are going to bother with allowing comments, they need to be doing it right, not doing it because everyone else is.  That suggests a lack of understanding at the corporate level (and possibly the local) about what allowing comments means and what it requires.

5. Again, this is not to blame the local staff.  I know the overall number of Lee reporters in the valley has been steadily shrinking in the last several years, and they’ve had a fair amount of work added to their jobs – blogs, videos, the MVV site, etc.  But ignoring it won’t make the problem go away.

6.  So what’s the solution?  Given the relative lack of money in the newspaper industry right now, I doubt that simply hiring a bunch of new staff is an option =)  However, a friend of mine suggested something that seems painfully obvious in retrospect.  Interns!  Specifically, social media/web coordinator interns.

I could be wrong about this, but hear me out:  The economy’s not good.  College students are more likely to intern for free (or at very low levels of pay) right now, and, if done right, this would allow both the students massively valuable and meaningful experience right away (and be one hell of a resume item) and the newspapers to bring people on board who, frankly, probably know more about the web than most of the newspaper staff – meaning the staff could learn from the interns; professional development at minimal cost to the newspapers.  It would also be, of course, free person-hours dedicated to web work.  I’m thinking Twitter, RSS feeds, video and audio incorporation (at least on the tech end), comment/forum moderation and participation, strict web development, etc.

OSU doesn’t have a full J-school, but UO does, and OSU does have a New Media Communications department.  So:  What am I missing?  Is this a crap idea, or is it worth pursuing?

One last note:  Do I think interns should be paid?  Absolutely!  But I’m not that naive, either.