Strong, Proud, Barnard Women (Updated)

Three of my friends and Barnard classmates show off our Barnard College pride before the Columbia University-wide commencement. (Yes, Barnard students wear the same robes as all other undergrad graduates at Columbia University)

I started writing a post about Barnard-Columbia relations in the wake of the announcement that President Barack Obama will be the commencement speaker at Barnard College, but I decided it was too specific for a broad audience. But then, The New York Times decided it was a story worthy of a national newspaper.  And Jezebel followed up with a blog post. This letter is to Anna Bahr, the sophomore at Barnard who sent in the information about the comments on the campus blog, Bwog, to Jezebel.

If you don’t want to click on the links, here’s the one paragraph version of the back story (up to date through March 7): President Barack Obama, a graduate of Columbia College,  told Barnard that he would speak at Barnard’s commencement (likely a reflection of the central role women’s issues have taken in the current election); Barnard said “yes, please,” and the executive editor of the New York Times, Jill Abramson, who was scheduled to speak said “I’ll come another time.” Students got annoyed that Barnard was getting Obama instead of Columbia, and wrote nasty comments on the campus blog, Bwog. The New York Times picked up the story and quoted the President of Barnard as dismissing the comments (their verb, not mine) as “19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” Students got annoyed and angry and asked for a better response, and the presidents of Barnard and of Columbia University issued another statement.

Here’s my response to one annoyed student who wrote into the feminist blog Jezebel, which is published by Gawker media.

Dear Anna,

As an alumna of Barnard I’ve been following this story with interest. I first heard that Obama was coming from a text from a fellow Barnard alumna. (You should know that the word “Barnard” will make you instant friends with not only other Barnard alumnae but also other Seven Sisters alumnae. It’s pretty great). I called her and we got really excited for Barnard and then, because we are now public policy students, we talked about the politics of it.

I’ve also been following it with rolled eyes. I suspect that this kind of conversation about the Barnard-Columbia relationship has been around since 1982, when Columbia became co-ed. The Internet just brought the insecurities to the surface and allowed people to express them with the kind of disgustingness that is only possible with anonymity.

Bwog is its own special (and often terrible) ecosystem. It was launched when I was in college, and I can tell you that it used to be much worse. People used to post terrible terrible things about individuals, naming them by name, and Bwog, then an infant publication, didn’t have a policy to deal with those kind of comments. I think that they do now, and I think that that level of vitriol has improved a bit.

This is all to say that everything and everyone grows up. Bwog has grown up, and the people posting on Bwog will grow up. I think that Barnard President Deborah Spar,  wasn’t simply dismissive, it was a description of reality.

You know as well as anyone that Barnard isn’t easier than Columbia. There is nothing intrinsic in Barnard’s distribution requirements that make them easier than Columbia’s famed Core Curriculum, just wildly different. And a required thesis and a required major–which Barnard has and Columbia does not– certainly do not make completing a Barnard education easier than a Columbia education.

In a lot of ways, the schools are so totally different. There are different cultures; there are different attitudes from the administrators about what students should get from college experiences (See: Barnard offering Greek Games, a functional advising systems, student leadership awards, and the I ❤ BC Day for examples). There are different opportunities. And, of course, there are a lot of similarities. They share sports teams, clubs, and a school newspaper. And, Columbia University has a hand in conferring degrees to the students of both Columbia College and Barnard College (not to mention they also confer or have a hand in conferring degrees to the students of SEAS, the school of General Studies, Teachers College and a lot of other schools). I say “hand in conferring” because the degree is issued by both Barnard and Columbia, not just by Columbia.

But the main difference that people on those boards seem to be griping about when you cut through the crap? Admissions rate. Barnard has a higher admissions rate than Columbia College.

Long story short, I think that this is the reason that President Spar told the New York Times the nastiness in the comments  “probably is 19-year-olds writing at 4:30 in the morning.” It’s not just dismissive. It’s reality. By the time junior year rolls around, SAT scores and admissions letters should feel distant. What seemed like the cornerstone of self worth as a senior in high school (how prestigious, according to admissions rates the college you chose is) should fade into new measures (how happy am I? Is this school a good fit? Am I getting an education I enjoy, and am challenged by?).

So, when people write that Barnard getting diplomas that are similar to Columbia College degrees somehow diminishes the value of a Columbia College degree, they are still stuck in the high school mentality. I wish there was a way to see who is commenting on Bwog, but I’d be really surprised if the people harping on admissions rate were seniors. Admissions rates should fade from view as other things become more important and better arbiters of your employability or all-around awesomeness.

Don’t take President Spar’s statement as simply dismissive (I mean, of course you can take it that way, but know that it might not be the only way to take it). It can also be seen as a statement of hope: that people grow up, and where you went to college matters less and less.

XKCD: "Duty Calls", http://xkcd.com/386/

Are the terrible comments terrible? Yes. But the first rule of surviving the Internet should be “don’t feed the trolls.”

The graduation requirements only matter in so far as how much you can apply the knowledge you have learned, along with your experiences outside of the classroom, to your life post-college.

The admissions statistics don’t matter at all.

The comments on Bwog don’t matter at all, either.

Love,
Leora

P.S. Do you know who the second person to text me about Obama’s speech was? A friend who is a Columbia College alumna. She also thought the news was cool.

UPDATES: President Deborah Spar and President Lee C. Bollinger have issued an updated statement that says, in part, “we join in the sentiments expressed by so many of our wise and thoughtful students that disrespectful comments are not representative of our community”. 

On March 4, a day after the post about Obama speaking at Barnard went up on the site, Bwog put up a call to “help us rewrite our comment policy.” I  just noticed it while updating the links  for this post.

And, a current Barnard student makes a case for why the comments matter more than I think they do.

Game Change the Movie: A Review

The best parts of the movie Game Change was the look of panic that Ed Harris gives his staff when his audience turns really nasty against Obama. It gives a moment of humanity to a movie that otherwise is ripped straight from the headlines. And, while that might be enticing for a Law and Order episode, for a political movie, it feels like watching what I lived through by reading the news just last year.

It could be that I am just too much of a news junky to enjoy this movie, because everything felt like old hat. Plus, it seemed particularly mean to Palin–nothing in the movie surprised me, but after the first few scenes, we rarely see the charisma and following that she had. I would have liked to see a lot more about the people who were die hard Palin fans and fewer scenes (there were so many!) that said over and over again that she was unprepared for this.

Julianne Moore got the accent, but she wasn’t given much else to work with. It was basically just straight quotes from Palin. There were glimpses into how the campaign destroyed Palin, but there could have been more about how the campaign changed her personally.

The other parts that really worked in the movie were the interactions between the McCain staffers. Those moments were interesting and those characters showed a wide range of emotions and frustrations. I would have loved to see a movie that focused almost exclusively on them.

I am currently sitting in an event at which John Heilman, Mark Halperin — co-authors of the book– and Len Amato, the president of HBO films are speaking. Halperin just said that the movie was not only about the principals, but also about the staff. I really would have liked to see a whole lot more about the staff. I once heard that the television show The West Wing was originally not going to have anyone be the president; it was just going to be the staff, and sometimes the President’s back would be glimpsed but nothing more. They clearly scrapped that very early on in the West Wing development process, but it might have been something facsinating — a movie about McCain/Palin staff and about the Palin  fans–to do with this particular plot, where everyone already knows the principals.

Heilman, the other author of the book, said that the chapters of the book that dealt with Palin were “a series of big set pieces,” big events that shaped the campaign. Ultimately, the movie hits those set pieces, but rarely goes much deeper.

The Journalist and The Activist

I’m stil trying to figure out what this blog will look like if I am still not going to express political opinions but also don’t have the veil of class assignments to hide behind.

But, I like blogging. So, I’m going to try this.

This semester, I am taking “Solving Problems with Digital Technology.” We are working with the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative  to come up with innovative uses of technology in the Dudley Street neighborhood.

The other day, a woman came to speak to us about going into communities that are not our own and trying to help. We spent a good portion of the time talking about how to interview community members so that we actually are hearing what they want, what their concerns are, and what they think will be helpful, rather than pushing our own agendas on them.

I sat in class nodding and getting excited. “Hey,” I thought, “this is someplace where I can put my journalism skills to work.” A lot of what I heard were things I learned at Spectatordress appropriately for the story you are reporting  and the community you are going into (i.e. going to Manhatanville? Best not wear your Columbia sweatshirt and hat). Take notes without being obtrusive. Ask open ended questions.

So, there I am nodding  along, when the speaker starts talking about telling the person in advance  exactly what you are going to ask him, and about possibly (albeit rarely) compensating community members for their time. The journalists in the room stopped writing. And then, the speaker mentions cameras, asking permission to take photos (which is usually nice manners in journalism too, and necessary if you’re not on public property), and then–this was the kicker–she talked about handing over the camera to the person you photographed, showing him how to use the camera, and then letting him delete all the photos or recordings he doesn’t like.

That’s when it struck me. Journalism is kind of about the “gotcha” questions. It’s not that we are out to get the people we are interviewing; it’s just that we understand that news comes in the candid comments and images. Too much preparation and  too much ceding control of the interview and the material from the interview to the interviewee doesn’t produce the candid news we might need.

I do think that the complaints about the big bag media trying to trip up presidential candidates is ridiculous and petty; the political journalists are just trying to get information out of people whose job it is to be evasive. And, I know that activism shouldn’t be intertwined with journalism. There is value in telling an unadulterated story, even if it’s about someone a lot less powerful than a politician. Letting the person you are interviewing edit out what they don’t want from a story makes boring news, and it also makes less effective news. Readers don’t read or respond to boring, cleaned up stories. So, I understand the role that journalism ethics play in good reporting.

But, sometimes, it’s good to be reminded that the ethics of journalism are not the norm for other interactions. And that what works with a press pass isn’t always the smartest way to effect change.

I am working this semester as a research assistant for a long-time journalist, David Greenway. As I was walking out of his office after the interview, he asked me, “what do you want to do after graduation?”

“I’m trying different things,” I said, “but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing I am going to love more than journalism.”

“I like that we speak the same language,” he said. “Journalists understand each other.”

There’s that. He knew exactly what I meant. So, while I see the ways that other people might argue that journalism ethics aren’t ethical, I also see the value in them and in journalism and believe deeply in all that.

It’s something I’ll keep thinking about in the next year and a half (and hopefully after graduation too).


The Crystal Ball is Really Murky

I want to believe that news has a future. I don’t mean that things will continue to blow up, countries will continue to go to war, celebrities will continue to stumble, and people will continue to invent and discover.

That news of course, does have a future in that their will always be things people want to know about. I also have faith that those kind of things–the war, and crime, and inventions–will get passed on from the newsmakers to everyone else without much trouble. That’s the kind of news that can be passed on with a release or a tweet. Community boards can start their own newsletters or blogs. Even some of the really big news can come straight from the source through the Internet. And, if we see newspapers as the way that people found out what was going on in the world, then newspapers probably are obsolete.

But newspapers are more than that. It’s not enough to know war broke out; people should know what happens in that war, what leads to things going terribly wrong as well as what is going right. Cold cases should come back in the public eye. Industry deception and hidden dangers should be revealed. The news from the mouth of the source should be weighed against opposing views. That’s the kind of stuff that journalism provides, and that can’t always be replaced with the mess of ways to communicate that the Internet provides.

Of course, those stories are generally expensive, and, as Nick Carr points out, were previously funded by bundling. Carr’s article did an excellent job laying out the problems with the industry’s over-reliance on bundling. But he ends his post by saying that quality journalism might just die. He offers no solution to the very real problem.

I was heartened, however, by the underlying message in Jeff Jarvis‘ post, even though I remain skeptical of it’s most obvious point:

I’ll say it again: Distribution is not king. Content is not king. Conversation is the kingdom. It’s about relationships.

I believe that it’s somehow about relationships, but I’m still not sure how the community interaction part plays in. The Boston Globe is betting on the True Fans model: people who just need their Red Sox fix can get it for free, but people who love the Globe–for it’s reporting on non-sports, or for other, more emotional reasons–will pay for it at BostonGlobe.com. Not coincidentally, BostonGlobe.com is also where they intend to have their most vibrant commenting system. But, I think that relationships and conversation are two different things.

I have a relationship with the Globe. My very first byline was on a book review for the Globe‘s long-gone Student Page. I was nine years old. The Globe is My Hometown Newspaper, so when they told me I’d have to pay for access, I did. But I don’t have a conversation with the Globe. I rarely comment on newspaper articles; I can’t imagine my Globe subscription will change that.

When I asked the publisher of the Globe, Christopher Mayer, what value he foresaw getting from a BostonGlobe.com commenting system, he talked about community, and feedback and solid reader contributions, driven by the fact that readers would not be able to hide under full anonymity (at least the subscription sale people know who you are no matter how strange your commenting handle is). Maybe that can all be monetized, and maybe he didn’t want to tell me how that would be monetized (the answer might be offline–the Globe will be offering that same commenting community in-person events), but right now I don’t see how communication leads to money, or certainly not to the money needed to make up for the unbundling. That being said, I’m not sure the True Fans model will make enough money for that either. I don’t think shorting stocks or “”scooping the muck from the sewer and holding it up in your hand and saying, ‘Look at this. Smell this””  is the answer either.

I’m skeptical of conversation as kingdom–though I recognize that might be because so many sites add commenting as a tack-on rather than a thought-through part of their site and business model–but what really struck me about the Jarvis was that he pushed the idea that newspapers need to figure out what their value is. He argues that it’s community or conversation. I’d say it’s providing information beyond the basics.

But, I do think that newspapers don’t often enough step outside of the journalism bubble and ask what their value can and should be in the Internet age. It might be some sort of smart aggregation. It might be letting computers write the breaking news so that staff can only focus on investigation. It might be becoming the virtual town square. I think that that answer needs to be found first before the solution to the money problem can really be found.

Wikipedia Evaluation: RGGI

The Wikipedia entry on the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative is generally accurate, but is plagued by inconsistent updates to reflect more recent developments, small gramatical errors, and missing components.

I chose this entry based on my interest and prior work covering climate change. I had hoped to write about multilateral bank climate change programs, but I could not find a separate Wikipedia page for it. RGGI is a limited program that has policy and politics ramifications. Because I covered it on and off forBNA Daily Environment Report and BNA World Climate Change Report I had the background to asses the Wikipedia article. As it turns out, there was a lot lacking, so there’s a lot to say about it. My Wikipedia user page is here. 

Comprehensiveness:

There are several areas where there is missing information, some of which probably deserves its own subhead and some of which could be incorporated into the existing sections.

Though there is mention of offsets in the History section, the link actually goes to a stub page on something having to do with plant nurseries. There is a long entry on carbon offsets (I haven’t checked how good it is), but the RGGI article should have a section on its own offset program, because different offsets are governed differently, and RGGI is key because in discussions about a federal greenhouse gas emissions program, there was much discussion about whether or not RGGI offsets would be accepted as offsets in a future federal system.

  • Auction

There is no information about how the auction actually is run including  the bidding process and how prices are dertermined.

  • Historical Context

It is bizarre to me that there is no mention that RGGI is the first government-mandated cap and trade system for carbon dioxide in the United States. Though it was preceded by voluntary programs such as the (now defunct) Chicago Climate Exchange, RGGI was the first government-legislated C02 cap and trade system.

  • Federal Context

A lot of the state legislation initiating RGGI participation specifically states the absence of federal legislation as an impetus for forming and joining RGGI. There should be a few sentences about the fact that RGGI, in some senses, rose up as a poor man’s substitute for a federal program, with states joining together because the federal government could not come to an agreement.

Along those lines, I would have included information about pre-emption. Though it currently seems unlikely that a federal cap and trade system will be implemented, it should be noted that most proposed federal cap and trade systems would have pre-empted RGGI, and that most RGGI participants see pre-emption as a goal. Furthermore, RGGI participants and designers expect to be, and often were, consulted in the design of a federal program.

Especially given that RGGI Inc. is the main source of information on this website, there should be some explanation of the group, which monitors the market and provides technical assistance for the auctions and implementing the program.

  • Up To Date, Detailed Information.

This is a problem that ends up affecting both the comprehensiveness of the entry and the readability (see below).

      • There have been 13 RGGI allowance auctions, but only the first four of them are listed. It’s not clear to me that the details of every RGGI auction should be listed, but at least the most recent ones should be listed. If you are going to decide that details should be listed, then all of them should be listed, and it should probably be in some sort of table for ease of readability.
      • The types of programs that RGGI proceeds are spent on go beyond what is listed in the intro to include environment programs not directly related to energy efficiency such as forest preservation and water efficiency. Most notably, there is no mention of the fact that for many states, some of the proceeds are returned to consumers as a way of keeping electricity bills from rising because of the new regulation. These things are listed in individual state regulation, though some is listed in the original press release linked on the Wikipedia page.
      • There is no mention about New Hampshire’s recent vote  (and the Governor’s subsequent veto) to withdraw from RGGI, and there could be more information about why New Jersey is withdrawing at the end of this compliance period.
      • There should be information about the second compliance period, especially given that allowances for that compliance period have already been auctioned.

Sourcing

This entry relies heavily on RGGI Inc. documentation, this is–in and of itself–not a problem but there are probably more regularly updated sources than the original RGGI news releases. It might be that the best coverage of RGGI is in trade publications behind a paywall, making it hard to get the detailed news coverage. The other sources are mainly from mainstream news organizations, though several just have the link without the information about the article that would be called for by citation standards. There also three broken links in the footnotes.

Neutrality

The article is written from a neutral point of view, even though there is potential for bias in the parts about states deciding whether or not to join or leave RGGI.

Readability

  • Organization

I would  slightly reorganize the top of the article so that information about what emitter s are covered is at the top and so that the other compliance periods are mentioned. (Or I would move information about the compliance periods out of the intro).

In the history section, the article would benefit from sentences that have a better flow and read less like bullet points.

  • Grammar 

There are several grammatical mistakes such as missing words and lack of parellel structure (e.g. in the information about the specific RGGI auctions). There are also some verb tense problems that look like they arose from an editor updating some parts of the article but not others. For example,  the second sentence of the article says “The RGGI is designing a cap and trade program for greenhouse gas emissions from power plants” even though the rest of the article makes it clear that the program has already been designed and implemented.

Formatting and Illustrations

The article does appear to adhere to the Wikipedia Manual of Style. There is a problem with sometimes referring to the program as “RGGI” and sometimes as “The RGGI.” Either is technically correct, but one should be used consistently throughout. (I vote for RGGI. The RGGI is  The map of RGGI participants is a helpful illustration. I can’t think of other illustrations that would enhance the article.

Overall, the RGGI article feels somewhat abandoned as it has not been updated in a consistent manner as more information has been provided. However, much of the structure for a solid article on RGGI is already present.

Is It Really Just The Algorithm?

Sergey Brin by Flickr user Ptufts (http://www.flickr.com/photos/zippy/) Some Rights Reserved.
“Eric Schmidt told a reporter when asked just how Google determines the application of its famous unofficial motto [‘don’t be evil’] ‘Evil is what Sergey says is evil.’ ~ In the Plex, Kindle edition, location 5645 *
*I know that this caption is kind of misleading, but I was just so struck by this quote, and by the idea that there was one man — or more broadly one specific type of person– who was really putting meaning into Google’s famous “Don’t be evil” mantra.

Steven Levy’s In the Plex does an excellent job of giving an overview of Google as it evolved as a search product, a company, a technological powerhouse, and even as a culture. He clearly benefitted from a lot of access to top-level officials and a deep understanding of how Google works and what it aims to do — first be the most comprehensive search engine out there, then get people to use the Internet more often (including browsers and phones) and in ways that would allow Google to use their AdWords technology, and then to use Internet and search to promote democracy and do other good deeds. (Note that one mission does not replace the other; each builds on the foundation already in place).

But I wish there was more dialogue included with people outside of Google. I could never fully assess critiques of Google because the only people who really got a sturdy soapbox were those who were committed to Google and its success.

Because of this, I am left with some uncomfortable questions about Google, and its algorithms.

The Importance of Defining Value In Google’s Decision Making

Early in the book, Levy talks about how comprehensiveness  and relevancy were key to a successful search engine and to pushing Google ahead of its competitors, but it wasn’t until I heard Nicole Wong, former Deputy General Counsel for Google speak at ONA 11’s Law School For Digital Journalists, that I fully grasped the significance of comprehensiveness in insuring that the algorithm is not tampered with.

Wong explained that with Google’s search engine, the value Google wanted to offer users was comprehensive search, that meant that the algorithm had to be king, and that Google regularly turns down requests to remove links (she said there was a spike in those requests whenever it is  election season  anywhere in the world) and fights for the right to keep linking to some documents. (In Europe, for example, once a convicted felon has served his time, he has the right to have record of that crime removed from the public record. Google has over 50 cases pending in Spain alone where Google is defending the right to keep linking to newspaper articles and court records with descriptions of crimes).

On the other hand,  Wong said, other Google products, like Google+, Orkut, and YouTube (yes, she did need to explain to the tech-savvy audience what Orkut was) do have content restrictions because the value Google is seeking to offer users of those products is not comprehensiveness. It’s something else; and the restrictions on content, reflect that.

A great example of this is that Google+ prohibits hate speech, while searching for “Jew” on Google still brings up the anti-semitic site Jew Watch (I’m not adding a link; I do not want to feed the bots), and the ad with a link to a page with Google’s explanation about the algorithm is still there.

Later during the Law School for journalists panel, the moderator, Harvard Law professor Jonathan Zittrain, asked Wong if there was any law preventing Google from manipulating the search results. She said there wasn’t. Zittrain then suggested that it’s not a legal fear that keeps Google from manipulating a search, but the knowledge that the engineers at Google would rise up in protests. Wong agreed, confirming another one of Levy’s recurring themes — that Google’s culture is shaped by the engineers and driven by respect for them.

But  I went back to Wong’s earlier comments about value, and realized that it’s not a fear of an engineer uprising that leaves the search results untouched; it’s business. Messing with search results reduces the value of the search, therefore making Google less useful, and potentially driving away users. So Google doesn’t do it.

Except when they do.

It’s Not Just The Algorithm

Leaving aside the fact that Google wrote an algorithm designed to alter search results for China, Google also uses other ways –albeit rarely–to alter what a user sees when using search.

The examples in the book include posting the number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on the top of the results when someone searches for “suicide” and the aforementioned ad about the search results for “Jew.” Similarly, when a Google Image search for “Michelle Obama” had a photo of a monkey as the first hit, Google posted an ad explaining that result.

Those types of decisions, presumably are not made by the algorithm. They are made by a person. But who? And why? Why don’t a search results for “I want to kill my baby” get topped by resources for postpartum depression? (I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what other words might trigger a suicide-type resource. Good thing there is no human tracking my searches). Does Google run an ad every time a racist hit makes it to the top of search results? How many people have to complain before the ad is run?

In the scheme of things, these are small questions, and, as someone who uses Android, Gmail, Gchat, Google+, Picassa, GoogleVoice and GoogleDocs, it’s clear I’ve decided I trust Google enough to  store my life in its servers. But they are questions for which Levy offers no answers, and that are not answered by “it’s the algorithm” and indicate that the algorithm doesn’t actually decide everything so might not be the foolproof defense Google thinks it is.

For a book that focuses a lot on the people behind Google, In the Plex left me with some real concerns about the lack of transparency about how those people make decisions that affect billions of people.

Storming The Newsroom

This is a bonus post, because what I am really interested in is newsroom dynamics, but I had to cut this from the original blog post in hopes of only having a  very long post rather than a ridiculously long post. The class assignment post is below this one (and linked here.)

Letting The Public Into The Newsroom

In his book Clay Shirky notes that “journalist” has become harder to define when the scarcity of the resources that defined it — people who wrote with access to publishers– disappeared with the advent of self publishing on the Internet.

The debate rages on; I am particularly tickled by the straightforward, rolling-my-eyes-because-it’s-so-obvious answer offered at Scripting.com compared to  hand wringing over at Buzz Machine where  Jeff Jarvis  writes “I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner.”

But for me, the issue is not “what is a journalist?” because I haven’t run up against any libel suits or need for a shield law. For me the question is, “if I consider myself a journalist, how has my responsibility changed in light of an expectation that communication on the Internet can go in more than one direction and that group-formation and personal blogging is changing the definition of news.

Shirky offers the example of Trent Lott revealing his segregationist sympathies at a Birthday party speech that was at first ignored by the mainstream media and picked up by that media only after Lott responded to what was blog-driven outcry. In the intervening years, I would tentatively offer John Edward’s affair (it was ignored by the mainstream media, but was broken by the Enquirer not by blogs though blogs fueled the flames).

To me, the biggest change is that newspapers can no longer say with bravado that they know what is news.

When I was working at the Columbia Spectator, there was a quote hanging on the wall  that I believed in full-heartedly. I incorporated it into cover letters and quoted it righteously as justification for writing another story about the flaws in the New York City Gifted and Talented program.

“Give the public what it wants to have and part of what it ought to have whether it wants it or not.” ~ Herbert Bayard Swope, editor of the New York World

To the college-aged version of me, this quote from a dead  editor of a shuttered newspaper was the epitome of doing journalism right. Journalists were the arbiters of news, and readers were going to learn something whether they expected to or not. The Internet not only gives readers a way to ignore news journalists think they ought to have, but it also provides newspaper editors with a clear way to find out what the public (or at least a vocal online section of the public) actually wants. When Swope made that statement, he was presumably making arbitrary decisions about both what the public ought to know and what it  wanted to know (well, blood and sex sell newspapers, so that could have been a rubric, but not a very precise one). Now, the first is harder to provide and the second is harder to fudge.

How does that change the way newspapers are run? It would make them a lot more reactionary to the Internet than they are now; and a lot less self righteous. The question is if newspapers really need to go down that road and if they risk losing out on an important part of their mission by catering to voices and the groups rising up from the Internet. I don’t know the answer.

Here Comes Everybody (Though I’m Still Not Sure How To Get Them Here).

Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody posits that the Internet, particularly social tools or social media (broadly defined), has changed society’s expectations of what can be accomplished through group effort (and what is worth the effort) and how widely information or resources can be disseminated.

The ramifications of those changes is that the concepts of hierarchy, group dynamics, management, and expertise have all been radically altered.

Groups are no longer reliant on management to sort through what is and isn’t feasible and to guide the process. Group formation no longer has to start with one person reaching out to one other person. Instead, the Internet allows anyone to propose an idea and anyone else to support it, repeat it, organize around it.

With the management structure completely removed from the equation (or at least in the traditional sense of an organizational hierarchy chart), there is no task too small  or too unprofitable to gather around. The Internet makes it easy for one person to reach out to many, or for many people to reach out to each other, to collect and curate information and to disseminate or access that information as needed.

Using the examples of Wikipedia and Flickr, Shirky points out that participation in social media is unbalanced; a small number of users make the majority of changes on any given Wikipedia post. Most people posted and tagged only one photo of the Mermaid Parade but one user posted over 200 photos. Still, there is a committed community participating at various levels of engagement without any resentment, because there are no expectations of equally shared responsibilities.

Another notable element addressed in the book is that when organizing through the web or mobile phones (which can, as in the case of, Voice of the Faithful, or the flash mobs in Belarus, have significant off-line presence), there is no arbiter of what is a worthy cause. In traditional organizing, there were financial limits on what was worth organizing around.

As Shirky  notes, because management took time, resources, and money, some efforts–collecting all photos taken at a parade or a natural disaster, writing an article about asphalt–were never worth pursuing. Now, since the cost of participation is nothing, those activities come into being, and impromptu communities (such as the people looking for loved ones after a Tsunami by scanning photos and comments in Flickr) are formed and dispersed as needed.

“[S]ocial tools don’t create collective action,” Shirky wrote, “–they merely remove obstacles to it.” (end of chapter 6)

The idea of non-existent costs leading to the lack of the need for a manager expands beyond group and community forming. For me, the most  obvious impact this has on my life is  that it  has transformed my industry.

What Are The Limits of Organic, Self-Policing Online Communities?

I would have liked to see discussion about the middle ground; communities that are not totally organic but that people care deeply about and participate in nonetheless. There isn’t a lot of talk in the Wikipedia chapter about the role of the moderators at Wikipedia; but they surely play a role. It might be true that only .5 percent of articles on Wikipedia are protected (is that for only the strongest form of protection? Shirky wasn’t clear, but I think that that must be what he was referring to) but I would venture a guess that those are also some of the most visited pages on Wikipedia. (A quick set of guesses lead me to pages for Sarah Palin, Michele Bachman, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Pakistan, Islam, the September 11 attacks, and Climate Change, all of which were at least semi-protected. The page for evolution had no protection).

For  a semi-protected article, one only need to register with Wikipedia to edit that article, but that automatically separates those who will edit a typo when they see one from those who intend to be more active participants. In other words, it makes the flow from consumer to contributor a little less fluid.

That fluidity is even more viscous on the Gawker Media sites, of which  the feminist, gossip blog Jezebel is one. It takes a conscious effort to become an approved commenter (which is the only way to really participate in the conversation because otherwise a limited group of people can see your posts) and it takes a conscious effort to become a starred commenter (or at least a commitment to posting regularly in hopes that you find the silver bullet; after a year or so of writing thought-out but unfunny comments and responses on posts about religion, feminism, or body acceptance, I was starred after rewriting the caption on a cartoon about how girls wear their hair).

There is some element of a committed group protecting what it loves. Just try slut-shaming or body-snarking on a Jezebel comment section, and see how fast you’d be torn down by other commenters. But the editors of Jezebel are very clear that they do not consider the site a self-policing community.

In the site’s commenting guidelines, the editors wrote”  “This is probably obvious but bears repeating: This is our website, and we will moderate it as we see fit.” (Emphasis theirs).

In fact, the decisions have sometimes seemed totally arbitrary and have forced some commenters to find another outlet or to attempt to organize against the editors’ decisions, as was the case with the banning of the user “Miz­Jenk­ins,” an example that is still referred to occasionally when new rumblings against the editors surface among Jezzies.  It does not appear to me that the editors are all that responsive, though I have not asked them or looked extensively into that.

When participation is less fluid does that change the group dynamic?  Did Jezebel create two online communities, one where the commenters talk amongst themselves and one where the editors decide what to post  as articles? Shirky talks about the pro-anorexia group leaving the moderated space of YM but essentially reconvening elsewhere on the Interent. That certainly happens on Jezebel–in the wake of a recent redesign, people actually used Jezebel to post links to other forums for Jezzies to migrate to–but the Jezebel community doesn’t die. What is the role for those semi-policed communities?

And what happens when the people who love something are only the people who are in charge? Or, in other words, how does a community like Wikipedia, where its members are committed to the success of the product or some subset of the product, form? How could the LA Times have made its editorial wiki experiment a success? Or, if that’s impossible, how can a newspaper like the Chicago Tribune make commenting a vibrant form of discussion.

When I was interning at a national newspaper in 2007, editors were trying to figure out a way to make comments a place for thoughtful discussion while keeping away racist comments (computer programs designed for the latter task regularly missed comments such as “Elect Obama and he will only serve fried chicken in the White House,” because neither fried nor chicken are in and of themselves racially charged words, and the newspaper editor did not have time in his day to moderate comments himself). How does a mainstream organization like a national newspaper cultivate the community driven by love that Shirky talks about in his book? Is it possible? Do newspaper readers have enough in common? (Maybe the link is actually readers of a single section or article). Is it even desirable? If there is no way to prevent racist comments  (or, in the only-sort-of equivalent case of the Pro-Ana message board on YM, encouragement for teen girls to starve themselves,) without interfering with the more organic group dynamic, maybe it means that the group dynamic is not worth pursuing.

But I find that hard to believe.