Monthly Archives: June 2009

Mediated Mourning

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

The World Mourns. Do you? (flickr user "Life in LDN")

Don’t get me wrong. I did feel sad when I found out the King of Pop had passed away. I remember my sister and I singing along to his Best Of album for hours straight, or numerous attempted moon walks after a few beers or so (no, none of this is on Youtube… at least I hope not).

Following the news in the days after his death, I was continuously assured that I wasn’t alone in my grief. Rather, the entire world was mourning with me. If the media’s job is to tell me what’s going on around the world, then there wasn’t anything else going on at all. In that sense, MJ’s death is the best thing that could have happened to the regime in Iran.

We are currently witnessing a so-called “media event” – something nearly everybody in society (or nowadays in the world?) is following through the mass media – or maybe has to follow because there isn’t anything else on TV when they occur. There was no escaping Billie Jean when I drove home from Berlin this week.

I always thought the term “media event” is a strange one. It seems to imply that there are ordinary events, and then there are “media events”, which are somehow really, really important for everyone. But who says so? And are they really?

Supply, Demand

Of course, it’s not always easy to judge whether something qualifies as a media event or not. For me, maybe half a dozen come to mind for the last ten years or so (9/11, Diana’s funeral, Obama’s inauguration, etc.). However, if one carefully watches news programs (especially U.S. and tabloid-like ones), you quickly get the idea that they try to sell you some kind of media event all the time. Everything is “Breaking News”.

Hadley Freeman from The Guardian puts it very eloquently:

The 24-hour news culture and the explosion of the gossip magazine industry – both of which require either constant change or, more commonly, heightened emotion, combined with a fragmented media and the diminished importance of religion in most people’s lives – have made the idea of a collectively shared Big Moment more desired than ever (…).

He points out both the supply side and the demand side of media events, or “Big Moments”, as he calls them. On the supply side, the news industry loves Big Moments because they love the revenues viewers they attract. So they are more than happy to blow anything out of proportion that is remotely scandalous or newsworthy.

But maybe we, the audience, love media events as well. Indeed, we may need them as a society to maintain a sense of collectivity and integration. That’s just a fancy way of saying that it somehow makes us feel at home in society when everybody else is mourning too. Funerals bring families back together. This funeral is a massive media spectacle, but with similar social effects.

John Rash from AdvertisingAge reminisces about the power of Michael Jackson to bring people together, already long before his death. We all have our Michael Jackson memories (see mine above). Is there any artist or band today that may even dream about selling 50 million copies of a physical (!) record? Probably not. And why not? Because the market for music, news, and culture in general, is fragmented and individualized (think iPod). Rash puts it most polemically

[M]aybe, deep down, with shared cultural experiences also expiring, we’re also mourning because we miss each other.

“Am I part of the cure…?”

So everybody’s happy, right? The news industry attracts the viewers it needs and the audiences celebrate their societal reunion. We may well leave it at that. Or we can go get another coffee and use this Sunday morning to think about two more issues. Which is what I did.

Who decides whether something qualifies as a media event, i.e. as something everybody has to watch and that is worth changing the program or front page for?

9/11 was an obvious one. Obama was almost as obvious. He was elected American President. Still, his moment was somehow bigger that those of previous presidents. Lady Diana? Fair enough, she was Princess Diana and married to Charles. But that doesn’t really explain why her death was one of the biggest media events in recent years. Finally Michael. Although he was enormously talented and recorded some great music, we may still wonder where his big moment came from.

Here’s one explanation. Media events are events involving individuals/groups/objects/things that everybody in society can relate to, probably in some highly emotional way. And why can everybody relate to these things? Because they’ve been in the media all the time!

Michael was born through the media and lived through the media right until his death. That’s how we know him, that’s why we are united in his death. Obama’s moment was bigger, because he created more media attention than any president before him. Diana’s media event was what it was because every second of her life had been covered in celebrity magazines.

In other words, the news industry is responsible for the build-up of media events, it doesn’t just cover them when they take place. And it is guilty in a more general sense as well. Enabled by technology, it drives social fragmentation by catering to every single individual taste. We can use the media to construct our own personalized and customized world. Paradoxically, this makes the news industry and its media events both a disease and part of the cure.

A final note to all those out there who cannot relate to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. I’m sorry that you were completely forgotten for about two days or so. The news didn’t mention you and so you didn’t exist for a while. I’m even more sorry that everybody on TV probably made you feel really bad for not relating to Michael Jackson, whatsoever. That’s another thing about media events. Even if you never thought you cared about something – when it’s on TV 24/7, you think it’s time that you do.

Cloudy Skies over Online Study Groups

Whenever, in the long history of schooling, students collectively faced the same unpleasant tasks, they responded in the most obvious way: they joined forces and pooled their resources, passing on notes, sharing reading summaries, or discussing potential exam questions.

Students are still joining forces today. But now they are deploying the latest digital services available for online collaboration. Everyone can participate, everyone can upload, everyone gets access to all the notes and summaries ever written. The average mark will inevitably go up. We learn with each other and from each other. A common knowledge repository emerges, open and free for all, available as a living archive long after the last exam has been written.

Or so the story goes. As MSc students at the London School of Economics (LSE), we fell for it. We set up a Wiki (based on Google Sites) and exchanged numerous Google docs. But as the Wiki took on a life of its own and the sharing of Google docs became a complex web of give and take, some frustration kicked in. This left some of us wondering. What are the success factors for online study groups? What social dynamics should we watch out for?

Who’s in?

In the pre-Internet days, the number of people you studied with was limited by the amount of photocopies you were willing to distribute. Times have changed. There is virtually no limitation to the number of Wiki contributors. In fact, for many communities aggregating knowledge (for instance, Wikipedia itself or any open source software project) the quantity and quality of knowledge increases as more people contribute or report mistakes.

Such reasoning also drives online study groups to invite ever more students into their Wikis, or whatever else they set up. It certainly led us to extend the scope of contributors from students within our MSc programme in New Media to dozens of other Media & Communications students at LSE – and eventually even teaching staff. Oh well, there is nothing wrong with pooling all the resources available, right?

Well, there might be. In our case, we quickly lost track of who had access to the notes on our Wiki. Not knowing who the audience was, some people quickly felt discouraged to post their notes and refrained from leaving questions or comments. They didn’t know who was reading and judging them. This problem became more urgent once teaching staff had been added to the group, without giving notice to all student contributors.

So one conclusion from our experience was that online study groups are not necessarily scalable, even if the technology would allow them to be. You still need to know who you’re studying with. In other words, the group boundaries need to be visible and access to group membership must be transparent. Arguably, the value added through each additional contributor also sharply declines – or may even becomes negative, as the amount of information thrown in becomes overwhelming.

Who said that?

The days are gone in which you could recognize the author of some lecture notes by their hand writing. Everything is typed up. Platforms and services for online collaboration allow you to comment on each other’s writings, to edit them, or to reorganize them. Indeed, we observed some useful discussions, when we elaborated on the points made by someone else or cross-referenced related information. Our notes were truly a common good, open for everybody to change around.

But that became a problem as well. Once people make changes to a document, it is no longer clear who the author of that document is. Several contributors would add remarks and quotes, highlighting them with all the colors Google has to offer – but without adding their name. To be fair, our Wiki did allow us to trace the changes made to each site and the number of collaborators on any given Google doc was small. However, this is cumbersome and after several weeks of exam preparation you no longer knew what the source of some argument or quote was.

And so a second conclusion was that contributions to online study groups should carry a name tag, for the sake of accountability and clarity. Interestingly, many of the members of our online study group returned to making their private notes in the days before an exam because they wanted to structure them according to their personal needs, without the risk of having them rearranged by somebody else.

Social ingredients

As these points on group boundaries and authorship already indicate, the success of online study groups depends a lot on the underlying social dynamics. You may compile notes as much as you want, but if the necessary social ingredients are missing, the online study group is likely to be ineffective. Three ingredients should not be missing: leadership, norms of reciprocity, and – most importantly – a good amount of trust underneath it all.

The role of a group leader is an ambiguous one in any online community. After all, these communities are supposed to be based on egalitarian principles and absolutely flat hierarchies. So why should we need leaders? In our case, they helped us to create some momentum in the early days and to spread the word. The group administrator also took on the role of setting up the Wiki structure and explaining the functionalities to “newbies”. In other words, it’s good to have somebody to provide guidance and structure. However, the tricky thing for leaders is to stay in the background and to allow other contributors to develop their own ways of using the resources. A leader who is also by far the most active user of the Wiki and exercises too much control over the submission and structure of content may deter others.

Secondly, some norms of reciprocity should be in place, reflecting another key feature of voluntary online communities. You give what you take, as they say. Again, this is not as straightforward as it may sound. For example, it doesn’t mean that you need to share some of your google docs, the very moment you are given access by somebody else. And it may well happen, that the person you share with never gets the chance to return the favor. In fact, it should be respected when somebody chooses not to contribute with her notes. Perhaps some people stayed away from our Wiki because they were afraid of the obligations of group membership. Perhaps granting somebody access puts them in an awkward situation of having to face the expectations of the group.

Finally, all of this is essentially about trust. Trust in others to contribute, trust in their works, trust in their judgment, trust in leadership, trust in people to follow the norms of the group. And so the question really is: Where does this trust come from? I will leave a detailed discussion of this for later and to all those books that have been written about it. Of course, any such discussion should take into account the complex interplay between online and offline interaction.

And so…

And so we see that there is way more to study groups than just uploading notes or sharing Google docs. The process of setting up and running an online study group taught us some valuable lessons already. It is important to know who the group members are and what they contribute. This seems obvious but is oftentimes overlooked when online study groups are extended beyond any meaningful boundaries. Moreover, the social dynamics that online study groups can give rise to may become a major obstacle to their success, or even frustrate their members.

Whether our Wiki helped us get better grades is yet to be seen  – they haven’t been published yet. It also remains to be seen what happens to our Wiki after we all graduated. Will it continue to be a useful knowledge repository, or will we quickly loose interest? And who owns the content, anyways? Ownership seems to be a trivial question, but none of us is able to control how and where the content is used – although I currently cannot think of a way in which it might be abused. Maybe more crucially, only the site administrator is able to manage access or shut down the Wiki entirely.

There’s no doubt that online means of studying together will continue to be popular among students when they face exams or essays. But they should be aware of some of the pitfalls mentioned above. And, as a teacher would say, no essay or exam will ever write itself, and no online study group will replace studying all together.

Public Service Twitter?

All media eyes have been on Iran during the last few days, where the controversial results of the latest election drew thousands of people to the street and triggered deadly clashes between protestors and police forces. On many news websites, media audiences outside Iran could follow a minute-by-minute coverage of these events – although the incumbent regime attempted to shut down all independent reporting. In a powerful demonstration of the Internet’s liberating potentials, voices, pictures, and videos from inside Iran leaked out into the world. Once again, Twitter (and Youtube) proved to be the most widely used distribution network for this material – decentralized, viral, almost impossible to interfere with.

We should no longer be surprised and astonished by the powers of services such as Twitter. It is time we actively embrace them in our efforts to promote a global political discourse. Given their potentials for freedom of expression and democracy, states should play an active role in supporting and safeguarding them. Twitter still lacks a viable business model. Should we “bail them out” and make it a public service?

There are good reasons why we should. Despite its millions of users, Twitter is still loss-making. As a private business, it will naturally attempt to find ways of generating revenue. Whatever Twitters future business model will be, it will have implications on the accessibility and flow of information on the network. The longstanding debate over corporate influences on media content (see News Corp.) can give an indication of what these implications may look like. Twitter may not be able to dictate what its users are twittering, like a newsroom editor can. However, editorial influence may come disguised as filtering, ranking, and prioritizing algorithms. If Twitter was supported by public funding, it may resist such commercial pressures and embrace norms of professionalism and content neutrality instead. This would not be unprecedented. Public Service Broadcasters, like the BBC, have long been operating based on this argument.

A public stake in Twitter would also provide the service with a strong political backing, which is needed during international conflicts. Any attempt to shut it down would have to be understood as an affront against the international community. Indeed, Twitter can be deployed as a “democratic weapon” that facilitates the transition to democracy in countries like Iran – a transition led by the people of these countries.

Two big questions remain to be answered before we may decide to bail out Twitter. First, who should do the bail out? Twitter is a U.S. company, so President Obama may decide to integrate it into his foreign policy service (but also to promote his domestic political discourse). Alternatively, and more desirably, an inter-governmental organizations may fund the service, for example the United Nations or one of the Internet regulation bodies. This would allow more countries to support the idea and to subscribe to Twitter’s fundamental importance in promoting democracy and freedom of expression.

The second, and possibly more crucial question, is whether Twitter wants to be bailed out. This seems doubtful. Even though they may not generate profits today, they are convinced they eventually will. Even without profits, Twitter is already attracting millions in venture capital. They would hardly see the need, from a business perspective, to be bailed out. Would it have to be a hostile takeover? Not necessarily. Instead of calling it a bail-out, we may go with the more appropriate term “subsidies”, that would relief Twitter of some of its commercial pressures, in exchange for a promise to keep the service as open and democratic as possible. This agreement would also keep the current management structure at Twitter where it is, by no means replacing it by some state or inter-governmental bureaucracy.

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Many news sources still seem astonished by the powers of Twitter and similar services. Without them, there would be far less images and videos from Iran. We should move Twitter closer to the center of our foreign policy and our attempts to facilitate democracy and freedom of expression. Part of this move could be to provide public subsidies and to enforce the protection of Twitter’s openness and democratic nature, before commercial or political pressures take over. This is not a call for a state-controlled take-over of a private business, but a call to use the Internet’s liberating potentials to their fullest extent.

Update: See this NYT article for a more critical appraisal of Twitter’s role in Iran an elsewhere.