Tag Archives: Dave Winer

A pale white man shows us what journalism is

My weekly Loose Wire Service column.

Is the Internet replacing journalism?

It’s a question that popped up as I gazed at the blurred, distorted web-stream of a press conference from London by the founder of WikiLeaks, a website designed to “protect whistleblowers, journalists and activists who have sensitive materials to communicate to the public”.

On the podium there’s Julian Assange. You can’t make a guy like this up. White haired, articulate and defensive, aloof and grungy, specific and then sweepingly angry. Fascinating. In a world of people obsessed by the shininess of their iPhones, Assange is either a throwback to the past or a gulf of fresh air.

WikiLeaks, which has been around for a few years but has, with the release of mounds of classified data about the Afghan War, come center stage.

Assange doesn’t mince his words. He shrugs off questions he doesn’t like by pointing his face elsewhere and saying “I don’t find that question interesting.” He berates journalists for not doing their job — never

something to endear an interviewee to the writer.
But in some ways he’s right. We haven’t been doing our job. We’ve not chased down enough stories, put enough bad guys behind bars (celebrities don’t really count.) His broadsides may be more blunderbuss than surgical strike, but he does have a point. Journalism is a funny game. And it’s changing.

Asked why he chose to work with three major news outlets to release the Afghan data, he said it was the only way to get heard. He pointed out that he’d put out masses of interesting leaks on spending on the Afghan war previously and hardly a single journalist had picked it up.

Hence the — inspired — notion of creating a bit of noise around the material this time around. After all, any journalist can tell you the value of the material is less intrinsic than extrinsic: Who else is looking for it, who else has got it, and if so can we publish it before them.

Sad but true. We media tend to only value something if a competitor does. A bit like kids in the schoolyard. By giving it to three major outlets — New York Times, The Guardian, Der Spiegel — Assange ensured there was not only a triple splash but also the matchers from their competitors.

So Assange is right. But that’s always been like that. Assange is part of — and has identified — a much deeper trend that may be more significant than all the hand-wringing about the future of the media.

You see, we’ve been looking at media at something that just needs a leg-up. We readily admit the business model of the media is imploding.

But very little discussion of journalism centers on whether journalism itself might be broken. Assange — and others – believe it is.

The argument goes like this.

The model whereby media made a lot of money as monopolistic enterprises — fleecing advertisers at one end, asking subscribers to pay out at the other, keeping a death grip on the spigot of public, official or company information in the middle — has gone. We know that.

But what we don’t perhaps realize is that the Internet itself has changed the way that information moves around. I’m not just talking about one person saying something on Twitter, and everyone else online reporting it.

I’m talking about what news is. We journalists define news in an odd way — as I said above, we attach value to it based on how others value it, meaning that we tend to see news as a kind of product to grab.

The Internet has changed that. It’s turned news into some more amorphous, that can be assembled from many parts.

Assange and his colleagues at WikiLeaks don’t just act as a clearing house for leaked data. They add extraordinary value to it.

Don’t believe me? Read a piece in The New Yorker in June, about the months spent on cracking the code on, and then editing video shot in Iraq.

In a more modest way this is being done every day by bloggers and folk online, who build news out of small parts they piece together —some data here, a report there, a graphic to make sense of it. None of these separate parts might be considered news, but they come together to make it so.

Assange calls WikiLeaks a stateless news organization. Dave Winer, an Internet guru, points out that this pretty much is what the blogosphere is as well. And he’s right. WikiLeaks works based on donations and collaborative effort. Crowd-sourcing, if you will.

I agree with all this, and I think it’s great. This is happening in lots of interesting places — such as Indonesia, where social media has mobilized public opinion in ways that traditional media has failed.

But what of journalism, then?

Jeff Jarvis, a future-of-media pundit, asked the editor of The Guardian, one of the three papers that WikiLeak gave the data too first, whether The Guardian should have been doing the digging.

He said no; his reporters add value by analyzing it. “I think the Afghan leaks make the case for journalism,” Alan Rusbridger told Jarvis. “We had the people and expertise to make sense of it.”

That’s true. As far as it goes. I tell my students, editors, colleagues, anyone who will listen, that our future lies not so much in reporting first but adding sense first. And no question, The Guardian has done some great stuff with the data. But this is a sad admission of failure — of The Guardian, of reporting, of our profession.

We should be looking at WikiLeaks and learning whatever lessons we can from it. WikiLeaks’ genius is manifold: It has somehow found a way to persuade people, at great risk to themselves, to send it reams of secrets. The WikiLeaks people do this by taking that data seriously, but they also maintain a healthy paranoia about everyone — including themselves — which ensures that sources are protected.

Then they work on adding value to that data. Rusbridger’s comments are, frankly, patronizing about WikiLeaks’ role in this and previous episodes.

We journalists need to go back to our drawing boards and think hard about how WikiLeaks and the Warholesque Assange have managed to not only shake up governments, but our industry, by leveraging the disparate and motivated forces of the Internet.

We could start by redefining the base currency of our profession — what news, what a scoop, what an exclusive is. Maybe it’s the small pieces around us, joined together.

The Slashdot Report, Part III: An Interview With Jeff Henning

Here are extracts from an IM interview with Jeff Henning, COO, Perseus Development Corporation, an online survey company.

Me: i was starting from the experience of being slashdotted/boingboinged, and trying to give it some context for the general user, and using it as an excuse to talk about how information gets around…
Jeff Henning: Well, let me start with my two 15 minutes of fame
Jeff Henning: I created this and posted it in one online community with 200 members, a Lord of the Rings Character Test, right when the first movie came out. It ended up being taken over 4 MILLION times. This one I showed Dave Winer. It ended up with the most interest of any study I’ve done in 18 years in market research
Me: interesting…
Jeff Henning: Dave of Scripting News linked to it then other bloggers linked to it and it took off from there.  I’ve seen this happen again and again with other items — oftentimes they start in some backwater blog and perculate before being amplified by one of the Technorati 100
Me: i see..
Jeff Henning: The phrase for this in the blogging community sometimes is “succumbing to the meme” as in “I’m succumbing to the meme and writing about Schiavo”

Me: what i’d like to explore for a general reader who’s never heard of slashdot effect is how the internet changes (or perhaps doesn’t change) the way information gets about, and why that might be important for them. have blogs made information easier and more plentiful, or just increased the volume of bad information?
Jeff Henning: Yes. 🙂
Jeff Henning: Sturgeon’s Law says that 90% of everything is crap.  That certainly seems true of blogs.
Jeff Henning: Many blogs are primarily intended to be read by 10-40 friends — so they are like e-mail;  quickly written, not vetted.
Me: right. so the interesting bit is when one of those blogs, or postings, crosses over into ‘meme’land, right?
Jeff Henning: Well, I think blogs are interesting for many other reasons too but in terms of information propagation, the “blogoshere” as a whole does try to be self correcting:
Jeff Henning: someone might post a rumor, ask others for comments, and it might be quickly invalidated or verified, then once that has happened, it might get wider play in larger blogs.  It needs to be noticed in the “short head” (opposite of the “long tail”!) of blogs for it to crossover to the mainstream media.
Me: yes. i guess the really interesting part of all this is when something that’s interesting moves rapidly to a larger audience, when it finds its way onto the short head, like boingboing?
Jeff Henning: Yes — and its not just that the short head is important because of its audience, it is also important because many of those leading sites are aggregators, with their authors skimming thousands of blog posts for interesting ideas, so for those of us with shorter blogrolls, they become the Reader’s Digest of what else is happening in the blogosphere
Me: good point. is it your impression that the ‘blogosphere’ is now a much broader sphere than it was a year or so ago? have aggregators really aggregated, and if so what impact does that have on information?
Jeff Henning: yes, the blogosphere is much, much broader.  I bought a T-shirt a few years ago from ThinkGeek that said “I’m blogging this” and when I wore it people had no idea what it meant — they always misread it (“You’re a lumberjack?  A jogger?”) 🙂
Me: 🙂
Jeff Henning: Now I overhear discussions about RSS, which is pretty technical
Jeff Henning: Not change your oil technical but not the type of thing I’d expect there to be a growing awareness of
Me: i see… good to hear that. but i still see resistance among readers to this kind of thing. a) they don’t really know where to find stuff b) they don’t know what to trust (or how to confirm). going back to my original starting point, the bb and /. phenomena… the latter is old hat now, it’s been around a while, and businessweek suggests the impact is diluted these days. do you have any thoughts on this, and where it fits?
Jeff Henning: Well, /. is one of the most influential blogs for self-proclaimed geeks — computer programmers, server administrators, and so forth.  If that was an audience I was trying to win over, then I would definitely try to get slashdot coverage.  There is a perception that it is mainly Linux and open source, but I work in a mixed shop and most of the Windows guys read it as well.  So it is a fun powerful forum.
Boingboing is quite different.
It’s funny — when you IMed, I was listening to a song (I can’t remember what they call them — its a mix/hack up of a current pop song, a Beatles song, a George Michael song and an Aretha Franklin song) that someone blogged about after seeing it on boingboing.
Jeff Henning: Boy, I’m not sure how to sum up boingboing.
Me: it’s a tricky one, isn’t it?
Jeff Henning: It really is — I amazed it is the most popular because it is so hard to pigeon hole.  But then maybe that is why it attracts such a wide audience — a little bit of something for everyone.  But still geekier than a general audience.
Me: yes. do you see any point of convergence, where a v general audience starts to look to bb for information? has that already happened?
Jeff Henning: It may have crossed over for a general 20something audience — I would expect it will do that first before reaching the larger general audience.

News: Get Off Your RSS And Sort It Out

 From the Just When You Thought You’d Found A Corner Of The Net That Was Touchy Feely Dept  comes a story of egos, politics and money. Paul Festa of CNET News.com writes a great piece about an increasingly acrimonius dispute about blogging, or more accurately Really Simple Syndication (RSS), a technology widely used to syndicate blogs and other Web content.
The dispute, Paul writes, “pits Harvard Law School fellow Dave Winer, the blogging pioneer who is the key gatekeeper of RSS, against advocates of a different format. The most notable of these advocates are Blogger owner Google and Sam Ruby, an influential IBM developer who is now shepherding an RSS alternative through its early stages of development.
 
“The dispute offers a glimpse into the byzantine and highly politicized world of industry standards, where individuals without legal authority over a protocol may nonetheless exercise control over it and where, consequently, personal attacks can become the norm. Despite the apparent pettiness of developers’ sniping, their arguments over digital minutia may carry enormous consequences, and corporate interests remain poised to capitalize on the conflicts if they are not resolved. ” Yikes. Get it sorted out, guys, I kinda like RSS.