Going International

March 3, 2009

Well, after years of trying, I finally managed to land a job overseas. I now find myself managing electronic communications for an international association in Brussels. It’s a dream job and one that should allow me to get a feel for how different cultures approach communication technologies. How far are they willing to go to experiment with social networking tools? I hope I can get a chance to delve into these types of issues while I learn to navigate a whole new world.

If anyone out there has experience working in international organizations, I’m open for comments and suggestions. Does anyone know if there are any really outstanding Web developer companies in Brussels or Belgium at large?

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Long Tail Economics: Benefits for the Digital Market Only

April 5, 2008

After reading the first four chapters of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail my first thought was that perhaps this new Internet-fueled phenomenon might play a role in bring and end of the Big Box stores. Does this mean we can remake our small town mom and pop businesses online?

Already there is a clear disdain for the homogenized megastores that dot the suburban – and even some urban – landscapes. As we move to the Internet more and more to find our “community,” we can view these niche web sites and stores as our new “local” favorites? My take on the economics as spelled out in The Long Tail is that this a viable option for many who want to start up a small business.

But after second, more realistic though, I have concluded that that is not the case. The Long Tail economics, I believe, only applies to a select group of businesses who deal in digital goods. Anderson’s theory is right, but only as it relates to the world of digital entertainment content. If your product is 100% digital, the cost of storing and distributing it is close to nothing. And thanks to Google, blogs, and other recommendation programs, buyers can find and access an ever increasing range of offerings at very low cost.

Non-digital merchandise still requires require space, employees, and delivery infrastructure. All of that costs money, and the companies that are best positioned are the Big Box stores, such as Barnes & Noble, Wal Mart, or Home Depot. These companies will still maintain a monopoly.

Moreover, one of the unique and defining features of the markets and products Anderson talks about is that they are all about novelty and variation. Movies, books, and music are things we enjoy once or twice, for the most part. The joy of these products lies in the discovery and experience of new things, which fuels the long tail.

However, if you look at products such as furniture, cars, televisions, or even food, Anderson’s logic begins to fail. While it is nice to have some variety, the value of these products is not simply their novelty or rarity, but in their functionality. Other products where standards and interoperability are critical also would not benefit from the long tail theory. In this sense, the “tail” seems much shorter.

It seems that for many businesses, therefore, the only way to sustain profitability in the Long Tail construct is to have enough of the popular, “blockbuster” items in order to also have room on their shelves for those that fall down toward the tail end of the chart.

Doing Business in the Digital Age

March 30, 2008

Last week, I attended a conference in Baltimore on business portals, content, and collaboration that was hosted by the Gartner research organization. Although geared primarily toward information technology professionals, I found it incredibly useful – and relevant to this week’s readings – from a communication professional’s perspective.

The overarching theme of the conference was how to successfully implement Web 2.0 technologies in the business environment in a way that fosters an organically collaborative environment. Just as Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams say in their book Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything, the speakers at this gathering continually emphasized that industries and firms need to harness mass collaboration to create real value for their employees.

Much of what is beginning to happen in the business world, as was made clear through case studies presented in the book, by the speakers at the conference, and even in today’s newspapers, has come about because the men and women now entering the workforce view communication and collaboration in a new way. Unlike what has occurred in the past, when technology made its way first from the business world and then to the public at large, technological change is being pushed from the public onto businesses.

The experiences younger workers today have with programs such as MySpace, YouTube, Twitter, or Wikipedia have given them very different ideas about privacy and greater trust in shared collaborative knowledge. They expect the same type of open, transparent structure they have grown accustomed to in their personal lives – and access to the same technology they use at home – to be just as readily available in the workplace.

This consumerist view that the new workforce brings to the office poses new challenges to businesses and other organizations. Not only do businesses have to rethink how they interact with their clients, vendors, and customers, they also have to think about how to relinquish control within their organizations. Businesses need to understand that the new tools will have tremendous implications for how people work, and that the line between the workplace and personal space is already blurred.

As much as Tapscott and Williams extol the virtues of the collaborative and open work environment that make up their idea of Wikinomics, enabling transparency among departments and breaking down internal silos of information can be tricky to accomplish even without the digital technologies now available to businesses. For companies that do attempt to implement social networking, blogs, wikis, and other collaboration tools, it can be a challenge to let these tools develop and grow organically. The traditional, hierarchical organizational structures and the communication channels that have developed to work in that environment need to be set aside entirely, which is a step many will find hard to take. There are, for example, legal, regulatory, and other compliance issues that are at stake.

Culturally, particularly for global organizations, implementing social and collaborative technologies can be even more difficult. Some cultures may take offense more easily over what others may see as simply regular online give and take. Language differences could slow down communication between countries, leading to misinterpretation over a medium that favors instant messaging and real-time communication.

Unleashing this type of environment should therefore be done gradually and with clear guidelines for employees – just as with any new system or workflow we have discussed in this class. Understanding your organization’s culture as well as its business product can help with this process. Moving from collaboration as a step in the work process to an attribute of the business as a whole requires new management, governance techniques, and process designs. Companies should identify the devotees to new technologies and let them evangelize to the others in the company.

Most important, companies need to target suitable groups first, link the new work environment and tools to existing business structures, but then let the new structure grow organically, understanding that using these new tools enable emergent processes to develop in unexpected ways. This is, after all, the point of the new digital age – in business and in our daily personal lives.

Smart Mobs

March 25, 2008

Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution, by Howard Rheingold, deals with the social, economic, and political changes that have evolved along with technology. In his book, Rheingold coins the term “smart mob,” which he defines as a form of “self-structuring social organization through technology-mediated, intelligent emergent behavior.” According to Rheingold, smart mobs are an indication of the evolving technologies that empower people.

Rheingold remarks that smart mobs can take on all kinds of forms, from benign Thumb Tribes in Tokyo and Helsinki or the meet-ups among teens and young adults at raves or other social gatherings, to more coordinated and organized protests or political movements, such as the World Trade Organization mobs organized in Seattle or the protestors in the Philippines who used text-messages to coordinate demonstrations that were in part responsible for overthrowing President Joseph Estrada.

Smart mobs are indeed incredibly empowering. Rheingold is quick to point out, however, that smart mobs and the technologies that enable them can be used both for good and for bad. Anyone, regardless of motive or intent, can leverage this new capability. As we have seen throughout history, people have used their talents for cooperation to organize atrocities as well as to further science and society.

It is important to remember, however, that technologies that enable such cooperation are not inherently bad. Therefore, a key component of smart mobs should be to make people more aware of the power of collective action – and the consequences of collective action – that they may not consciously participate in. As powerful and empowering as smart mobs are, the opportunity for people to take advantage of or manipulate others via such mobs – whether the manipulators are terrorists or the government – can be significant.

Children and teens are prime among those populations who are at risk of both misusing and being misused by smart mob technologies. The immediacy of the information and the permancy of it is not well understood by youth and so should be taught to them early and often.

When I was in school, as early as the eighth grade, the school curriculum included a unit on how to be savvy media consumers – to read and view the media with a critical eye. We were taught to question what was being broadcast to us and how, to look for subliminal messages within advertising and to identify bias or stereotyping within the news or on television shows.

Then, however, the public were simply media consumers. Now, kids are creators and contributors as well as consumers. It makes it all the more important to incorporate lessons on responsible Internet behavior into the classrooms.

There are already resources available to help parents teach their kids about the dangers of online pornography, but more needs to be done about teaching children and teens about how to use the Internet wisely and to understand the impact they have on others because of the immediacy of the Internet and other technologies and their pervasive natures. And this needs to be more than a one-time school assembly or PTA meeting. Because technology so much a part of childrens’ lives – so much so that it is really almost invisible to them – this type of lesson needs to be a larger part of the school curriculum.

Kids need to understand what happens to the information they post out on their FaceBook or MySpace pages, how permanent that can be, and how text messages to their friends easily can be forwarded through out the school and into the community.

Lessons on how to consume Internet and other online information also should be incorporated into school curricula. Aside from learning how to identify possible online predators and scams, children should be taught how to critically read blogs and news sites, and how to tell the difference between editorial comments made in blogs – even on mainstream media Web sites – and real news. They need to understand how to protect their identities online. Most important, they must be taught how to be savvy consumers and how not to be manipulated by smart, but potentially dangerous, mobs in a new hi-tech era.

Enabling Communication through Semantic Search

March 11, 2008

About a two years ago, I was asked to help articulate to my company the reasons behind the implementation of a series of new IT tools – many of which would require a change in how our researchers worked and collaborated both internally and with our clients. After reviewing all the new tools that were going to be launched, I concluded that, essentially, my company’s IT department was attempting to help the organization know what we knew – to discover what knowledge was resident in our databases, publications, and even our people.

This is why, as I read the second half of Battelle’s book The Search, I found myself drawn to his chapter on Perfect Search (chapter 11). I saw parallels between what he saw as the future of search and what my company was – and is still – attempting to do: find useful information that has context.

But as I read Battelle’s book – just as I have with all the materials I have read and studied in this and all my classes – I had in the back of my mind the nagging thought: This is great, but what does this mean for me and what does in mean for communication?

Clearly, an effective search engine is critical for a research organization such as the Institute for Defense Analyses, where I work. Being able to quickly find relevant information, people, and publications is key to conducting thorough analyses. More important, from a communications perspective, effective search enables the creation of new interactions and communities of expertise.

The evolution of the Semantic Web, in particular, can truly expand the communication reach of all sorts of communities. In essence, the Semantic Web is designed to improve communications between people using differing terminologies, to extend the interoperability of databases, to provide tools for interacting with multimedia collections, and to provide new mechanisms for supporting computing in which people and machines work more interactively.

The current Web provides links between pages that are designed for human consumption. The Semantic Web augments this with pages designed to contain machine-readable descriptions of Web pages and other Web resources. These documents can be linked together to provide information to the computer as to how the terms in one relate to those in another. And, really, isn’t this what people are doing when they use social networks?

Semantic Search opens the door to creating new communication connections that otherwise may not exist by allowing individuals to discover new connections with other individuals. Even on a small scale, such as within a single organization, being able to connect individuals, data, and knowledge can have profound effects in terms of productivity and the creation of new ideas and solutions to existing problems.

In light of this, I can see how implementing social networking, which already is using the Semantic Web, would be useful for internal employee communications. A social networking site, such as IBM’s Lotus Connections, could allow staff members to set up a profile and create their own key-term tags, set up blogs, and collaborative work areas. And, just as with the recent establishment on Facebook of an alert system to find blood donors, users could sent out an alert internally among our researchers when they need to find someone with, for example, a physics degree and experience working on radar systems is needed. A Semantic Search also could retrieve other pertinent information from additional databases.

According to an interview with Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and now Director of the World Wide Web Consortium, the Semantic Web is already here. Why, then, given the obvious potential this technology has, isn’t being made of this new tool?

Does Convenience Trump Privacy?

March 4, 2008

The details of our lives are now digitized, placed in various databases, indexed and searched; bits that can be pieced together to get a sense of the whole. Google – with its mission statement to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful – sees our lives and the information we create and store as things to be searched and retrieved. For better or worse, it delves into our identities, one piece at a time, from IP addresses, to our likes and dislikes, to what we say in our Gmail messages, to snapshots of us on the street for use in Street Views on Google Maps.

But what does that mean for our privacy? Is concern over privacy even relevant anymore? Each time Google has launched a new service or feature there has been a hue and cry over the potential loss of privacy. Inevitably, this uproar eventually disappears. Have our fears been misplaced? Or do our protests lose steam because the utility of the product trumps those initial privacy concerns?

It is interesting to look back only a few years ago when Google launched Gmail, its free email service that today is used without a second thought by hundreds of thousands of people. At the time, many expressed concern or outright refused to use the free email service because Google would send advertisements to subscribers tailored to the contents of their incoming e-mail, which would be combed by special software. Now, however, few think twice about subscribing to Gmail, either having forgotten about the intrusion into their personal information or having resigned themselves to its inevitability.

This pattern has repeated itself time and again. Last June, when Google launched its Google Street View, which posted thousands of street-level photographs of major American cities as part of its Google Maps, people again complained that the images violated their privacy. Some questioned whether people would feel differently about street-level image mapping if it were done by a government agency. But as with Gmail, the complaints eventually died down.

And only a week ago Google launched its pilot program for Google Health, which allows patients to store their medical records on Google’s servers so that they can be retrieved at any time through the new service. Consumer and privacy advocates claim this service leaves personal medical records open to access by third-party services that are not covered by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. This, critics complain, unwittingly makes it easier for the government or some other legal adversary to obtain the information.

Evidence of this concern can be seen even on our own class’s discussion board, as we debate the merits of the service – the clear convenience of having our records so readily available regardless of time or place – and the obvious drawbacks of such personal and sensitive information potentially vulnerable to hackers or opportunistic third-parties. I believe that once again convenience will trump privacy.

In the past, it was relatively easy to protect your privacy. In the analog world, it took concerted effort to uncover and optimize another’s personal information. Protecting our privacy was therefore relatively easy to achieve, and there was little to be gained by relinquishing it. The technology was not there to capitalize on the information in a way that would be useful for society at large. 

Today, however, truly useful technology requires a level of openness that has never been seen before. To take advantage of the conveniences that are afforded by services, such as those offered by Google, you have no choice but to opt in to the new, open society. Do you want to know how much your neighbors’ houses are worth? Do you want to see what the restaurant you mapped on Google actually looks like? Do you want the convenience of advertisements that are actually pertinent to you, and not extraneous information you neither want nor need? Do you want to be able to have a portable, updated electronic version of your medical file available whenever you want or need it?

To have these benefits, the public has to make concessions. The luxury of opting out is no longer a viable option. We either need to change the way we view privacy – as Saul Hansell suggested in his New York Times blog Bits – or come up with new regulations that may, in the end, stifle technological advances.

Keeping ALL Communication Channels Open During a Crisis

February 26, 2008

One of my primary criticisms of Scoble and Israel’s book Naked Conversations is its message – intended or not – that blogs are the wave of the future and all other media are unnecessary. It is as though they want to take all other methods company’s have of communicating with their publics and chuck them to the side. Take, for example, their claim in Chapter 13 concerning crisis communication.

I wholeheartedly agree that blogging has played an increasing role in providing “fast, valuable, striking, and comforting information in times of crisis.” A blog is an ideal way to get an online information center up and running in a few minutes. Also, the RSS capability inherent in blogs allows you to communicate your emergency updates over the Web real fast and in different formats, allowing reporters, employees, and others to subscribe to them by email, SMS, etc.

However, despite their dramatically increased popularity, blogs are just one of many traditional and online tools that should be considered for effective crisis communication. In the end, the right mix of communication tools and using the blog wisely within that mix are vital to responding to a crisis successfully. No internal crisis blog is, for instance, going to help if crucial information related to the crisis is repeatedly provided to and appearing in the news media before that information is communicated internally through the blog. And you surely also get counterproductive results if the messages communicated via blogs are untrue or inconsistent with messages delivered through other channels.

It is important to remember that context matters. If you are to use the example of the tsunami cited in Naked Conversations, the photos, videos, and personal stories from those who witnessed the tsunami in Asia did indeed provided vivid imagery. They did not, however, tell the full story. The blogs certainly got the story out much more quickly than could have occurred with traditional journalists, as Israel and Scoble mention, but it took traditional journalists to find out how the tsunami was formed and, more importantly, why there was no early warning system in place that could have saved so many lives.

Similarly, in the business world, there are times when context and accuracy matter more than speed. That is not to say that stonewalling is the right tactic. Nor can a company ignore events or negative or inaccurate comments posted on an influential blog. But simply relying on a company blog to respond to such events is not enough. In a crisis situation, a multichannel approach is best.If a company has released a faulty product or has acted improperly or illegally, how it reacts and handles the crisis – not the channel by which it reacted – will be the basis for how it is treated by the press and its customers. In the Intel case cited by Scoble and Israel, wherein the company had launched a faulty processor, it is unlikely Intel would have handled the situation better online than they did using traditional communication channels. The company probably would have denied any problems with its product in a blog, just as its spokesman did using traditional PR methods. Intel’s blog’s existence – and the company’s participation in the blogosphere – was irrelevant.Scoble and Israel’s argument regarding nipping inaccuracies in the bud is also faulty. The authors claim that monitoring the blogosphere for what is being said about the company is key to quickly correcting false claims and unfounded rumors. Does this mean companies must respond to each and every negative or inaccurate post in the blogosphere? Chris Anderson in his book The Long Tail and others state that blogs are self-editing; that if something untrue or inaccurate is posted, others will jump in to correct the misinformation – such as in Wikipedia. Is it the company’s responsibility to do this? Does the company have to run a blog to respond to a blog? Will a company official making the “correction” be more or less likely to be viewed as credible?

Scoble and Israel cite Scoble’s handling of The Register’s inaccurate article about a Microsoft beta product. Scoble’s blog, the authors claim, saved the company’s reputation and averted a potentially damaging situation. Did Scoble really avert a crisis by responding to The Register’s inaccurate posting? Did that situation actually represent a potential crisis? Had the product actually done what the article claimed it would, that would have been a crisis that would have required a larger corporate communication effort than simply a blog post to buy time by saying, “Oops, sorry. We’ll look into this.” Moreover, if we are to believe what blog proponents say about the self-correcting nature of the blogosphere, Microsoft’s champions – and the application’s beta testers – would have blasted The Register for its inaccurate reporting. 

Finally, in the case of a true crisis, a company should make every effort to get its facts right and that they reach as much of their relevant publics as efficiently as possible. This means taking the time to get those facts right and consistent, regardless of who is communicating them. We have seen how devastating misinformation can be, for example, in manufacturing disasters or mine shaft collapses. In such cases, uniformity of voice is crucial. Imagine if there were hundreds of company bloggers at the Murray Energy Corporation when its Utah mine collapsed last August. What would have happened if well-intentioned company bloggers accidentally posted inaccurate information concerning rescue efforts?

Handling dire situations – real crises – also means using communication channels that the majority of the company’s publics are using. If you look at the statistics, only a fraction of the U.S. population actually reads or posts to blogs. Business Week reported that a Forrester study found that 11.2% of online adults in the United States publish a blog at least once a month. Of the same group, 24.8% read a blog and 13.7% comment on a blog at least once a month. Clearly, a company blog is not the right channel in all cases.. In a true crisis, a company will need to reach a much larger audience than that. A Web site, a press release, or a press conference would be a much more effective way to get key information out to the public.

Corporate Blogging

February 19, 2008

Shel Israel and Robert Scoble, in their book Naked Conversations: How Blogs are Changing the Way Businesses Talk with Customers, state that every company, from the small-town plumber to the multinational corporation can benefit from blogging. They argue that by ignoring the blogosphere, a company risks missing out on important conversations about what customers and competitors are saying about it. Moreover, it is foregoing the chance to enter into that conversation to help set the record straight if something inaccurate has been posted or printed somewhere or to give the company a more human face. For Israel and Scoble, both company executives and public relations professionals are missing out on an opportunity to get closer to the people who make a difference to them.

I agree that PR professionals should be jumping onto the blogging bandwagon. However, blogs are a new and still evolving tool for many companies, and represent a new set of challenges in terms of tone, timing, and commitment.

Toby Bloomberg had it right when he said in Naked Conversations that blogs should be viewed as yet another tool in the PR professional’s kit that have their purpose, just as the more traditional tools have theirs. Israel and Scoble are too quick to assume that other PR methods are already obsolete. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s 2007 State of the News Media found that niche publications and even newspapers as a whole are still not fully plugged into the Ineternet, in that they are still finding out how to effectively use the medium. To assume that a traditional press release will no longer get a company’s message out effectively is to assume that newspapers no longer matter and that all reporters are taking part in the blogging conversations. As with any PR effort, those who use blogs need to ensure that they match the message – and the channel by which that message is sent – to the audience.

Clearly, for some companies a blog would be well received. However, encouraging a company with limited resources to spend the time and effort required to maintain a blog when the company culture or targeted market sector does not mesh well with this mode of communication may not be a sound business strategy to pursue, as Scoble and Israel themselves point out. Computer companies, such as Microsoft, for example, are ideal candidates for blogging; their audiences, from shareholders to customers, are more likely than, say, John Deere’s or the plumber’s Scoble and Israel are still looking for, to keep up with relevant blogs. 

The same aversion blog audiences have to spin and company-produced hype holds true for inappropriate use or participation in a blog, where attempts to spin or market a product or company in a medium that shuns that type of behavior could backfire. Therefore, companies must be up front not only with the tone of the blog, but also with the fact that they are actually participating in a blog in the first place. Blog readers are likely to pick up on slick PR or corporate messages, and if poorly handled – as was the case for Sony, WalMart, McDonald’s, and Whole Foods – the effort could result in a PR nightmare. In each of these cases, the executive – as with Whole Foods CEO John Mackey – or the PR firm – as was the case (ironically) with Edleman’s handling of the WalMart incident – hid their identity when blogging or participating in chat lines. Just as with a press release or any other PR tool, being truthful is paramount. Here, Shel Israel’s comment that blogs are credible, press releases are not, rings hollow.

Another concern many companies may have is determining how to measure the effectiveness of their blog? Does the blog actually bring in more business? Scoble and Israel argue that the Microsoft blog had an impact on the public’s perception of the company, but did that result in more sales? What metrics do you use to tie a blog to a company’s success or failure?

The learning curve for many in the PR profession and for many company executives will be steep. But if they can master this technology, it can be a powerful tool in communicating with – not to – their various audiences. The questions remain, however, concerning what the next big change in technology will bring. At this stage, as technology evolves so quickly, how soon before blogs are replaced with more interactive multimedia tools? Will a text-only blog seem outdated and passé, forcing companies to post videos of their executives chatting with their customers?

Using the Internet to Fill the Foreign Correspondent Void

February 11, 2008

Jeff Jarvis, in his blog Buzz Machine, on February 7 brought up the oft-talked about problem concerning the dying newspaper industry, asking his readers to what steps they would take if they owned the Boston Globe or Sun-Times. What radical steps would – or could – a newspaper owner take in order to keep it afloat? Reading through the comments Jarvis’s audience left, it was clear that many took a view similar to that posed by Dan Gilmore: go digital. I would have to agree, and see a key way to leverage technology for not just newspapers, but for television news as well, would be in their foreign bureaus.


Already, many news organizations have begun closing their foreign bureaus in an effort to save money. According to a report on The World, the number of foreign correspondents deployed around the world by major U.S. newspapers has decreased by 25 percent between 2002 and 2006. The same sharp drop in foreign correspondents and bureaus has also been seen in television. In 1970, CBS had 14 major foreign bureaus, 10 smaller bureaus, and part-time reporters in 44 countries, according to an op-ed by Ted Koppel. By 2006, he claimed, CBS had reduced its foreign presence significantly, and was down to eight foreign correspondents and only three foreign bureaus.

Economics and the changing media environment has forced news organizations to change how they cover foreign news. Large bureaus, which can cost up to $500,000 each year to operate, are giving way to one-person reporting units, such as those being used by CNN and ABC News, that can be deployed with an arsenal of new technology — including handheld digital video cameras, satellite dishes, and laptops technology. This equipment, according to John Maxwell Hamilton, dean of Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication, costs only about $10,000 per reporter. The World’s Aaron Schachter reports that news organizations also are relying more and more on wire services, such as AP and Agence France-Press, to fill the void left by the declining numbers of foreign bureaus and correspondents.

Some, such as Gilmore see this precipitous decline in the number of foreign news bureaus and correspondents as an opportunity for bloggers and other video and online media providers, while others question whether bloggers have the experience and professionalism needed to provide quality, objective coverage.

The way forward, however, is not an all or none path in which news organizations either restaff their foreign bureaus or close them all down and blindly rely on bloggers or the wire services for their foreign news coverage. News outlets have a number of options when it comes to leveraging technology across the globe. They should use the technology in order infuse their foreign coverage with original and more personal content that can be provide by bloggers and contributions from citizen journalists. This content should be used to augment – not supplant – coverage provided by wire services, freelancers, and individual correspondents the news organizations deploy overseas.

Some veteran journalists, such as Roy Gutman of the McClatchy News chain, argue that bloggers or wire service journalists do not have the same level of knowledge as a foreign correspondent living and working in the local area. This claim seems unfounded, given that local and expatriate citizen journalists likely would have a more intimate and unique insight into local trends and issues, and could have access to certain events and individuals to which more traditional journalists do not.

News organizations should encourage their credentialed correspondents, who may have access to mainstream political figures and influencers, to collaborate with local bloggers in order to enhance hard-news coverage with video, photography, and text impressions of those with more personal perspectives and levels of access. Coverage could then draw content from hundreds of local citizen journalists whose blog sites could foster conversations among the bloggers, their audiences, and the news organizations’ correspondents.

Gutman and others also argue that bloggers may not have a methodology for corroborating and checking facts and that readers would not know if the blogger has a bias or inherent conflict of interest. This argument assumes that using bloggers would mean foregoing any ethical and editorial oversight. To counter this, mainstream U.S. news organizations could adopt, and indeed make more stringent, the editorial practices employed by Internet news sites such as Global Voices and OhMyNews, which employ editors who review submissions and require its contributors to agree to a set of ethical and editorial guidelines. Similar or more stringent rules could help ensure a level of audience trust for mainstream organizations that use bloggers or other Internet content.

Those who argue against leveraging the input of bloggers and other online contributers to the news claim that citizen journalists do not have the depth of understanding of the complex issues in today’s interconnected world. These arguments are irrelevant, however, and assume an either-or solution to the problem.

Click Here to Leave a Comment

January 30, 2008

Both Dan Gilmore, in his book We the Media, and Cory Doctorow, et al., in their book Essential Blogging, make similar arguments about the benefits of blogs and digital news concerning the interactive nature and immediacy of digital media. Information and opinions can be posted without outside interference immediately and can be commented upon by any and all.

For Gilmore, this is a particular strength of blogs – the ability to let the readers serve as editors, whether that is in the form of Wikis or simply the comments readers leave for particular blog or news posts. Doctorow, et al., and Gilmore see this process as transparent. Doctorow states that he and his partner in the blog Boing Boing read the comments left by readers and makes corrections that can be viewed by readers via the use of strikethrough text. I doubt, however, this is the case for most bloggers who do not make the corrections to errors or fallacies in their posts.

We’ve all read blogs and have seen the links that take you to the comments left by readers. How many of us actually follow those links to read the comments? Do the bloggers read their comments? Do they act on them? Do the comments spur them to action, whether that means responding to arguments for or against or to further investigate a particular issue raised by a reader?

Well, I have read the comments left on blogs and news sites, and let me tell you, what I’ve seen isn’t pretty. More often than not, the comments are not well-reasoned arguments or notes on inaccuracies in the blog or articles. Instead, many who post comments seem to be in a perpetual state of self-righteous rage.

The internet has immense potential as a tool for mobilization and for hashing out ideas, but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands.

Do people see their role on the Internet to simply point out what is wrong, or do they use the internet to collaborate with to solve problems?

The Chicago Tribune finally got fed up with the comments left on its Web site. This week the Tribune shut down comment boards for all political news stories, an opinion column about Muslims, a story about the Illinois governor, and a story about a violent crime in which a child was killed. Apparently, these are part of a growing list of topics that include race, immigration, and crime “that bring out anonymous writers who are so nasty, obscene and racist that the boards were beginning to read like a community of foul-mouthed bigots.”

You can go beyond the blogs and to the Web sites of the major newspapers and ask the same questions. Do any of the papers actually review or respond to the comments posted?
Even more important, how many newspaper or television Web sites have a mechanism through which readers can post comments to the article’s author or to editors. The Project for Excellence in Journalism’s State of the News Media 2007 states that digital journalism has not fully exploited the potential for users to participate by commenting and adding their own voice to the information.

The study found, for example, that the Web site of the local CBS affiliate in Dallas-Forth Worth is lacking in this area (or was when this study was done). “There are no user forums, comments or polls. There is no way to email the correspondent of a report, nor are there lists of the most viewed or emailed stories. There is a section at the bottom of the site that asks readers, “Got an Idea for a Story?” The link, however, only prompts an e-mail window.” Low marks were also given to CBS News’s site.

While I agree that one of the benefits of the digital age is the ability to interact and participate in online discussions, to be a part of an online community, I think the immediacy of the technology does not give people time to think through what they wind up posting.

Posting a comment on a blog or on a news site is somewhat like responding to an email message that really struck a nerve. I think we all have been in a situation where, in a fit of pique, you fire off a message without thinking about the tone of your note. Your emotions are running high, and in the heat of the moment you type out a sarcastic or indignant missive and hit the Send button. Then you see what you wrote, but it’s too late. Your message is out there.

Doctorow, et al., make the argument that the “old” way of writing articles and getting reader feedback to weeks or months as the written material wended its way through editors and editorial committees. The authors bemoan the fact that letters to the editor can take months to appear in print and for letter-writer comments to make their way back to the journalist.

Maybe that’s a good thing.

Editors serve a vital function, as does time.