23
Jun 11

The filter bubble and public reason

I went today to listen to Eli Pariser, author of “The Filter Bubble: what the internet is hiding from you”. I wasn’t convinced, in several ways.

Pariser’s argument is that the world wide web isn’t what he thought it was. The search engines and social networks manipulate what you see in ways they don’t tell you about and which make them money. Algorithms which sift for “relevance” create a personal information world for you: a filter “bubble” screens you off from wider, richer possibilities. The new giants which dominate the information networks, such as Google and Facebook, should be regulated so that they can do better for society.

Pariser is right to draw attention to the major, barely-announced shift in the way that Google adjusts search results to suit an individual (although there’s dispute about the extent to which it happens). But his worry is the latest chapter in a long debate over the “echo chamber” effects of the internet. Does the availability of so much information deliver the paradox of people less well-informed because they can choose only to consume material which supports their existing beliefs and opinions? There is at least one piece of recent research which casts doubt on this widely-held belief.

My own sense, unsupported by scientific inquiry, is that “echo chamber” tendencies are probably more than offset by the internet’s ability to allow instant, rich, serendipitous exploration of the world’s digital library. When was the last time you sat down at the screen to check closing time at Waitrose and, before you knew where you were and after several sideways jumps, found yourself browsing, via a signpost in Arts & Letters Daily, a piece in Lapham’s Quarterly on diets which include earth, chalk and hair?

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03
Jun 11

“Grabbing discursive power” – a new argument in China

The commentary in the western press on the hacking of Google email accounts has started a hardly surprising backlash in China itself. The China Media Project (at the University of Hong Kong) has spotted a remarkable editorial in the Global Times (an English-language offshoot of the Peoples’ Daily) adapted from a blogpost by the editor-in-chief Hu Xijin.

The editorial is striking for two things: firstly the emphasis on how a proud and powerful country like China can no longer stand aside from the struggle to grab “discursive power” in the world’s networked conversation. Note the pungently aggressive nationalism throughout.

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04
Jul 10

Weekend miscellany: Eric Schmidt, exabytes, cognitive surplus and shallows, Ferguson vs Daily Mail

A handful of bits and pieces that I didn’t get round to posting last week. No point in pretending that they’re connected.

  • It’s 16 minutes long but this video of Google boss Eric Scmidt speaking to a London conference is well worth a look for a tour of the man’s thinking. His themes are mobiles, the cloud and networks. For my money, the stuff about the computing cloud is the best. Other highlights: Google has a highly advanced face recognition application which they did not launch in Europe because it would be illegal. Google translation software works without a dictionary but with a “statistical machine translation” programme.
  • One last Schmidt stat: from the beginning of history to 2003, humankind produced 5 exabytes of information. That quantity is now generated in two days. Yes, Google love this kind of fact because it describes a problem they will make money by solving. But even so.
  • NiemanLabs is running a series of pieces (why so long please?) on Clay Shirky’s new book, Cognitive Surplus, and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Interesting pairing. Evgeny Morozov has been writing about Carr’s book in Prospect (but I can’t see the web version).
  • In 2004, the playwright Joe Penhall wrote a brilliant, uncomfortable play called Dumb Show for the Royal Court which examined the love-hate relationship between minor celebs and red-top journalists. It is a black comedy but with biting moral: get too close to reporters with blowtorches and you will get burned.The play jumped into my mind when I read this sad, angry paragraph from an interview with the historian and prolific commentator Niall Ferguson. Ferguson has recently left his wife for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born campaigner on Islam and former Dutch MP. He is asked about the Daily Mail and this is his reply in full.
  • “I wrote for the Mail when I was a struggling undergraduate. For money. But having been on the receiving end of that combination of intrusion and defamation and misrepresentation, I have revised my opinion and want nothing more to do with those people. I despise them from the bottom of my heart, because they are just hypocrites. While they posture as opponents of radical Islam they have twice put her in danger by revealing her whereabouts. And that is the thing I will never forgive.”
  • That long quotation comes from The Times, whose online content is now of course no longer free so if I link to it and you click, it’ll ask you to pay. I think that makes linking not worth it, which is why I haven’t provided one here. If you’d like links to sites with registration, charging or paywalls, let me know.
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24
May 10

Unplugged offcuts

I posted two days ago from the Al-Jazeera Forum Unplugged new media day but confined that one to the new initiative AJ is launching in this area. Here are a few bits and pieces from the other speakers which caught my ear.

Josh Benton of NiemanLabs. Demand Media (which matches freelance writers with commissions and/or payment) is now handling 5000 pieces of news a day; lifestyle journalism is very cheap to produce. Anyone thinking about paywalls has to reckon that there will always be free quality alternatives. The BBC, NPR, PBS & Co aren’t going away.

News is moving from being a manufacturing activity to becoming a service industry. The average US newspaper spends 15% of its budget on journalists. Young people in America spend an average of seven or eight minutes a month on the websites of newspapers; in the same period they spend seven hours on Facebook.

Benton, incidentally, turns out to be the reason why the NiemanLab blogs are so useful and well-written. He edits the material. Shocking, I know.

Joi Ito of Creative Commons. The key element of internet architecture, the heart and soul of the matter, is that the system allows people to connect without permission. Charging model that seems to work best is part-free, part-paid but with larger sums coming from fewer people. But he admitted that his best examples were not journalism: the rock group Nine-Inch Nails and Japanese anime companies.

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19
May 10

Paywall ping-pong

Went last night to the recording of BBC Radio 4’s Media Show paywall debate last night between John Witherow of the bbcmediashowSunday Times and Alan Rusbridger of The Guardian. To the evident disappointment of the show’s presenter Steve Hewlett, neither man took up the invitation to set the dialogue alight or to savage the other.

The explanation for this outbreak of reasonableness is not far to seek. Neither editor wants to hook themselves on positions they can’t change if events go against them. Witherow, fronting for the decision to split the sites of the The Times and Sunday Times and to charge £1 per day or £2 per week for visiting either, can’t be sure that the experiment will work and can’t rule out the possibility of having to reverse out of it. Rusbridger, sceptical about charging, can’t be certain that economics may not force him to ask his users to pay in the future, however much he dislikes the idea. “You’d have to be crazy to be fundamentalist about this,” as he put it. Hence the careful, pacific tone of the exchanges.

Highlights and soundbites. Witherow acknowledged that the two papers would lose “at least” 90% of their existing traffic. He thinks that the iPad is a gamechanger and sees people switching to it en masse. He was not drawn on why the paywall is going round 100% of the paper’s content or whether and how the low starting price might be raised, two of the most striking aspects of News International’s experiment. He did not have a very convincing answer to what he would do if faced with what might be called the “Pundits Revolt” which forced the New York Times to back out of an earlier charging experiment. The paper’s columnists, cut off from their friends, enemies and opinions of all kinds behind the paywall rebelled.

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18
May 10

Is the future…possibly…bright?

The future for printed daily papers has looked gloomy for so long that people have forgotten what sunlight looks like. I’ve seen a cluster of pieces in the last few days which stare into the future and they share two striking characteristics: they are more optimistic than pessimistic (about news publishing if not about print) and they see a role for something definable called journalism.

If you only have time to look at one of these, read James Fallows on Google and journalism. The history of news media shows that journalism is always being turned upside down and Fallows talked to the top Googlies about how they see the latest revolution.

To whet your appetite here are two short passages to illustrate why this piece is upbeat and required reading. Google-bashing is daft: the Google thinkers may not be right about everything but they are smart enough to be worth arguing with. Fallows noted that people in Google are finding it easier to think about how to sustain journalism because they are not in the newspapers business. He illustrates it like this:

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