May 11

About blogging, this much I now know

This blog is just over a year old and so that – and a refreshed design – seems the right moment to round up what I’ve learnt so far. What you learn about blogging when you do it is not necessarily the same as what you read on the subject. This is what I’ve found about what works and what doesn’t.

  • Few blogs are instant hits. Virtually everyone who publishes their own work – that’s now a colossal number of people – nurtures a secret dream that their words will be found to be so dazzling, so wise and so eloquent that thousands will circulate these posts among themselves and fame will be instant. This gradually gives way to a much older and more solid truth: stamina, patience and the long haul matter in this, just as in most things. This blog has gradually grown a loyal core of readers who keep coming. But boy is it slow.
  • I have written just under 200 posts in a bit over a year. Call that 400 days and I find I’m posting on average every other day.
  • You’re a prisoner of your past: my background (see here) is in print journalism. I write in that mode, for good or ill. I am conditioned not to write too carelessly or too hastily. Does this occasionally inhibit me from pushing out a quick post? Maybe.
  • My largest contributor of incoming traffic so far is Twitter. (I’ve only just set up a Facebook site for blogposts).
  • One of the best things about blogs are links, making a post not only an opinion but text with the evidence for the argument in the background and opportunities for the reader to wander through the links to somewhere quite different. I’ve even suggested that more journalists should use links more frequently as footnotes (see here). But I’ve got to admit that putting in the links is painfully time-consuming. I haven’t timed it precisely, but I reckon that linkage usually takes at least half as much time again as the writing.
  • People talk a lot about “engagement” as the quality which readers look for in a blog. Experience tells me that by far the most effective form of engagement is aggressive disagreement. Some of the largest hits I’ve had have been for posts with strong criticism, needling or disapproval: Lee Bollinger’s dotty ideas about an American BBC, the first and fluffy set of figures from The Times on online subscribers (now superseded by better ones) and almost anything disobliging about Julian Assange. Say what you like about the man from Wikileaks but he has fans who spring to his defence with passion. (It was one of them who called me a “supercilious weasel”). People find reasonableness, common sense and – worst of all – the ability to see both sides of a question simply dull. So bash someone hard and watch the hits climb.
  • Best of all, bash an Australian. Don’t ask me why a verbal walloping for anyone from that blameless and lovely country should be such a powerful blogosphere boost, but it is. The single largest number of hits this blog has ever had in a day followed a post casting some doubts on Assange and Wikileaks (and that was before Assange had gone supernova with the US warlogs and diplomatic cables). The name of Rupert Murdoch is of course likewise catnip.
  • I’ve read that short posts fare better than long ones and posting at the weekend boosts traffic. My experience contradicts both. I see no correlation at all between the hit rate of a post and length. Hardly surprising in that this is a blog about professional and not personal things, but traffic falls at the weekend.
  • I am addicted to Google Analytics, distracted and fascinated by the traffic level wiggling across the days and months. The world map is even better. I know a few of my fans outside Britain (hello to Chris and Katherine, my faithful readers in Cairo) and can see where talks and lectures of mine have created clusters of readers. But the rest is a mystery. Taking a quick look at the last three months and readers in 94 countries…even a tiny number of blog visitors in Sudan, Kazakhstan and Algeria are a surprise. Why am I more popular in Poland than Morocco? But thank you to every single visitor anyway.

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Feb 11

The fast-finger Twitter dilemma: a small confession

I did something yesterday that I probably shouldn’t have. I yielded to the temptation of what the people at lolcats.com call “ease of do”.

I retweeted a short tweet from the Libyan expatriate novelist Hisham Matar about what has been happening in Benghazi. On Saturday afternoon, fragments of fact were starting to seep from the city on the eastern Libyan coast suggesting that something very bad was happening there. I happened to be looking at Twitter. I saw and retweeted this short message from @hishamjmatar:

Doctor in Benghazi hospital puts the death toll at 120. A massacre is taking place in Benghazi. Please spread the news. #Feb17 #Libya

While I still feel uneasy about having relayed it, I don’t think I’ve done any harm. Everything we’ve heard or seen since tells us that the Libyan authorities have been killing protesters in Benghazi; the death toll may well be higher than 120. I gave Matar’s message a modest extra push because I admire his fine novel In The Country of Men, which is based on his own childhood and gives a chilling child’s-eye picture of what Ghaddafi’s regime feels like if you dare to oppose it.

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Jan 11

Facebook and Twitter targeted by Egyptian authorities

Evgeny Morozov, author of the recently-published The Net Delusion, tweeted the other day that he felt sick having to restart discussions for Egypt about whether the country was starting a Twitter or Facebook revolt.

I know how he feels and social networks aren’t the same as the courage required to get onto the streets in these countries. So I just mention quietly that Twitter stopped working in Egypt yesterday; both Twitter and Facebook seem to be blocked today. It’s worth noting what the authorities think is a threat: the enhanced ability to connect and mobilise. (Readers new to this theme start here or here).

While on the subject of Morozov, if you are looking for a single piece which sums up his contra-suggestive thinking, I’d recommend this. Coming from a quite different, and more constructive, direction on the same theme are two pieces which both examine how journalism needs to adapt to verify the information that flies at us on the web. The first is from the Online Journalism Blog of my City University colleague Paul Bradshaw and lays out basic methods of verification on the web. The second is by the BBC journalist Matthew Eltringham (via Charlie Beckett) and reflects on the practical problems of sifting the truth in new circumstances and something called the “line of validation”. These are both creative ways of extending the idea of “verification” which I listed when trying to pin down the definition of journalism in the digital age.


Jan 11

Tunisian repercussions and perspective

The capacity of new media to spread ideas at speed retains the power to astound me still. But, of course, people leap to conclusions equally fast and ideas get warped.

There’s been an on-the-margins discussion triggered by events in Tunisia about whether the toppling of the President was a “Twitter revolution” or a “Wikileaks revolt”. On the latter, here is a savage and funny riposte to the idea that Tunisians needed Julian Assange’s help to realise that their government was sclerotic and bent.

On the Twitter issue, Marc Lynch has a wise new post correcting the perspective by placing Twitter in the context of all the media changes of Arab societies, including the proliferation of cable and satellite channels led by Al-Jazeera.

Having made a minor contribution to all this by suggesting that the Wikileaks cables may have influenced the Tunisian situation and by stressing that newer media power in Arab countries, can I just go back to the ideas which I hope will survive the passions of the moment to be investigated in tranquility?

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Jan 11

The power of social, networked media in Tunisia

Ethan Zuckerman of Global Voices asks: what if there was a revolution going on in Tunisia and nobody was watching?

The first part of the answer is that what’s happening in Tunisia so far amounts to a revolt and not a revolution. The Jasmine Revolt (so called after the country’s national flower) has shaken the regime of President Ben Ali but not brought it down. The government hasn’t lost its nerve and remains in control of the streets. The President’s concessionary speech last night bought him some time.

But that isn’t really Zuckerman’s point: he’s worried that fewer people are following what’s happening in Tunisia than followed events in Iran in June 2009. Here are a few reasons for the difference:

  • The difference in excitement levels is largely confined to America. There is a huge Iranian diaspora in the US and that helped to spread new of what was happening in Tehran (also less than a revolution) very fast.
  • Tunisia has always belonged to the French-speaking world and not the Anglo-Saxon. The French mainstream media have covered the story.
  • It’s a big story in the Middle East. I’m writing from Dubai, where the story is on the front pages and satellite channels day after day. Even in the more circumspect newspapers of Saudi Arabia (where I’ve just been), it’s still a big item.
  • Working as  a foreign correspondent in Tunisia is more difficult and dangerous than often supposed. As Bassam Bounenni recalls, “in 2005, on the eve of the World Summit on Information Society in Tunis, Christophe Boltanski, a reporter with the French daily Libération, was beaten and stabbed. His colleague, Florence Beaugé, from Le Monde, was luckier because she was only stopped at the Tunis airport and expelled from the country hours before the 2009 presidential election.”
  • Tunisia is smaller and geopolitically less significant than Iran.
  • The early days of the the Tunisian disturbances fell into the news twilight of the Christmas and New Year holidays.
  • There is no Tunisian equivalent of the left’s bad conscience about Iran. When the ayatollahs took over in Iran in 1979, they were greeted in Europe and America by panegyrics from progressive opinion which look truly embarassing to read now that we know what an Islamic clerical dictatorship actually looks like. Some guilt still persists and helps to fuel interest and concern about Iran.

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Nov 10

Online hyperlocal: power shifts coming

At the conference of Dutch-speaking investigative journalists a few days ago I listened to a presentation by Vadim Lavrusik of the social media advice portal mashable.com and I began to see what a profound change the new hyperlocal news sites might, in time, effect.

Lavrusik namechecked a series of sites in the US doing effective accountability journalism by mobilising communities. He mentioned the Talking Points Memo Muckraker section (slogan: “they have the muck; we have the rakes”), a survey of condom outlets in Colorado, tbd.com and the “stink map” for Columbia, South Carolina. Tbd.com, which covers parts of Washington DC and northern Virginia had appealed for information on escalators that weren’t working in the metro system and they accelerated repairs by generating public pressure.

Local online journalism isn’t quite as developed in Britain as in the US, but there’s no doubt that it’s growing (example here). In all the places where local printed news is losing money or prominence, we’re at the start of what will come to be a big shift in the way local politics works.

As you can see if you look a few of Vadim Lavrusik’s examples, the first thing that happens is that power starts to flow towards people who are adept at using the new sources of power. In this case that means groups or individuals who are smart with new media and social media, who can mobilise campaigns which use information in new and agile ways. Local authorities, not usually famed for their nimbleness, are sitting targets for this new style of Twitter and Facebook activism.

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Oct 10

The Chinese twittersphere

There’s endless back-and-forth over whether or not Twitter really played a significant part in the failed Iranian  “revolution” of June 2009. Did Twitter grosssly exaggerate the opposition strength and help to identify people subsequently arrested? Or did it link previously disconnected people and help to bring the regime to the brink of   collapse?

This theme is picked up and applied to the very different Chinese experience by Professor Hu Yong, who is reflecting   on the flood of tweets unleashed by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to dissident Liu Xiaobo. In China, he says, social media like Twitter are not likely to be suddenly transformative but they do push a “more subtle social progress”.

I predict that the next topic in Twitter Studies will be the role of covert tweet manipulation in totalitarian societies. Twitter and social media massively increase the range of networks at the price of removing face-to-face contact. Looking someone in the eye is often the best (if not the infallible) way to check whether someone is who they say they are or whether they are telling the truth.


Oct 10

Is this the best tweet ever?

This blog has very occasionally been a shade grumpy about over-inflated claims being made for Twitter as the platform that will change journalism, society, the world, the universe and everything.

But sometimes short is beautiful, not to mention punchy and eloquent. Mario Vargas Llosa wins the Nobel Prize for Literature. His old enemy and Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez simply tweets “cuentas iguales” – or, “we’re even”.

Very cool. If you want to know why this is the perfect commentary on the news of the prize, this wonderful piece from the Guardian books blog by Stuart Jeffries will fill in the story (hat-tip: Ollie Brock).