Jan 11

Tunisia: what lessons?

Events in Tunisia continue to move at speed, so it seems worth coming back to the topics of yesterday’s post. The fear that nobody was paying much attention to the riots in Tunis and other cities has dissolved with the flight of President Ben Ali. Now everyone’s watching.

On the long-range issue of the role of social or informal media in the Tunisian drama, Ethan Zuckerman (of Global Voices and Yale) gently disagreed with my assertion that social media had played a decisive role. We agree that what’s happened isn’t a “revolution” until Tunisia holds free elections, but Ethan says that “social media’s a part of the equation, not the whole.”

He’s right of course. Ethan also makes the good point that by making it hard for foreign correspondents to operate in Tunisia, the regime paved the way for global media to rely on, and to amplify, the voices of bloggers and tweeters when the riots began. But in such a situation all sources go into the mix: trusted personal contact (digital communications offer great opportunities but are vulnerable to interception and manipulation), mainstream media (in this case such as Al Jazeera, coming from outside) and social media such as Facebook and Twitter. (Update 15/1/11: Ethan has since posted on the Foreign Policy blog a fuller overview).

The only way to truly determine cause and effect would be a proper survey of thousands of Tunisians and their sources of information. Conditions probably aren’t going to allow that for some time. My hunch is that such a study will show that social media – powerfully fuelled by a handful of lethal revelations from Wikileaks – played a powerful role in mobilising people onto the streets and convincing the regime that they had lost the battle to spin people back into line.

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Nov 09

Starr, Jarvis at Yale

A few more snippets of dialogue from the Yale conference. The optimistic digerati were most sharply attacked by Paul Starr, a Princeton academic who feels that enthusiasm for web journalism is out of control and obscuring the democratic damage being done by the disappearance of papers.

Living and working in New Jersey, he feels particularly strongly that the decline of papers (which, he notes, began well before the internet was ever a threat) has left local democracy badly damaged. He gets especially irritated by being told that barista.net is a harbinger of the future because, as a long-established online local news site it apparently makes money. That doesn’t mean that local democratic accountability is safe, he replies: baristanet is produced in Montclair, an upscale comuter dormitory for New York City – hardly typical Middle America, or even average New Jersey. And one business plan that works in the affluent north-east does not mean that journalism is saved. “There is a rot at the base of American democracy,” he said, “and we haven’t even begun to confront it.”

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Nov 09

Algorithmic authority

Fascinating panel at a Yale conference on (what else?) the future of journalism with Clay Shirky, Jeff Jarvis and Columbia’s Michael Schudson. We have moved, Shirky argued, from the age of expert authority to the age of “algorithmic authority”. From the Encyclopaedia Britannica to Wikipedia, from a single source of authority to the convergence of many opinionns to produce an authority. Algorithmic authority sounded brand new, but turned out to not to be. Google lists a hundred or so previous occurrences.

Shirky isn’t wrong in tracking this change. But the shift in social or cultural authority between the one and the many isn’t that simple. To start with the “authority” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica may look as if it is based on the view of the single author. But in truth it isn’t and never was. I’m no expert on EB’s procedures but any entry will have been edited and almost certainly been through some sort of informal “peer review”.

That leads on to the wider point that pre-digital publishing wasn’t unilateral. Think science. Publication in any scientific discipline worth the name involves sometimes quite elaborate layers of filters which are designed to screen out work which will damage the reputation of the science, the author, his colleagues or team. That is one of the sense of the word “discipline” in its scientific sense. Academic work in any discipline gathers momentum and scale only gradually as work survives the process of being critically evaluated, reworked and generally put through the wringer.

Algorithmic authority uses a vastly wider pool of labour but isn’t as much of a break from the past as might appear. And if algorithmic authority was ever used to suppress a view from an individual who was breaking new ground – as often happens – by contradicting conventional wisdom, then that wouldn’t be much of an advance would it?