Archive for the 'Media ecology' Category

Celebrating Dave Winer

[link] Sunday, October 12th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column:

Twenty years ago this week, a software developer in California ushered in a new era in how we communicate. His name is Dave Winer and on 7 October 1994 he published his first blog post. He called it Davenet then, and he’s been writing it most days since then. In the process, he has become one of the internet’s elders, as eminent in his way as Vint Cerf, Dave Clark, Doc Searls, Lawrence Lessig, Dave Weinberger or even Tim Berners-Lee.

When you read his blog, Scripting News – as I have been doing for 20 years – you’ll understand why, because he’s such a rare combination of talents and virtues. He’s technically a very gifted software developer, for example. Many years ago he wrote one of the smartest programs that ever ran on the Apple II, the IBM PC and the first Apple Mac – an outliner called ThinkTank, which changed the way many of us thought about the process of writing. After that, Winer wrote the first proper blogging software, invented podcasting and was one of the developers of RSS, the automated syndication system that constitutes the hidden wiring of the blogosphere. And he’s still innovating, still pushing the envelope, still writing great software.

Technical virtuosity is not what makes Winer one of the world’s great bloggers, however. Equally important is that he is a clear thinker and writer, someone who is politically engaged, holds strong opinions and believes in engaging in discussion with those who disagree with him. And yet the strange thing is that this opinionated, smart guy is also sensitive: he gets hurt when people write disparagingly about him, but he also expresses that hurt in a philosophical way…

Read on

Celebgate: what it tells us about us

[link] Sunday, September 7th, 2014

My Observer Comment piece on the stolen selfies.

Ever since 1993, when Mosaic, the first graphical browser, transformed the web into a mainstream medium, the internet has provided a window on aspects of human behaviour that are, at the very least, puzzling and troubling.

In the mid-1990s, for example, there was a huge moral panic about online pornography, which led to the 1996 Communications Decency Act in the US, a statute that was eventually deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. But when I dared to point out at the time in my book (A Brief History of the Future: The Origins of the Internet), that if there was a lot of pornography on the net (and there was) then surely that told us something important about human nature rather than about technology per se, this message went down like a lead balloon.

It still does, but it’s still the important question. There is abundant evidence that large numbers of people behave appallingly when they are online. The degree of verbal aggression and incivility in much online discourse is shocking. It’s also misogynistic to an extraordinary degree, as any woman who has a prominent profile in cyberspace will tell you…

Read on

Why Facebook is for ice buckets and Twitter is for what’s actually going on

[link] Saturday, September 6th, 2014

Tomorrow’s Observer column

Ferguson is a predominantly black town, but its police force is predominantly white. Shortly after the killing, bystanders were recording eyewitness interviews and protests on smartphones and linking to the resulting footage from their Twitter accounts. News of the killing spread like wildfire across the US, leading to days of street confrontations between protesters and police and the imposition of something very like martial law. The US attorney general eventually turned up and the FBI opened a civil rights investigation. For days, if you were a Twitter user, Ferguson dominated your tweetstream, to the point where one of my acquaintances, returning from a holiday off the grid, initially inferred from the trending hashtag “#ferguson” that Sir Alex had died.

There’s no doubt that Twitter played a key role in elevating a local killing into national and international news. (Even Putin’s staff had some fun with it, offering to send human rights observers.) More than 3.6m Ferguson-related tweets were sent between 9 August, the day Brown was killed, and 17 August.

Three cheers for social media, then?

Not quite. ..

Read on

Recycled news

[link] Thursday, August 14th, 2014

Lovely column by Jack Shafer about why news headlines seem so familiar. Sample:

But the periodicity of the news has another cause, as press scholar Jack Lule discovered more than a decade ago in his book Daily News, Eternal Stories. Lule proposed that the news was less a pure journalistic creation than it was the modern expression of ancient myths.

Like many all-encompassing formulas, Lule’s reduction of news into myth suffers by attempting to explain too much. But after reading his book, you can’t help but notice how many front-page stories collapse into the seven master myths he assembles (which will sound familiar to anybody who has brushed up against Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces): the victim, a casualty of randomness or a villain; the scapegoat, who is punished for straying outside the social order; the hero, who smites evil; the good mother, who “offers maternal comfort and protection”; the trickster, the rogue who disturbs the social order; the other world, typically foreign countries; and the flood, or any other disaster.

Lovely stuff. Worth reading in full.

The slow death of water-cooler TV

[link] Tuesday, August 12th, 2014

2014_07_21_time_shifting

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Why Wikipedia matters

[link] Sunday, August 10th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column.

Wikipedia is a typical product of the open internet, in that it started with a few simple principles and evolved a fascinating governance structure to deal with problems as they arose. It recognised early on that there would be legitimate disagreements about some subjects and that eventually corporations and other powerful entities would try to subvert or corrupt it.

As these challenges arose, Wikipedia’s editors and volunteers developed procedures, norms and rules for addressing them. These included software for detecting and remedying vandalism, for example, and processes such as the “three-revert” rule. This says that an editor should not undo someone else’s edits to a page more than three times in one day, after which disagreements are put to formal or informal mediation or a warning is placed on the page alerting readers that there is controversy about the topic. Some perennially disputed pages, for example the one on George W Bush, are locked down. And so on.

In trying to figure out how to run itself, Wikipedia has therefore been grappling with the problems that will increasingly bug us in the future. In a comprehensively networked world, opinions and information will be super-abundant, the authority of older, print-based quality control and verification systems will be eroded and information resources will be intrinsically malleable. In such a cacophonous world, how will we know what is reliable and true? How will we deal with disagreements and disputes about knowledge? How will we sort out digital wheat from digital chaff? Wikipedia may be imperfect (what isn’t?) but at the moment it’s the only model we have for addressing these problems.

Read on

Books like running water

[link] Sunday, July 20th, 2014

This morning’s Observer column

Once upon a time, 12 years ago to be precise, David Bowie said something very perceptive. “Music itself is going to become like running water or electricity,” he told a New York Times reporter. “So it’s like, just take advantage of these last few years because none of this is ever going to happen again. You’d better be prepared for doing a lot of touring because that’s really the only unique situation that’s going to be left. It’s terribly exciting. But on the other hand it doesn’t matter if you think it’s exciting or not; it’s what’s going to happen.”

I thought of Bowie and his perceptiveness last week, when – in a rare piece of corporate carelessness – Amazon inadvertently provided a fleeting glimpse of what it has in store for the publishing industry. A new page appeared on its website only to be very quickly withdrawn, but not before it had been cached by Google and spotted by a hacker website.

What was on this elusive page? Why, nothing more or less than an introduction to a new service called “Kindle Unlimited”. Subscribers will be invited to “enjoy unlimited access to over 600,000 titles and thousands of audiobooks on any device for just $9.99 a month”. One commentator described it as “Netflix for books”. David Bowie would doubtless have said that it’s the turn of books to become like running water or electricity.

Read on

Amazon has now confirmed the launch of the service.

Content mining just got easier

[link] Monday, June 2nd, 2014

This from Peter Murray-Rust’s blog:

Today 2014-06-01 is a very important date. The UK government has pushed for reform of copyright and – despite significant opposition and lobbying from mainstream publishers – the proposals are now law. Today.

Laws are complicated and the language can be hard to understand but for our purposes (Scientific articles to which we have the right to read ) :

If you have the right to read something in the UK then you have the right to extract and publish facts from it for non-commercial use.
This right overrides any restrictions in the contract signed between the publisher and and the buyer/renter.

Of course we are still bound by copyright law in general, defamation, passing off and many other laws. But our machines can now download subscribed articles without legal hindrance and as long as we don’t publish large non-factual chunks we can go ahead.

Without asking permission.

That’s the key point. If we had to ask permission or were bound by contracts that forbid us then the law would be useless. But it isn’t.

For those of us interested in extracting information from online sources for research and network-analysis purposes, this is a significant moment.

The one-world selfie

[link] Friday, May 23rd, 2014

This is amazing. And sweet. And touching. To celebrate Earth Day NASA asked people to send in pictures of where they were on that day. They received 36,000 images from over 100 countries, and assembled them into a gigantic (3.2 Gigapixel) zoomable image of the planet.

It’s the only home we’ve got. Such a pity that we’re heating it up. In the end, it will fix itself. And in the process maybe fix us too.

How people spend their time online

[link] Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

2014_05_21_online_time

Sobering chart. Some interesting aspects: note how important email still is, despite all the talk about social networking. Note that online newspapers and magazines together only add up to the same time consumption as blogs or internet radio.

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