This is not news

Great story by Steffen Fjaervik about the huge readership gained by Norwegian site Bergens Tidendes (known as Bt no) when they reported the winner of Scandinavian Big Brother in a two-sentence article. This coverage is so minimal that it almost amounts to a snub. The third sentence of the report drives their point home by announcing that they will not be returning with any further updates – firmly refusing to provide the usual gushing entertainment piece: “Bt no probably won’t come back with more”.
This was a pointed little reminder about what really is news and what isn’t. It spread virally via email and other media, and gained the story a whopping 25000 readers, the kind of readership usually seen on that site for much bigger news stories. As Fjaervik points out, this flies in the face of the recieved wisdom about needing to update web stories regularly. Clearly, the story piqued the interest of a readership who saw great news value in a news provider snubbing tv entertainment.

Digital divide and social networking

I’d not paid much attention to the MySpace debates until recently. I get very bored with the American paranoia about children online, since US parents are so good at being afraid for all the wrong reasons. Their reasons predictably involve teen sex, pedophiles, and (when they need some variety) computer games. Remember that these same terrified people happily drive SUVs and vote for G.W. Bush. What’s a greater threat to the future of their children? Some steamy text chat or their current level of carbon emissions?
Nonetheless, here’s a more sensible response: a very interesting interview with danah boyd and Henry Jenkins about MySpace. Jenkins and boyd discuss some of the implications of the moral panics about paedophiles and predators, notably the calls to restrict access to certain sites from schools and libraries.
Henry Jenkins argues that children who have to rely on public facilities for internet access might be disadvantaged by their limited experience of the online social networks which are becoming such a powerful social force.

“Now, the problem shifts from concerns about technical access to concerns about participation in the key social and cultural experiences which are defining the emerging generation’s relationship to these technologies. What a kid can do at home with unlimited access is very different from what a kid can do in a public library with ten or fifteen minutes of access at a time and with no capacity to store and upload information to the web. We further handicap these children by placing filters on the Internet which restrict their access to information which is readily available to their more affluent classmates. And now this legislation would restrict their ability to participate in social networks or to belong to online communities. The result will be to further isolate children from poorer economic backgrounds, to cut kids at risk from support systems which exist within their peer culture, and to limit the social and cultural experiences of kids who are already behind in acquiring important networking skills that will shape their professional futures. All of this will compound what we are now calling the participation gap. The early discussion of the digital divide assumed that the most important concern was insuring access to information as if the web were simply a data bank. Its power comes through participation within its social networks. The authors of the law are reading MySpace and other social software exclusively in terms of their risks; they are not focusing on the opportunities they offer for education and personal growth. In protecting children from those risks, they would cut them off from those educational benefits.”

When studying the elaborate international networking practiced by online gamers, I’ve often wondered about whether South African children are missing out on something significant by not participating. Are South African children really missing out on new forms of online cultural capital? To what extent will a lack of knowledge of social networking practices hinder their social mobility? What happens when we replace the idea of a “digital divide” with the idea of a “participation gap”? By talking about participation, the discussion is less technologically determinist than we usually see in comments about the “digital divide”. Still, it replaces this with the idea that normative elite practices must be copied by all. And that all children would benefit from participating in this network.
Here’s the full paper

In-game protest – America’s Army

Interesting article on Gamespy about an anti-war in-game protest targetting the U.S. federally funded game “America’s Army”, which is used as a military recruitment tool. Joseph DeLappe logs into the game as dead-in-iraq. Instead of playing, he types the names of the U.S. soldiers who have died since the start of the war (official U.S. figures give a total of 2456)

Here’s his website with some more screenshots.
Great idea. When the administrators boot him off the server, he can just start a new protest with the login name civilians-dead-in-iraq. That should keep him typing for a couple of hundred years.

Broadening access – US project

A project to provide free wireless broadband – if this becomes a reality it should make broadband accessible to Americans of all income brackets.
Can’t see anyone who’d be prepared to foot the bill for doing this here in South Africa, given the reluctance to provide other basics. Knysna, Tshwane and Joburg municipalities have smaller scale projects in the pipeline, or just getting off the ground, including wifi in Knysna and bpl in Tshwane (broadband over power lines).
Thanks to Adele for this one.

Audiences as targets

Here is some very apt criticism of the notion of a “target audience”, particularly in relation to online media. The passive connotations of the idea of “audiences” as receivers are criticised, as is the notion of a reader as “target”. An alternative phrase, “communities of interest”, is suggested. Again this is from Amy Gahran.
Still, I’m not sure that the idea of a “community” is better in all respects – the warm and fuzzy connotations of “community” just don’t seem suitable for all aspects of online media. For example, the most profitable notion of online marketing is based on an ever more precise targeting of individuals and their potential utterances.

In the forest of online words, you buy your ammunition – search keywords – and Google lies in wait for your prey, ambushing them with your message as soon as they move into sight.

Strategic comments

Since the new web is all about conversations, it’s unsurprising that we’re now starting to see tips on the art of strategic commenting. Perhaps it would be an interesting research project to see whether an approach like this could raise the visibility of blogs from developing countries.
Amy Gahran, who provided the above tips, also has a useful set of links as an introduction to new media for media professionals.

Long tails and fat cats: Social networks and inequality

I’ve been fascinated by the idea of the “long tail” and online media for about a year now. The long tail is a distribution graph. For example, you might graph the number of blog readers for each blog, and arrange them in descending order of popularity – you’d find that a small number of blogs would have a large number of readers, and an incredibly large number of blogs (or the long tail) have a small number of readers. The long tail is used to explain how the diversity of online audiences and content on the web have fuelled the growth of new media aggregators and filterers such as Google.
How the long tail works – for some
Here’s a wry comment on the the failure of the Excite search engine>. Although the most popular searches on Excite were for predictable terms such as “sex”, “Britney Spears” and “mp3”, 97% of their traffic came from the “long tail” – a hugely diverse range of pretty unique queries. While Excite failed to figure out what to do with their long tail, Google (which copied Overture) put it to work. They are still systematically “optimising” their techniques of making money from this diverse audience — by using targeted keyword advertising. This is a huge shift from traditional marketing, which sees audiences as segments or categories. For example, the games industry produces loads of games tailored for “18-35 year old males” (naked women on the box, big weapons, lots of blood and gore), and a much smaller number intended for “tweenie girls” (hot pink box, Barbie etc).
How tagging works
The long-tail approach to marketing doesn’t categorise an audience, but rather plays a game of “tag”. Newspapers traditionally categorise a story as “news”, “sport”, “entertainment” etc. Tags, or “folksonomies” work by breaking away from fixed categories, and allow an organic and evolving vocabulary for labelling or annotation of content. Bloggers tag their posts, and social sites such as delicious allow users to tag content. In keyword advertising, an advertiser “tags” their product or service with a set of keywords, and bids for these keywords on a search engine such as Google or Yahoo, and then waits for a user to match the tag with a search query.
These new patterns of media use have been seen to herald the death of the blockbuster. It’s argued that, as people are free to choose from more diverse sources of entertainment, they are less likely to all flock en masse to see the same films and listen to the same music.
The long tail has also been heralded as good news for small, specialised content producers, who now use the web and search engines to target smaller groups of people with very specific interests. From the perspective of developing countries, then, this surely sounds more democratic, and a move away from homogenised “one-size-fits-all” mass produced “McMedia”. Sadly, it also suggests all sorts of new recipes for inequality – the long tail is indeed a “power law” in more senses than one.
First, here’s a sober explanation of who in fact profits from the long tail model of media distribution. The long tail allows fat cat profits – in many cases by producing content for the fat cats for free: In this article, Where’s the money in the long tail, Ventureblog argues that the long tail model only turns a significant profit for media aggregators (e.g. Yahoo’s flickr) and filterers(e.g. search engines, who get to make money from directing the traffic. So there’s a strong centralising tendency emerging as people attempt to make sense of the diversity.
Second, as social networks settle, it’s getting harder and harder to get the kind of attention needed to make any kind of a splash — without a major marketing campaign, that is.
The “long tails” seen in graphs of blog audiences do mean that the vast majority of blogs will be read by only a handful of people. Increasingly, well-capitalised media organisations have huge advantages here, since they have the resources to create content, and more importantly, are able to market the content to audiences via other forms of media.
Blogs to riches – the haves and have nots of the blogging boom.
Most residents of the blogoburbs who talk about social networking and social software don’t feel the need to extend their theories to account for the position of whole groups of people who are not connected, or who occupy a marginal position within global social networks – these people are not in the Rolodex.
Here are two ways that developing countries are probably being systematically marginalised in the social networks that rule the web.
* The search engines favour older, more established content through the time bias in ranking systems – this is a particular problem for those in developing countries who arrived at the Internet party unfashionably late. It remains to be seen whether new localised and community-based versions of search will be able to undo this bias.
* It’s who you know – online networking is about making connections with powerful celebrity players, whose viral marketing will get you attention. Alternatively, you need to be promoted in the media consumed by your target audience.
Systems such as Google or wikipedia are too immense to comprehend easily, and their social effects are similarly complex. Nicholas Carr challenges the technorati and their implicit trust in these statistically “optimised” systems. As he points out, just because something (like the Google algorithm) is technically elegant, doesn’t mean we should accept it and all its social consequences.

Where I have a problem is in [the] implicit trust that the optimization of the system, the achievement of the mathematical perfection of the macroscale, is something to be desired. To people, “optimization” is a neutral term. The optimization of a complex mathematical, or economic, system may make things better for us, or it may make things worse. It may improve society, or degrade it. We may not be able to apprehend the ends, but that doesn’t mean the ends are going to be good.

Read Carr’s whole entryhere .