Journalism Net Culture Personal Publishing Social Software


I don’t even know where to start on today – I’ve not felt so mentally depleted and exhilarated at the same time for ages. I’ve spent the day with NTK and Haddock at Extreme Computing 2002 and the spin-off Take it Outside. I’ve been on three separate panels and talked so much that the pubs and bars around were full of beasts of burden missing rear limbs.

Where to start? Perhaps with an explanation – why haven’t I mentioned these conferences, why haven’t I mentioned these panels on over the last couple of weeks? I suppose there are a couple of reasons – firstly I was scared, I didn’t want to make too much of a big deal about them because I was nervous about being able to do them – it’s been a few years since I talked in front of people. Secondly I guess I didn’t feel that there might be any reason for people to come and listen to what I had to say – why advertise what might be unbelievably boring? Why draw attention to something that might end badly? It may sound over-cautious, but there are a lot of things that could have gone wrong. Why not take things a little slowly…..?

Brief piece of scene-setting first: I met up with Cal and Jones at the Starbucks opposite the British Library, and then moved over to the Camden Centre to meet up with Denise from Rob from B3ta also turned up after a while, as did James from

First impressions are complex and confusing – there’s a room full of geeks and weirdos and I feel totally at home. There’s a block of hot people and whole racks and tables of strange and exotic people – running stalls with products from the obscure to the mediocre. Spectrums are everywhere. The C64 militia are in evidence. Steve LeStrange (I think) performs on stage. Very odd. After a stiff drink I retired to the pub for the first Take it Outside panel of the day…

Online Communities: The real world, only worse?
with Stefan Magdalinski (moderating), Cait Hurley, Denise Wilton and me.
First panel of the day gets off to a slightly choppy start, but for me was the most rewarding of the day. The debates centre around the relationship between virtual and real life communities. The stuff I think I found most fascinating were the debates about where online and offline communities differ, where they are similar and where they could be different.

Various parties contended that the two were more similar than normally given credit. Others (myself included) argued that differences emerged in stuff like stable identities, verbal and visual conversational cues, the inability to blot people out, the edges of workable communal space, the lack of differences in ‘volume’ of people speaking as well as in the way in which the relationship between people was solidified through relationships enshrined in software. One of the things I was very keen to emphasize was the possibility of building new political systems via the medium of community software – so in a sense I was very keen to decalre that online communities still had to potential to be radically different from the real world, and might even be better in some ways.

One of the other angles that was interested was that of moderation and how it’s undertaken. Obviously Barbelith was my point of reference here – with it’s new sense of distributed moderation being a very early stage towards my long-term objective of moderator-less, hierarchy-less governance in virtual space. But interestingly, although most of us could report experiences with trolling that meant that we felt some kind of comprehensive moderation process was necessary (whether it be top-down monarchist, feudal-moderation-lords, or distributed anarchist-style), B3ta reported a vast amount of traffic (I don’t know if I can report the number) along with a remarkable lack of trolling. Jones postulated that this was to do with strength of brand, while I retreated towards my more traditional model of interpretation – that there was something intrinsic to the model of the board and the board software that combines effectively with the subject of the board in order to make an environment that is not conducive to trolling…

In Defence of Weblogs – grassroots content management systems of the future, or just a load of self-obsessed secret diaries of Adrian Mole?
with Neil McIntosh, Ben Hammersley and me.
The largest panel of the day for me took me to the main stage of XCOM itself – but seems to have not been a total success, mainly because of problems with the acoustics in the room. From on stage there didn’t appear to be much if anything wrong with the sound, but guaging from Cory’s piece on his experience of the panel it seems that we were the only ones who could hear it. In fact often I appear to have been arguing totally the opposite to what Cory managed to hear – so I think I’ll probably clarify some of the basic positions that I wanted tried to present rather than talk through the whole experience…

The main questions presented were concerned with the relationship between weblogging and journalism, weblog content aggregation and its potential to be a competitor or complement to news sites, the function of weblogging above and beyond it’s ability to reflect boring peoples’ boring existences rendered interminably online.

Consolidating some of Cory’s transcript of the piece (concentrating on the stuff that I’m purported to have said) leaves us with this:

Dave: Aren’t blogs desined to cut down repetition? Tom: Some people blog for fun, for self-promotion to pursue a special interest or to stay in touch with a bunch of friends. Dave: Aren’t blogs desined to cut down repetition? Tom: No, my tool is designed to connect with with other bloggers with similar interests. You can get 200, 500 opinions on a given subject. Tom: {Cory couldn’t make out a word here} There’s a need for an editor — whether it’s Slashdot like automation or a human being. My fave:

Actually a large block of this needs further clarification. My positions are as follows:

Dave’s first piece of devil’s advocacy was concerned with the angle that there are too many weblogs producing too much banal and boring content. There’s no way to deny (of course) that there’s a certain amount of truth to the allegation that there are a lot of boring weblogs out there – my position is that it’s like the web itself – there are many hundreds of thousands of sites out there boring to almost everyone or indeed absolutely everyone. But there isn’t a shortage of space on the internet – it doesn’t matter! You don’t have to read them all.

The tool he refers to is metalinker – a Cal and I co-product. When Blogdex was first launched, I was very resistant to it – I argued then (with some justification) that Blogdex wasn’t about loving weblogs, but was instead about allowing people to get links stripped from all the weblogs without actually having to go through the horrible process of reading those weblogs. Increasingly I’ve begun to think that while that is true, there is an alternative use to Blogdex – a use which encourages linkages between posts made by different webloggers, which allows a debate to spiral over many sites and be trackable.

One of the other things that Dave suggested as a possibility was that the lowering of the bar when it came to DTP didn’t result in thousands of different magazines, but instead a colonisation of the space through cost-cutting at major magazine publishers. The suggestion that weblog ‘space’ could be taken over by corporations seems to me to be totally flawed – at the most basic level because the cost of distributing magazines remained after the development of DTP – something that wouldn’t affect weblogging.

This brought us around again to the idea of journalists and webloggers competing with one another. Which at the moment is patently ridiculous. However interestingly there does appear to be a parallel at work between the two – vox pops and columns are staples of journalistic work that have significant parallels with weblog culture. I mooted a situation whereby with a combination of the way in which things like blogdex and Google News grouped and gathered news and linkages with the a centralised weblog content aggregation process and some kind of feedback mechanism, you might be able to assemble a site that produced interesting online news commentary in almost real time in a way that might challenge conventional models of news media. Someone from the audience at this point suggested that an editor might be crucial for this process. But it’s simply not true. I even used my phrase of the moment in my reply. Algorithms will be editors. Or perhaps editors will be algorithms. Or maybe feedback will be the model that generates fake editors. And maybe it will be personalised…

Towards a Common-Place Web: online writing and social memory
[As part of TakeItOutside]
with Nick Sweeney moderating, Giles Turnbull, Karlin Lillington and a visit from Cory Doctorow.
The final talk for me again concentrated on journalism and weblogging – and I don’t know how useful it was. I’m exhausted this evening – so I think I’ll leave writing about it until tomorrow…

What else?
Weirdly it’s some of the less loud and vibrant parts of the day that stick in my head. It’s sitting on the steps opposite the conference place at the end of the day feeling slightly thin, grey and worn out. It’s the conversation with Webb and Phil in the hall while it rained outside. It’s the huge bucket of KFC and the frustration of trying to prove something that maybe didn’t need to be proven and failing nonetheless. It’s going ideas-wild about tube maps on the way home. It’s watching the last ten minutes of the Buffy musical with Cal and pizza at the end of the evening. It’s thinking about the next conference, in just over a week, at which I have to present a paper only 2/3rds written and still in the ugliest powerpoint format of all time…

Related links: Onlineblog, Ben Hammersley, XCOM gets slashdotted, Sashinka | If you want to e-mail me about anything discussed over the day (or want to pay me to help develop a weblog aggregation news resource) then e-mail me on tom [at] | DO YOU HAVE A PERTINENT LINK OR COMMENTARY ON SOMETHING THAT HAPPENED ON THIS DAY, IF SO LET ME KNOW.

Journalism Personal Publishing

Keith Waterhouse on weblogs?

Writing a good weblog can be, at times, much like writing a column for a newspaper. I’ve got an old article on writing a column which I’d like to put up in a public place. It’s by Keith Waterhouse – an old Fleet Street columnist. He gives 25 points – not all of which, of course, are appropriate for the weblogger. Pick and choose.

1) It’s not so much what you say as the way that you say it. Your column must have a distinctive voice, to the extent that if your byline were accidentally dropped, your readers would still know who was writing. If your style isn’t instantly recognisable, what you have there is not a column but a signed article.

2) Every columnist needs a good half dozen hobby horses. But do not ride them to death. Once you have sounded off again about, say, Euro Bureaucracy, leave the subject alone for at least six months (unless you happen to be Christopher Booker). “I make no apologies for returning to…” is not an apology but an excuse.

3) Feeling passionate about a subject does not necessarily make it interesting reading. Veal is a good example: outside the news pages, no one has ever written an interesting word about veal.

4) The fact that your column contains no facts does not mean that you need not have checked them like any other journalist. In other words, you must be sure of your case. You are allowed to generalise – “Our children are the worst educated in Europe” only if your wild generalisations, when tamed, can be substantiated.

5) The more cuttings you accumulate, the more you will be tempted to offload them on your readers, like the celebrated Scottish leader writer who, returning late from a liquid lunch with a deadline to meet, clipoed the main leader from the Times, scrawled “What does the Times mean by this?” above it and sent it down to the printer. Packing the column with other people’s quotes is the columnar equivalent of watering the milk. Assimilate the material and then discard it.

6) Avoid kneejerk reactions. You don’t necessarily have to produce a paragraph every time Fergie does something stupid or a politician’s wife announces that she’s standing by him. If the readers can predict what you’re going to say, there’s little point in saying it – and even less in their reading it.

7) Let the bandwagon roll by. Even if every columnist in the land is commenting on the mother unjustly sent to prison or the teacher who handcuffed the child to a radiator, you don’t have to jump aboard unless you have something to say that the others haven’t already said.

8) On the other hand, although it’s not always necessary to write about the main news event of the day, there are times when the occasion demands it. Given a Hillsborough disaster, for example, there is no point in writing about anything else since nobody will be talking about anything else.

9) Let the leader writer write the leader.

10) Having something to write about is not the same as having something to say. If you really have no opinions to speak of beyond, say, liking Princess Di and not liking Prince Charles, you are in the wrong job and perhaps even in the wrong trade.

11) Don’t ever try to fake it. Nothing is so transparent as insincerity – pile on the adjectives though you may, false indignation has the ring of a counterfeit coin.

12) Your thoughts on mobile phones in railway carriages have already been thought. Likewise your musings on muzak in pubs.

13) It is 106 years since Jerome K Jerome related his difficulties in trying to open a tin of pineapple in Three Men In A Boat. Unless you can improve this classic account, keep your problems with packaging to yourself.

14) Notwithstanding Bernard Levin’s celebrated intervention with the Gas Board on behalf of his mother, a column should not be used to pursue a personal grudge against a public utility company, bank, supermarket, commuter line etc. unless it is going to ring bells with most of your readers.

15) Does anyone care about St George’s Day? No. So why keep on asking, year after year, why no one cares about St George’s Day.

16) Be wary about following up items clipped from local papers – unless you are writing for the local paper. References to the barmy burghers of Brent or the wacky wimmin of Wolverhapton do not usually travel well, unless they have a wider implication.

17) Although you may allow your readers a few restricted glimpses into your private life, no one really wants to hear about your personal ups and downs any more than they want to hear about the lady next door’s operation. So your daughter got into university. Tell your mother. If you tell the readers, you will only infuriate those whose daughters didn’t get into university.

18) If you must write about your holidays, do it on picture postcards to family and friends. This rule particularly applies should you be tempted to drool on about five course meals consumed in Normandy with all the wine you could drink and change out of 30 francs.

19) Do not expose your spouse to the glare of the public – especially not by the whimsical name of Him Indoors or She Who Must Be Obeyed. The same goes for the misadventures or quirky comments of your family and the daffy behaviour of your family’s dog.

20) There is no real need to mention that you have been on radio or television again. Your readers no longer regard it as any big deal.

21) If your second topic begins, “Talking of which”, “Which reminds me”, or “While on the subject”, you have picked the wrong second topic. However the item does start, it should metaphorically say, “And now for something completely different.”

22) Should you wear a hat, do not ever offer to eat it. Predictions are for astrologers. If you do make a prediction and you are wrong, as you are almost certain to be, don’t start your subsequent column with the words “All right, so I have egg on my face”. Forget it. Your readers already have.

23) Bitchy comments on the private lives or personal tastes of the famous have enlivened many a column, but there is a point at which they can tip over into mere mud slinging. A good question is: “Why am I saying this?” If the answer is “Because I want to be the new Jean Rook”, spike it.

24) Columnar feuds are amusing to other columnists and may even yield them copy, provided they don’t mind living vicariously. The readers, or what Craig Brown describes as “that diminishing minority of people who do not write newspaper columns” find them bemusing.

25) Make up your own catchphrases. “I think we should be told,” being six words, is the copyright of Sir John Junor.


On back-biting, sniping, competition and awe…

If I told you that there was a kind of person who wrote on a regular basis, was obsessed by the internet rankings of their writing, commented regularly on the work of other writers and tried to artificially improve their own “position” by writing bad things about other people, what kind of writer would you think of immediately? Webloggers, by any chance?

This position on weblogging has been lurking in the background for a while now, but has been recently brought out into the harsh light of day in an article I commented upon (in a rather uncharitable fashion) a few days ago [Deconstructing ‘You’ve Got Blog’].

But actually I wasn’t talking about webloggers at all. There’s an article in the Guardian today about people who write novels and their relationship with Amazon. The article, under the title of, “Look, I’ve sold one more copy!” describes activities that professional novelists undertake which will be immediately familiar to the owner of any weblog. Here are a couple of examples:

What better than to keep an eye on your children – and at the same time, those of your competitors? Checking your book page on amazon almost feels like working.

Why is it so compulsive? Well, for starters it updates your chart position every hour, on the hour. Not only that, but the “people who bought this book also bought_ xxx” section connects you to your nearest rivals for comparative purposes.

Of course, what one would never do is order lots of copies to influence the chart position because “you can always cancel it later”.

But the chart is only the first half of the story. Next stop is the comments section. Oh my God!

I think the time has come to accept that people who write weblogs are, at the end of the day, just acting as writers. And that writers will always care about how their work is doing, the people they feel in competition with, as well as be in awe of their forebears and heroes. These things are not just going to end because we’re writing in a new form, for a new medium.

But equally each of us, individually, has a responsibility to ourselves and to the medium we work in, to try to submerge the baser parts of our territorial, competitive and aggressive instincts and to get on with the business of writing entertaining, involving and intelligent pieces for our respective audiences – whether they be our fellow webloggers, the readers of the New Yorker or the world at large. Despite its flaws, this vast unformed writing community is something I’m still proud to be a part of.

[Deconstructing “You’ve Got Blog” was a response to an article You’ve Got Blog, as originally published in the New Yorker. Link via linkmachinego. The whole matter is currently being discussed at great length over at metafilter].

Gay Politics Journalism Politics

On 'Balanced' and 'Impartial' Journalism…

I’ve just read this astonishing article on a conference held by journalists about the reporting of gay issues: [“‘Gay’ journalists turn activists“] At this conference the question of “balance” came up – the question was Do we have to present both sides of the opinion on gay issues, when we don’t on racism? This is a quote from one of the people present:

“Ramon Escobar, an MSNBC producer who moderated the same plenary session, said, “This whole issue of ‘balance’ that we as journalists are supposed to achieve. … When we cover the black community, I’ve never seen a newsroom where you’re covering one side and then you have to go run out and get the Klan’s point of view: ‘Well, I’ve got to go do my Klan interview.’ How do you be fair?”

The article itself, however, is decidedly anti-gay – they quote the piece above as if it were a ridiculous thing to say. The journalist themselves says:

“Despite all the gay propaganda masquerading as news; despite the ubiquitous pro-“gay” puff pieces; and the “inside” manipulations by NLGJA journalists, something is wrong: Americans are still repulsed by homosexual behavior. Gay sex remains a massive turn off. “

I’m not going to argue with this person on the grounds of rights vs tastes – although one might argue briefly that not liking hip-hop should not be reason enough to countenance racism – but what I am going to take issue with is his statement about the role of journalists. Two quote for you now:

“A newsman’s job is to report the news — not undermine natural inhibitions guided by centuries of moral teaching.”

At the conference, homosexual reporters in mainstream media positions found it hard to subdue their enthusiasm for “gay rights,” thus discarding the old journalistic ethic of neutrality.

That the gentleman concerned also seems to miss the point of is that the job of the reporter is also to report the truth – whether that be difficult for some people to accept or not. The interpretation of that truth is another matter – and I’m afraid one where it simple isn’t possible to take a completely “balanced” line.

After all – how can you be “balanced” and still be a reporter – if what you report has to reflect the full breadth of opinion on every issue, whether or not there is any evidence or not, then serious news reporting about the death of Kennedy would be full of wild accusations and (probably) untruths (aliens, CIA conspiracies, FBI conspiracies, Masons, Illuminati etc etc etc). The job of the reporter is to assess the facts and report what seems most likely to be the truth – not to mirror what he or she reports to the opinions of the population.

In fact, I think this points to one of the biggest crises in journalism in the USA today. Writing the news has never been about being “balanced” (in the sense of mirroring the report to a greater or lesser extent to what various interest groups say is the truth), but about being impartial – free from those influences to write what appears to be the truth.