April 2006 Archives

Neville Hobson is something of a latecomer in his declaration of war on the middlemen of the media. Curiously titled the "real symbiosis between PR and journalism" rather than "hacks, get your tanks off my lawn", Hobson takes as his springboard a column written by John Lloyd in last weekend's Financial Times, largely to argue for his decision to become involved in Julia Hobsbawm's Editorial Intelligence project.

Lloyd's argument in a nutshell:

Journalism cannot understand itself unless it understands what public relations has done to it; how murky and grubby the relationship can become, with the connivance of both, and how the relationship might work to the benefit of citizens who should be told something like the truth.

Hobson uses this to argue that newspapers don't contain truth. (And he uses the old hack's standby "some might say..." to present it.) What you need, claims Hobson, is the new form of direct communications. Thanks to the miracle of the Interweb, ordinary folks in the street can get the truth straight from the horse's mouth. Just look at that nice David Miliband. He's got a blog and he's using it to deliver the The Truth to The Public. Actually, he's delivering the kind of platitudes that the Thought for the Day segment on the Today programme on Radio 4 served up before it got a working-over a couple of years back.

...a non-existent page at MSN. That's the latest according to Technorati's top 100. Apparently, it has almost three times the links as previous number one Boing Boing. That's where you're going wrong, people. Too much content. Less is more. Mies van der Rohe was right all along.

What seems to be happening is that Technorati is now picking up links to news stories on MSNBC from various blogs and then treating www.msnbc.msn.com/id - under which all the news stories live - as a home page. It's just that there is no such URL that MSN understands: it expects to get a long string of numbers after that to work out which story to pick up.

However, some of yesterday's blog supernovas have winked out just as quickly. It's difficult to work out whether a script got tuned or if they just got removed by hand. As there is another FC2 blog in there with a lot of links as the result of designing a popular template, similar to yesterday's Myhurt, I suspect they were taken out by hand.

Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 took a look at the Technorati 100 yesterday and found that, even before he had quit blogging there, Dave Winer's Scripting News was out of the top 100. Steadily replacing the old A-list was a group of blogs, mostly from the Far East, that have seemingly charged up the charts in days. Is it a new A-list emerging? Maybe. Or could it just be an overenthusiastic web script at work?

In with a bullet at number eight was M¥$ŤěяĬǾũ§ ĢÎѓĻ: a blog stuffed full of platitudes and proverbs in Arabic and English that has seemingly warmed the hearts of 8000 blogs. Most of the link-love they gave the 20 posts at the site, as recorded by Technorati, came in the last 48 hours.

They must be some proverbs. It's taken the unrelentingly sickly diet of pet pics at Cute Overload months to get to the 6500 links from 4500 sites that pushed it to number 38 in the blog hit parade.

One thing I noticed when doing a compare-and-contrast of Technorati's stats on blog posting volumes was the subtle change in focus used by Dave Sifry between the figures posted in February and the most recent ones this month.

In his latest column, Sifry claims geek power as being the big driver of blog activity recently. He claims the two big spikes in the last six months are both related to Apple launches: one for the kind-of-video iPod and one for the Intel-based MacBook Pro. Yet, rewind to February, and those spikes are labelled as "Iraq Constitution" and "Alito Hearings" - both clearly political events. A smaller spike once linked to the "Secret CIA Prisons" furore now goes unlabelled. Then the pitch was: "The blogosphere reacts to world news events". I guess the figures can mean just what you want them to mean.

Update: Constantin Basturea has produced a composite of the two graphs to demonstrate the difference more clearly. Thanks for that.

A note on SiliconValleyWatcher about the sale of failed citizen-media site Bayosphere contains an aside that, for me, sums up the big problem with citizen journalism, at least in the way it is covered in many blogs:

In my view, Bayosphere suffered from a lack of professional media involvement. Dan Gillmor, blogged there semi-occasionally but he has always been more interested in lecturing and talking about citizen media than in the work of creating it.

Tom Foremski's main point is that citizen media needs help from professional media. I can see his point but I think he's mistaken. The problem with much of the citizen media revolution is that you have a bunch of ex-hacks pontificating on the subject and not a great deal of the job itself is getting done. At least not in the places they are looking for it.

Citizen media has been with us since the 19th Century - it was made possible by the availability of small, cheap-ish printing presses. Don't believe me? Take a look at one of the many histories of the UK newspaper. Try Power Without Responsibility by James Curran and Jean Seaton. The early chapters focus on the rise of the untaxed papers put together by small workers' group and Chartists to press for social and political reform.

Today, there are active citizen media outlets that are also pushing for reform, and seemingly unnoticed by citizen-media advocates who reckon there is an untapped well of people who want to write about local issues - an army of Homer Simpsons campaigning for more road signs. Indymedia and similar outlets that focus on anti-globalisation and similar issues seem to be the successors of those independent-media activists from Victorian Britain, among other places. And they are doing without help from the pros for the most part (although the NUJ has been supportive of Indymedia on the occasions that serves have been confiscated by police). As before, this form of citizen media is something that has grown naturally without any input from self-styled "citizen media institutions".

Dave Sifry's latest report on the rate at which new blogs are being created has some curious aspects. Most people have concentrated on the dizzying rate at which people are creating blogs. When you consider MySpace is not included - 35 million blogs is a remarkable number. And that is double the number around six months ago.

But then look at the daily posting volume. Up to the middle of last year, the daily posting volume was building rapidly. According to Sifry in his bulletin from July 2005, average daily posting volume also doubled during the first six months of the year. At that point, Sifry considered 55 per cent of all blogs to be 'active', with 13 per posting at least daily on average. Fast forward to April 2006 and we still have that 55 per cent number for active blogs (defined in this case as having seen a new post in the last quarter). There was a rolloff in active blogs during the second half of 2005 - slipping back to just over 50 per cent.

The daily posting volume also slipped in the second half of 2005, building again gradually to the levels seen in the summer of that year. But the sustained average is still only just above mid-2005 levels. Only one peak, at the end of March, surpassed the 2005 peak associated with the London bombings of July 7th. Then, Technorati was logging a bit more than a million posts per day. In April, it was 1.2 million. It looks like growth, but it's nowhere near a doubling.

Personally, I would have expected daily posting volume to have tracked the rate of blog growth more closely. Instead, the rate of posting, on average, is going down. This paints a different picture to the relentless growth story Technorati, and many other people, want to tell.

It's a question that Nicholas Carr poses in the comments thread to his piece on lazy thinking and the Internet, itself prompted by Andrew Orlowski's piece on the Guardian taking aim at one of his favourite targets: Wikipedia. But is dumbness actually on the increase? And is that dumbness evenly distributed? I'd say no to both.

It's easy to look at the Internet and claim all this bite-sized information is turning us into the intellectual equivalents of ADD-afflicted toddlers stoked up on tartrazine and Sunny D. But that is maybe more a sign of wishing for the stability of the, mostly mythical, good old days.

I can agree with Carr that it feels as though the Internet is dumbing us down. Never before have so many people been able to get poorly thought-out arguments and prejudice far beyond the bounds of the bar-room. And that, in reality, is the only change. In the same way that, through phishing and similar tactics, the Internet puts con artists in direct contact with an unprecendented number of easy marks, thoughts that barely qualify for the term soak through into homes as easily as material that has at least been through a vaguely critical edit. When some of those bizarre pseudo-theories end up in student theses, that is nothing more than collateral damage.

The problem is that there is absolutely no evidence for people being dumber or less able to concentrate now than in the past. In the past, there were just fewer choices on what you could spend your time on. Did it mean that people spent their time in the pub discussing the finer points of deconstructionism. Not one bit. It was, for the most part, the same diet of prejudice and assumption that now coarses through gigabit fibre-optic links. I doubt that the ratio of intelligent thought to dumbness is no greater now than 10, 50, 100 years ago. It's just a lot more obvious. And it is, unfortunately, fashionable to be dumb at the moment.

What happened to James Surowiecki's Wisdom of Crowds demonstrates the power of lazy analysis and the fetish for easy factoids. I started reading the book expecting to hate it, and only read it because it was painfully obvious that many of the people who so often think they quote from it had clearly never touched a copy.

Surowiecki's central point - made rather long-windedly - is that diversity of thought is A Good Thing, not that crowds always give you the right answers. You cannot have just any old crowd: it has to be a diverse crowd. Without diversity, groupthink takes over. If you were to read the first few chapters - or just the analysis of those chapters - you could come away thinking that the answer to everything lay in decisions made by crowds. From there, it's not too big a leap to demand that the old elites give way to the crowd, "because the crowd knows best". Luckily, this last commonly held opinion is little more than fashion. And will get swept out of the way by the next wave of popularity. The people doing the thinking will just be getting on with that, quietly.

The minor storm over Julia Hobsbawm's Editorial Intelligence project that attempted to forge links between hacks and flacks in the UK that were stronger than most people wanted to stomach has mostly abated. And it's left me with a niggling little question: are PRs so obsessed with their own image that they will promote themselves out of a job?

Christina Odone questioned the moral equivalence between journalists and PRs at the end of a column in the Guardian on Monday. In summary, hacks go out to tell the truth; PRs attempt to hide it. This prompted a certain amount of moral outrage among PRs such as Stuart Bruce, who claimed that stories get spun as much, if not more, by the media than by PRs.

Now, put yourself in the shoes of someone buying PR services. You have two people in front of you. One comes from the Max Clifford school of PR:

We only want what is in the best interests of our clients, who pay us vast sums of money, and to achieve that we are deceitful, creative and economic with the truth, often hiding it.

The other comes out with the currently fashionable line, as spouted by people like Paul Taaffe of Hill & Knowlton, that the Internet has changed everything, that there is no place to hide the truth. You need transparency in everything.

Now, to which one do you give your money? Who needs to pay a PR when you can just 'fess up everything on your blog, if that is, indeed, all it takes to maintain your reputation? People remember for a long time the consequences for companies when their executives sound like they had their dessert wine spiked with sodium pentothal. I suspect most people will go with the Clifford school of thought. Although they might wave the transparency banner in public. To keep up appearances, you understand.

In his latest Alertbox, web usability expert Jakob Nielsen has decided we are in a repeat of Bubble 1.0 and dusted off an old column with some new examples of why slavishly following The Next Big Thing is a bad idea. Looking back at the 1997 column, you have to wonder whether the new examples were needed. All you have to do is substitute the names in the table he put up then to see how much has remained the same.

Unfortunately, like a lot of salient advice, people will read Nielsen's two columns - if we're lucky - and they will think, "Those are very good points." And then they will turn to their colleagues and ask: "Now, where were we? Oh yeah, Web 2.0. We need to leverage the edge..."