The problem with political journalism

George Packer may not be right about Twitter, but he’s right on in his assessment of political journalism.  In this blog post he calls out specific writers in specific pieces for focusing entirely on political performance and perception.

Importantly, he puts this sort of empty journalism side-by-side substantive reporting on other issues in order to better illustrate its uselessness:

A war or an economic collapse has a reality apart from perceptions, which imposes a pressure on reporters to find it. But for some reason, American political coverage is exempt.

It’s not a very long post and it’s worth reading the whole thing.  In a previous post I noted that “Much of what we today consider ‘political journalism’ is junk and not very useful from a civic perspective.”

This is an entirely unoriginal sentiment, echoed constantly throughout the blogosphere, particularly during election cycles.  But it’s true.  And Packer does a nice job calling out specific examples.

For a lengthier assessment of the problem, James Fallows’ 1996 Atlantic piece Why Americans Hate the Media is a great read.

UPDATE: Jay Rosen has a nice related post titled The Quest for Innocence and the Loss of Reality in Political Journalism.  Definitely worth a read.

Why go to TED?

It may seem like a stupid question.  Why not go to TED, if you could?  It’s full of brilliant and influential people.  And celebs, if you’re into that.  Anyone who’s ever watched a TED talk knows how thought-provoking they are and how addictive watching them can become.

So why not go to TED?

Well this post by Josh Macht at Harvard Business Review got me thinking…

But why is TED so different? Partly it comes from the A-list speakers, including Bill Clinton and Bono. But I suspect it’s the variety of speakers, not the status of the headliners, that provides TED with its real fervor.

In particular it was this bit that jumped out at me:

“Prepare to have your mind blown,” says one eager TEDster while waiting in line to get our TED gift bags on the evening of the big conference.

And, again, maybe this doesn’t strike you as odd.  Wouldn’t it be mind-blowing?

I’m not so sure.  After all, what are they going to tell me that’s so special?  Not that I already know it all – I most certainly do not – but rather what are they going to convey in person that I couldn’t otherwise learn?

The talks themselves are available either live or after the fact on the TED site.  Many if not most of the presenters write books and articles, maintain blogs, or post updates on Twitter.

More generally, I have access through Twitter and my RSS reader to a diverse cross-section of the world’s brightest thinkers.  Jumping from a post by Tyler Cowen to a video by Lawrence Lessig and then over to Clay Shirky’s Twitter feed doesn’t leave much time to wish someone would organize a conference for me to hear interesting ideas.

And so what I wondered about the eager TEDster was whether he was even paying attention.

Is the TEDster oblivious to the wealth of content freely available and one good filter away?

Of course, I’d love to attend TED if given the chance. And obviously there are elements of the conference that one experiences by being there that I just can’t experience at home.

But why wait for an annual conference to get your mind blown when you can do it, for free, every day?

Future of news – various thoughts

I may not own an NBA team, but since everyone and their grandmother seems to be weighing in on the future of news and journalism, I figured I’d share some thoughts.  That’s a big part of what this blog is supposed to be about, after all.

It’s not intended to be a unified theory and the points don’t necessarily even relate to one another.  But they are all things I stress whenever I discuss the topic with anyone.

So here we go…a very rough overview of my thoughts on the future of news and journalism…

Continue reading Future of news – various thoughts

Network Theory and the Social Sciences

OK, I admit it: I have to work on writing better titles for my posts.  “Network Theory and the Social Sciences” sounds a bit dry.  And the last time I tried to write about network theory it didn’t exactly produce a riveting post.  But Will Wilkinson and James Fowler’s diavlog on Bloggingheads makes the topic not only accessible but entertaining.

The topic of the talk is Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (co-authored with Nicholas Christakis).  The book and the talk are about real world social networks, not online social networking, and pretty much all of the ground they cover is extremely interesting.

Early on they discuss the value of network theory to the social sciences.  To quote Wilkinson:

One of the things that I liked a lot about the book was the idea that thinking about networks and the way they affect us offers a kind of ‘third way’ between a couple of extremes in the social sciences.  So, on the one hand, the extreme atomistic individualism of homo economicus.  On the other extreme there’s a kind of radical holism of certain kinds of sociologists or anthropologists.

As Fowler puts it:

The last few centuries in social science have been sort of like a tennis match where we’ve been going back and forth between the individual and the group… Physicists came on the scene in the late 20th century… and made the whole scientific community realize that to understand complexity you needed to move beyond the individual but not all the way up to the group.  You needed to focus on the relationships between groups and how those relationships structure interactions and how they cause things to flow from one node to another in a network.  And for human beings what that means is that what we should be thinking about is these social contagions: things like political behavior, things like emotions, things like love and sex and your health behavior

Here’s a four-minute clip of the section I’m quoting but the whole thing is well worth a look.  Fowler’s work shows how ideas and behavior ripple through social networks such that you not only influence your friends but your friends’ friends.  Rather than trying to summarize and risk misrepresenting the research, I suggest you check out the diavlog or the book for yourself.

At one point in the discussion Wilkinson takes issue with the application of the language of “contagion” to emotions or eating habits, especially given the lack of a clear transmission mechanism.

How is this different from just the fact that people pick up norms and habits from their immediate social milieu?  Is that the same thing as ‘catching’ something? …So why isn’t this just a story about people adopting norms?

Whether the language is appropriate is an interesting question, but what I really want to focus on is the question “Why isn’t this just a story about people adopting norms?”  And what I’d suggest (though as an amateur I suppose I should insist rather than suggest so people will believe me) is that the difference has less to do with the phenomena being examined and more to do with the methods being used in the examination.

In other words, the question isn’t whether my eating habits are the result of me adopting norms or the result of social contagion.  It’s whether or not network science offers a useful framework for explaining and predicting patterns of human behavior.

I suspect Fowler would agree, based on his response, which focuses on the utility of network science to the study of culture:

I think this goes back to the discussion we were having about this change that we’re trying to get people to see in the sciences… I really think that what network science is ultimately going to help us to do is to help us think scientifically about the evolution of culture.

And shortly thereafter Wilkinson captures it more directly:

Just saying that people tend to download norms from the ambient culture really does leave it very vague where they’re getting their norms from or where they’re getting their ideas about what’s acceptable.  And so I like the idea that the network gives you something more specific to look at.

To conclude: Fowler’s story is different than a story about norms not because he’s looking at different phenomena, but because he’s applying a different scientific framework to those phenomena.  This might seem obvious but there’s one last point that, I think, is worth making in light of Will’s comment about network theory as a “third way” in social science.

The “third way” between atomistic individualism and group identity is extraordinarily appealing.  None of us wants to feel that we are only a member of a group, that we lack all individuality.  Most of us also recognize and accept that, at least to some extent, our lives are influenced by the complexity of circumstance.

And so the “third way” of the network seems appealing, even true.  What we must strive to remember is that it is no more “true” than any other research method.  It is simply a tool, to be embraced or discarded based not on whether we find its level of analysis intuitively appealing, but on the extent to which it allows us to explain and predict human behavior.

UPDATE: Here’s a fun article from The Washington Post on how loneliness is contagious within a social network.

Beyond time I started blogging…

I’ve been putting this off for far too long.  It’s been well over a year that I’ve been looking for an outlet to share my thinking and reading on how the internet is changing human communication and collaboration.  But I kept delaying diving in.  I wanted more than just a blog – I wanted a “site” that could act as a resource for others who shared my interests to discover the many thinkers who are doing great work in these areas.  But after far too much procrastinating I’ve just decided to start writing.

I do hope to redesign the site in the not-too-distant future to make it more than just a blog.  In the meantime I’ll just post stuff and organize later.

What I’m interested in: the economics of open source, the role of the internet in facilitating human collaboration and information production, read/write culture, and the future of news and of the public sphere.  That’s the short list.  Hopefully, as I share thoughts on some of the stuff I’ve been reading it will become more clear where I’m coming from.

Lastly, one of the major sources of blog-launch procrastination was in picking a URL/name.  I finally took the suggestion ‘beyond the times’ because it suggests the prospect of a radically different public sphere / news-ecosystem, and because, as opposed to ‘behind the times’, it suggests a focus on the future.  I don’t mean to reference a future without any specific organization or news medium and certainly am not making a reference to The New York Times which happens to be my favorite news source.  The reference is general, referring to a model of news, embodied by daily print, that most everyone agrees is undergoing radical transformation.

Also, I have to get around to changing the tagline from “The Internet and the Public Sphere” to “The Internet, Information, and the Public Sphere”.  But for now I won’t let these things deter me and am just going to get started.  Finally.