Archive for August, 2011

Susan Hildreth on libraries in the digital age

At the Library Innovation Lab blog, there’s a podcast interview I did a couple of weeks ago with Susan Hildreth, director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federal agency that supports libraries and museums. She is quite frank about the future of libraries as works gets digitized, suggesting that physical copies of books might be archived in regional offsite repositories.

For someone with the embossed U.S. business card earned by going through a Senate confirmation process, she’s remarkably candid. (I also had the pleasure of sitting next to her at a conference dinner a few weeks ago and can report that she’s hilarious.)

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Reddit and community journalism

I’ve come to love Reddit. What started as a better Digg (and is yet another happy outcome of the remarkable Y Combinator) has turned into a way of sharing and interrogating news. Reddit as it stands is not the future of news. It is, however, a hope for news.

As at other sites, at Reddit readers post items they find interesting. Some come from the media, but many are home-made ideas, photos, drawings, videos, etc. You can vote them up or down, resulting in a list ordered by collective interests. Each is followed by threaded conversations, and those comments are also voted up or down.

It’s not clear why Reddit works so well, but it does. The comments in particular are often fiercely insightful or funny, turning into collective, laugh-out-loud riffs. Perhaps it helps that the ethos — the norm — is that comments are short. Half-tweets. You can go on for paragraphs if you want, but you’re unlikely to be up-voted if you do. The brevity of the individual comments can give them a pithiness that paragraphs would blunt, and the rapid threading of responses can quickly puncture inflated ideas or add unexpected perspectives.

But more relevant to the future of news are the rhetorical structures that Reddit has given names to. They’re no more new than Frequently Asked Questions are, but so what? FAQs have become a major new rhetorical form, of unquestioned value, because they got a name. Likewise TIL, IAMA, and AMA are hardly startling in their novelty, but they are pretty amazing in practice.

TIL = Today I Learned. People post an answer to a question you didn’t know you had, or a fact that counters your intuition. They range from the trivial (“TIL that Gilbert Gottfried has a REAL voice.”) to the opposite of the trivial (“TIL there is a US owned Hydrogen bomb that has been missing off the coast of Georga for over 50 years. “)

IAMA = I Am A. AMA = Ask Me Anything. People offer to answer questions about whatever it is that they are. Sometimes they are famous people, but more often they are people in circumstances we’re curious about: a waiter at an upscale restaurant, a woman with something like Elephant Man’s disease, a miner, or this morning’s: “IAmA guy who just saw the final Harry Potter movie without reading/watching any Harry Potter material beforehand. Being morbidly confused, I made up an entire previous plot for the movie to make sense in my had. I will answer your HP Series question based on the made up previous plot in my head AMA.” The invitation to Ask Me Anything typically unfetters the frankest of questions. It helps that Reddit discourages trolling and amidst the geeky cynicism permits honest statements of admiration and compassion.

The topics of IAMA’s are themselves instructive. Many are jokes: “ ">IAmA person who has finished a whole tube of chapstick without losing it. AMA” But many enable us to ask questions that would falter in the face of conventional propriety: “ ">IAmA woman married to a man with Asperger’s Syndrome AMA”. Some open up for inquiry a perspective that we take for granted or that was too outside our normal range of consideration: “IAMA: I was a German child during WWII that was in the Hitler Youth and had my city bombed by the U.S.”

Reddit also lets readers request an IAMA. For example, someone is asking if one of Michelle Bachman’s foster kids would care to engage. Might be interesting, don’t you think?

So, my hypothesis is that IAMA and AMA are an important type of citizen journalism. Call it “community journalism.”

Now, if you’ve clicked through to any of these IAMA’s, you may be disappointed at the level of “journalism” you’ve seen. For example, look at yesterday’s “ ">IAMA police officer who was working during the London Riots. AMA.” Many of the comments are frivolous or off-topic. Most are responses to other comments, and many threads spin out into back-and-forth riffing that can be pretty damn funny. But it’s not exactly “60 Minutes.” So what? This is one way citizen journalism looks. At its best, it asks questions we all want asked, unearths questions we didn’t know we wanted asked, asks them more forthrightly than most American journalists dare, and gets better — more honest — answers than we hear from the mainstream media.

You can also see in the London police officer’s IAMA one of the main ways Reddit constitutes itself as a community: it binds itself together by common cultural references. The more obscure, the tighter the bond. For example, during the IAMA with the police officer in the London riots, someone asks if they’ve caught the guy who knocked over the trash can. This is an unlinked reference to a posting from a few days before of a spoof video of a middle class guy looking around an empty street and then casually knocking over a garbage can. The comments devolve into some silliness about arresting a sea gull for looting. The police officer threads right in:

[police officer] I do assure you we take it very seriously, however. Here, please have a Victim of Crime pack and a crime reference number. We will look into this issue as a matter of priority, and will send you a telegram in six-to-eight-weeks.
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AmbroseChapel
Telegram? Are you that cop who got transported back to the 1970s?

[police officer]
My friends call me Murphy.

derpedatbirth
Lawl, I’m watching RoboCop right now.

This community is both Reddit’s strength as a site, and its greatest weakness as a form of citizen journalism. Reddit illustrates why there are few quotes that simultaneously delight and scare me more than “If the news is important, it will find me.” This was uttered, according to Jane Buckingham (and reported in a 2008 Brian Stelter NY Times article) by a college student in a focus group. In my view, the quote would be more accurate if it read, “If the news is interesting to my social group, it will find me.” What’s interesting to a community is not enough to make us well informed because our community’s interests tend to be parochial and self-reinforcing. This is not so much a limitation of community as a way that communities constitute themselves.

And here’s where I think Reddit offers some hope.

First, it’s important to remember that Reddit is not intending to cover the news, even though its tag line is “The front page of the Internet.” It feels no responsibility to post and upvote a story simply because it is important. Rather, Reddit is a supplement to the news. If something is sufficiently covered by the mainstream — today the stock market went up dramatically, today the Supreme Court decided something — it exactly will not be covered as news at Reddit. Reddit is for what didn’t make it into the mainstream news. So, Reddit does not answer the question: How will we get news when the main stream dries up?

But it does make manifest a phenomenon that should take some of the gloom off our outlook. Take Reddit as a type of internet tabloid. Mainstream tabloids are sensationalistic: They indulge and enflame what are properly thought of as lower urges. But Reddit feeds and stimulates a curiosity about the world. It turns out that a miner —or a person who works at Subway — has a lot to tell us. It turns out that a steely British cop has a sense of humor. It turns out that American planes dropping bombs on a German city did not fly with halos over them. True, there’s a flood of trivial curios and tidbits at Reddit. Nevertheless, from mainstream tabloids you learn that humans are a weak and corrupt species that revels in the misfortunes of others. From Reddit you learn that we are creatures with a wild curiosity, indiscriminate in its fascinations. And you learn that we are a social species that takes little seriously and enjoys the multiplicity of refractions.

But is the curiosity exhibited at Reddit enough? I find this question rocks back and forth. The Reddit community constitutes itself through a set of references that belong to a particular group and that exclude those who just don’t get nods to Robocop. Yet it is a community that reaches for what is beyond its borders. Not far enough, sure. But it’s never far enough. Reddit’s interests are generally headed in the right direction: outward. Those interests often embrace more than what the mainstream has found room for. Still, the interests of any group are always going to reflect that group’s standpoint and self-filters. Reddit’s curiosity is unsystematic, opportunistic, and indiscriminate. You will not find all the news you need there. That’s why I say Reddit offers not a solution to the impeding News Hole, but a hope. The hope is that while communities are based on shared interests and thus are at least somewhat insular, some communities can generate an outward-bound curiosity that delights in the unabashed exploration of what we have taken for granted and in the discovery of that which is outside its same-old boundaries.

But then there is the inevitability triviality of Reddit. Reddit topics, no matter how serious, engender long arcs of wisecracks and silliness. But this too tells us something, this time about the nature of curiosity. One of the mistakes we’ve made in journalism and education is to insist that curiosity is a serious business. Perhaps not. Perhaps curiosity needs a sense of humor.

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Knowledge is the network

I forked yesterday for the first time. I’m pretty thrilled. Not about the few lines of code that I posted. If anyone notices and thinks the feature is a good idea, they’ll re-write my bit from the ground up.* What’s thrilling is seeing this ecology in operation, for the software development ecology is now where the most rapid learning happens on the planet, outside the brains of infants.

Compare how ideas and know-how used to propagate in the software world. It used to be that you worked in a highly collaborative environment, so it was already a site of rapid learning. But the barriers to sharing your work beyond your cube-space were high. You could post to a mailing list or UseNet if you had permission to share your company’s work, you could publish an article, you could give a talk at a conference. Worse, think about how you would learn if you were not working at a software company or attending college: Getting answers to particular questions — the niggling points that hang you up for days — was incredibly frustrating. I remember spending much of a week trying to figure out how to write to a file in Structured BASIC [SBASIC], my first programming language , eventually cold-calling a computer science professor at Boston University who politely could not help me. I spent a lot of time that summer learning how to spell “Aaaaarrrrrggggghhhhh.”

On the other hand, this morning Antonio, who is doing some work for the Library Innovation Lab this summer, poked his head in and pointed us to a jquery-like data visualization library. D3 makes it easy for developers to display data interactively on Web pages (the examples are eye-popping), and the author, mbostock, made it available for free to everyone. So, global software productivity just notched up. A bunch of programs just got easier to use, or more capable, or both. But more than that, if you want to know how to do how mbostock did it, you can read the code. If you want to modify it, you will learn deeply from the code. And if you’re stuck on a problem — whether n00bish or ultra-geeky — Google will very likely find you an answer. If not, you’ll post at StackOverflow or some other site and get an answer that others will also learn from.

The general principles of this rapid-learning ecology are pretty clear.

First, we probably have about the same number of smart people as we did twenty years ago, so what’s making us all smarter is that we’re on a network together.

Second, the network has evolved a culture in which there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. So we ask. In public.

Third, we learn in public.

Fourth, learning need not be private act that occurs between a book and a person, or between a teacher and a student in a classroom. Learning that is done in public also adds to that public.

Fifth, show your work. Without the “show source” button on browsers, the ability to create HTML pages would have been left in the hands of HTML Professionals.

Sixth, sharing is learning is sharing. Holy crap but the increased particularity of our ownership demands about our ideas gets in the way of learning!

Knowledge once was developed among small networks of people. Now knowledge is the network.

 


*I added a couple of features I needed to an excellent open source program that lets you create popups that guide users through an app. The program is called Guiders-JS by Jeff Pickhardt at Optimizely. Thanks, Jeff!)

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[2b2k] Open bench science

Carl Zimmer at The Loom points to Rosie Redfield’s blogging of her lab work investigating a claim of arsenic-based life forms. It’s a good example of networked science : science that is based on the network model, rather than on a publishing model.

I find open notebook science overall to be fascinating and promising.

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