Tag Archives: media lag

“Cognitive Surplus,” indeed

Yesterday’s mail delivery brought my pre-ordered copy of Clay Shirky’s volume Cognitive Surplus:  Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.  Having learned a good deal from Clay’s writings, lectures and interviews, I’ve looked forward to reading another book-length offering.  Sure enough, I was rewarded (almost in passing) as early as page 15.

In the context of my efforts to bring an “epistemology of media lag” argument to bear on contemporary claims for the so-called “real-time” Web, I was particularly gratified to read, in the book’s first chapter, Clay’s account of one example of individual members of society “voluntarily making and sharing things” by way of social media.

To pick one example, a service called Ushahidi was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya.  In December 2007 a disputed election pitted supporters and opponents of President Mwai Kibaki against one another.  Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan political activist, blogged about the violence when the Kenyan government banned the mainstream media from reporting on it.  She then asked her readers to e-mail or post comments about the violence they were witnessing on her blog.  The method proved so popular that her blog, Kenyan Pundit, became a critical source of first-person reporting.  The observations kept flooding in, and within a couple of days Okolloh could no longer keep up with it.  She imagined a service, which she dubbed Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness” or “testimony”), that would automatically aggregate citizen reporting (she had been doing it by hand), with the added value of locating the reported attacks on a map in near-real time [emphasis added].  She floated the idea on her blog, which attracted the attention of the programmers Erik Hersman and David Kobia.  The three of them got on a conference call and hashed out how such a service might work, and within three days, the first version of Ushahidi went live.

Mindful of Clay’s own creativity and generosity, I would humbly propose an amendment to the final clause:  make that near-live.

Postscript:  The bio on the jacket-flap enumerates Clay’s consulting gigs, which include BP, for whom he did work on “network design.”  On day 57 of the spill, with a newly publicized flow rate of 35,000-60,000 barrels per day, as Obama is about to address the world from the Oval Office on events unfolding in the Gulf, it would seem that someone missed the boat.

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Research in motion: “The ‘real-time’ Web in 100 words or less”

First off, I am perfectly aware that a strict grammarian would never write “100 words or less,” in the knowledge that “fewer” is the correct term in such a context.  But I am in fact quoting from the title of a post written by Marshall Kirkpatrick for ReadWriteWeb, a to which I subscribe via e-mail (that makes it one of a very few, fewer than 100 certainly).  In September 2009, Kirkpatrick threw down a gauntlet, challenging the blog’s readers to “explain the phenomenon of the Real-Time Web in simple terms and few words…. From Facebook to the New York Times to blogs and geeky tech infrastructure, it seems like everyone’s exploring the Real-Time Web paradigm these days.  It’s not easy to explain, though.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Having extended the challenge to his large readership, Kirkpatrick went on to “offer our working explanation of what the real-time web is and why it’s important, in exactly 100 words.”  The combination of RRW‘s collective expertise and the economy of Kirkpatrick’s formulation meets the high bar for entry into my notebook.

The Real Time Web Explained…In Exactly 100 Words

The Real-Time Web is a paradigm based on pushing information to users as soon as it’s available – instead of requiring that they or their software check a source periodically for updates.  It can be enabled in many different ways and can require a different  technical architecture.  It’s being implemented in social networking, search, news and elsewhere – making those experiences more like Instant Messaging and facilitating unpredictable innovations.  Early benefits include increased user engagement (“flow”) and decreased server loads, but these are early days.  Real-time information delivery will likely become ubiquitous, a requirement for almost any website or service.

These are indeed early days, and it is difficult to discern whether we are talking about the beginning of the end, the end of the beginning – or whether plotlines or calendars even apply.  Gloss (likely to exceed the 100 word limit) to follow in due course.

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Research in motion: from my “real-time” Web notebook

I confess to feeling a certain pressure, since beginning to make an argument about the illusory, ideology-driven character of the “real-time” Web, to write quickly, to skip over the tangle of challenges required and just put something out there.  But, I’m adhering instead to at least some of the intellectual imperatives that are, in part, a legacy of scholarly training, and trying to do some homework before presenting myself as any kind of authority.  Along the way I will be sharing some of my findings.

Last fall, Mashable’s founder and CEO Pete Cashmore began a stint as a weekly columnist for CNN.com.  In that capacity, he was one of several pundits who predicted that “real-time” would be “a top 10 Web trend for 2010.”  In December, he presented his case to CNN.com‘s readership under the admonitory headline “Brace yourself for the real-time Web.”  http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/12/10/cashmore.realtime.web/index.html

For Cashmore, a significant indicator of the ascendancy of  the “real-time” Web was Google’s December 2009 launch of “real-time” search, which brought “live” updates from Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites into its search results.  Taking this epochal event as his point of departure, Cashmore asked and answered a series of questions, which are worth reproducing at some length, in part because his language serves as a model for many others who write about these matters.

Why real-time?  What’s driving this real-time trend anyway?  In large part, lowered barriers to content creation:  Posting a 140-character update to Twitter is so effortless that Web users are becoming conditioned to create….

But the real answer may be in our heads.  These technologies are literally addictive, says psychologist Susan Weinschenk, fueling a “dopamine-induced loop” of seeking behavior and instantaneous reward.”  [Cashmore is quoting a post on Weinshenk’s blog, “What Makes Them Click.”]

Real-time search  If this new paradigm stimulates our seeking behavior, it follows that search is central to the real-time Web.  Before Google entered the fray, OneRiot and Collecta stood out among real-time search engines.

The reigning champion of real-time search, however, is Twitter Search, which provides instant updates whenever new tweets are posted.  “108 more results since you started searching.  Refresh to see them,” implores a message below the search box.  Enter the topic du jour here and you’ll no doubt find yourself in one of Weinschenk’s dopamine-induced loops.

This thirst for the new and novel is by no means limited to search, however:  It looks set to pervade the entire Web in 2010.  Let’s look at a few more examples.

1.  Real-time location   Foursquare…combines real-time updates with location-based features.  Every time a friend “checks in” nearby, you’ll experience the same buzz as when your BlackBerry chirps for a new email.  [Once again I give thanks for my vintage BB, which never, ever buzzes or chirps. – Ed.]

2.  Real-time news   News reading is going real-time, too.  An increasing number of early adopters use the Twitter apps TweetDeck and Seesmic to manage their consumption of updates from both friends and handpicked news sources, while newcomer Brizzly is becoming a hit with info-junkies thanks to its superior Web-based interface.

Even Google Reader, the de facto service for those following scores of blogs and news sites, now provides updates in real-time for those feeds that support it.

Will our news addiction ever be sated?  Oh, and don’t forget that news curation is going real-time, too.  See my real-time journalism article for a refresher.  [Isn’t real-time curation very plainly a contradiction in terms? – Ed.] 

3.  Real-time comments    If the stories are real-time, how about the comments, too?  Real-time services make blog comments work more like instant messaging….

4.  Real-time reviews   Why wait till you get home to review that cafe or restaurant when you’ve got Yelp and Urbanspoon on your iPhone?  Movie was awful, you say?  Try Flixster.

5.  Real-time auctions  ….

6.  Real-time collaboration   A trend within a trend:  We’ll be real-timing together in 2010.  Google Wave, the much-hyped collaborative tool, is wiki-meets-instant-messaging-meets-email and much more….

Real-time…everything!    The trend is too nebulous to capture its every facet.  Suffice to say, a vast array of Web sites and applications will try to capitalize on the real-time Web in 2010, serving our need to be engaged in the moment.  Serving, perhaps, but never quite satisfying. 

 [Yes, it’s the “never quite” that remains to be thought here, to say nothing of the “perhaps.” – Ed.]

Slow down, Pete (“easy,” as we say to horses who are moving too fast for their own good, and possibly ours).  You’ve signalled much that is of value, and perhaps more than you know.

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My “epistemology of media lag argument,” part 2

The link below will take you to Google Books and an extract from a chapter of my first book, In the Event:  Reading Journalism, Reading Theory, which appeared in 1999 as part of the “Meridian:  Crossing Aesthetics” series edited by Werner Hamacher for Stanford University Press.  The material in question, then, appeared in print roughly eleven years ago, which was nearly two years after I had submitted the completed manuscript for publication.  At that time, the machinery of academic book publishing worked slowly, and the lag between submission and light of day was significant. 

 http://books.google.com/books?id=4dM8_FUOxggC&lpg=PP1&dq=In%20the%20event%20deborah%20esch&pg=PA61#v=onepage&q&f=false

In order efficiently to provide a brief context for the specific material I want to recall, I will simply quote from the characterization that appeared – and still appears – on the back of the book.

Assuming the burden of reading imposed by the correlation of the order of language and the order of events, this book argues that the possibility of reading and writing history is tied to the endurance of traces of the past and their coming to legibility, allegorically, at a given time.  Through attentive readings of a range of texts – including theoretical writings, diaries, newspaper reports, and “live” television broadcasts – In the Event elaborates the ways in which allegory disrupts our presumptions of continuity and simultaneity between the image (whatever its medium) and what we take it to represent.

The author demonstrates that a theoretical corpus must be understood not merely as a discrete set of arguments, but as work that takes place in time and on which time itself is at work.  Against the temptation to regard a text (including a text of philosophical aesthetics or critical linguistics) as explained or defined by a fixed temporal context, this book emphasizes the textual operation of time.  This attention to temporality opens the possibility of reading the notoriously difficult and resistant text of television.

Next comes the summary version of the part of the book most relevant to the case I hope to make over several forthcoming posts:  an argument, based on what I think is a telling instance or example, about the illusory nature of the “real-time” Web, aka Web 2.0.

The book’s central chapters analyze the seductions of “live” broadcasting:  an incisive account of news coverage of the [first] Gulf War, for example, reveals how the unproblematic articulation of “live” television with the real has its impulse in a broader realist ideology that finds its opportunity in the failure to reflect on the distances of space and time that characterize the medium….  Here, and throughout the book, the readings argue that what we take to be historical events are actually produced, even constituted, by an array of discursive technologies, including language itself.

[En passant, it has been my experience that copy-blogging one’s own past work leads to more wpm and fewer typos.]

Bear with me as I elaborate, over a series of posts, an argument about the ways in which a version of the realist ideology that underpins common conceptions about “live” broadcasting is also at work, in a manner and to an extent that are mostly unacknowledged, in the vaunting of the “real-time” Web.

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My “epistemology of media lag argument,” part 1

This post is, among other things, an example of the intervention of serendipity into the workings of this weblog.  I had planned to take as today’s provisional point of departure a blog post from guardian.co.uk that I had archived for future reference.  Then, pretty much out of the blue, I opened my inbox last night to find an email from a dear friend, with the tantalizing subject heading “Here’s today’s version of your epistemology of media lag argument.”  I clicked on the link with the sense of opening a gift, to discover another post (this one from the New York Times “Media Decoder”) that I found even more compelling than the Guardian candidate.  I may (and I stress may) have found a way to align these two reference points, all unexpectedly, within the framework of this blog’s project (and much of the decades’ worth of research and writing that preceded it).  The effort will require, at a minimum, a short series, beginning (barring the hand of serendipity) with my next post.

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