Tag Archives: New York Times

Twitter as lifesaver

Here is an instance where poking around online – by which I mean clicking on some promising links – led me back to some fairly significant writing on social media and journalism that I’d overlooked, just simply missed.  lnitially, I logged onto a website called kommons.c0m, which was launched recently by a couple of friends based in Brooklyn as a sort of online public square, “a place to ask and answer questions from anyone in the world.”  According to the site, “Right now, the only way to get an invitation to kommons is to be asked a question by another kommons user.  From there you can direct a question to any of Twitter’s 110+ million users:  anyone from @kanyewest to @cshirky.”  But hang on – can’t any Twitter user do that already, without waiting for an invitation?  Here is how Cody Brown, a co-founder of kommons, distinguishes its project.

Announcing Kommons Beta:  Last fall I wrote a long blog post about how the internet was changing journalism and announced a website that was going to address those changes. Fast forward through an insane 8 months that included 7 pivots, 2 trips to SF, thousands of lines of code written by two people with previously no CS background, and we are excited to announce today that kommons.com is live. 

After going through a number of iterations we’ve landed on a simple starting point. Kommons is a place to ask questions to public figures. The public figures, in this case, are any of Twitter’s 110+ million users.

There are already plenty of ways to ‘contact’ a public figure like Sarah Palin by tweeting at her or posting on her wall but the experience is woefully imbalanced. For all the rah rah of Twitter’s bilateral format, it’s easy for major public figures like Palin to just use social media as a bully pulpit: she can ignore individual tweets and, in the case of Facebook, outright delete wall posts that challenge her beliefs. Kommons is designed to change this dynamic and rebalance the way public figures answer to their public. 

We do this by giving those who want to contact a public figure a substantially better place to talk to each other. Forming a group is often the only way to get public figures to take notice and Kommons helps you form them on the fly by coordinating those with similar questions to build public leverage. 

I used Sarah Palin as an example because she’s our most challenging use case and someone I personally have a lot of questions for, but we aren’t designed to benefit any particular party or group. We also aren’t made to be used just for antagonistic use cases. I have questions for Sarah Palin but also questions for people I respect like danah boyd and Tim O’Reilly or even someone like a neighborhood blogger or a friend. Our goal is to apply the journalistic principle of impartiality to every level of the site’s design. A public forum to ask and answer a question from anyone in the world that is fair to everyone involved.

While I have nothing to say to Sarah Palin, interrogative or otherwise, I confess that this is a club I would consider joining even if they wanted me as a member.  This impulse was only strengthened when I clicked on the link on the kommons.com homepage that directed me to a post by Rachel Sklar for Mediaite:  “Kommons Will Sneakily Make You Blog for Free.”  [ http://www.mediaite.com/online/kommons-will-sneakily-make-you-blog-for-free/

Understandably, kommons cites Sklar’s piece as a blurb for their ambitious start-up:  “Last Wednesday, Sept. 15th, a website called Kommons went live – and is sort of brilliant.  It’s basically Formspring meets Twitter meets “Meet the Press,” or something:  A community that seeks smart, conversation-furthering answers prompted by smart, probing questions – publicly…. smart questions of smart people made in an open forum, viewable by the public and their peers.”

But the hook, for me, came in the next paragraph of Sklar’s post.  “It’s like pre-curation:  You know that what you’re going to get will be interesting and good.”  Pre-curation? (Someone intelligent and motivated has cleared a path for you?  Done at least part of the dirty work?)  You know that what you’re going to get will be interesting and good?  (That’s an insurance policy I’d be happy to sign.)  And foremost among my racing thoughts:  What a time-saver!  Maybe I could actually cook dinner once in a while instead of ordering in every night.

As I compulsively checked my Twitter timeline and watched the clock, convinced that my invitation must be in the mail, I read on in Sklar’s post, which reproduces her response to a question posed to her on the kommons site by “Kool Kid Kody”:  “What was the NYC media community like before Twitter?”  Her answer is well worth reading (and it’s free), particularly for anyone interested in Twitter’s impacts on journalists and journalism.

Here (and in an earlier post dated June 15, 2009 and published on charitini.com), Sklar alludes to an interview with Biz Stone and Evan Williams, co-founders of Twitter, conducted by Maureen Dowd, op-ed columnist for the New York Times, in April 2009.  At the time, this one passed under my radar. [ http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/22/opinion/22dowd.html ] 

If you want a taste of the arrogance and cluelessness with which certain journalists sought to dismiss Twitter’s potential to supplement journalistic practice before even attempting to understand it, click and read.  Read to the end, which I reproduce here.

[Dowd]:  I would rather be tied up to stakes in the Kalahari Desert, have honey poured over me and red ants eat out my eyes than open a Twitter account.  Is there anything you can say to change my mind?

[Biz Stone]:  Well, when you do find yourself in that position, you’re gonna want Twitter.  You might want to type out the message ‘Help.'”

(Mo, il ne faut pas exaggerer.  But to be honest, that’s exactly how I feel about Facebook.)

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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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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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“Cc…: CCC,” part 12

Thinking out loud in response to John’s last e-mail:

The analogy between the AIDS crisis and the Nazi holocaust was once very common in AIDS discourse in North America.  I have, for a long time now, doubted the usefulness of analogies between the AIDS crisis and the Holocaust (and by the term Holocaust I understand that to refer to the Nazi Holocaust) because through analogy we lose our ability to grasp the crisis at hand in its specificity.  The use of analogy is somewhat useful to gain immediate attention and it’s perhaps useful as a shorthand for ethical criteria established through the experience of the Holocaust.  However, we gain little through the analogy because we foreclose on the possibility of new outcomes when we resort to historical analogies.  In other words, what we attempt to change and avoid through the use of analogy, we can doom to repetition in our analysis.  Through analogy we risk closing our minds to current options and possibilities.

I do not accept the old adage that those who refuse to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.  Rather, I believe that those who fail to grasp the present, in all its complexity and specificity, are doomed to repetition.  A radical break with history can only follow from a radical break with an understanding of history.

Regarding the problem of doing something “here,” from the vantage of the privileged north, that will help “there,” in the disadvantaged south:  I have been preoccupied with this problem ever since I returned to  Chicago from Durban in July 2000.  Initially, after returning from the Durban conference, I found receptive audiences for consciousness raising and fundraising, specifically about AIDS in Africa and the efforts of the Treatment Action Campaign.  These efforts were supported and amplified by the established press.  Papers such as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal gave a great amount of coverage to AIDS in the “third world” and the battles over pharmaceutical drug company patents.

The success of the efforts I have been involved with – fundraising, lecturing and the production of advocate video work – has reached a limit for a number of interesting reasons.  Discussions here and in the U.S. about AIDS in the resource-poor world inevitably, and perhaps rightly, lead back to discussions about AIDS in our country [the U.S.].  When we are forced to contemplate the AIDS crisis in the U.S., all illusions of progress disintegrate.  Sure, there are a large number of people on life-saving drugs, far larger proportionately than in the resource-poor world, BUT there are many other things to consider.  Over half of the million people in the U.S. who have HIV don’t know it.  Among those who do know it, the number of those who have access to drugs and adequate medical treatment is small AND may get smaller.  The government is now attacking and seriously threatening to dismantle the benefit system AIDS activists fought hard to establish.  ADAP (the AIDS drug assistance program) is currently under attack.  Plus, the Bush administration is also quietly going about the business of undermining and discrediting already compromised and underfunded prevention programs.

The needs of people in the resource-poor world are far greater in scale than the needs of people in wealthy countries.  There remain a great many unsolved inequities in wealthy nations.  How do the needs of people with AIDS in poor countries and the needs of the poor in rich countries become separate and competing problems in the minds of those who think about AIDS?  Given the shortage of resources to fight AIDS here or abroad, how do AIDS activists choose effective courses of action?

There is a crisis of community among those hardest hit in the U.S.  A kind of complacency has set in about AIDS.  The reasons for this are very complex and will have to be thoroughly considered in a following e-mail.  For the moment, let us recognize that the negative effects of privatization, the suffocation of the public sphere through capitalist incorporation and instrumentalization of all organic community structures has stymied and arrested those hardest hit by AIDS.  Though things are getting bad, in ways that feel very much the same as the late eighties, the communities hardest hit do not seem to have the wherewithal to fight back.  And it is hard to rally people simply by referring them back to the late eighties.  Again the problem with analogy.

In the past two weeks, I have learned of two friends, gay men, who after a decade or more of remaining HIV negative, have now seroconverted.  This is by now a common experience for many of us, witnessing the seroconversion of our friends.  And we have developed an ethical response to the experience.  No judgment.  We must immediately make ourselves available to our friends, support them, love them, help them to make appropriate treatment decisions, and help them get access to treatment.  That may sound odd to others.  Of course you should respond that way!  It took some of us a while to get past our anger and frustration, to develop a complex understanding of the role of the unconscious and the limits of safer sex, to be able to respond ethically, with love and not anger or resentment, to recent seroconversions.  The complexity of all this preoccupies me now.

More later.  XOXO  Gregg

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“Cc…: CCC,” part 2

Dear Gregg, John, Jack and Kendall,

I hope this message finds each of you well, wherever and whenever it reaches you.  I hope, too, that it will serve to initiate an e-mail exchange about the virus and the pandemic that will appear at the conclusion of my recently completed The Brevity of Life:  What AIDS Makes Legible.  The manuscript, parts of which some of you may already have had a chance to read, and others surely not as yet, includes as the volume’s proposed frontispiece a photograph of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers), dated 1987-1990, an installation that features two apparently identical clocks hung side by side, barely touching one another, and synchronized such that both read “2:43:58” (or “14:43:58”).


My hope was that Gonzalez-Torres’ work, photographed in situ, would resonate with a citation I was considering as an epigraph for the book:  Peter Piot, Executive Director of the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), writing in his “Foreword” to the Encyclopedia of AIDS that “the worldwide AIDS epidemic has become a permanent challenge to human integrity and solidarity.  Given the scale of suffering, given the proven effectiveness of several approaches, and given the prospect of furthering other human goals through the fight against AIDS, an expanded response makes ethical and practical sense.  Instead of letting AIDS turn back the clock, let us use our response to the epidemic to turn humanity’s clock ahead.”

Now John, who was kind enough to take the time recently to read the manuscript and to respond with characteristic generosity and insight, wondered in an e-mail to me whether Piot’s language in this instance set a tone in keeping with the chapters that follow.  I take the liberty of citing from John’s message:  “Peter Piot [citation]:  for me it set the wrong tone, starting your book like that – I’m sure I’m carrying around too much baggage vis a vis UNAIDS and that very mainstream don’t really rock the boat agenda…. Couldn’t you start with Seneca – maybe juxtaposed with Ben and his phone card?” **

John’s thoughtful and wide-ranging response reached me on July 15, as I was reading the Report on the global epidemic  just released by UNAIDS.  Writing in the report’s preface, Piot notes that “In 2001, the world marked 20 years of AIDS.  It was an occasion to lament the fact that the epidemic has turned out to be far worse than predicted, saying ‘if only we knew then what we know now.’  But we do know now.  We know that the epidemic is still in its early stages, that effective responses are possible but only when they are politically backed and full-scale, and that unless more is done today and tomorrow, the epidemic will continue to grow….  The time has come to put all the pieces together.  Plans have been made.  Needs are clear.  Solutions are available.  Now act!”

With your permission, I would like to take Piot’s language in the preface to the UNAIDS report as a provisional point of departure for our exchange.  In what context or contexts do you place this brief exercise in historiography on Piot’s part?  More specifically, perhaps, how do you read and respond to its concluding imperative?

With my thanks in advance, and warm regards,


** John here alludes to one of the epigraphs to the prologue, which cites Ben, a long-time seropositive man who tells the New York Times that he feels like someone with a phone card who knows that at some point he will hear the inevitable “you have two minutes left.”

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 4)

In both instances [the New York Times editorial and the Boston Globe report], a journalistic appeal to progress in the form of late-breaking bio-medical developments (“The newest AIDS medications,” “recent advances”) operates in effect to overlook, if not to excuse, the unmistakable racism inscribed in language that may or may not simple imitate TV.  (In the scene from “In this White House,” the audible irony in Toby’s response to the question “What’s the problem?” – “They don’t own wristwatches.  They can’t tell time” – has the thinly-veiled racism of the fictional pharmaceutical executives as its target.)  The promising advances signaled by the new treatment regimens (which effectively date this episode of The West Wing, relegating it with dispatch to the cultural archive) may indeed reduce the burden on those who have access to these therapies, whatever their circumstances.  And what such “progress” may mean (and portend) for the millions presently living with HIV/AIDS is difficult to overestimate.  What it emphatically does not mean (as this series of posts attempts to make plain) is that “there is no need to tell time.”

On the contrary, the need – the unavoidable imperative – to tell time has perhaps never been more urgent.  Part and parcel of the work of correlating the order of events and the order of language in the face of the interminability of AIDS, telling time is itself at least a twofold task, as the archive of the pandemic instructs us.

1.  It is first of all a matter of accounting for the multiple specific temporalities inscribed in the virus, in the epidemic-turned-pandemic and in its artifactual remains to date, among which would number not only the episode of The West Wing but also the journalistic reports that speculated on its impact on the subsequent policy debate.  In the latter cases, for example, we are obligated to recognize the time that divides the scripting of “In this White House” from its eventual broadcast, as well as the interval between the episode’s airing and the adoption of its language by American policymakers, which is partly co-extensive with the time of the “recent advances” in treatment regimens cited with the effect of side-stepping the racist overtones of the bureaucrats’ arguments.  Far more importantly, these documents from the archive of the pandemic raise the matter of the (much longer) time between drug development in the west and access to “the newest AIDS medications” in sub-Saharan Africa, and with it that of the (still longer) time between the date assigned to the official inception of HIV/AIDS in North America and any consequential attention to its global impact.  Ultimately, they summon us to reflect on the variable temporalities of what we call human lifetime and on the diversity of the times death takes.  Under the pressure of reading, they remind us that what has become a widely-accepted state of affairs, and indeed a norm – that vastly divergent lifespans can and shall co-exist, that life expectancy of, say, thirty-seven years in some parts of the world can and shall obtain alongside life expectancy of more than double that figure in others, and this for an unspecified period of time to come – is also legible as a damning indictment of a shameful history.  In these and innumerable other instances, the need to tell time translates as the imperative to discern – which is to say, to read – the time in question, the always crucial variable that is never quite the same from one reading to the next.  Only a work of reading attentive to time as the x factor can ground a responsible theoretical consideration of the temporal and historical questions with which the pandemic never ceases to confront us.

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“the x factor” (“The West Wing,” part 3)

The more-than-questionable claim [that the “distribution of AIDS cocktails would be complicated by Africans’ inability to tell time”] was first made by a suitably “unnamed Treasury Department official” who told the New York Times in April, 2001 that Africans lack the “concept of time” required to adhere to the demanding protocols associated with combination therapies.  Shortly thereafter, in testimony before the international relations committee of the House of Representatives and again in an interview, both in June 2001, Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, made a case against substantially increased funding for anti-retroviral drug treatment in Africa, where “People do not know what watches and clocks are.  They do not use Western means for telling time.  They use the sun” (Donnelly, A 14).

The comments, paraphrases rather than citations of The West Wing, were themselves cited as well as paraphrased in media coverage of the debate and again by activists protesting the failure of U.S. policy to meet the demands of a global crisis.  All of this unfolded as the world marked the twentieth anniversary of the pandemic’s official inception.  In an editorial entitled “Stinginess on AIDS,” the New York Times found fault with the Bush administration’s pledge in 2001 of a mere $200 million to the newly-instituted global fund for AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria (which had set a worldwide goal of ten billion dollars), suggesting that

the real problem is that AIDS overseas is a low priority for politicians.  Many believe, or find it convenient to echo, arguments that the money would be wasted.  People are still saying that Africans cannot take AIDS medicine because they do not own watches.

The newest AIDS medications, however, are simple to take, with two pills at sunup and two at sundown, and pilot programs show that African patients are perfectly able to take medicine on time when a steady supply is available.  [New York Times, August 19, 2001]

Donnelly’s report concluded on a comparable note:  “The comments by Mr. Natsios and the unnamed Treasury official assume that using the AIDS cocktails effectively requires taking a dozen pills or more at various times of the day.  But health experts say recent advances now allow people to take one or two pills daily, each containing several anti-AIDS drugs.  This regimen, now being used in several small African trials, means there is no need to tell time”  (Donnelly, A14).

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