Monday, August 24, 2009

The Wonderful Meaning of Me, Vol. 2

Just saw this in a Balt-Sun story we are running about Tweeter and movies:

“Just two years ago, if I saw a movie I loved or I hated, I’d be able to tell a dozen friends, tops,” says John Singh, who works for the movie and social networking Web site Flixster. "Now I can be walking out of a theater as the credits are rolling and immediately tell 500 people what I thought. … "It’s never been this easy to be this influential."

OK, he works for a Web site. But isn't he speaking for everyone who uses Twitter (or perhaps any social site)? Let's assume of his 500 followers, 100 tell some of their friends. He's thus been read by, oh, 1,000 people -- not bad. At our height of circulation, using current readership figures, more than 1 million people would have been able to read our critics' reviews. (Counting online readership, who knows how widely they are read today?) Assume in the old days that 10 percent read our reviews. 100,000 people. Get in line, John. We'll leave aside the question of whether anyone should have had Clive Barnes-like power or whether it could ever be attained again. And I don't know what John Singh's aspirations are -- whether he ultimately wants to be the Charles Champlin of Twitter. But social networking is all about the "I" -- I want to tell you this, I want you to pay attention to me. Whether "I" have anything you should bother to pay attention to -- for that matter, whether any of John Singh's followers actually pay attention to him -- isn't even a large part of the equation. The gatekeeper was a gatekeeper for a reason, which is that most "content" is drivel and that gatekeepers were paid to recognize drivel so that John Q. Citizen would not have to waste time on it. (No offense to John Singh, who for all I know may be the next Carrie Rickey.)

Witness this story from the Columbus Dispatch on life in Ann Arbor after the end of the News, in which the Powers That Be -- government, agencies, the university and its vast sports operation -- are finding that they have no reliable way of getting their information out -- and that wrong information, stupid information, whatever information suddenly has just as much credence as their information -- and that they don't really think that anyone should trust even their OWN web sites as much as they trusted the Ann Arbor News. In other words, in a way even the Powers That Be are saying, why should you trust what we say any more than anyone else? You need a reliable third party. And -- admittedly just a month into the News-less world -- TPTB in Ann Arbor are not finding it online. (Of course, that's because they didn't early-adopt it or they didn't grow up with it or they are held back by nostalgia for print.... There's always a reason why any shortcoming of the Internet is simply the problem of true communism waiting to emerge from war communism or socialist-communist or Great Leap Forward communism. Hold on, folks. Eventually true communism will be here, and all problems will be addressed. In the meantime, trust the pundits of the Internet and they will guide you amid the dictatorship of the Twittertariat.)

On another point: My esteemed friend Doug Fisher has written about how some of newspapers' problems come from their desire to make one tool -- the story -- serve all purposes. (And of the over-worship of The Story as the sole praiseworthy goal of journalism, as with one, I would guess professor, whom he quotes: "Twitter strikes me as ridiculous. It begs the question: What is news? Is it a stark factual sentence, or a well-crafted story steeped in sensory details, heavily dependent on the reporter's presence at the scene?" To which Doug responds: Well, that's a non-question. And of course, it doesn't beg the question, it prompts it.)

But now comes Poynter advisory board member Matt Thompson with a must-read article pointing out that that story -- well-crafted, steeped, presence-filled, as yeasty and tasty as a Richard Thompson song, presumably -- comes to the reader with a large number of gaping holes.

While he elaborates on them to great effect -- you really should read him as soon as you're tired of me talking about it -- all of them come down to this: The reporter is swimming in a sea of data, history, connections, facts, inferences, rumors, personal actions and expertise and inexpertise, journalistic conventions, out of which she must produce a "story" -- that, according to journalistic convention, should assume that you, the reader, want "the news of the day" followed by a summation of the basic outlines of the controversy (for those who came in late). But that largely serves just to recount the posturings of the major players -- access to whom, of course, give the reporter standing to play her part in the swirl -- and by convention leaves out most of the data, history, connections, facts, inferences, rumors, personal actions and expertise and inexpertise by which the reader could actually get a sense of what's going on. Is it any wonder that people look away from newspapers and news sites to a more "personal" journalism? Increasingly I think that the albatross around our necks is not the hardware of the press, but the convention of "the news story" in matters of controversy. (The story works quite well in talking about John Singh and Twitter, though.)

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