Exploding the limits of linear media

As I wrote in my last post, one of the things that we realise on the BBC World Service radio programme that I work on is that we’re joining a global conversation that is already going on in a million ways, virtual and real.

Of course, one of the ways we try to take part in that conversation is through weblogs. For instance, recently, we discussed Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the US. We asked whether the world had something to fear in China.

We invited Dan Harris of the China law blog on the programme. After it finished, he had this to say about the programme:

Just finished my show on the BBC and found it both interesting and frustrating.

Dan went on to explain his views in a way that he thought that he couldn’t on the programme. He’s not the first blogger that we’ve had on the programme who felt frustrated by the format. As a matter of fact, Fons Tuinstra, an internet entrepreneur and China consultant, who has been on the programme said this in a comment on Dan’s blog:

At least you have a weblog where you can make your point. I have been a few times in the program and I found it an interesting chaos. It tries to focus on easy to consume tidbits without trying to really make a point.

From this and other comments, I sense that the bloggers we have on the programme sometimes feel constrained. Many in the Mainstream Media fail to realise that some of our audience now live and communicate in a world where they control the terms the debate, not us in the MSM, so I think that bloggers find it a bit jarring when they are suddenly pulled back into the old world of broadcast media where they have to cede some of their new found freedom.

Secondly, blogging is nonlinear, like many things on the internet. On radio, we have an hour for the discussion. It’s linear. The world of broadcast is also one of scarcity. Scarcity of spectrum. Scarcity of time. That is not to say that the age of broadcast is over – the BBC radio signal reaches places far beyond the reach of the internet.

What happens when you wed the nonlinear, interactive, many-to-many networked power of the internet and mobile phone networks with the global reach of radio? I don’t know yet. We have a lot of work to do to bridge the worlds of the internet, the mobile phone and the radio – especially the internet. But the glimpses of what could be keep me going, keep me pushing those boundaries between media.

I believe that the limits, the constraints, the shortcomings of what bloggers feel when they come on the radio could be exploded if we break down some of these barriers between media. I’ve been trying to do that, to create a new media for 10 years now. I thought we would be further along than we are, but the dot.com bubble and crash came along: The bubble gave us a lot of hyperactive, hyper-funded ‘me-too-ism’; then came the Crash, which destroyed many people’s faith in the Internet. I used to think it was all bad, but from the ashes of the crash came a return to the Net’s grassroots: Social software and social media.

But now I’m straying into the territory of the next post: Social Media Me-too-ism. Suw and I will have a lot to say about that this week. Watch this space.

UPDATE: Dan left a comment and said he wasn’t frustrated by the being cut off by a higher authority. As an attorney, he said: “Please remember I am an attorney, so I am very much used to being cut off by a higher force: the Judge.”

That reminded me that was another more nuanced point I was going to make but forgot. For this, I’ll blame Suw. She was watching Doctor Who on here iBook while I was trying to write this.

The more nuanced point I was going to make was about nuance. There are limits to what we can pack into an hour, and I think Mike’s comment below about too many voices is spot on. It’s a fine balance. We want to include as many voices, as many points of view as possible, but too many voices becomes a cacophony of unexplored threads of thought. This is the limitation of linear media and where the internet can fill in the gaps.

Both in audio, video and text, we can explore more ideas in much richer depth than we ever could in one hour of radio. And as I’m seeing, the conversation that begins on air spins out in a million directions over weeks. We’re still receiving comments on discussions that we had in early April. Hopefully, as we plug into the online communities better, this conversation will deepen. And I’m enjoying the challenge of building bridges between the world of the internet and the world of radio.

And I’m also enjoying this conversation about this process. As a matter of fact, without this conversation, it would be a much more difficult and lonely job.

NLab Seminar: Blogs, Communities and Social Software

I’m up at De Montfort University in Leicester at the Narrative Laboratory for the Creative Industries (NLab) seminar, Blogs, Communities and Social Software. I’m speaking later, but managed to get up here in time to catch the first panel discussion.

The Institute of Creative Technologies, who runs the NLab, has got a new building, and this is the first event to be held here. It’s half-finished, but already has a small kennel of Aibos and is apparently also going to be getting some flying insect robots too. Cool! I’ll have to come back when they’ve got them installed.

As to my own talk, that’s about blogging and writing, blogging writers, and Creative Commons. Thinking about the things that authors are doing with blogging in preparation for this talk got me really quite excited and, if I can find the time, I’ll write more about it.

The audience here is mixed, with some people knowing about blogs already, and some people being complete novices. That makes it a hard audience in some ways, because you either bore or baffle, so I’m very much focusing on showing what other people are doing, and am not really going to talk about concepts.

Right… to the first panel.


Josie Fraser, Educational Technologist

Sue Thomas, Professor of New Media, De Montfort

Chair: Gavin Stewart

Sue Thomas – Why RSS is important, and why you should have it

What is RSS? The easiest way to find out what RSS is is to go to the BBC site and look at their explanation, via the ‘What is RSS?’ link.

[Goes on to provide very basic explanation of RSS.]

[Demos Bloglines, as aggregator, the clippings function, publishing your blogroll, seeing other people’s blogrolls via subscription to the same feed.]

Josie Fraser – Weblogs and Web 2.0 in eduation

Used to write for Engadget – gadget based movie reviews.

Interested in getting teachers up to speed on what’s happening in the rest of the world. Edublogs: blogs in or about education by learners, practitioners, researchers, policy makers etc. Blogs are individual, groups e.g. schools, universities, etc.

Misconception that schools in the UK are lagging behind in tech, but they’re not. there is a lot of exciting stuff going on. Warwick Uni, for example, offer blogs for all universities, and people are using Amazon-type models in their blogs, so looking at book reviews, film reviews, CDs, etc.

Walsall Schools have a large blog community, with subscribers across the UK. Marketed as easy way for teachers and learners to have a web presence. Traditional websites never get updated, and for schools that’s not useful, so with a blog they can put info up straight away. They can have headmasters posting info for parents, for example.


Barbara Ganley

Gateshead Central Library

James Farmer’s edublogs.org, also learnerblogs and uniblogs, all hosted online. Problems that he has had are with firewalls in schools.

Edublog Frappr map.

Edublog Awards in third year.

Use of emerging tech reflects state of learning tech in all institutions in the UK – it’s patchy, it’s not embedded, and it’s not joined up. But bloggers are all about community, so there is a different agenda. Web 2.0 techs are sociable and community building, so fundamental shift now in how tech is being delivered in schools and university.

Many constructivist arguments for using blogs, not just in education, but generally. It’s an ideal platform for citizenship, participation, collaboration. Develop e-literacy which is fundamentally important. Formative value: Develop voice and provide ability to explore online, v. empowering.

Positivist concerns: retention, achievement, progression; evidence and supporting the curriculum. Very specific aims, don’t always sit well with blogging.

Issues that need addressing re: staff skills and current practice

– e-literacy and legitimacy of new tech (still in question, lots of suspicion)

– small pieces loosely joined vs. one size fits all

– training and support (some teachers are still struggling with email, so how do they go from that to engaging with blogging and social software?)

Duty of care, re: child protection

– literacy and resilience vs. moral panic (over sites about anorexia, etc.)

– online identity. what happens if you’re blogging through university, become completely googleable, and what you did ten years ago affecting how you are perceived now; lots of employers Google

Systems, re: network management:

– privacy, spam, filtering. these systems are often imposed on schools, and they have no control over them.

– hosting, ownership, data protection


Q: What makes certain software social?

Josie: The difference is, people talk about Web 2.0 in terms of social software, but the truth is that socialability has being going on on the web for years, chat, user groups, discussion boards, these are all sociable. The difference is that social software is more geared up to making friends online, although that’s been possible online for a long time. More online dating sites, which is a huge market and is becoming acceptable in a way that it wasn’t two years ago. But you can interact with it easily, use it easily, and interact with the writer.

Sue: I’d add to that the fact that social software society is a different kind of society and it has its own rules and behaviours, so the other side is the society that is produced by the software. It affects the way we regard each other, what we know about each other, what we make public. The idea of social software enabling your data to be added to the mix. E.g. MySpace, the engagement that people make involves a trade-off – their clicks, prefs, data is being logged. Same as your loyalty card logs your shopping data. That’s the hidden trade-off.

Was asked, Don’t young people worry about privacy? What is going to happen when they realise there’s so much data being held? Young people know they are making their trade-off.

Josie: But it’s not being talked about in those terms. General practice for blogs is that you are being very honest, very earnest. In a way that’s sad because it’s played off against going online and creating a fake life, and playing with identity.

I am on a crusade against the word virtual, because it’s not virtual. there is no distinction anymore. It is real. The number of people who have fallen in love online… there is no separation. It is as real. And if we pretend there is a distinction we are kidding ourselves.

Q: People develop new coping mechanisms for making sense of what is happening online, because it is different from everyday life. That’s a difficult aspect of social software, because the making sense mechanisms that we have are different from the ones that we need to develop.

Sue: You have to use it to be able to critique it, because often looking from the outside it really doesn’t make sense. It’s the difference between being a passenger in a car, and driving a car.

Josie: This comes back to digital literacy. How do we talk about this stuff to people who don’t even like using email. There are techs emerging at the moment that are characterised by the fact they are very user friendly. So a blog is where you go online and fill in some forms. It’s easy. So the way that I get people into it is to get them to go into eBay, and they manage that ok when they see something they want to buy.

There is reticence amongst a lot of teachers to engage in this, but Web 2.0 makes it easier for them. I’ve tried to teach teachers how to use Dreamweaver and it’s a nightmare, and it’s not what they need to know. But show them Blogger and you can get them up and running in half an hour.

Q: Quite often people know how to do the digital side, how to create the blog, but they are becoming aware now that they are creating an identity. People don’t always want their world online. They have something against the social side of it, rather than the technical side of it.

Sue: The problem is that blogs have got a name for being boring and petty. So when you say ‘you should start a blog’ people think that you are saying ‘you should write about what you had for breakfast’. I even thought that myself. I thought I’d be in a constant state of panic about what I’d written.

I got into it when my book Hello World came out, and I needed a website, and a blog was easiest. I just used it as a content management system.

But I think people do, because they don’t know what else they want

Gavin: I got interested in people using blogs, playing with cultural identity, e.g. hamster blogs, dog blogs, etc., and this is a sort of creative writing class blog. These blogs have minute readership.

Q: People think they have to write for an audience. My blog is writing for myself, and it was portable – could access it from anywhere. So part of the problem is that you’re immediately faced by this audience issues. Took me a long time to send a link out to people about my blog.

Sue: You’re interested in vlogging. Do you want to tell us about it?

??: It’s video blogging, but with hypertext. A true blog can’t be a book because you can’t print the links that make sense of it. So a vlog has hyperlinks, and links in the footage itself that bring other content in, people are working on video commenting etc. People are basing it around traditional, old media, in terms of it being news content. It lends itself to that, but it’s more than that. In the way that people are doing blogging as creative writing, vlogging is creative film work.

Kate Pullinger: There’s a ticking bomb, which is the business of privacy, and what it means for everyone to be publicising their lives, such as the undergraduate. For example, Heather Armstrong (Dooce). It’s a huge issue.

Me: No one got fired for blogging, they got fired for doing or saying something stupid. And with privacy, maybe we will have to learn to be more forgiving in future.

Josie: Digital literacy in terms of children and learners understanding the implications of what they are doing is important, but we need teachers and parents to understand this.

And we can bury stuff. We can blog solidly for three years and bury the older stuff. Employers don’t spend hours on this. Stalkers do, but employers don’t.

Sue: We are growing up on the web, we are learning how to do all this stuff. When you learn to write, you gradually learn that there are certain things you don’t write, or don’t show people. Now we need to become literate with the web. Someone I knew a couple of years ago, who is very literate and started teaching, and started blogging about his class as you would tell your friend. And you think ‘Don’t you realise that the students who made your life difficult today will read your comments tonight?’. And people don’t grasp it, it’s naivety.

Q: It’s part of the growth process. And the important thing is often not the host blog (e.g. Slugger O’Toole), but the conversations that they are hosting.

Josie: The use of blogging in the US elections was something that highlighted the fact that blogs weren’t all about personal diaries, and that it could be a professional tool that’s very powerful.

Some of the meetings I go to, if you say a blog is a diary they will shout at you and throw things at your head, because it’s not. It’s a website. The difference is that it’s easy to use. You don’t need to know HTML.

The challenge of fostering community

I’ve been away for a while, doing some real heavy lifting launching a blog at work. The programme I work on at the BBC, World Have Your Say, launched its blog now just about a month ago.

It’s been a real challenge. The technical stuff is easy, and we’re blessed with great geeks (and I say that as one of them) at the BBC.

The struggle has been two-fold. I’m going to be diplomatic here when I say the first challenge is developing a sense of ownership of this blog, this new media thing, amongst a radio team. Suw would call it adoption.

How is it core to what we do? How does it help us put out two hours of radio everyday? It’s part of my job to sell it to them.

The other challenge is selling it to our listeners. They listen to radio. What does the blog give to them? How does it enhance radio and the global conversation that we’re trying to foster?

If you would have asked me in the middle of last week, I would have said I wasn’t doing a very good job of selling it either to my team or to our listeners. I was learning the hard lesson that Dan Gillmor learned at Bayosphere: Community building is hard.

As Dan said:

Tools matter, but they’re no substitute for community building. (This is a special skill that I’m only beginning to understand even now.)

How do I help foster a sense of community using this blog wed to a radio programme with millions of listeners around the world?

Well, it doesn’t happen overnight, and a month is really a short amount of time. And the BBC blogs are being launched rather quietly and are pretty well hidden in the vast digital thicket that is BBC.co.uk. At one time, we had 1800 subsites under that domain.

And we’ve only got so much online billboard space to promote all of the things that are behind our front door.

But the last few weeks have only reinforced my fundamental view that Big Media blogs have to remember they are taking their place in a pretty well established community: The Blogosphere. We’re not top dogs here. We’re in many senses johnny-come-latelys. And my view is that we must participate as equals not arrogant superiors.

I am a blogger just the like millions of other blog writers out there, and I play by the rules of the blogosphere, not the rules of Big Media. My team is joining a global community, and we have to do it with a little bit of humility.

Obey community rules, and the gift economy of linking and quoting will pay you back for good behaviour. It’s starting to work. We’re getting comments pretty regularly now live while we’re on air. Last week, we even had a contributor from Australia send in a phone number while we were on air, wanting to take part in the programme. That’s exciting, and it helps me sell the blog to my team.

We’ve still got a ways to go, but I’m glad to be back blogging. I always say that blogging keeps me closer to my audience than the broadcast model of Old Media. That’s where I want to be. I find having a conversation with my audience much more personally satisfying than talking at them.

What would audience-driven journalism look like?

There has been an interesting discussion, both online and offline, about audience-driven journalism over the last few weeks. It’s one of the things that I’ve been thinking about for my journalism X-project.

Leonard Witt had some ideas about how the open-source movement could inspire a reinvention of journalism (podcast here – audio 4.7MB download). And Jay Rosen of PressThink wanted to kick-start some ideas at BloggerCon IV about what he called, the ‘users know more than we do‘ journalism.

I really liked Jay’s practical approach to it. He’s asking some of the right questions.

  • What kinds of stories can be usefully investigated using open source and collaborative methods?
  • Which user communities are good bets to be interested enough to make it happen?
  • What will it take to start running more trials that could yield compelling and publishable work?
  • What needs to be invented for this kind of journalism to flourish?

Like I said in my previous post, there are some projects and audiences for which this approach is best suited, and there are other stories where quite honestly, traditional methods of journalism and storytelling work just fine. Jay set up his post by having Ken Sands of the The Spokesman-Review in Spokane Washington guest blog.

We know there are local knowledge networks. Should we try to “tap into” them, or is it better to leave them alone until something happens to make partnership possible? Correspondents— we’re familiar with them. But we don’t know how to operate a vast and dispersed network of correspondents, linking hundreds or even thousands. Does anyone?

He has a few ideas: Local sports, transportation watch, weather watch. It’s all local. It’s about things people are passionate about in their own communities.

And I couldn’t agree with Ken more when he says that there’s no traction in the citizen journalism out of mainstream media outlets. Yes, as we’re about to look back a year after the July 7 bombings here in London, everyone remembers the iconic cameraphone pictures. But I think Ken is talking more about community around content rather than the flood of pictures we now get at the BBC during large news events in the UK. Is there a sense of community, a sense of participation in sending off cameraphone pics to large news organisations? I’m with Ken who points to Flickr, YouTube and MySpace.

Those sites work; the mainstream media versions—the industry calls it user-generated content—do not. Why?

I’m going to be doing some thinking out loud about these questions over the next couple of days. But one last thought before Suw and I shut the computers off for the night. We used to talk about broadcast networks, but the future is obviously in social networks. What is the role of the journalist in the age of social networks?