Conversation appears to be at the heart of the new media revolution. Where traditional print journalism provided little space for dialogue between consumers and producers of news, the digital world is one of constant chatter in which that demarcation between creator and passive audience grows ever murkier. As Jeff Jarvis remarked, both distribution and content have been subordinated in a new era where “Conversation is the kingdom”. It’s easy to understand why a generation that grew up with instant communication as the norm, thanks to the ubiquity of the cell phone, might embrace new media with its low barriers to participation. When you are used to getting your voice heard in your private life it doesn’t seem too much of a leap to expect people to want the same in the public forum.However, you might say that journalism and the media have always been about conversation, all that’s changed is who is talking. As Eric Alterman highlighted in his piece for the New Yorker, Arthur Miller wrote that a good newspaper was in some way “a nation talking to itself”, and he wrote that more than 50 years ago. In 1961 the conversation was going on in the pages of the Observer and those of every other newspaper, from broadsheet to tabloid, around the world. Sure the conversation was for the most part journalist to journalist, with the letters pages allowing the occasional aside from the population at large, but it was at the heart of the journalistic culture even then, just something of a walled garden open only to the initiated. It seems to me that new media’s assault on the traditional world of newspapers is not based on a conversation revolution, but rather on an exponential increase in the number of people willing, and now able, to take part. New media gives voice to an entire generation. Given the choice between speech in the new world and silence in the old, I know which one I would choose.

Despite the upheaval in the media domain that our sources document there will continue to be a demand for high quality news. While it is clear that blogs and other online media spaces can provide much of the content that traditional media does, and often do so better, there are still specific journalistic spheres that the leaner and meaner world of unbundled new media can’t provide for, at least if it relies only on ad revenue: perhaps foremost among them are foreign affairs and investigative reporting. Both these require serious resources, whether for maintaining a foreign correspondent abroad, or bankrolling an extended investigation. Our readings present a number of possible solutions to this problem, the most interesting of which being the ‘1000 true fans’ model and the potential for non-profit news. The beauty of the ‘1000 true fans’ model for journalism is that, with some adaptation, it allows traditional news outlets to maintain their breadth of influence by making their journalism available to the broadest possible audience, while at the same time securing a funding stream to assure the continuance of high quality journalism. It may not seem fair that some people pay for what others get for free, but fairness aside, if it can be proven sustainable it may provide a more stable shaft of light in the quest for alternative funding models. The New York Times’s experiment with introducing a paywall after a limited degree of free access could be considered the first mainstream implementation of this model.

The potential for non-profit news is exciting, not just in the voluntary space, but also as a model towards which even mainstream moguls might move. The elegiac quality common to many of the readings makes it clear that there is a potent fear for just what public goods may be lost in the breakdown of the traditional journalistic frameworks. We could argue that it is the continued responsibility to shareholders that makes the production of quality journalism on an increasingly shoestring budget ever more difficult, especially those areas mentioned above (foreign reporting and investigative journalism) which are poorly served by the new media offerings and expensive to maintain. Shareholder capital undoubtedly built institutions like the New York Times, but with uncertain returns going forward, the role of the philanthropist (see ProPublica) or even the state may be on the ascendant. Clearly, state involvement in journalism presents serious challenges for press freedom, but other stable democracies like the UK have shown that these can be overcome. If, as these writers suggest, there are areas of journalism that the new ‘unbundled’ environment cannot support, which are nonetheless vital to the maintenance of a healthy society we might consider state investment in this arena as little different to government spending on social security or other public goods.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Roryjhsmith

I have chosen to evaluate the Wikipedia article on the Greater London Council, London’s local government body between 1965 and 1986. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on one controversial aspect of GLC policy in the run up to its abolition, namely its work in furthering the gay rights agenda. While the Council’s Gay Working Party does have its own Wikipedia page, it is currently a stub and so not suitable for evaluation. It is  probably my job to rectify that as I may now be one of the ‘world experts’ on the GWP. While my knowledge of the GLC in the long run is not comprehensive I feel relatively qualified to evaluate its Wikipedia representation.

Initial impressions on comprehensiveness are fairly negative. Given that the GLC provided directly elected representation for millions of Londoner’s for more than 20 years, the article’s length alone is enough to indicate that its aim is to provide an overview rather than detailed information on the GLC’s work.

The introductory section provides only the most basic information about the Council, with the only indication as to the scope of its role being that it was “the top-tier local government administrative body for Greater London”. A useful comparison here is with the Wikipedia page of the Greater London Authority, the GLC’s extant successor local authority. The GLA’s introductory paragraph provides brief but useful information on the Authority’s structure, its scope of operations, and its funding structure. While introductions should provide concise overview, the GLC’s introductory paragraph provides little real indication of the Council’s role, which means that people visiting the page are forced to read the whole article to glean general information.

In terms of comprehensiveness more generally, the page provides good information on the Council’s foundation, providing useful links to other Wikipedia articles on relevant processes, such as the London Government Act of 1963 (although it is telling that this single act of parliament has more Wikipedia words than the GLC). Discussion of the Council’s powers is also vague although this may be because contributors have decided to avoid an overly technical tone. In my view, however, the article would benefit from a deeper discussion of Conciliar powers and how they were utilized in policy making. Although in the section headed ‘Abolition’ there are references to some of the “deliberately antagonis[tic]” policies of Ken Livingstone, the Council’s last leader, these have the element of the bombastic and give undue weight to niche issues while ignoring the Council’s very important work in other areas, above all in Equal Opportunities. In general, the article focuses on flashpoint moments such as foundation, abolition, and controversy, rather than providing a more solid overview of the Council’s work.

In terms of sourcing, the article has been labelled as needing “additional citations for verification”. This highlights what must be a common problem in getting verification for articles on relatively recent political topics. My own research in this area made it abundantly clear that impartial discussion of the GLC and its activities is very difficult to find in secondary literature given the Council’s polarizing political stance. From my experience, many sources play fast and loose even with the facts of the Council’s operations. There are, however, a number of secondary sources I am aware of specifically relating to the later years of the GLC’s existence. One insider account is GLC: The Inside Story written by Wesley Whitehouse. The GLC produced a huge volume of primary documentation, most obviously the minutes from the Council’s meetings which clearly provide factual data. These are stored at the London Metropolitan Archives.

In general the neutrality of the article is good given the politicized nature of this topic. Reference to Ken Livingstone’s “deliberate antagonis[m]” of the Thatcher government is one of the few instances where this neutrality slips, perhaps unsurprising given the controversy around abolition. In general, however, because the article restricts itself to generalized and mostly superficial factual discussion and avoids in depth analysis of the Council’s most controversial policies, neutrality is not a major problem. It’s neutral because it avoids many of the thorniest issues.

The formatting and illustrations are clear and illustrative, and appear to follow the Wikipedia template for institutions.

In general, the main problem with the article is its lack of content. Now that I have become aware of this I hope to provide more information, although there is the risk that my rather specific area of expertise may skew the article’s focus. I would aspire to seeing the article reach a similar length to that of the GLA given that this successor authority’s scope of operations is similar to that of its predecessor.

“Google is not a conventional company. We do not intend to become one.” So wrote Larry Page in April 2004 in the founders’ letter that, unconventionally, replaced the usually dry S-1 IPO prospectus for Google’s flotation that year. In large part, Steven Levy’s In the Plex is the story of Google’s continuous struggle to maintain a small and innovatory start up vibe in a company whose current market cap places it amongst the largest technology companies in the world. The problem Levy highlights, is that innovation, and the upheaval associated with it, are welcomed from a ‘new kid on the block’, as they were from Google when it began its revolutionary approach to search in the late 90s, but once David became Goliath, attempts to implement real change began to appear coercive and predatory rather than fresh faced.

 

At the outset, engaging with the Google revolution was a choice, and a smart choice. Competing search products were abysmal and the Page/Brin insight that identified inbound links as THE major marker of usefulness ensured that Google’s results were more relevant and provided higher quality information to anyone who wanted it. And the best part was that things could only get better: as more people searched and Google could analyze their ‘long’ and ‘short’ clicks the algorithms improved and the results Google provided met user demands ever more quickly. It all seemed win/win. Idealistic students with little business acumen, hiring other idealistic students to universalize access to the world’s information. But, fast forward ten years. In a real sense, much of the element of chosen engagement has disappeared. The primacy of the data in the Googleplex means that human concerns are treated almost perfunctorily. Now the challenge is to opt-out. The original Google bargain was this: we’ll give you great search results in return for your behavioral data that we’ll use to make search even better. Now Google gets our data whether we like it or not. The purchase of DoubleClick and the adoption of its tracker cookie meant that regardless of whether we chose to engage with Google directly, it would still be getting our data and using it not obviously to improve our lives, but to enrich itself by making its advertising more targeted. And this is a theme that can be mapped throughout the Google ecosystem: Google Maps, a system Schmidt himself considered “too fundamental to let someone else control it” (p240), gave anyone and everyone a birds-eye view of private property; Google Street View illustrated not only our property but snapshots of our very personal lives and once again bared them to the world; Google Buzz, at least initially, assumed that deciding which of your acquaintances you would connect with shouldn’t really be up to you; and Google Books would digitize the printed word whether authors liked it or not. Yes, for the most part opt-out was possible, but the idea that it might be desirable was clearly not one Google shared.

 

This take on Google isn’t meant as a whole hearted critique. Rather it illustrates how easily the good intentions and many beneficial consequences associated with the democratization of data which Google aims for, can be misunderstood and themselves misfire. Publishers Weekly referred to Google’s “blinkered conception of e-ethics” when reviewing Levy’s book, and that seems curiously apt. “Don’t Be Evil” sounds like an ethical fanfare in today’s corporate environment, but Levy’s book illustrates that the tendency to deal in the absolutes of data ignores the subtler hues of human emotion and interpersonality. Levy’s evident enthusiasm for the Google project and his apparently uncritical attitude do not appear jejune, rather they illustrate a wholehearted desire to believe in the integral morality of the company guided by founders who, throughout the book, appear committed to human progress in some fundamental way. For all the missteps, Google’s mission still resonates as one which should be applauded . No malice shines through, other than perhaps some degree of jealousy that it should be Google that leads the charge.

 

Levy’s book documents Google’s many innovations in a clear and jargon-free fashion. PageRank and AdWords/AdSense provide the sturdy foundation for a seemingly countless array of projects fated to succeed or fail. Yet, despite the apparently fragmented nature of the Googleplex, Levy highlighted two fundamental characteristics which worked against this: a striking holism and a deeply reasoned approach. The latter is personified in Google’s chief economist, Hal Varian, and his work on auctioning provides the clearest evidence of the former. Hal Varian appears almost Asimovian, a real-world Hari Seldon from Foundation, applying stark metrics to the human reality of existence. Even his paper titles, one of which included the phrase “planet wide clusters”, suggest some sci-fi origin beyond the scope of terrestrial affairs. Hal Varian’s independent discovery of the Vickery second-bid auction model was indicative of a commitment on Google’s part to making things fair and reasonable, although not necessarily simpler. In some sense its approach to management structures and 20% time are just as reasonable. The implementation of the auction system throughout the Google matrix illustrates the degree to which an apparently sprawling organization is held together by a holistic attitude to administration. Auctions became the norm not only in Google’s interactions with outsiders such as in advertising or its IPO, but also internally with the allocation of system resources, for example.

 

In The Plex tells us so much about the workings of a revolutionary technology company. It charts many examples of success and failure, but throughout suggests that it is the almost messianic belief in the power of data to push forward the boundaries of progress that drives the company on. Terrifying as many will undoubtedly find the realization that human concerns appear at times peripheral to this mission, it is hard not to be swept up in its urgency and zeal. Levy offers little indication that ‘Evil’, whatever it means, has compromised Google’s goals, but the question of whether something darker lies beneath the surface will ensure that Google’s efforts never go unscrutinized.