Archive for the ‘USA’ Category

Politics, popularity, and personalization

June 22, 2008

I already said that i love DC. Another reason to love it, are the many opportunities offered by this city.

A week ago or so, i participated in a debate/discussion about “new” media and political campaigns hosted by Google and National Journal and titled “The First 21-st Century Campaign“. Being hosted by Google, the event attracted some very interesting people and was held in a format of discussion rather than a traditional (academic) presentation-style lectures. Unfortunately, i wasn’t smart enough to bring a camera even though the event was absolutely open and the organizers even encouraged people capturing it in any possible way. Another unfortunate thing was that i couldn’t stay for the entire event and in fact stayed only for the first panel (out of three).

Ad of the Google\'s June Symposium

Fortunately, though, the first panel was very thought provoking.  Nothing super controversial or innovative has been said, but it was great to hear thet the industry people are concerned with the same issues that academics are.  Actually, i think the panel would benefit from a visionary academic person who could bring the entire discussion under a comprehensive (dare I say, macro) umbrella.

The first panel, moderated by Judy Woodruff of PBS, hosted Mark Halperin (“Time” – as a representative of the old media), Katherine Ham (Townhall.com, even though she announced she has a new job now), James Kotecki (Politico – he and Katherine were the representatives of “new” media), Phil Singer (Clinton campaign), and Kevin Madden (Mitt Romney campaign _ he and Singer were the political practitioners on the panel).

Most of the discussion focused on the tensions between the “old” and the “new” media.  In my view it started pretty awkward with Kotecki’s remark that he doesn’t see himself as a journalist and was (i got a sense that he was implying that he still is) making his video just to feel popular.  It was particularly stonning because one of the main points of the discussion was credibility of the “new” media as a journalistic practice.  Kotecki himself was making claims for being credible, which (together with some of the other comments, such as those made by Singer) got me thinking whether or not the 2.0 culture equates credibility to popularity.  If so, i find that idea pretty disturbing.  One the one hand, i can buy into the idea of wisdom of crowds (that’s the term i think), but, on the other hand, i cannot buy into dismissal of expertise that seems to be attached to it (at least in the current discussion).

Another interesting point came from the campaign people and it was primarily about the use they make of information.  For Madden, the “new” media were all about speed and precision of the media message.  Even though they never got talking explicitly about how they use microtargeting (even though i raised that questions), it was constantly implied in the examples they provided.  Building of the idea of popularity, it was now also the ability of precise targeting of the message.  I would describe that as an ability of talking about “popularities” rather than a single popularity.  To a a degree that appeared as a distinction between the “old” and the “new” media as well.  I found the latter rather interesting – the basic concepts mass (popularity) did not change, but progressed and evolved (into popularities), but the substance became implicitly even less important.  In other words, there is no substantive change in the policy or in the ideas, but the package is more personalized.

As the discussion evolved, it became more interesting and sophisticated.  To one degree or another, the panelists touched upon many relevant points.  This highlight was, I think, when Singer or Halperin, noticed that the mere division between the “old” and the “new” was artificial.  Ham also was very sharp when talking about the relations between the “old” and the “new” media (even though she was clearly advocating for the legitimacy of the latter).  I found this particularly interesting, because usually you hear a very deterministically-dichotomous discourse where the “new” is presented as separate and mostly superior to the “old”.  Even though Judy Woodruff finished the panel with some techno-utopian remarks (mostly as a tribute to the host), it did spoil the overall flavor of complexity.

On the practical level i came out of this symposium with two titles for potential books.  Not that i plan on writing those this summer, but… If i were to write a book with critical analysis of the modern Western society, particularly focusing on the youth, i would title it “The popularity generation.”  Maybe there is such a book already and maybe it will become the label of generation Y with all the reality shows and a myriad of televised competitions (for popularity of course :).  The other book would be about this campaign, or about contemporary politics in a broader sense.  That one i would title “The politics of personalization.”

Finally, kind of getting back to one of my first points, i think the symposium would really benefit from an academic input.  Maybe even more broadly, i think this industry could learn as much from the academia as the academia is learning from it.  At the end of the day, all the points raised by the panelists are being discussed and studied, and bringing those inputs would enrich the discussion and probably take it into the next level.

You can read a short post following the event on Google’s blog or you can actually watch the entire thing on C-Span (and enjoy me asking some questions :).

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Net-neutrality through legislation?

May 19, 2008

Now, this looks like an attempt to deal with questions of net-neutrality through legislation. John Conyers (D-MI) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) are trying to promote a new bill aimed at making it “unlawful for any broadband network provider … to block, to impair, to discriminate against, or to interfere with the ability of any person to use a broadband network service”. Apparently it is already second attempt to assure net-neutrality through legislation and it will be interesting to see how things evolve. Interestingly, there was practically no mention of this in the mainstream media…

Old concerns 2.0

May 13, 2008

I blogged earlier about thoughts prompted by reading students’ papers in Tarleton’s COMM 320 course. In my previous posts I wrote about perception of social networks as a platform for unifying “digital culture”. Another common idea in numerous papers was that the “new” media offer an open platform where users can create any content they want, particularly in the political context. The “new” media are often discussed in comparison to the “old” media (newspapers, TV, etc.), which suffer from institutionalized bias and are constantly under political and economic pressures. The “new” media are different – they are open platforms and the “new” media companies do not intervene in discourse as long as it is within the limits of the law.

The questions however, is it so? Is it so black and white and are the differences between the “old” and the “new” so great?

I thought about this now because I ran into an interesting example on YouTube. A few days ago, i heard about Mike Gravel’s attempts to recruit Obama Girl for his campaign. For those of you who do not follow, Mike Gravel is still in the race for Democratic nomination to run for the presidency (yes, there are more candidates than just Clinton and Obama). In fact, Gravel’s campaign is a good example to support the “new” argument about the “new” media. He has been continuously marginalized in the mainstream media and as a result he is trying to rely more and more on the alternative channels such as YouTube.

Watching the video of Gravel dancing with Obama Girl, lead me to his YouTube channel, where i found the following video, where Gravel is complaining about YouTube now marginalizing him as well:

Indeed, i went and checked. If you look at the “You Choose” page on YouTube there is no doubt that there are only two candidates in the democratic camp. While i can understand that Gravel has no chances to win and thus it seems like a logical decision to keep the page cleaner for maybe aesthetic purposes, i cannot stop wonder about the questions this act rises about the neutrality of the platforms.

In this case we have YouTube priming certain political preferences on expanse of the others. They may not do it for political/ideological reasons, but the result is the same – the marginalized are pushed back to the margins. Of course there are differences and you can still find all Gravel’s videos on YouTube, but would you know that he is still running if you’d look at the main political page on YouTube these days?

I think this is an interesting case that is bringing back a series of concerns we had previously about the mainstream media. Moreover, it raises questions about the interaction between the mainstream media, “new” media, and perceived public opinion. I find it really interesting.

What do you think?

The rise of the rest / Newsweek

May 10, 2008

I read quite an interesting article in recent Newsweek.  In the article Fareed Zakaria (who is apparently the editor of Newsweek International) is summarizing the main thesis of his recent book, “The post-American World“.  I would say that this is an interested and a quite optimistic take on current affairs including globalization, raise of nationalism, violence, and shift in the balance of power.  Although the article is written from a very US-centric perspective, it is read as a call to US public to re-assess current geopolitical situation and acknowledge that things have changed – the US-led globalization project succeeded to a great degree and US has to adjust, or more so to reconcile to this new environment.  The article made me definitely interested in reading the book.

On social networks and shared culture

April 25, 2008

I recently finished grading a lot of papers on the topic of “new” media and culture for Tarleton’s COMM 320 class. Our students had to react to the following statement using the class readings:

Digital media technologies tend to individualize us, to make us feel more separate; digital culture (i.e. the kinds of content those technologies give us access to and the cultural meanings that content regularly offers) tend to connect us, to make us feel more a part of something.

One of the prominent examples to how the “digital culture tend to connect us” was the social networks websites. This is probably why the following post caught my eye. It summaries results of social media study from Universal McCann, which shows major differences between the US and Asian countries in terms of online social networking. It seems that people in different parts of the world tend to join different social networks, which actually makes perfect sense, but undermines that globally-unifying factor that many of our students highlighted (also note the white spaces on the map). It also shows that even in the US itself there is not homogeneity in these environment. In fact, Eszter had a paper showing, among other things, that different ethnic groups in the US tend to join different social networking website.

It could be interesting to look at the complete report since it also suggest differences in patterns of grassroots content production in various regions of the world. I think when talking about “new” media and “digital” culture, it s very important to put things in context (and that is one of the ideas in my eyes behind thinking macro :). I wonder though what would be the best way to incorporate that in teaching.

Going mobile…

March 9, 2008

The “Pew Internet and American Life” project just published an interesting report about the use of mobile access to data and information. According to this report over 40% of the adult Americans have used mobile Internet access and almost 60% used non-voice services on their mobiles.

They show some interesting trends in people’s readiness to give up information technologies. If in 2002 only 38% said it would be very hard to give their mobile phone, in 2007 this number jumped to 58%. At the same time the percentage of people who find it very hard to give up television went from 47% in 2002 down to 43% in 2007. Even more interesting is the percentage of people who think that it would very hard to give up a land-line. That went down from 63% in 2002 to 40% in 2007, which actually is consistent with notions that more and more people are giving up land-lines. Also interesting is the willingness to give up email. The percentage of those finding it very hard to give up their email went from from 35% in 2002, to 34% in 2006, to 37% in 2007. Although there is no clear trend here, it seems like email is keeping a rather stable position in the communication lives of adult Americans using email. I wonder thought, if the situation with young Americans is any different though. The Pew report does not survey people younger that the age 18, yet, there are some trends noticeable even in the available data. The summaries presented in the report clearly show that the younger people are more willing to experiment with technology. For example the difficulty to give up internet and mobile phones grows as the age goes down, while the difficulty to give up land-line and television is growing with the age. I find this fascinating!

The interesting aspect of this increasing mobility however, is the actual type of activity. According to the report text messaging is leading the way with 31% of the users performing this activity on a typical day. The next most popular activity is picture taking with 15% of the users reporting doing so. To me, the latter point is particularly interesting in light of my recent post on digital photography. Pew data shows that 58% of the users tried taking a picture with their mobile device (same percentage as that of people who tried sending a text message), but only 15 view that as part of their typical day (as opposed to 31% mentioned above). It seems to me that my intuition about mobile photography was right.

When it comes to the types of activity, the younger people are really standing out. As i mentioned earlier, they are more willing to experiment with technology. Yet, they are also using more technology in general. Here again, text messaging is the leading activity (60% of 18-29 years old reported it to be part of their typical day) with taking pictures (31%), playing music, playing games (both 16%), and consuming news (14%). I find the last point particularly interesting from the societal point of view and also because this activity seems to be really distinct for this age group (only 7% of 30-49 years old, 3% of 50-64 years old, and 1% of 65+ years old reported that kind of activity as part of their typical day).

There is more demographic and especially racial specifics discussed in the report. Very interested and rather concise read.

E-mail wars

March 4, 2008

It is really interesting how the “new” media are penetrating the politics. In a recent NY Times article about Obama’s efforts to secure the Jewish vote in the primaries, e-mail was mentioned a number of times as a prominent tool in both Clinton’s and Obama’s campaigns. What was particularly interesting is that e-mail was mentioned as a tool with real, almost tangible influence, which has been originally underestimated:

… Campaign officials said they were surprised, however, by the penetration of the viral e-mail messages, which were background static in the campaign until they began flooding the inboxes of Jewish voters right before nominating contests.

The e-mail messages have not gone unchallenged. Jewish supporters of Mr. Obama have sent thousands of their own e-mail messages, and some have started an online petition for other Jews who support his candidacy.

Interesting, isn’t it?

More on Digital Divide in US election

February 26, 2008

Following on my previous post about Obama’s talk at Google, here is a very interesting post from Andy Carvin shedding more light on the candidates’ rhetoric about social role of information technology, digital divide, and the related education. Having read a lot about the discourse surrounding these issues, it is striking me again and again how little change there was in this domain. They are still talking about technology in rather technocratic and deterministic terms, framing it mainly as an economic factor.

It is also interesting how the political discourse reacting to academic research and market forces. Only about a decade ago, the discourse focused primarily on issues of physical access. This view gained a lot of criticism from the academic community and research (like this) showed that skills play a very significant role in what we label as the digital divide. Simultaneously, it seems like the markets for infrastructure neared certain levels of saturation (i don’t have exact data on that, but my own observations). The combination of the two created another domain to public discourse about digital divide – skills. We can see both components in Andy’s post or in fact in any other political speech/document on the subject.

Of course i am simplifying a very complex story, but i hope that I manage to clarify the basic idea. Now it will be interesting to see what happens next. The academic community moved further with conceptualizing the digital divide in terms of inequalities and viewing it as a more complex social construct. What is going to be an associated market change and how will it impact the public discourse?

Just some thoughts triggered by reading blogs…

Information seeking and voting behaviors

February 18, 2008

I think the current presidential election in the US is really interesting. Whatever the outcome of democratic primaries will be, it will be a historical nomination. This is why i think our WikiCandidate project is particularly timely, but that is not the central theme of this post (you can still however go and register at the website :)

Recently Hitwise published an interesting analysis comparing demographic profiles* of visitors to campaign websites of Clinton, Obama, and McCain (the three leading candidates). Their analysis shows really nicely how stereotypically liberal voters tend to visit Clinton’s and Obama’s websites, and stereotypically conservative voters tend to visit that of McCain.

The interesting part is however the information seeking behavior of those who are labeled as independents, as they are the ones who perceived as deciding voice in this election. When they account for group size, Hitwise conclude:

So the data indicates that Clinton and McCain’s websites are appealing to a broader sprectrum of voters than Obama and that McCain is appealing most to those more likely to include Independents.

which i think is interesting.

The question for me now is what is the link between information seeking behavior and voting patterns. Is the fact that I often visit Obama’s website associated with higher probability of me voting for Obama? There must be quite a lot of research on this topic. I wonder also how these behaviors are correlated with mainstream media consumption and prominence of particular candidates in given periods of time? Another thing that I think would be interesting to compare is Obama vs. Clinton, as this is the most discussed political battle at the moment. Somehow this comparison is missing from Hitwise analysis.

Frankly, I envy Hitwise and the data they have about online behaviors. There are so many interesting questions one could investigate…

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* More about the profiles here (look for “update”).

There are numbers now

February 10, 2008

A while ago I blogged about my observations about the centrality or religion in US politics. Now, thanks to John Daly’s blog, I got to see this report actually showing that US is very different compared to other wealthy countries in terms of religiosity:

The Global Attitudes study correlated views on religion with annual per capita income and found that wealthier nations tend to place less importance on religion – with the exception of the United States.

and also:

Religion is much more important to Americans than to people living in other wealthy nations. Six-in-ten (59%) people in the U.S. say religion plays a very important role in their lives. This is roughly twice the percentage of self-avowed religious people in Canada (30%), and an even higher proportion when compared with Japan and Western Europe. Americans’ views are closer to people in developing nations than to the publics of developed nations.

Interestingly enough, just tonight we had a conversation on this subject with some of the prospective students visiting the department these days.