Newsplaces: the future of journalism

While it is hard to say what the future of journalism will be, one thing I know: journalism will not die as some people suggest. Journalism will change definition, as most things through history do.
I don’t think it is really worth spending too much time on whether the future of journalism will be on-line or a mix between on-line and paper. While I do appreciate the tactual feeling of a newspaper, I cannot deny the convenience of reading news on-line. I think it is almost inevitable that newspapers will eventually be almost entirely on-line based.

Instead, I think it is worth spending time on what I believe journalism’s function should be and how the web could eventually help in the achievement of this function.
To this end, it is extremely useful to look into the intellectual debate about journalism and democracy that took place in the 1920s between Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974) and John Dewey (1859–1952).

According to Walter Lippmann, news and truth are not synonymous: the “function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them in relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act.”

While the New York Times recently “accused proponents of public journalism of abandoning the traditional goal of objectivity”, Lippman would have argued that journalists can never be objective (other than when reporting the score of a game or a simple data) since everyone has his own interpretation of reality.
Being an “objective reporter” (i.e. a simple witness of an event) is something that more and more people can do right now. With the web, an increasing slice of the population is able to write about events through blogs, Facebook updates, tweets on twitter, etc.
When an event has the potential to be objectively reported, it doesn’t usually require a degree in journalism to do so.

At the same time, what is happening on-line is that always more people express their opinion and their analysis of an event whose truth goes beyond a binary “yes or no”.
With this pressure from on-line communities and the blogosphere, it seems to me that more and more journalists clearly write what can be perceived as an actual interpretation of a fact, instead of claiming objectivity a priori.
In my opinion the web, with its exceptions, is making journalism a bit more accountable.
I will never forgive “old school journalism” for omitting some of the most terrible truth of the past decades.

But let’s go back to Lippman vs. Dowey.
Lippmann wrote that “the mass of the reading public is not interested in learning and assimilating the results of accurate investigation.” Furthermore, the average American “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted . . . and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.”
While this might be true at times, this is indeed created by the society we live in. Changing society might make things different. I don’t think that people are necessarily deemed to ignorance.
Instead, Lippman’s elitist solution was that “power should be invested in a few men of action, public policy analysts and political leaders”.
In this model, the journalists would get their news from the experts and would transmit the information to the public in simpler terms. A very “top down” approach.

Philosopher John Dewey acknowledged that the world was way too complex for every citizen to understand it in its entirety, but he believed that democracy should be about creating the conditions in society for everyone to express their full potential.
Dewey beautifully described democracy as “a belief in the ability of human experience to generate the aims and methods by which further experience shall grow in ordered richness.”
Democracy is not just about obtaining voting rights for everyone, but it should also be about making sure that a “public opinion” is formed through the effective communication between citizen, experts and politicians, all thanks to the mediation of journalism.
Dewey’s model makes everyone, citizen included, more accountable.
I don’t remember the last time I agreed with someone more than how much I agree with Dewey.

Dewey’s visionary quote, “Till the Great Society is converted in to a Great Community, the Public will remain in eclipse… Communication can alone create a great community”, seems to wish for something that the web can at least partially bring.
For Dewey, the public should add value to a news, generating extra knowledge.
This is what is happening, at least in certain instances, on the web, where citizens comment on journalists’ articles or even write blog posts in order to provide a different version or interpretation of a particular news.
While the truth is not the sum of everyone’s truths, the access to more knowledge and opinions is definitely a positive fact when it comes to judge an event from an historical perspective.
In my view, it is impossible to trust a small elite of people (just like we should have in Lippmann’s view) to basically report on every single “truth”… This elite would almost surely end up bringing its own interests forward.

My view of journalism and its function is extremely “Deweyan” (if such word exists).
People are not ignorant by definition.
To me, journalism should be dialectic, a dialog seeking to pursue the truth while “improving” all the participants in the dialog in the process.
What I am seeing on certain websites and blogs definitely looks a lot more like a conversation than an imposition from above. I like this.

Newspapers as newsplaces

The fact that I’m optimistic about what journalism is becoming on the web doesn’t mean that I don’t share some of the concerns that many professional journalists are expressing.
Journalists cannot work for free and, while many bloggers are willing to do so, on the long term, not finding an effective business model for journalism might prove harmful for society at large.
I don’t think micro-payments will work for newspapers. We are now used to get news for free and we won’t give it up.
Unfortunately I am not too sure about advertising either. While very effective in targeting the right people with the right product, I don’t think it can be the only source of revenue for a newspaper.

To me, the key of today’s journalism style is its collaborative nature.
Journalists need to interact and engage in conversations with their public.
I truly liked Jeff Jarvis’ quoting Hug MacLeod who said that “rather than thinking of a newspaper as a thing, we should start thinking of it as a place”.

Had I to start a newspaper today, I would call it “Agora” (the main square in Ancient Greek city-states) – though it looks like there a few homonyms already – and I’d make it a true Agora.
I said that journalism’s definition has changed…the role of journalists has changed as well. What is seeked from a journalist is not just a well written article. A journalist needs to have more abilities now.
A valid journalist should be able to stir a true debate (something that actually makes him a guarantor of democracy).
So in my Agora, the money usually invested in now useless presses, would be invested in physical locations for discussions. has proved that all the excitement there is for the web doesn’t mean that people do not want to meet in real life.
I am confident that people would want to meet in places where they can engage in discussions with excellent journalists and opinion-makers and eventually become themselves journalists, at least by this new definition of the term.
The articles that emerge from these discussions and from the journalists’ personal views would obviously be available on-line for everyone for free. But a community of committed people will want to converse on a deeper level. So I really think that people would be willing to pay annual subscriptions to be part of this “physical on-line community”.
A bar/restaurant/tea place/anything you can think of could be an extra source of money at the meeting place.

Anyway, the point is that “news is a commodity”. Newspapers need to differentiate themselves otherwise…maybe by becoming this sort of open think tank that Agora represents.
I’m not saying that Agora would definitely work, but it could be an interesting experiment.

My final take on journalism is that society isn’t stupid by definition: a “thinking” society has a great potential of improvement. Collaborative/Conversational journalism, I believe, fosters improvement in society.


Alec Ross and the 21st century statecraft

We had the pleasure to listen to and converse with Alec Ross, Senior Advisor for Innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
His role, which was specifically created for him, has the objective of putting together technology and diplomacy, which nowadays are always more connected.

It was a very interesting talk, which provided valuable insights into the current administration’s take on how to deal with international issues.
Ross talked about the importance of living in an open, transparent society and argued against the cold war-type “binary” foreign policy.
What was certainly confirmed from this talk is that dealing in international relations is very complicated and complicated is to analyze the impact of social media and new technologies to this field.

Twitter and activism

Most of the readings about Alec Ross and the 21st century statecraft that he represents discussed the role of Twitter in the aftermath of the Iranian’s elections and in other protests (in Moldova, in Belarus, etc…).

There are few points I want to make.
The first point was already made by Clay Shirky and was reiterated in class by Alec Ross: technology is essentially neutral and the spread and advancement of new technologies is inevitable.
I feel that instead of discussing how much really was the impact of Twitter In Iran (something that is very hard to calculate, considering the importance of “indirect impact”), we should discuss how, going forward, we should use these technologies in the best possible way to promote just causes.

Many argue, correctly, that these new media can also be used for non-noble intentions, pointing out to the fact that for example Facebook was used by the Iranian government to track Iranian dissidents outside the country or that the same technologies that facilitate group formation and dissemination of information can be used by terrorist groups to organize or by totalitarian governments to spread the wrong messages.
But once one states this, he is at least acknowledging their potential as an organizing tool and at this point I still feel that their potential advantages are far superior than the potential disadvantages.

Another common claim is that these tools might be fostering a light-type of involvement in situations, such as protests against a totalitarian regime, that would require a very committed and involved group of people. Morozov writes: “this is one of my problems with the promiscuous nature of online activism: it cheapens our commitment to political and social causes that matter and demand constant sacrifice”. Basically his argument is that people might think that they are contributing to a protest by sharing a link or posting something on Twitter, but protests need their leaders to act and commit in a courageous way, in a way that goes far beyond that of the blogging (or micro-blogging) about it.
True, if that was the case, it would be a problem.

But I strongly doubt that people feel they are being heroes of any sort when they are sharing a link or writing their opinion of dissent. I’m no sociologist, but I think that part of the reason why someone shares something is to inform others (where information is controlled, it isn’t easy for people to access less biased information) and to reach out to those who think like them, in order for example to feel less politically-lonely.

I definitely agree that using Twitter or Facebook to express dissent is not enough and using these tools cannot be compared to the action of great dissident leaders.
But I am quite sure that Facebook and Twitter are not hindering the development of such heroic figures.
If anything, they are creating more chances for those who would have stayed silent.
And the more people speak up, even if most of them speak up without making too much efforts, maybe from the “comfort” of their computers, the better it is. If you feel that something is going badly in the way your country is administered and you notice that your friends or even some people you remotely know share your concerns, you’ll be more likely to “speak up” or write about it. While this doesn’t get a dictator to step down, it encourages thinking and discussion.
Furthermore, I don’t think that heroic dissidents need to be fully lonely to be called such. If they know they can count on people that support their ideas and they know they can communicate with these people, they can eventually lead and persuade them better to take real actions.

The quote that truly made me think during Alec Ross’ talk belongs to Joseph Stalin: “We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas?”
Sometimes certain commentators, maybe because they have plenty of ideas themselves, forget that people having ideas is a fundamental element to achieve democracy and fight totalitarianism.
The indifference of most people is the best weapon for dictators!
Sharing and writing avoids indifference and it is part of the idea formation process.

To conclude, I don’t want to be naïve and categorically affirm that the more these tools are spread, the harder it will be for governments to use them at their advantage. I mean, I am sure television could have had a much better destiny, but it has become what it is now (pretty dull) and politicians have in often cases used it as a way to acquire power (any reference to Italian politics is purely casual…not).
But I do believe that TV and web are intrinsically different, because of the “participatory” nature of the web. To make sure that the difference lasts, we must definitely avoid the cyber-balkanization effect of which I talked in my previous post.
At least for now, we still definitely have the chance to make the web an extraordinary tool to promote democracy.

Cyberbalkanization and Politics

Perhaps the main reason why I love the web is that I believe it diminishes power unbalance by guaranteeing easier access to information to a larger slice of the population.
In fact, I could argue that most power relationships are a direct or indirect consequence of different level of access to information.

After hearing from Eli Pariser, both on YouTube and in class, I am still very much convinced of the potential of the web (as much as he is), but I share his preoccupation that the direction that the web is taking might foster what some call Cyberbalkanization, defined on Wikipedia as “the division of the world wide web into sub-groups with specific interests, to the extent that a sub-group’s members almost always use the web to communicate or read material that is only of interest to the rest of the sub-group”.

But let me go back to the issue of different levels of access to information first.
I recently had a discussion as to whether most politicians really have an interest in leading a more aware, intelligent and educated population or whether they prosper when people are fairly ignorant.
For me “educating” someone means giving her the tools to judge things as thoroughly and critically as possible. It doesn’t mean imposing (or dryly teaching) ideas, but provide the instruments to come up with always better views and initiatives. In my mind, an educator should feel proud only when his pupil has surpassed him.

While politicians might not have an interest in having people completely ignorant or stupid, for most politicians there is no real incentive in having very aware and intelligent electorate.
In other words, for the incapable politician, there is only to prosper in a world of ignorance. Obviously the rare  capable politician prospers only in a world of knowledge.

This is why I really like the idea of the web making people more aware and ultimately politicians more accountable.
A web that gives the instruments to judge, without judging anything or anyone. A web where true politics, that of ideas, could be rediscovered.

So let’s now go back to Eli Pariser’s comments on what he calls the “filter bubble” or cyber-balkanization.
Without you noticing, algorithms decide what you are more inclined in watching or reading, what people you would agree more with, etc… This is what happens for example with Facebook newsfeed or with Google search. These are certainly very effective and well studied tools and they make the information you see more relevant. In the words of sociologist Mark Granovetter, “Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency”.

Eli Pariser noticed that, despite trying hard to befriend on Facebook people who would not share his political opinion, he would still get a newsfeed that reflected his own ideas.
While it is certainly pleasant to know that in the world there are other people who think like you as this might make you feel less of a lonely wolf, I remember Oscar Wilde’s “When people agree with me I always feel that I must be wrong”.
Indeed, it is certainly enriching to find out about different people’s opinions. They make you wonder whether you should reconsider what you had given for granted and they help you making your ideas stronger and more consistent.

While when we watch a biased TV show, we are more or less aware of its bias or political orientation, this is not true with Internet algorithms: we don’t see them!
These tools will certainly be very efficient in helping us find the film we are more likely to enjoy or the restaurant that best fulfill out culinary tastes, but it could go against our intellectual enrichment.

Don’t get me wrong.
I still believe the web provides a way better alternative for people to inform themselves and I still believe it makes the politicians more accountable. I still have very high hopes for the web.
But power is definitely going to those who, in Jaron Lanier’s words, are “close to the servers”.
While a certain degree of standardization (i.e. a common platform such as Facebook) has many positive aspects and definitely facilitates interactions and exchange of opinions, we must make sure it won’t end up standardizing opinions as well.

I’m an optimist, for the simple reason that, while I always keep in mind the image of the Utopian world I want to live in, I’m aware that this Utopia can only be reached through gradual improvements.
The web represents an improvement. A great one I should say.
Now it’s up to us to make it the precursor of that “dream-world” for which it was conceived.

Editing Wikipedia

In 2005 (on the Internet it is easier to keep track of time) I had noticed that the Italian Wikipedia entry to my favorite movie (at least at the time), Full Metal Jacket, wasn’t really good so I decided to contribute with few extra lines to describe the film.
Few days ago I went back to look at the “edit history” of Full Metal Jacket and I found my entry (it was anonymous but I could recognize what I had written). I was kind of embarrassed for my choice of wordings, but it’s OK. Part, not all, of my contribution resisted the many modifications of the past few years.
I have been a huge movie fan since watching all the Stanley Kubrick’s films when I was a child.
A “movie dictionary” I received one particular Christmas became my favorite reading for part of my childhood.
Inspired by those memories, I decided I was going to contribute to some of the movie entries and I joined the “Project: Cinema” in the Italian Wikipedia. It is now in my watchlist so I get to see what’s going on in terms of, for example, guidelines changes or new stub articles added.
My choice went to the Italian Wikipedia because there are less contributors compared to the English one and there typically is more room for improvement.
In any case, I will contribute to the English Wikipedia whenever I’ll find the chance.
My profile for the Italian version is unreasonabledude. Here is aslo my profile for the English version.

Driven by the fact that The Social Network is not out in the Italian theaters yet, and considering that it is the last movie I watched, I thought I could use my insights to improve the Italian entry for the film.
Since some of the information I found was actually wrong, I couldn’t resist and I already modified the part of the page dedicated to the plot of the movie. Here you can check the differences between the previous and the current version once I made the first major corrections.
In particular, I discovered that the plot wasn’t accurate: for example, it said that Zuckerberg was accused to have stolen “theFacebook” idea from Chris Huge and Dustin Moskovitz, his two roommates at Harvard, while he is instead accused of stealing the idea from twins Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss and their business partner Divya Narendra.
On another note, whether or not this is what really happened in reality, this is what happens in the movie and the entry is about the movie.

So I corrected the mistake and I added much more to the plot, which was only few lines long. My first thought was: probably I shouldn’t say much as I don’t want to spoil the movie to the Italian public.
But then I read the guidelines of “Project: Cinema” and it clearly said that, Wikipedia being an encyclopedia, the plot should be fully disclosed. In fact, arbitrarily deciding what to insert within the plot and what not, would be against the concept of neutrality.

The plot was also written with inconsistencies in the choice of tenses (sometimes the past was used, sometimes the present): I followed the requirements of the project and used present tenses. Also, I emphasized “description” over deduction, which means that I didn’t try to infer anything from the events in the movie, but simply state facts.
To write the plot, I used my memory, having just recently watched the movie, and the English version of the article as a reference. It is quite hard to quote sources on a movie plot.

Obviously, improving the quality of the article goes beyond improving the way the plot is written: in the next few days there are many modifications that I will need to do.
First, the article almost completely lack citations and sources. The English version has 50 notes, against the 3 of the Italian version.
The entry doesn’t fully follow the template of the “Project: Cinema” in that it is lacking of some of its attributes: for example, a part on critical reception. Also, the description of cast is not completed and there is no mention of the current success of the movie in the American box offices. For this I will use IMDB (the Internet Movie Database) as a source.
The English version of the article provides a very extensive list of other sources that I will be able to use to prove some of the claims already made by the article and some of the things that I will write.

I also intend to create a sub-session called “historical inaccuracies” (mentioned as a possible sub-session in the in the “Project: Cinema” guidelines), where I will write about how the real subjects of the movie reacted to some of the claims asserted in the movie (in the English version, they call this session (or a session, which has a similar intent) “Response by the principles (Film and Facebook)”.

There is one picture on the movie entry: it is a screen-shot taken from the original trailer. A comment on the fact that it is deemed “copyright-appropriate” is made. Since a comment on the same line is made on the English entry, but the illustration is the actual poster of the movie, I will verify whether this can really be claimed as “fair use” and, if so, I will use the poster image as it is more representative of the film and it just looks better.

In the process of editing Wikipedia, I noticed something that I hadn’t considered before.
First, I was somehow having trouble in finding sources external to Wikipedia because I am so used at using Wikipedia as the source of many of my claims!
Second, I can see why some people get “addicted” to the project.
You surf the discussion pages and find so many interesting stuff: “Oh cool, a newspaper made out of the news of Wikipedia…let me contribute!”. And so I did. Or “That looks like a typing mistake on the Spanish article of Eva Peron. How cool would it be to contribute in multiple languages?”. And so the addiction starts!
And it feels good to know that what you write is published for a wide audience and it might help other people.
With the “Social Network” getting in the Italian theaters on the 12th of November, an increasing number of people will look at the Wikipedia page to form opinions as to whether watch the movie or not or to check some of the points they hadn’t understood from the plot! Again, I see why people would want to collaborate. It is a chance of being heard, even if it is just through stating facts and not opinions.
Wikipedia is cool!

Joy in the bazaar

Yesterday Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, talked to us students in one of my classes (The Economics of Information: Strategy, Structure, and Pricing).
When asked what he thought was going to be of Google and in general of the web in 5 years, he chuckled and said that if 2 years were a whole generation in internet terms, 5 years were an eternity.
The cathedral and the Bazaar” by Eric Raymond and “What is Web 2.0” by Tim O’Reilly were first published in 1997 and 2005 respectively. 13 and 5 years might truly be an eternity, but I was impressed by how relevant these essays still are today. It feels a bit like watching “2001: Space Odissey”, no matter how old it might be, one still perceive it as futuristic!

O’Reilly’s article defines “Web 2.0” and puts together many of the concepts we have seen in these first 5 weeks of the Media, Politics and Power class.
Web 2.0 is the passage from Britanica online to Wikipedia, from personal websites to blogging and from publishing to participation. Web 2.0 is web as platform. To me, it stands for participating instead of being imposed.

“The cathedral and the bazaar”, while very technical in certain parts, is almost philosophical in others. The essay sets a series of 19 rules to create good open source software.
Basically it is the story of how Raymond, inspired by Linux’s experience, transforms Fetchmail, an email program he had “inherited”, into a successful open collective effort, a program that he wouldn’t have been able to develop by himself.
The teachings from this essay might well be applied to other aspects of society, even politics, where the open source collaboration/sharing model could bear very interesting fruits.
For example, I wonder whether we’ll eventually be able to write laws through something like Wikipedia.

Now, substitute the word “software” with anything you want (laws, encyclopedias, etc…) from the quote below and you’ll get the idea.
“I believed that the most important software […] needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time”. “Linus Torvalds’s style of development – release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity – came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches”.

Many still struggle in understanding what is behind some of the greatest web success stories of the last few years: open source projects such as Linux or outstanding collaborations such as Wikipedia.
Perhaps, Raymond’s main point in the essay is that “with enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow”.
I have always had a certain form of idiosyncrasy towards what is generally defined as “the wisdom of crowds”. The word “crowd” immediately reminded me of sheep in a herd.
But this was a total misunderstanding of the concept. The “wise crowds” exist and are those formed by independent and diverse members, those that for example collaborate through the internet.
In Raymond’s words, “provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one.”
I have been always romantically fascinated by the concept of “hero”, the single individual who takes charge of changing the world. But I have learnt that true change is inevitably the work of many committed people.

What is true for software is also true, for example, for other forms of online collaborations.
When looking at Wikipedia, people usually wonder how it is possible that by allowing anyone to contribute, one can find such authoritative articles.
I’ll give you a personal example.
Up to few years ago (two to be precise), I was convinced that Lake Como was the deepest lake in Europe and whenever I was asked where I was from, I would say something like “I come from Como, a town mainly famous for its lake, which is the deepest in Europe”.
It turns out it was false! There are something like 4 lakes in Norway that are deeper than Lake Como.
When I found this out it, I was devastated (OK, not really!). I had been spreading a false information for such a long time!
As a joke to my friends, who were now making fun of my apparently “overrated” lake, I decided to modify the entry on lake Como on Wikipedia so that lake Como could be the deepest in Europe, at least “on paper”, for the time necessary to show it to my friends. But some Wikipedian changed my entry within minutes.
This is one of the factors that make Wikipedia and the open source so good: there is a huge number of people committed to its quality. Also, at least in Wikipedia’s case, It takes much more time to make a stupid modification than to correct it: for a disturber, the game simply isn’t worth it.
Also, to quote Andrew Lih’s The Wikipedia Revolution, “It’s the community’s way of saying, ‘Yes, your test works, and you can’t imagine how fast we work around here. Aren’t you impressed?’ “. I was. And I am now very glad our class gets to participate in the Wikipedia Public Policy Project.

But the most important lesson I want to take out of this essay is that “Enjoyment predicts efficiency” and that “joy is an asset”.
These open source initiatives can be successful only if they come from the passionate commitment of people who enjoy what they are doing.
I guess we need to focus a little bit more on what we actually like to do.

Google me

It is going to be hard for me to write something unbiased about Google.
I spent this past summer working as a business analyst intern for the AdSense team at Google European Headquarters in Dublin. After 10 weeks spent doing extremely interesting work, but also improving my foosball skills (it’s impressive how good the more senior guys are!), eating delicious sushi every day and receiving professional massages, I really cannot speak badly of this company.
To be fair, even before my internship, my opinion of Google had always been extremely positive.

There is something that deeply fascinates me about the Google story and which immediately emerges in Ken Auletta’s “Googled”: Sergey and Larry, the two founders, never gave up on their project despite the fact that many detractors were trying to persuade them that their company would have never being profitable or historically relevant.
In my mind, by Bernard Shaw’s terms, they behaved like “unreasonable men”. There’s no doubt that technological progress and innovation in these past few years owe a lot to Google and its founders.
Again, the lesson seems to be, to quote Terry Winograd, one of their mentors at Stanford, “don’t assume that things are done the right way because they were always done that way”.

Reading “Googled”, I could not avoid feeling the same way one feels when watching one of those (mainly American) movies whose ending is already known since the beginning.
The plot is simple: everyone is making fun of the main character and nothing seems to go in the right direction. But you already know he is going to “win” (Hey, otherwise they wouldn’t have shown the movie in prime time!) so you sit back with a smile on your face and look forward to the moment he is going to get what he deserves (typically success, money, the girl he loves, etc…).

But “Googled” isn’t just a book for those who want to know more anecdotes about the protagonists of Google’s development.
Auletta makes every effort to explain how Google makes money, a question that many people still ask me when they found out I interned there.
Behind Google’s more than $ 23 billion of revenues (in 2009) are AdWords and AdSense, its advertising products. Amongst the main success factors of these two products is the fact that they target users extremely well, without being particularly annoying, and they offer advertisers the possibility of paying on a CPC (Cost-per-click) basis, as opposed to a CPM (Cost per thousand impressions) basis, basically guaranteeing that money is not wasted on uninterested users.

AdWords is the tool companies and individuals use to advertise their products, services, etc…
AdSense, as defined by Google, is “a free program that enables website publishers of all sizes to display relevant Google ads and earn”.
What I really like about AdSense is how much it helped the long tail of publishers.
Before AdSense, Bloggers and other minor publishers could hardly negotiate deals with advertisers so they typically had no ads and no money, which often implied a short life. AdSense, simple as it is, helped (at least partially) in solving this problem.

For the “big guys”, such as the New York Times, AdSense is more of a secondary product. On the first page of the online version of the New York Times, you usually will find very few ads by Google (and if so, they will probably be at the bottom of the page) because major publications can still negotiate good terms with advertisers who are interested in “branding” themselves.
But if you open one of the articles, you most probably will find mainly ads by Google.
This is because an ad on a first page of a popular newspaper works much like an ad on television. The advertiser doesn’t know much about who is going to look at the ad. Therefore it pays on a per-impression basis and hopefully achieves its branding objective.
On the other hand, an article has more specific content and, if someone opens it, it can be assumed that she is interested in the specific topic of the piece.
Here Google can offer targeted ads, which are more likely to be clicked on and therefore generate more revenues for the publisher.

The impressive revenues generated from advertising have allowed Google to innovate on a global scale.
While Google has surely made some mistakes in the past and will most surely make other mistakes in the future, I believe it has done a lot for society. On top of AdSense promotion of blogging, I am thinking for example about how it increased people’s ability to access information (a crucial positive effect of the internet in general, as I mentioned in my previous post) or about the possibility it gave to small businesses to finally target a larger audience at low price, helping decrease the dominance of the biggest companies.
You can hate it or love it, but you definitely cannot ignore Google. It’s going to be interesting to see what it has in the pipeline the next few years.


A love letter to the web and to social media

Part I: the attack

Over the past year, I have been engaged in several discussions as to whether the Web and Social Media are improving the world. In all these instances, I have tried to move the conversation towards what I believe to be the right topic: do the web and social media have the possibility of changing society for the best?
I definitely believe so and, after reading “Here comes everybody” by Clay Shirky, not only I reinforced my beliefs, but I hopefully developed better arguments to defend them.

A first consideration I want to make is that the diffusion of these social-oriented technologies is inevitable. Indeed, they are already part of our society! So the quicker we understand this, the quicker we can try to make the most out of their potential.

The main point of Shirky’s book, already evident in its subtitle, “The power of organizing without organizations”, is that the web and social media are radically improving the ability of people to form otherwise-latent groups.
These new social platforms (I did not choose the word “platforms” at random) rely on a very interesting formula:  do not coordinate users, but allow them to better coordinate themselves.
In the past (and I am not talking about a far away past) only institutions (whether commercial or political) could really bear the costs of organizing. Now power is in the reach of many more people.
Obama’s campaign (here’s a very interesting article about the way Obama’s online campaign worked), which relied on grassroots organizing, wouldn’t have been possible without the use of new media to let supporters independently organize themselves.

Other than based on the fact that it facilitates group-forming, I usually defend the internet because I believe it enables people to easily access information.
As much as we tend to give access to information for granted, most of the social differences that some people might impute to intelligence, come in fact from differences in access to information.
Access to information means more knowledge, better education, power.
For rural farmers in Bangladesh, where I spent about 2 months interning at Grameen Bank, being able to navigate the web meant for example knowing the fair price of a chicken or of a liter of milk so that no city-merchant could take advantage of them (previously ignoring the real market value of their goods, they were selling them at an unfairly low price).
Needless to say that to the young Bangladeshi I met, access to the Internet also meant better language skills, a better knowledge of history and politics, etc… The list would be too long.
This is true also for the young American or for the old German, for anyone indeed. But the web diminishes the bias that favored the wealthy side of the world, while allowing everyone (wealthy side included) to know more.
In brief, a world where more people know more!

Finally, another argument that I always bring forward in my pro-web crusade is that the more traditional media have so far mainly imposed content on the users, whilst new media allow users to contribute.
Shirky quotes an old saying that goes straight to my point: “freedom of the press exists only for those who own a press”. New technologies are giving a chance to everyone to express themselves and to reach a potentially very large audience with very low costs. At the same time they are making it harder for the few people in charge to impose their opinions on a bunch of “listeners”.

Part II: the defense

Usually, after I made a long passionate speech based on the arguments above, some people start sharing a bit of my enthusiasm, but I noticed how there are three arguments that my friends often use to challenge me. “Here comes everybody” directly or indirectly deals with them all.  This is what my friends usually say:

1) “Online there is a lot of bad content!”
True, bad content might be more evident now, but most (if not all) of what you can now witness online would have happened anyway, simply not under your scrutiny. As Shirky points out, most content is not directed to you. The only real difference is that you now know it exists.
My point on this issue, which Shirky would more elegantly define as the “net value” argument, is that I’d rather having even just one more genius published online than losing his wisdom because a single publisher decided he wasn’t worth it.
I’ll steal a consideration from Shirky’s epilogue: I “assume that the value of freedom outweighs the problems”.

2) “The web is killing professional journalism”
I would argue that journalism is a profession that needs to re-invented itself.
When scribes were “substituted” by the printing press, they thought it was going to be the end of culture and civilization. Instead, from that moment, culture became accessible to everyone, with its obvious egalitarian advantages.
It’d be very pretentious to think that the model we have so far represents the apex of journalism. It’d be like arguing that our current society is at the apex of human history. How sad would it be to live in a clearly imperfect world and assume that nothing could be improved?

I invite everyone (myself included) to remember that “the world is my representation” for everyone and in any époque. By reminding this, I mean that we should try to question our beliefs a little bit more. Because we are used to something being in a particular way, it doesn’t mean that it cannot be challenged and that it will always be the absolute truth. Definitions of good and bad have changed throughout history and are deemed to keep on changing. Journalism can change too. Journalists are now far more accountable than they used to be and I believe society at large is gaining from this.

3) ”Social Media are an awful threat to privacy”
While the problem arises, I again avail myself of the “net value” argument. While we might have to be a little bit more careful when we don’t want everyone to know everything about us, so it is true for the people in charge. Maybe it is because I come from Italy, but I do welcome a little bit more of transparency (nonetheless, at a rate of one scandal per day, the current government is still in charge).

What’s next?

So what’s the next step to make this new media revolution more effective?
I’ll leave some concrete answers to Shirky:
“If there was a structure that allowed for internet-friendly incorporation, we might see an increase in collective action directed at creating and sustaining things, instead of being protest dominated, as it is today”. “People might be able to start using these tools to bypass government or commercial entities in favor of taking on problems directly”.

I truly believe these new technologies have an enormous potential.
Sure, I don’t believe that the web and social media only bring good news and it is indeed important to look at things with critical eyes, but as they are now an integral part of our society, I would invite everyone to work hard on making the most out of their incredible potential, instead of concentrating on despising them.
In fact, it is going to be up to us to make them as successful as possible in improving our society.