Tag Archives: web

Culture wars: Authors, social media and the tribes of entitlement

We all know that the web and social media are useful things for authors, enabling them to keep in touch with each other and their fans and – when used inventively – add some buzz and cachet to a newly published book.

But – as with all things – there’s a dark side, and recent events have gotten me wondering whether the unprecedented level of access we have to the creators of our favourite cultural currency isn’t breeding a sense of entitlement above and beyond the appropriate. The trigger was this photo on Warren Ellis’ blog, showing a note written to comics maven Brian Michael Bendis from a disgruntled fan who’d not found him signing books when he expected him to be:

A "fan" note to Brian Bendis

Creepy and threatening – you can see why Ellis isn’t keen on doing convention appearances and signings (though woe betide the fan who hassled a cane-wielding Ellis in need of another Red Bull and nicotine fix).

Now, this sort of behaviour is hardly new, and as pointed out in the comments thread the root of the word “fan” is “fanatic”. But authors especially seem newly exposed by social media, because they’ve always been one of the less public types of artist – writers historically do not “perform” in public in the same way as musicians, for example, and would have been protected from a lot of the weirder communications from the outside world by having their publisher as an intermediary.

But not so much these days – look at the recent wave of bitching from George R R Martin’s fans when they discovered the next instalment of his current series would be delayed. You’d think that die-hard fans would be the first to sympathise with a creator’s need for a life beyond their work, but there’s a vocal minority who are anything but. As Scalzi points out, such people are fools – but the web has made them fools with metaphorical megaphones and your home address.

A related phenomenon seems to be arising on review and discussion blogs, something that Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen has labelled “The New Tribalism” – a situation where groups of fans with closely related passions fall into a kind of groupthink. This has its upsides – it’s that sense of tribe that motivates many fans in the first place, and there’s nothing wrong with discussing art you love with others who appreciate the same material – but there are downsides too, which manifest themselves as vocal disapproval of voices from outside the tribe (or occasionally within) who dare to criticise the tribe’s focus of interest.

This isn’t new either – as any member of any subculture anywhere will surely agree – but again the mobility and power of the phenomenon is amplified by the web. Debate around cultural opinions is a good thing, but mob psychology and the web’s potential for anonymity seems to be an open invitation to be taken to task for daring to have a different opinion to someone else.

Some of my concerns are professional in nature: I advise my clients about the the benefits of a strong web presence, and it’s almost shaming to have to confess that there’s this negative aspect to it. That said, I still hold that it’s worth the risks – why let a few bad apples spoil the barrel for everyone? Writers like Ellis and Scalzi have developed good tactics for dealing with trolling and tribalism; the primary component seems to be developing a thicker skin, though a strong sense of personal space and practiced rhetorical chops seem to be pretty useful as well.

But there’s a more Futurismic edge to it all as well, because it feels safe to assume that web-based creator-consumer relations are likely to become more prevalent as time goes by. As such, it’s not impossible to image a fandom with similar clout to the fabled Anonymous: what might said flashmob do in response to criticism of their totem? As the barriers between physical and informational realities become increasingly permeable, comment-thread flamewars and denial-of-service attacks would be just the start. Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End features warring fandoms battling it out in augmented reality, with the action spilling out into damage to property and people; the more I think about it, the more plausible it becomes.

After all, we’re prone to going to war over ideologies; given the decline of interest in religion and politics among the younger and more net-native generations, it’s easy to see cultural affiliations taking their place. These culture-mobs could easily be great forces for fun and creativity, but the potential for the opposite to occur can’t be brushed aside. How might Brighton have looked had the mods and the rockers had mobile phones with web access to coordinate with?

Internet to be an "unreliable toy" by 2012?

800px-Network_switches That’s the prediction of Nemertes Research, which will be publishing a report later this year warning that the Web has reached a critical point that could lead first to computers being disrupted and going offline for several minutes in a time, and eventually regular brownouts that will slow and even freeze their computers. (Times Online via KurzweilAI.net.)

The primary culprit is burgeoning demand for high-bandwidth video: the report notes that the amount of traffic generated each month by YouTube is now equivalent to the amount of traffic generated across the entire Internet in all of 2000, and new video applications such as BBC iPlayer, which allows viewers to watch high-def TV on their computers. (And I guess by providing links to those sites I’m contributing to the problem!)

Monthly traffic across the Internet is currently running at about eight exabytes (an exabyte is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes), and a recent study at the University of Minnesota estimates its growing by at least 60 percent a year–and that study didn’t take into account growing demand in China and India.

Engineers are struggling to stay ahead of demand, and find other ways to deal with impending deadlock (such as the LHC Computing Grid, a parallel network designed to handle the massive amounts of data the Large Hadron Collider will produce), but it may be impossible.

In other words, we may be living in the Golden Age of the Internet. But if it all crumbles around us, at least we’ll have something to tell the grandchildren.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons.)


Crowdsourced crimebusters – first border-jumpers, then bank robbers

We’ve already seen how the public has been drafted in to help bust people trafficking across the US/Mexico border; turns out that law enforcement agencies in Arkansas and Texas are using web mashups to enable members of the public to track down the perps of other forms of crime:

Law enforcement agencies have longed relied on the press and the public to help catch crooks, of course. And some departments, like the NYPD, upload their “wanted” posters. But BanditTrackerArkansas.com — and its sister site for Texas, BanditTracker.com — are a little different and a little more sophisticated. Descriptions of the suspect and the crime are paired with pictures from the bank’s surveillance cameras, both indoor and out. The whole thing is then plotted on a Google Map.

The scheme seems to be in its infancy at the moment, but I doubt it’ll stay that way for long; budget restraints will mean a continued shortage of law enforcement officers, but there’ll probably be no shortage of people willing to do their bit to nab the baddies.

Somehow, I find this a lot less sinister than the border-watch systems; it smacks of a more honest sense of community. That said, it also has greater potential for some quick and dirty hacking, whether it be to protect a criminal from pursuit or to frame someone innocent…

Do newspapers have a future?

Illustrated_London_News_-_front_page_-_first_edition Newspapers are struggling everywhere; there have been a few posts on the subject here at Futurismic already. In Denver, the 150-year-old Rocky Mountain News recently ceased publication. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer has gone to an online-only version. And here in Canada, Canwest, which owns 13 daily and 26 community newspapers across the country, is so strapped for cash it’s ordered my own local newspaper, the Regina LeaderPost, to cut back on the work it doles out to freelancers. I should know, since my weekly science column, for which I was paid a paltry $25 a week, has been axed. Apparently the $1,300 a year that had been coming to me will make all the difference in stemming the tide of red ink. (I’m still writing the weekly column, by the way; it clings to life in a couple of smaller papers and you can read it on my blog or get it sent to you via email, if you’re interested.)

According to science writer Steven Johnson, however, speaking at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas, the lingering death-throes of newspapers will not spell the end of journalism. (Via PhysOrg.) Instead:

Steven Johnson equated newspapers to old growth forests, saying that under the canopy of that aged ecosystem blogging, citizen journalism, Twittering and other Internet-age information sharing is taking root.

“I’m bullish on the future of news,” Johnson said.

“I am not bullish on what is happening in the newspaper industry; it is ugly and it is going to get uglier. Great journalists are going to lose their jobs and cities are going to lose their newspapers.”

Johnson says the problem is that changes that should have happened over a decade are being crammed into a much shorter time frame, partly due to pressure for the global economic situation.  Johnson says the solution is to “stop killing trees” and “stop wasting information freely available online,” adding that “The business model sure seems easier to support if the printing goes away.” (Remember: it would be cheaper for the New York Times to give each of its subscribers a Kindle than to print the newspaper.) 

Johnson sees a future in which news weaves together the talents of professional journalists, bloggers, Facebookers and Twitterers. According to Johnson, the information mix will include direct online streams “such as webcasts from high-profile people such as US President Barack Obama.” (Forget webcasts, actually. Sounds like all you really need to do is hook his teleprompter up to stream his speeches in real-time to the ‘Net.)

Appropriately, Johnson has posted his entire speech on the topic to his own site.

International Data Group (IDG) chairman Patrick McGovern agrees; his company, which operated in 95 countries, owns some 450 publications, including PC World and InfoWorld, and many of them are only available online. “Print editions are yesterday’s news,” he says. “If it is news, people want to hear it as soon as they can.”

McGovern’s solution for newspapers? Drop print, and start on digging out hot local topics readers can’t find elsewhere:

“Find out the scandal in the mayor’s office; what the police are up to, and those other things that people love to talk about,” McGovern said. “It is easier and much less costly to put it online.”

McGovern believes people will pay monthly subscriptions for online newspapers that follow this model.

I’m a journalist by training and a former reporter, editor, photographer and cartoonist for a weekly newspaper. I’ve always loved newspapers. I don’t care about the medium of delivery; I just want them to survive. But I’m not sanguine about the willingness of readers to ante up, even for local content. Nor am I confident the people running the newspapers yet grasp that local dailies no longer need to cover national and international news to the extent they once did, and that their core product, their “killer app,” is local content.

The end of my newspaper column in Regina after almost two decades is proof enough of that.

Um, not that I’m bitter or anything.

(Image: FIrst edition of the Illustrated London News, May 14, 1842, via Wikimedia Commons.)

[tags]news, journalism, newspapers, media, Web[/tags]

Alternate history of Gopher web

linkRobert Topolski, chief technologist of the Open Technology Initiative suggests that but for a quirk of history we might all be using Gopher instead of Tim Berners-Lee‘s World Wide Web:

By the 1990s, there was just about enough power to allow access to text and image-based files via the internet, and Tim Berners-Lee‘s World Wide Web was born.

But network administrators at the time preferred a streamlined text-only internet service, says Topolski, using something called the Gopher protocol.

He suggested that if those administrators had had access to data filtering technology, like that becoming popular with companies and governments today, they would have used it to exclude Berners-Lee’s invention, and kill off the World Wide Web.

For other glimpses into possible alternate histories of hypertext check out this article in the New York Times about Theodor Holm Nelson’s Project Xanadu. Or even further back check out Memex by hypertext pioneer Vannever Bush.

[from Short Sharp Science][image from James Jordan on flickr]