Wednesday, October 17, 2012

What comes next in Social Network of News?

Scene from Sex Lies and Videotape
By David Dunkley Gyimah. Connect with him on Google 

The appearance/ reality divide is arguably the most fundamental distinction in philosophy, said David Rodriguez-Ruiz in his critique of Steven Soderbergh Sex Lie and Videotape (SLV).

Soderbergh, 26, and a relative unknown in 1989 stunned Hollywood with his film about tangled relationships and sexual repression. So this is what goes on behind the curtain's of middle class suburbia.

The conceit was further complicated by the central role of a relatively new device, the consumer camera. One of the main characters gets off filming women talking about sex.

It didn't matter that this was a fictional story, its low budget style convincingly posited this as a quasi-documentary. Reality TV,  a decade later, owes a debt to SLV. This was non-fictional material captured for our fictional titillation.

The appearance/reality divide is central to all forms of media including news whose prudishness likes to think it's above reproach.

Truth or to use the more apt term "verisimilitude" is the thing that news and non-fiction attempts to capture, but it's not fixed. In Simon Blackburn's erudite read  Truth - a Guide to the perplexed, we learn how the vocation of getting to the truth has evolved over the centuries.

Blackburn, a professor of philosophy at Cambridge University states:
For a time in the seventeenth century, ordinary, everyday empirical belief may have seemed fairly easy, The ideas in our minds come from impressions, and impressions come from the impact of the world around us. 
This system of truth could equally have applied to news making. "Tell me what was said", as opposed to what was saw was instrumental for early journalists from Andrew Marr's My Trade - A Short history of British Journalism.  Some journalists (circa 18th C) didn't even bother to verify.

But  around the turn of the 20th century, journalism borrowed from the sciences with positivism. If a scientific experiment could be replicated anywhere around the world in what they were they doing, how could that help journalism?

Journalism's so called rules

The rules of objectivity, impartiality, fairness and balance developed over time hereon. They've had their flaws, but, by and large, they've held the practise of storytelling together, bridging the gap between appearance and reality.

But, Social Networks have now thrown an almighty spanner at this.  It's not the technology per se, though that's important, but the philosophy underpinning the appearance/ reality divide.

Michael Schudson an eminent academic at the Columbia School of Journalism reminds us, and this is significantly relevant now, that news is a cultural product.  Culture, the human need for membership or shared feelings of a social group is at the heart of the fundamental changes to the news landscape.

Understand culture and societies and what's happening in news becomes obvious.

That broad analysis aside, within the viewing patterns of traditional media, the codification of television viewing cultures is performed according to a class rating system, developed in the UK, and wait for it, 50 years ago. 

The grades ABCDE equate as, A being affluent and E being impoverished. Back then Britain was a fairly homogenous place with distinct markings. Now, not so. And the system devised by default for the web of new technology adopters versus the stay-putters, may not even suffice.

Regarding the broader context of cultures Roger Scruton, a well known sociologist, advances the logic for my point. He views cultures as the creation and creator of elites.

And since the 20th century the news and media industry, at least in Western cultures has been the promulgation of news cultures by elites towards elites. Paradoxically, this thing called news made in the West has been one of the most successful exports across the world.

To make the news follow our example they say. "Our" being CNN, BBC, Sky, ABC, CBS, France 2 and the rest.

Since social practises and literary conventions change over time within cultures, so the effect of the Net, disrupting fixed cultures and debunking elite cultures reforms the way we view, but also want our news.

The "we" is no longer a stolid system, which is why on your twitter account, as many people connect with you, will disconnect with you over time.

And what a group of "we" want, which was partially always there, but has now been heightened by connections, ambient relationships, centredness, in a fragmented, to put it lightly, crap existence. I'm pulling a point from Professor Manuel Castells broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Analysis.

And there's an added layer. What cultures want ( young urbanites vs empty nesters) is at odds with a profession that believes its craft skill gives it the edge to tell cultural groups what they need.

Sky News uses Social Media matrixes to create stories

When I visited Sky News, I was amused, if not a little surprised to see their social ticker operating in the newsroom. The ticker shows the broadcaster which news is going social, so they follow up. This is not for all news by the way, but we're back at the conundrum, which is partially solvable.
Do we tell people what they need to hear, or what we believe they should know?

Jean Baudrilllard called it hyperreality. We want so much of what we believe we should have, but are denied by media institutions that we're in a continual process of inventing artifacts that bridge appearance/ reality divide.

We want intensity ( Instagram); to be loved ( Facebook);  to learn about others without any commitments, the theme of SLV, which works into Tweeter. We want info quick (Twitter again) and we live in the age of visuals (SLV) and PInterest.

Any app, any software that attempts these stands a chance of success and the reason broadcast media struggles with this is again is the differing cultural systems they occupy, either because of their homogeneity within and lack of pluralistic connections with cultural groups outside.

Have you ever wondered why media people employ by likeness. You could tell who works for the New York Times and The Washington Post, Schudson tells us. But if it helped them back then, it's not now.

The BBC is an interesting case.

Social Networks at the BBC

Yesterday I read a fine blog by Nadja Hahn on ten ( at least ways) to make social media work for organisations. The BBC was the exemplar.

It made me reflect on my days working at the BBC in the 1980s and 90s.  The BBC as Hahn notes is doing some fine things with Social.  In effect, it's tackling the issue of cultures and elites in a way that's far different even from the makeup of staff when I worked there.

I presented to senior BBC executives about storytelling and video making here looking at different cultural group's video making. Of course back in the 80s the web wasn't available then, so the hegemony of the BBC's culture was stable and intact.

The BBC has proven itself to be quite astute, particularly 2008 onwards, and as my own visit showed before the completion of their new premises the set up looked impressive. 

But I can also show you emails between  commissioners and me in 2001-2003 where they did not get social or the web, and you only have to get Peter Barron, its former editor of Newsnight over a beer to learn the herculean task of the BBC to review itself in and out to become highly relevant again.

There's still work to be done though, but the BBC has a huge advantage in capacity and resources, which commercial organisations with more fixed cultures on the one hand and limited resources on the other, will always find difficult to match.

Social, as much strategic involves a large portion of throwing a lot of material out there, which is why Mashables tweets almost every minute on new findings.

The issue therefore is what comes next in News?  To objectivity, impartiality, fairness and balance comes "mutual affinity" - what can I know about you that becomes relevant.

And fundamentally as my own PhD research has revealed, some of those central tenants above that sculptured 20th century journalism are not as centrally relevant, integral perhaps, as they once were.

As cultures change, perceptibly over lengthy periods, we can count on more pressure on journalism. Professor Manuel Castells says it will get more disruptive. From my own research I  wholeheartedly agree with him.

About David

presenting in Tunisia on cinema journalism
David Dunkley Gyimah begun his career in news in 1987 going on to work for Newsnight, Channel 4 News and ABC News South Africa. He is completing his PhD in the future of news that looks at philosophies and cultures. He is participating at NewsXChange a NHK produced session on Social media and broadcasters; Denmark's national union of journalists on videojournalism, and UNESCO. He publishes and is a recipient of the Knight Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism and International Videojournalism Awards.

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