Use of tags as a social act

I don’t know how easy tagging is for the average writer or blogger. To me, it’s not hard, but it’s a bit of an annoyance — an extra step. I tag because tags are what allow me to find my own stuff, and they are a large reason why I blog as much as I do — tags make the entire blog an easy-to-search repository for my own stuff. As an added bonus, my tags also help other people find my stuff.

Here is what makes tags easy, from an in-depth article by Ulises Mejias:

Part of the allure of classifying things by assigning tags to them is that the user can give free reign to sloppiness. There is no authority — human or computational — passing judgment on the appropriateness or validity of tags, because tags have to make sense first and foremost to the individual who assigns and uses them.

Ten years ago, at The Washington Post’s first attempt at producing its own online site, I ran the project to devise a system of tags that would be used by the copy editors in the newsroom. We ended up with between 60 and 70 tags (I’ve forgotten the exact number). Until then, the only classification attached to content from the newspaper was the section name. We had “business” but not “oil”; “sports” but not “baseball.”

For a variety of reasons — all tied to technological limitations of the day — we had to limit the number of tags on our list. Copy editors were not free to create their own ad hoc tags. What’s more, those tags were used by the system (a pre-WWW online content application) only to drop stories into sections of the online site — they were not used in user-initiated searches.

As far as I know, other than The Washington Post, today’s online newspapers are still not tagging stories.

… the whole point of distributed classification systems (DCSs) such as and flickr is that the aggregation of inherently private goods (tags and what they describe) has public value: When people use the same tag to point to different resources they are organizing knowledge in a manner, commonly referred to as a folksonomy, that makes sense to them and to others like them (Mejias).

I love tag clouds.

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Yes, search absolutely DOES drive traffic

In the past week or two, I have noticed that almost half my visitors to this blog come by way of search — mostly Google; then Yahoo! and MSN search; and then, Blogger and Technorati search. I mean … almost half! Who knew?

Obviously, if I have figured this out, others have too. Notably, Chris (“The Long Tail”) Anderson wrote about it on Sunday. He says:

Search (mostly Google, but a bit of Yahoo and MSN) now accounts for 37% of my traffic, and most of that is to older posts rather than new posts or just the blog’s home page.

What are the implications for news sites? As I’ve written before, this is one of those big messages of the online world that seems to fly right over the heads of newspaper executives. Oh, well.

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Blogging in the classroom

Assignments to help students learn how to blog,” by Jill Walker, a professor at the University of Bergen, in Norway (she blogs in English).

To learn how to blog, most students will need some specific assignments.

I agree, and Walker offers some excellent ones.

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What is a medium?

What are “new media,” anyway? Vin Crosbie has updated his really long article about new media, and it’s good. I disagree with his central idea, but it’s still good.

Much of what he wrote needed to be said — especially that a lot of people don’t know what a “medium” is, much less what “media” are. My students think the only meaning of “media” is equivalent to “mass media.” (The students do know that mass media might be entertaining or informative, and sometimes both at the same time.)

I love how Vin softens us up for his argument by talking about the three media of transportation: land, water, and air. (Shades of the great Harold Innis and the railroads.) Vin clearly explains that vehicles travel in a medium.

Then he goes on to say that the three media of communication are interpersonal, mass, and … “new.” Wait, don’t stop reading! Vin makes a nice analogy with transportation: You cannot take the same route, or get to the same place, in a land vehicle or a water vehicle. But if you’re in an air vehicle, you can go both to land places and to water places via new routes. This is a lovely way of thinking about what “the new medium” allows us to do — things we cannot do in interpersonal or mass media alone. It is a hybrid, but NOT in the sense that an “amphibious vehicle” is a hybrid — because a vehicle is NOT a medium.

I do not agree with Vin, however, that these are the three media of communication.

In a course I teach about the history of communication technology, we begin not with the printing press, nor even with the alphabet (writing IS a technology), but with the cave and rock paintings of Europe and Australia. This is when humans first created a permanent communication that would remain after the author moved away or died — a communication detached from the human body. (I guess Vin would call these communications “interpersonal.”)

What was the first mass medium? You might want to say it was the scrolls and books that were copied and shared through Arabia, Greece and later Europe about 2,000 years ago, but I would disagree. I say it was not until Gutenberg’s press began turning out thousands of identical copies. Sure, the Chinese invented movable type 400 years before Gutenberg, but their writing system has so many characters, it just wasn’t as efficient to set up type. Gutenberg had an advantage because his people had adopted the compact Latin alphabet back when the Romans overran Western Europe.

Like Innis (and later McLuhan), I look at communication media in terms of speed (time and distance). Speed is dependent on transmission media. Print (mass medium No. 1) requires paper or some other physical surface. Print is a medium that’s produced slowly (although faster now than in the 1450s) and also fixed in time. You can’t erase it. You can destroy it (burning books, for example), and you can write a new version (some old ones may survive), but you can’t scrape it off and rewrite on the same surface. (You COULD do that with the books that preceded the printing press.)

This goes back to Negroponte’s famous atoms and bits idea: Print is a medium of atoms. It physically exists. You can touch it. You cannot touch bits.

The bit about bits (sorry) is hard to apply to analog media, particularly broadcast media. So there’s an in-between medium, in my way of thinking, and it includes audio cassette tapes (which were used to start a revolution in Iran back in the 1970s, as well as their popular use worldwide for copying pop songs from vinyl recordings so teenagers could share them for free) and video tapes and live-to-air broadcasts. The broadcast folks still like to call all this analog audio and video “electronic media,” and that makes everyone feel confused about analog vs. digital.

Digital is definitely about bits — and bits are about infinite replication. Analog copies degrade as copies are copied. Digital copies do not. Transmission speed is instant with a broadcast signal. It is also instant with a digital signal. Both of these must be repeated (using devices called “repeaters”) so that they can travel from one place to a distant other place.

But it’s not only transmission — everything about digital media is instant. Copy-and-paste is instant. Uploading is instant. Corrections and erasures are instant — and largely undetectable! The publication of photographs can be done from the scene, instantly. Other than live-to-air, anlaog was never THAT instant — and live-to-air was for a long time a studio-bound practice. Live-to-air was once as ephemeral as smoke signals.

Vin’s taxonomy of media types looks at the actors or subjects in the act of communication. He’s looking at relationships such as one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many. This is not a bad thing, but I strongly disagree that these classifications define media. They describe, but do not define.

Many-to-many is a state or condition made possible by the medium. Many-to-many is not the medium itself. (Do you consider the Arch of Titus in Rome to be a mass medium? It does communicate one-to-many. But only if you are in Rome, standing within view of it.) Face-to-face communication uses no “medium” at all. Media, as Marshall McLuhan said so succinctly, are extensions of man.

I find it useful to remember that visual artists work in media. “My medium is clay,” a sculptor might say. “My medium is oils,” a painter might reply. The medium that bore the first hieroglyphs of Egypt was stone. The symbols themselves — and the uses of writing — changed when writing was done on papyrus. If the medium of a third artist is digital, won’t that artist’s work be very different from the work of her colleagues in clay and oils?

I definitely agree that too many people still see digital media as nothing more than a vehicle for old content. Just because they see video or text on a Web page or on a mobile phone, they think of the computer or the mobile phone as a new vehicle carrying the same content. This is the biggest error in understanding “new media” — or rather, digital media. The content may look the same — for now — but because this medium is truly different, the content is, in fact, not the same at all. Vin wrote:

Simply because the New Medium encompasses the characteristics and the reach of both of its predecessors and therefore can easily perform each of those media’s capabilities, many people mistake the New Medium as merely an electronic extension [of] previous media.

Humans had books for hundreds of years before Gutenberg. For the first 50 years after Gutenberg perfected his movable cast-metal type, printers worked very hard to make the new printed books look as much as possible like the old hand-written manuscript books.

As the years passed, such imitations of the old medium became fewer and fewer. By 1501, books had become a new vehicle within the new medium of print. Then, after 100 years, another new vehicle was invented. It was what we now call a newspaper (Strasbourg, Germany, 1609).

Things move faster now. The evolution of communication media is all about speed.

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A Flash comic for storytelling

Talk about a cool interface! This would work for certain online journalism stories, I’m quite sure. It is sooo easy to use!

This example comes from the great Web site of the great Scott McCloud, author of both Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics. I learned a LOT about storytelling from Understanding Comics back in 1993. At the time, I was reading a lot of the new wave of American comics (Zot, Watchmen, Love and Rockets, Art Spiegelman’s Maus), and I didn’t expect to learn anything from Understanding Comics — but as soon as I picked it up and started paging through it, I knew I would read it more than once.

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Map of all homicides in New York

Kudos to The New York Times, which used Google Maps to create a three-year (2003-2005) map of homicides in the five boroughs of New York City. The idea is copied from Adrian Holovaty’s award-winning Chicago Crime site, but that’s okay.

If a newspaper is going to provide a crime map today, this is the way to do it. You do not need to reinvent the wheel to produce an online feature with maps! Just learn how to use the Google Maps API.

I love it that these maps show how much of Manhattan never had a single homicide in a year. For the 11 years when I lived in New York (and later, the six years when I lived in Washington, D.C.), people who lived elsewhere always asked, “Aren’t you afraid?” No, I was not afraid! As the map shows, people are not getting killed everywhere, and what’s more, most killings in American cities are committed by people who know the victim.

In other words, these maps tell a story that many people do not yet understand.

(Found by way of the Lost Remote blog.)

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More pieces of the storytelling puzzle

My questions about how to teach storytelling skills to journalism students persist, so I perked up when I saw an article by the producer of a TV documentary about physics. The title, Seven Rules for Making a (Science) Movie, didn’t grab me, but the blurb on the RSS feed was:

“Filmmaker David Sington shares seven rules for making good TV out of complex topics.

The purpose … is simply to give pleasure to its viewers. But it’s the pleasure of finding things out, the thrill of discovery, the satisfaction of understanding something about the world …

This definitely applies to multimedia stories too.

There’s a lot of excellent food for thought in the article. I’ll tempt you with just one:

Don’t be afraid to be difficult

… If a science film is a mystery, and the pleasure lies in solving that mystery, then it must be a challenge to be really enjoyable. It’s like a crossword puzzle: no fun if it’s impossibly difficult, but also no fun if it’s too easy.Unfortunately, many television types seem to think that a viewer who is intellectually challenged is more likely to reach for the remote, and so most science films end up being too easy. I don’t think people turn the channel because they are a bit mystified; they switch because they are bored … Viewers should work a little for their understanding — we all appreciate more the things we’ve had to struggle for.

I find some multimedia journalism packages to be too simple. If you’re going to do all the work necessary to produce good multimedia, then it should be satisfying for the users. The users should feel intrigued — and yes, a little bit challenged as well.

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