Tag Archives: news

Facebook’s Growing Filter Bubble

I’ve been writing about the filter bubble for quite sometime. The filter bubble refers to the tendency for online search tools, and now social media, to screen and deliver results that fit our online history and profile thereby returning only results that are deemed relevant. Eli Pariser coined the term in his book The Filter Bubble, published in 2011.

The filter bubble presents us with a clear faustian bargain: give up knowledge and serendipitous discovery of the wider world for narrow, personalized news and information that matches our immediate needs and agrees with our profile.

The great irony is that our technologies promise a limitless, interconnected web of data and information, but these same technologies ensure that we will see only the small sliver of information that passes through our personal, and social, filters. This consigns us to live inside our very own personal echo chambers, separated from disagreeable information that does not pass criteria in our profiles or measures gleaned across our social networks.

So, we should all be concerned as Facebook turns its attention to delivering and filtering news, and curating it in a quest for a more profitable return. Without question we are in the early stages of the reinvention of journalism as a whole and digital news in particular. The logical conclusion of this evolution has yet to be written, but it is certainly clear that handing so much power over the dissemination of news and information to one company cannot be in our long-term interests. If Mr. Zuckerberg and team deem certain political news to be personally distasteful or contrary to their corporate mission, should we sit back and allow them to filter it for us? I think not.

From Wired:

When Facebook News Feed guru Will Cathcart took the stage at F8 to talk about news, the audience was packed. Some followed along on Twitter. Others streamed the session online. Journalists, developers, and media types all clamored to catch a glimpse of “Creating Value for News Publishers and Readers on Facebook”—value that has become the most coveted asset in the news business as Facebook becomes a primary way the public finds and shares news.

As Cathcart kicked off the session, he took the captive audience to a Syrian refugee camp via Facebook’s new, innovative, and immersive 360 video experience. He didn’t say much about where the camp was (“I believe in Greece?”), nor anything about the camp situation. He didn’t offer the audio of the journalist describing the scene. No matter!

The refugee camp is a placeholder. A placeholder, in fact, that has become so overused that it was actually the second time yesterday that Facebook execs waved their hands about the importance of media before playing a video clip of refugees. It could have been a tour of the White House, the Boston bombing, Coachella. It could have been anything to Facebook. It’s “content.” It’s a commodity. What matters to Facebook is the product it’s selling—and who’s buying is you and the news industry.

What Facebook is selling you is pretty simple. It’s selling an experience, part of which includes news. That experience is dependent on content creators—you know, journalists and newsrooms—who come up with ideas, use their own resources to realize them, and then put them out into the world. All of which takes time, money, and skill. For its “media partners” (the CNNs, BuzzFeeds, and WIREDs of the world), Facebook is selling a promise that their future will be bright if they use Facebook’s latest news products to distribute those new, innovative, and immersive stories to Facebook’s giant audience.

The only problem is that Facebook’s promise isn’t a real one. It’s false hope; or at its worst, a threat.

Read the entire article here.

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A Case For Less News

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I find myself agreeing with columnist Oliver Burkeman over at the Guardian that we need to carefully manage our access to the 24/7 news cycle. Our news media has learned to thrive on hyperbole and sensationalism, which — let’s face it — tends to be mostly negative. This unending and unnerving stream of gloom and doom tends to make us believe that we are surrounded by more badness than there actually is. I have to believe that most of the 7 billion+ personal stories each day that we could be hearing about — however mundane — are likely to not be bad or evil. So, while it may not be wise to switch off cable or satellite news completely, we should consider a more measured, and balanced, approach to the media monster.

From the Guardian:

A few days before Christmas, feeling rather furtive about it, I went on a media diet: I quietly unsubscribed from, unfollowed or otherwise disconnected from several people and news sources whose output, I’d noticed, did nothing but bring me down. This felt like defeat. I’ve railed against the popular self-help advice that you should “give up reading the news” on the grounds that it’s depressing and distracting: if bad stuff’s happening out there, my reasoning goes, I don’t want to live in an artificial bubble of privilege and positivity; I want to face reality. But at some point during 2015’s relentless awfulness, it became unignorable: the days when I read about another mass shooting, another tale of desperate refugees or anything involving the words “Donald Trump” were the days I’d end up gloomier, tetchier, more attention-scattered. Needless to say, I channelled none of this malaise into making the planet better. I just got grumbly about the world, like a walking embodiment of that bumper-sticker: “Where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?”

One problem is that merely knowing that the news focuses disproportionately on negative and scary stories doesn’t mean you’ll adjust your emotions accordingly. People like me scorn Trump and the Daily Mail for sowing unwarranted fears. We know that the risk of dying in traffic is vastly greater than from terrorism. We may even know that US gun crime is in dramatic decline, that global economic inequality is decreasing, or that there’s not much evidence that police brutality is on the rise. (We just see more of it, thanks to smartphones.) But, apparently, the part of our minds that knows these facts isn’t the same part that decides whether to feel upbeat or despairing. It’s entirely possible to know things are pretty good, yet feel as if they’re terrible.

This phenomenon has curious parallels with the “busyness epidemic”. Data on leisure time suggests we’re not much busier than we were, yet we feel busier, partly because – for “knowledge workers”, anyway – there’s no limit to the number of emails we can get, the demands that can be made of us, or the hours of the day we can be in touch with the office. Work feels infinite, but our capacities are finite, therefore overwhelm is inevitable. Similarly, technology connects us to more and more of the world’s suffering, of which there’s an essentially infinite amount, until feeling steamrollered by it becomes structurally inevitable – not a sign that life’s getting worse. And the consequences go beyond glumness. They include “compassion fade”, the well-studied effect whereby our urge to help the unfortunate declines as their numbers increase.

Read the whole column here.

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Baroness Thatcher and the Media Baron

The cozy yet fraught relationship between politicians and powerful figures in the media has been with us since the first days of newsprint. It’s a delicate symbiosis of sorts — the politician needs the media magnate to help acquire and retain power; the media baron needs the politician to shape and centralize it. The underlying motivations seem similar for both parties, hence the symbiosis — self-absorbtion, power, vanity.

So, it comes as no surprise to read intimate details of the symbiotic Rupert Murdoch / Margaret Thatcher years. Prime minister Thatcher would sometimes actively, but often surreptitiously, support Murdoch’s megalomaniacal desire to corner the UK (and global) media, while Murdoch would ensure his media channeled appropriately Thatcher-friendly news, spin and op-ed. But the Thatcher-Murdoch story is just one of the latest in a long line of business deals between puppet and puppet-master [you may decide which is which, dear reader]. Over the last hundred years we’ve had William Randolph Hearst and Roosevelt, Lloyd George and Northcliffe, Harold Wilson and Robert Maxwell, Baldwin and Beaverbrook.

Thomas Jefferson deplored newspapers — seeing them as vulgar and cancerous. His prescient analysis of the troubling and complex relationship between the news and politics is just as valid today, “an evil for which there is no remedy; our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and this cannot be limited without being lost”.

Yet for all the grievous faults and dubious shenanigans of the brutish media barons and their fickle political spouses, the Thatcher-Murdoch story is perhaps not as sinister as one might first think. We now live in an age where faceless corporations and billionaires broker political power and shape policy behind mountains of money, obfuscated institutions and closed doors. This is far more troubling for our democracies. I would rather fight an evil that has a face.

From the Guardian:

The coup that transformed the relationship between British politics and journalism began at a quiet Sunday lunch at Chequers, the official country retreat of the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher. She was trailing in the polls, caught in a recession she had inherited, eager for an assured cheerleader at a difficult time. Her guest had an agenda too. He was Rupert Murdoch, eager to secure her help in acquiring control of nearly 40% of the British press.

Both parties got what they wanted.

The fact that they met at all, on 4 January 1981, was vehemently denied for 30 years. Since their lie was revealed, it has been possible to uncover how the greatest extension of monopoly power in modern press history was planned and executed with such furtive brilliance.

All the wretches in the subsequent hacking sagas – the predators in the red-tops, the scavengers and sleaze merchants, the blackmailers and bribers, the liars, the bullies, the cowed politicians and the bent coppers – were but the detritus of a collapse of integrity in British journalism and political life. At the root of the cruelties and extortions exposed in the recent criminal trials at the Old Bailey, was Margaret Thatcher’s reckless engorgement of the media power of her guest that January Sunday. The simple genesis of the hacking outrages is that Murdoch’s News International came to think it was above the law, because it was.

Thatcher achieved much as a radical prime minister confronted by political turmoil and economic torpor. So did Murdoch, in his liberation of British newspapers from war with the pressroom unions, and by wresting away the print unions’ monopoly of access to computer technology. I applauded his achievements, and still do, as I applauded many of Thatcher’s initiatives when I chaired the editorial boards of the Sunday Times (1967-81) and then the Times (1981-2). It is sad that her successes are stained by recent evidence of her readiness to ensure sunshine headlines for herself in the Murdoch press (especially when it was raining), at a heavy cost to the country. She enabled her guest to avoid a reference to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, even though he already owned the biggest-selling daily newspaper, the Sun, and the biggest selling Sunday newspaper, the News of the World, and was intent on acquiring the biggest-selling quality weekly, the Sunday Times, and its stablemate, the Times. 

 Times Newspapers had long cherished their independence. In 1966, when the Times was in financial difficulty, the new owner who came to the rescue, Lord Roy Thomson of Fleet, promised to sustain it as an independent non-partisan newspaper – precisely how he had conducted the profitable Sunday Times. Murdoch was able to acquire both publications in 1981 only because he began making solemn pledges that he would maintain the tradition of independence. He broke every one of those promises in the first years. His breach of the undertakings freely made for Times Newspapers was a marked contrast with the independent journalism we at the Sunday Times (and William Rees-Mogg at the Times) had enjoyed under the principled ownership of the Thomson family. Thatcher was a vital force in reviving British competitiveness, but she abetted a concentration of press power that became increasingly arrogant and careless of human dignity in ways that would have appalled her, had she remained in good health long enough to understand what her actions had wrought.

Documents released by the Thatcher Archive Trust, now housed at Churchill College, Cambridge, give the lie to a litany of Murdoch-Thatcher denials about collusion during the bidding for Times Newspapers. They also expose a crucial falsehood in the seventh volume of The History of the Times: The Murdoch Years – the official story of the newspaper from 1981-2002, published in 2005 by the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins. In it Graham Stewart wrote, in all innocence, that Murdoch and Thatcher “had no communication whatsoever during the period in which the Times bid and presumed referral to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission was up for discussion”.

Read the entire story here.

 

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News Anchor as Cult Hero

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Why and when did the news anchor, or newsreader as he or she is known in non-US parts of the world, acquire the status of cult hero? And, why is this a peculiarly US phenomenon? Let’s face it TV newsreaders in the UK, on the BBC or ITV, certainly do not have a following along the lines their US celebrity counterparts like Brian Williams, Megyn Kelly or Anderson Cooper. Why?

From the Guardian:

A game! Spot the odd one out in the following story. This year has been a terrible one so far for those who care about American journalism: the much-loved New York Times journalist David Carr died suddenly on 12 February; CBS correspondent Bob Simon was killed in a car crash the day before; Jon Stewart, famously the “leading news source for young Americans”, announced that he is quitting the Daily Show; his colleague Stephen Colbert is moving over from news satire to the softer arena of a nightly talk show; NBC anchor Brian Williams, as famous in America as Jeremy Paxman is in Britain, has been suspended after it was revealed he had “misremembered” events involving himself while covering the war in Iraq; Bill O’Reilly, an anchor on Fox News, the most watched cable news channel in the US, has been accused of being on similarly vague terms with the truth.

News of the Fox News anchor probably sounds like “dog bites man” to most Britons, who remember that this network recently described Birmingham as a no-go area for non-Muslims. But this latest scandal involving O’Reilly reveals something quite telling about journalism in America.

Whereas in Britain journalists are generally viewed as occupying a place on the food chain somewhere between bottom-feeders and cockroaches, in America there remains, still, a certain idealisation of journalists, protected by a gilded halo hammered out by sentimental memories of Edward R Murrow and Walter Cronkite.

Even while Americans’ trust in mass media continues to plummet, journalists enjoy a kind of heroic fame that would baffle their British counterparts. Television anchors and commentators, from Rachel Maddow on the left to Sean Hannity on the right, are lionised in a way that, say, Huw Edwards, is, quite frankly, not. A whole genre of film exists in the US celebrating the heroism of journalists, from All the President’s Men to Good Night, and Good Luck. In Britain, probably the most popular depiction of journalists came from Spitting Image, where they were snuffling pigs in pork-pie hats.

So whenever a journalist in the US has been caught lying, the ensuing soul-searching and garment-rending discovery has been about as prolonged and painful as a PhD on proctology. The New York Times and the New Republic both imploded when it was revealed that their journalists, respectively Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, had fabricated their stories. Their tales have become part of American popular culture – The Wire referenced Blair in its fifth season and a film was made about the New Republic’s scandal – like national myths that must never be forgotten.

By contrast, when it was revealed that The Independent’s Johann Hari had committed plagiarism and slandered his colleagues on Wikipedia, various journalists wrote bewildering defences of him and the then Independent editor said initially that Hari would return to the paper. Whereas Hari’s return to the public sphere three years after his resignation has been largely welcomed by the British media, Glass and Blair remain shunned figures in the US, more than a decade after their scandals.

Which brings us back to the O’Reilly scandal, now unfolding in the US. Once it was revealed that NBC’s liberal Brian Williams had exaggerated personal anecdotes – claiming to have been in a helicopter that was shot at when he was in the one behind, for starters – the hunt was inevitably on for an equally big conservative news scalp. Enter stage left: Bill O’Reilly.

So sure, O’Reilly claimed that in his career he has been in “active war zones” and “in the Falklands” when he in fact covered a protest in Buenos Aires during the Falklands war. And sure, O’Reilly’s characteristically bullish defence that he “never said” he was “on the Falkland Islands” (original quote: “I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands …”) and that being at a protest thousands of miles from combat constitutes “a war zone” verges on the officially bonkers (as the Washington Post put it, “that would mean that any reporter who covered an anti-war protest in Washington during the Iraq War was doing combat reporting”). But does any of this bother either O’Reilly or Fox News? It does not.

Unlike Williams, who slunk away in shame, O’Reilly has been bullishly combative, threatening journalists who dare to cover the story and saying that they deserve to be “in the kill zone”. Fox News too has been predictably untroubled by allegations of lies: “Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly,” it said in a statement.

Read the entire story here.

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Where Will I Get My News (and Satire)

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Jon Stewart. Jon Stewart, you dastardly, villainous so-and-so. How could you? How could you decide to leave the most important show in media history — The Daily Show — after a mere 16 years? Where will I get my news? Where will I find another hypocrisy-meter? Where will I find another truth-seeking David to fend us from the fear-mongering neocon Goliaths led by Rogers Ailes over at the Foxion News Channel? Where will I find such a thoroughly delicious merging of news, fact and satire. Jon Stewart how could you?!

From the Guardian?

“Where will I get my news each night,” lamented Bill Clinton this week. This might have been a reaction to the fall from grace of Brian Williams, America’s top-rated news anchor, who was suspended for embellishing details of his adventures in Iraq. In fact the former US president was anticipating withdrawal symptoms for the impending departure of the comedian Jon Stewart, who – on the same day as Williams’s disgrace – announced that he will step down as the Daily Show host.

Stewart, who began his stint 16 years ago, has achieved something extraordinary from behind a studio desk on a comedy cable channel. Merging the intense desire for factual information with humour, irreverence, scepticism and usually appropriate cynicism, Stewart’s show proved a magnet for opinion formers, top politicians – who clamoured to appear – and most significantly the young, for whom the mix proved irresistible. His ridiculing of neocons became a nightly staple. His rejection from the outset of the Iraq war was prescient. And always he was funny, not least this week in using Williams’s fall to castigate the media for failing to properly scrutinise the Iraq war. Bill Clinton does not mourn alone.

Read the entire story here.

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Facts, Fiction and Foxtion

Foxtion. fox·tion. noun \ fäks-sh?n \

New stories about people and events that are not real: literature that tells stories which are imagined by the writer and presenter, and presented earnestly and authoritatively by self-proclaimed experts, repeated over and over until audience accepts as written-in-stone truth. 

Fox News is the gift that just keeps on giving — to comedians, satirists, seekers of truth and, generally, people with reasonably intact grey matter. This time Fox has reconnected with so-called terrorism expert, Steven Emerson. Seems like a nice chap, but, as the British Prime Minister recently remarked, he’s “an idiot”.

From the Guardian:

Steven Emerson, a man whose job title of terrorism expert will henceforth always attract quotation marks, provoked a lot of mirth with his claim, made during a Fox News interview, that Birmingham was a Muslim-only city where “non-Muslims simply just don’t go in”. He was forced to apologise, and the prime minister called him an idiot, all within the space of 24 hours.

This was just one of the many deeply odd things Emerson said in the course of the interview, although it was perhaps the most instantly refutable: Birmingham census figures are easy to come by. His claim that London was full of “actual religious police that actually beat and actually wound seriously anyone who doesn’t dress according to religious Muslim attire” is harder to disprove; just because I live in London and I’ve never seen them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. But they’re not exactly thick on the ground. I blame the cuts.

Emerson also made reference to the “no-go zones” of France, where the government doesn’t “exercise any sovereignty”. “On the French official website it says there are,” he said. “It actually has a map of them.”

How could the French government make the basic blunder of publicising its inability to exercise sovereignty, and on the “French official website” of all places?

After a bit of Googling – which appears to be how Emerson gets his information – I think I know what he’s on about. He appears to be referring to The 751 No-Go Zones of France, the title of a widely disseminated, nine-year-old blogpost originating on the website of Daniel Pipes, another terrorism expert, or “anti-Arab propagandist”.

“They go by the euphemistic term Zones Urbaines Sensibles, or sensitive urban zones,” wrote Pipes, referring to them as “places in France that the French state does not fully control”. And it’s true: you can find them all listed on the French government’s website. Never mind that they were introduced in 1996, or that the ZUS distinction actually denotes an impoverished area targeted for economic and social intervention, not abandonment of sovereignty. For people like Emerson they are officially sanctioned caliphates, where cops and non-Muslims dare not tread.

Yet seven years after he first exposed the No-Go Zones of France, Pipes actually managed to visit several banlieues around Paris. In an update posted in 2013, his disappointment was palpable.

“For a visiting American, these areas are very mild, even dull,” he wrote. “We who know the Bronx and Detroit expect urban hell in Europe too, but there things look fine.

“I regret having called these areas no-go zones.”

Read the entire story here.

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Expanding Binge Culture

The framers of the U.S. Declaration of Independence could not have known. They could not have foreseen how commoditization, consumerism, globalisation and always-on media culture would come to transform our culture. They did well to insert “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

But they failed to consider our collective evolution — if you would wish to denote it as such — towards a sophisticated culture of binge. Significant numbers of us have long binged on physical goods, money, natural resources, food and drink. However, media has lagged, somewhat. But no longer. Now we have at our instantaneous whim entire libraries of all-you-can-eat infotainment. Time will tell if this signals the demise of quality, as it gets replaced with overwhelming quantity. One area shows where we may be heading — witness the “fastfoodification” of our news.

From NYT:

When Beyoncé released, without warning, 17 videos around midnight on Dec. 13, millions of fans rejoiced. As a more casual listener of Ms. Knowles, I balked at the onslaught of new material and watched a few videos before throwing in the towel.

Likewise, when Netflix, in one fell swoop, made complete seasons of “House of Cards” and “Orange Is the New Black” available for streaming, I quailed at the challenge, though countless others happily immersed themselves in their worlds of Washington intrigue and incarcerated women.

Then there is the news, to which floodgates are now fully open thanks to the Internet and cable TV: Flight 370, Putin, Chris Christie, Edward Snowden, Rob Ford, Obamacare, “Duck Dynasty,” “bossy,” #CancelColbert, conscious uncoupling. When presented with 24/7 coverage of these ongoing narratives from an assortment of channels — traditional journalism sites, my Facebook feed, the log-out screen of my email — I followed some closely and very consciously uncoupled from others.

Had these content providers released their offerings in the old-media landscape, à la carte rather than in an all-you-can-eat buffet, the prospect of a seven-course meal might not have seemed so daunting. I could handle a steady drip of one article a day about Mr. Ford in a newspaper. But after two dozen, updated every 10 minutes, plus scores of tweets, videos and GIFs that keep on giving, I wanted to forget altogether about Toronto’s embattled mayor.

While media technology is now catching up to Americans’ penchant for overdoing it and finding plenty of willing indulgers, there are also those like me who recoil from the abundance of binge culture.

In the last decade, media entertainment has given far more freedom to consumers: watch, listen to and read anything at anytime. But Barry Schwartz’s 2004 book, “The Paradox of Choice,” argues that our surfeit of consumer choices engenders anxiety, not satisfaction, and sometimes even a kind of paralysis.

His thesis (which has its dissenters) applies mostly to the profusion of options within a single set: for instance, the challenge of picking out salad dressing from 175 varieties in a supermarket. Nevertheless, it is also germane to the concept of bingeing, when 62 episodes of “Breaking Bad” wait overwhelmingly in a row like bottles of Newman’s Own on a shelf.

Alex Quinlan, 31, a first-year Ph.D. student in poetry at Florida State University, said he used to spend at least an hour every morning reading the news and “putting off my responsibilities,” as well as binge-watching shows. He is busier now, and last fall had trouble installing an Internet connection in his home, which effectively “rewired my media-consumption habits,” he said. “I’m a lot more disciplined. Last night I watched one episode of ‘House of Cards’ and went to bed. A year ago, I probably would’ve watched one, gotten another beer, then watched two more.”

Even shorter-term bingeing can seem like a major commitment, because there is a distorting effect of receiving a large chunk of content at once rather than getting it piecemeal. To watch one Beyoncé video a week would eat as much time as watching all in one day, but their unified dissemination makes them seem intimidatingly movie-length (which they are, approximately) rather than like a series of four-minute clips.

I also experienced some first-world anxiety last year with the release of the fourth season of “Arrested Development.” I had devoured the show’s first three seasons, parceled out in 22-minute weekly installments on Fox as well as on DVD, where I would watch episodes I had already seen (in pre-streaming days, binge-watching required renting or owning a copy, which was more like a contained feast). But when Netflix uploaded 15 new episodes totaling 8.5 hours on May 26, I was not among those queuing up for it. It took me some time to get around to the show, and once I had started, the knowledge of how many episodes stretched in front of me, at my disposal whenever I wanted, proved off-putting.

This despite the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses quality to binge-viewing. If everyone is quickly exhausting every new episode of a show, and writing and talking about it the next day, it’s easy to feel left out of the conversation if you haven’t kept pace. And sometimes when you’re late to the party, you decide to stay home instead.

Because we frequently gorge when left to our own Wi-Fi-enabled devices, the antiquated methods of “scheduling our information consumption” may have been healthier, if less convenient, said Clay Johnson, 36, the author of “The Information Diet.” He recalled rushing home after choir practice when he was younger to catch “Northern Exposure” on TV.

“That idea is now preposterous,” he said. “We don’t have appointment television anymore. Just because we can watch something all the time doesn’t mean we should. Maybe we should schedule it in a way that makes sense around our daily lives.”

“It’s a lot like food,” he added. “You see some people become info-anorexic, who say the answer is to unplug and not consume anything. Much like an eating disorder, it’s just as unhealthy a decision as binge-watching the news and media. There’s a middle ground of people who are saying, ‘I need to start treating this form of input in my life like a conscious decision and to be informed in the right way.’ ”

Read the entire story here.

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Pre-Twittersphere Infectious Information

While our 21st century always-on media and information sharing circus pervades every nook and cranny of our daily lives, it is useful to note that pre-Twittersphere, ideas and information did get shared. Yes, useful news and even trivial memes did go viral back in the 18oos.

From Wired:

The story had everything — exotic locale, breathtaking engineering, Napoleon Bonaparte. No wonder the account of a lamplit flat-bottom boat journey through the Paris sewer
went viral after it was published — on May 23, 1860.

At least 15 American newspapers reprinted it, exposing tens of thousands of readers to the dank wonders of the French city’s “splendid system of sewerage.”

Twitter is faster and HuffPo more sophisticated, but the parasitic dynamics of networked media were fully functional in the 19th century. For proof, look no further than the Infectious Texts project, a collaboration of humanities scholars and computer scientists.

The project expects to launch by the end of the month. When it does, researchers and the public will be able to comb through widely reprinted texts identified by mining 41,829 issues of 132 newspapers from the Library of Congress. While this first stage focuses on texts from before the Civil War, the project eventually will include the later 19th century and expand to include magazines and other publications, says Ryan Cordell, an assistant professor of English at Northeastern University and a leader of the project.

Some of the stories were printed in 50 or more newspapers, each with thousands to tens of thousands of subscribers. The most popular of them most likely were read by hundreds of thousands of people, Cordell says. Most have been completely forgotten. “Almost none of those are texts that scholars have studied, or even knew existed,” he said.

The tech may have been less sophisticated, but some barriers to virality were low in the 1800s. Before modern copyright laws there were no legal or even cultural barriers to borrowing content, Cordell says. Newspapers borrowed freely. Large papers often had an “exchange editor” whose job it was to read through other papers and clip out interesting pieces. “They were sort of like BuzzFeed employees,” Cordell said.

Clips got sorted into drawers according to length; when the paper needed, say, a 3-inch piece to fill a gap, they’d pluck out a story of the appropriate length and publish it, often verbatim.

Fast forward a century and a half and many of these newspapers have been scanned and digitized. Northeastern computer scientist David Smith developed an algorithm that mines
this vast trove of text for reprinted items by hunting for clusters of five words that appear in the same sequence in multiple publications (Google uses a similar concept for its Ngram viewer).

The project is sponsored by the NULab for Texts, Maps, and Networks at Northeastern and the Office of Digital Humanities at the National Endowment for the Humanities. Cordell says the main goal is to build a resource for other scholars, but he’s already capitalizing on it for his own research, using modern mapping and network analysis tools to explore how things went viral back then.

Counting page views from two centuries ago is anything but an exact science, but Cordell has used Census records to estimate how many people were living within a certain distance of where a particular piece was published and combined that with newspaper circulation data to estimate what fraction of the population would have seen it (a quarter to a third, for the most infectious texts, he says).

He’s also interested in mapping how the growth of the transcontinental railroad — and later the telegraph and wire services — changed the way information moved across the country. The animation below shows the spread of a single viral text, a poem by the Scottish poet Charles MacKay, overlaid on the developing railroad system. The one at the very bottom depicts how newspapers grew with the country from the colonial era to modern times, often expanding into a territory before the political boundaries had been drawn.

Read the entire article here.

Image: Courtesy of Ryan Cordell / Infectious texts project. Thicker lines indicate more content-sharing between 19th century newspapers.

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