Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist

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23 February 2017

As an media scholar and journalist with an interest in the digital divide, I have long believed that one of the things that media outlets could do a lot better is using their higher profile to give a voice to ‘ordinary people’ who have something to say. I also believe that one of the things that Facebook like other news intermediaries should be trying to do is increase ideological diversity in their feeds. Lastly, I am aware that it is not right to judge what people say online just because it is poorly written technically. And then this happens.

This is my top Facebook recommended story on Facebook’s top trending issue. The story’s summary suggests it is from the Huffington Post, which has some journalistic credibility, but if you visit the story itself and look carefully you will see that it is an un-edited, un-curated self published blog posting.

It is also badly written, bigoted, and dismayingly lacking in concrete, citable facts.

There was a riot of violence and destructions by immigrants in the capitol of Sweden, Stockholm. The police was forced to shoot with ammunition to put and end to it. In Malmö, another city south in Sweden they have struggle with gang violence and lawlessness for years. So when Trump talk about that Sweden have an immigration problem he [Trump] is actually spot on.
It’s well known for Scandinavians and other Europeans that liberal immigration comes with drugs, rapes, gang wars, robbery and violence

(For a more nuanced view of recent events in Sweden, read this.)

In the end, I think that what this underlines is another of my personal tech policy prescriptions – we need to ensure that when technology companies are doing socially important work like influencing what news we see, they do not offload this role onto an unaccountable algorithm. Instead, they should ensure that the algorithms are overseen adequately by humans and that those humans are in turn accountable to the public for their actions.

18 March 2015

I am used as a journalism professor to suggesting to my students that for any specialist topic – a disease, a hobby, a location – they should seek out the online discussion forums chat rooms or mailing lists that relate to it. These can act as sources of expertise or places where they can seek out opinions or story ideas. Only when I have suggested they do this recently and have gone to look for them myself… I found surprisingly very little. It used to be that searching for “[topic] messageboard” or “[topic] forum” or “[topic] mailing list” would nearly always find something. I didn’t even find a discussion board by and for Canadian post-secondary students akin to the UK’s Student Room.

Back in 2011, Pew Internet found “65% of the internet users who are active in groups say they use their groups’ websites… 24% of these internet users say they contribute material to their groups’ online bulletin boards and discussions.”

Have the problems of troll management killed most of these off as it seems to be doing to media comments sections?  Has Facebook eaten up most of that discussion time? (I am not finding a lot of very active special interest Facebook groups either – at least not proportional in size to what seems to have been lost).

My students seem to see Reddit subreddits as their “go to” source of topic-centred conversation but Reddit is again not big enough to replace all of the little conversation spaces that used to be around (is it?), and ISTR it trends pretty young. Twitter is a) not usually the same as a message board in terms of length, depth and continuity of dialogue and b) my sense is that it is more a discussion tool for elites than for a broader range of participants.

Do you have the sense this is a real trend? Is anyone still tracking discussion board use? (If it isn’t still being tracked that might itself be a sign of something!)

Where else should I be sending my students online to find and solicit citizen views these days?

And with my communication studies hat on, if the internet-using public loses the “habit” of using online discussion forums, would this not undermine one of the important means the internet could function as a potential space of public “sphericules”?

2 April 2014

A few months ago, I mentioned how academia.edu provides near-real-time tracking of visits and visitor demographics for any publications and used my own paper “Are We All Online Content Creators Now? Web 2.0 and Digital Divides” as an example to show how it works. Recently I came across a new tool that makes this tracking process much easier – Altmetric is an academic-focused social media tracking company. It makes its money selling large-scale data to publishers and academic institutions but if you are an academic and you have published anything with a DOI (or you want to find out something about the social media footprint of a competitor’s work for that matter) then Altmetric can display a “dashboard” of data like this. I’m quite pleased about this particular metric:

31 December 2013

Wordle of Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media

Just as the old year passes I have finished off the last substantive chapter to my upcoming book. Now all I have to do is:

  • Add a concluding chapter
  • Go through and fill in all the [some more clever stuff here] bits
  • Check the structure and ensure I haven’t repeated myself too often
  • Incorporate comments from my academic colleagues and friends
  • Submit to publisher
  • Incorporate comments from my editor and their reviewers
  • Index everything
  • Deal with inevitable proofing fiddly bits
  • Pace for months while physical printing processes happen… then…
  • I Haz Book!

Doesn’t seem like too much further, does it?

Update Jan 2, 2014 –  I have finished my draft concluding chapter, which ends, “[some form of ringing final summing-up here!]”

4 November 2012
Filed under:Academia,journalism,research,teaching at1:13 pm

Habermas’ public sphere is vital for journalism undergrad students to understand (if only to critique) but in looking around for source texts I am disappointed to find not only is H himself rather hard to follow (obviously when translated into English) but the works I have been given in the past to summarise and discuss him (Calhoun 1992; Habermas 1974; Peters 1993) are themselves (in my view) rather too sophisticated to give to undergraduates.

A few months ago there was a discussion on the Association of Internet Researchers email list about good texts which mentioned quite a few – if you are interested you might want to go fish in those suggestions but my skim of some of the discussion led me to think they were also too sophisticated for my students.

Here are a few suggestions of mine:

There’s a good intro to the concept with references in (Franklin, 2005) but it’s only 550 words long.

It led me on to (Manning, 2001) which has a very good first chapter touching on the public sphere and critiques of it – the only problem with this is that it’s not designed as a ‘stand-alone’ argument – it’s in the middle of a longer text. Also, it isn’t freely available online. Which led me  on to a source that you may not know (Thornton, 2001). As a Masters student she put her thesis “Does the Internet Create Democracy?” up online in a sophisticated easy to navigate form and she was later published in Ecquid Novi and put the text of that up online too. It is a clear, well-referenced discussion of the public sphere with some clearly-written critiques and good early discussion of the limitations and potentials of using the internet as a means to revitalise the public sphere. Alas, she did not continue along an academic career path and she died young in 2010. I hope this post encourages other scholars to use her work to teach with.

I am still ‘in the market’ for other suggestions of good intro-level texts about journalism, the public sphere, and critiques of Habermas’ ideas, so please comment if you have ideas – preferably texts that are open access…


Calhoun, C. (1992). Introduction. In C. Calhoun (Ed.), Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 1-48). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press

Franklin, B., Hamer, M., & Hanna, M. (2005). Key concepts in journalism. London: SAGE.

Habermas, J. (1974). The public sphere: an encyclopaedia article. New German Critique, 1(3), pp. 49-55.

Manning, P. (2001). News and news sources : a critical introduction. London: Sage.

Peters, J. D. (1993). Distrust of Representation: Habermas on the Public Sphere. Media, Culture & Society, 15(4), 541 – 572.

Thornton, A. L. (2001). Does the internet create democracy? Ecquid Novi: African Journalism Studies, 22(2), 126-147. Retrieved from http://www.zipworld.com.au/~athornto/

27 August 2012

One of the chapters of my forthcoming book, “Sharing Our Lives Online: Risks and Exposure in Social Media” is devoted to the question “What is risky and who is at risk?” and in answering this question the best resource I have consulted by some distance is Livingstone, S., Haddon, L., Gorzig, A., & Olafsson, K. (2011). Risks and safety on the internet: the perspective of European children: full findings. It combines the findings of a survey of 25,142 (!) children 9-16 across Europe with a measured, thoughtful review of the research of others. Parents and policy-makers who don’t want or need all the 167 pages of evidence should download EU Kids Online: Final Report and pay particular attention to pages 42-46 which debunk the top 10 myths of online safety and set out some clear recommendations. Here are a few things I have noted, based on my interests and approach:

The survey found that 59% of all European children surveyed have social network profiles, including 26% of 9-10 year olds and 49% of 11-12 year olds (though a proportion of these will be on social networks where under-13s are allowed like Club Penguin). (p. 36-37)

The survey looked at children’s use of privacy settings but (presumably because of lack of space on the very extensive survey) in a fairly blunt fashion. It asked them whether their profiles were public, “partly private” (visible to friends of friends) or private. How concerned you are about what they reveal may depend on how you perceive “partly private”.

From Risks and Safety on the Internet p. 38

Research published by scholars working with Facebook (Ugander et al, 2011) noted that “partially private” users with the average number of friends (100) would have on average 27,500 friends of friends able to view their profiles.

This research also does not evaluate how accurate the respondents’ assessments really are of how well their profiles are protected. The only study I am aware of that compared what people wanted to share on Facebook with what they were actually sharing (Majedski, 2011) found no fewer than 93.8% of participants revealed some information that they did not want disclosed. This is consistent with the earlier qualitative findings of (Livingstone, 2008) who found on interviewing teenagers, “When asked, a fair proportion of those interviewed hesitated to show how to change their privacy settings, often clicking on the wrong options before managing this task, and showing some nervousness about the unintended consequences of changing settings” (p. 406).

On the other hand, the survey does not give much guidance about just how risky letting out public information actually is for young people. They say, “Research thus far has proved contradictory about whether SNSs are more or less risky than instant messaging, chat, or other online communication formats, and it is as yet unclear whether risks are ‘migrating’ from older formats to SNSs” (p. 36) but their list of risks is rather vague – ‘flaming’, hacking and harassment – and the only paper they cite about these risks is (Ybarra & Mitchell, 2008) whose scope just covers harassment and sexual solicitation and which seemed rather more unambiguous than the EU Kids Online report suggests. It concluded “broad claims of victimization risk, at least defined as unwanted sexual solicitation or harassment, associated with social networking sites do not seem justified” – though the situation may have changed in the six years since the Ybarra & Mitchell survey.

It is perhaps notable that while online bullying was found to be rare – 6% of young people experienced it in the last year (p. 63) – it is also most often encountered on social network sites (half of all bullying encounters).

It’s unfortunate that the focus of the report (on “the internet”) means it doesn’t cover mobile-phone based risks unless they came via the internet (bullying, ‘sexting’ and other problematic behaviour may be digitally circulated on mobiles but not using the internet).

My biggest problem with the report, however (and one of my motivations to do my book) is that the definition of potential risks in the survey is too narrow. In focusing on the obvious short term issues it overlooks some of the longer term risks of internet use including but not limited to:

  1. Employment harm (“why were you drunk all the time at university?”)
  2. Relationship harms (when your grandmother ‘meets’ your girlfriend online)
  3. Harms from an unanticipated future (“I can’t believe you actually boasted about having a petrol-guzzling car back in the 90s”)
  4. identity theft
  5. Locational crime (you check in at the restaurant, a thief checks out your TV)
  6. The harvesting of personal data for targeted marketing (and possibly ‘redlining’ and exclusion from access to financial products)
  7. Government surveillance using (flawed) risk assessment criteria (one of your 22,000 friends of friends turns out to be a terrorist so you go on a watch list).

I may share more about research I run across that tackles some of these areas in future blog posts. Meanwhile, I would be interested in what you think of this post and (if you’re a researcher) please suggest studies you think do a good job of measuring problems 1-7.

Oh, and perhaps my biggest problem with this report (but one the authors can hardly be blamed f0r) – in common with most internet risk literature it studies only children and teenagers. I would like to redress the balance by noting that many of the problems above will be encountered by adults as well. (So studies about these risks that cover older people would be particularly welcome).

8 March 2012
Filed under:Academia,Privacy,social media at4:38 pm

The excellent folks at the Pew Internet and American Life Project have recently released an update of their 2009 report on reputation management and privacy attitudes among US internet users. The ‘top line summary’ says, “Social network users are becoming more active in pruning and managing their accounts” but I would be cautious about suggesting that from the data. True, 63% of them have deleted people from their “friends” lists, up from 56% in 2009 and 44% have deleted comments made by others on their profile, up from 36% in 2009 but since these are measures of “have ever done” one would expect figures to have risen given more than two years have passed.

It’s worth noting that from the report that (consistent with other research) young and old have the same likelihood to set their profiles to be private.

12 October 2011
Filed under:Academia,Interesting facts at2:17 pm

I’ve been looking at Amabile, T. (1996) Creativity in Context : Update to the Social Psychology of Creativity, Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado ; Oxford. In it I learned Dean K. Simonton tried to find out the effects of stress on creativity by, among other things, correlating the creativity of Beethoven, Mozart and other composers with the intensity of the wars affecting their countries at the time. I also just learned that “it is said that Schiller kept rotting apples in his desk drawer because the aroma helped him concentrate on writing poetry… Dr Johnson required a purring cat, and orange peel, and plenty of tea to drink.” I much prefer Johnson’s prescription to Schiller’s!

2 December 2010

Machine of death cover

This podcast interview by Jesse Brown with the creator of Dinosaur Comics and this web interview about the brief but dazzling success of a short story collection, ‘Machine of Death are interesting at a number of levels.

Briefly, a group of well-known web comic creators got together and found contributors from among their readers for this short story collection that they would then illustrate. No mainstream publisher would touch it because it didn’t contain material from authors they recognised, so they thought they would self-publish it. And they organized the fan base they had gathered from their web comic activity to buy the book all at once in order to get media attention. It worked and the book hit number 1 for several hours on Amazon US (though as they said it only took “thousands” of sales to do this – it’s now at #1192). A few days later, they released the full text of the book free as a downloadable PDF.

This phenomenon has naturally excited a number of the proponents of “new authorship” models and it is indeed an impressive achievement, but I would add a few cautionary notes to this tale:

Ryan North says he is able to make a ‘comfortable living’ from t-shirt sales driven by his free online comic strip but wouldn’t say how much this amounted to (and his standards of ‘comfortable’ may have been formed by his recent status as an impecunious grad student).

It benefited from promotion by the fan bases of several well-known web comics authors, was promoted on a number of very prominent sites like boingboing, and falls into the sci-fi/fantasy genre. It may even be a great read (I don’t know yet but I have started downloading the podcast). Taken together this constitutes a nearly ‘perfect storm’ in favour of this book.

The broader question for the future of this model has to be how replicable it is. At the moment this is newsworthy – the economic significance of online-driven publication will be proven when tens of thousands instead of (I’m guessing) a few hundred authors can earn enough in this way to afford to bypass the conventional publishing system.

Of course none of this should take away from the fact that even if this is not the start of an economic revolution for new authors it may well be the start of a cultural revolution enabling many more people to become published authors (even if with a rather different notion of what being ‘published’ means). It is this as much as anything else I intend to explore in my upcoming research.

28 October 2010

From Local Literacies I found Amateur Arts in the UK which quoted some stats from (Research Surveys of Great Britain & Arts Council of Great Britain, 1991) – see earlier post – and there I assumed the trail would go cold. What chance I could find an obscure 19 year old survey with no Google Scholar entry and a couple of mentions around the web? Yet hurrah! U of Leicester Library had it – a spiral bound report with lots of cross-tabulations in the back that were not discussed in the main text including exactly the stats I wanted! So without further ado, for the year 1991 some stats on proportions of UK adults (16+) and their propensity to write articles or stories but not as a profession.

Overall, 4% were writing stories/articles.

Education was, unsurprisingly, the factor that made the biggest difference. This chart shows percentages of writers by the age at which they finished education:

varies from 2% to 12%

Age seemed to play an important role as well, and not in the way I would have thought.

Varies between 8% and 2%

I would have expected an “up-tick” post retirement as people had time to write memoirs etc – though perhaps this is an effect of lower overall education levels of older people.

The last important factor was social class.
AB (Middle class) = 8%, C1 (lower middle class) = 6%, C2DE (working class) 2%

Region, gender, and disability status don’t seem to have been a factor – nor does being unemployed (though the overall proportion of people writing was low enough that it’s hard to be sure.

Now that I have a baseline for social composition of writers I hope that my future research will be able to see whether the availability of online outlets has changed any of this.

Research Surveys of Great Britain & Arts Council of Great Britain. (1991). RSGB Omnibus Arts Survey : report on a survey on arts and cultural activities in G.B. London: Arts Council of Great Britain.

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