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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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!]”

10 November 2013

Tracking my paper's readership using academia.edu

Just as we are all finding out how much the government has been tracking our meta-data, a whole ecosystem of public-facing meta-data tracking services is arising, giving us the chance to measure our own activity and track the diffusion of our messages across the web. This is particularly noticeable when looking at Twitter but other social media also increasingly offer sophisticated analytics tools.

Thus it was that as my latest open access paper “Are We All Online Content Creators Now? Web 2.0 and Digital Divides” went live two days ago I found myself not just mentioning it to colleagues but feeling obliged to update multiple profiles and services across the web – FacebookTwitteracademia.edu, Mendeley and Linkedin. I found to my surprise that (by tracking my announcetweet using Buffer) only 1% of the thousands I have ‘reached’ so far seem to have checked my abstract. On the other hand, my academia.edu announcement has brought me twice as many readers. More proof that it’s not how many but what kind of followers you have that matters most.

Pleasingly, from Academia.edu I can also see that my paper has already been read in Canada, the US, Guyana, South Africa, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, and of course the UK.

The biggest surprise? Google can find my paper already on academia.edu but has not yet indexed the original journal page!

I will share more data as I get it if my fellow scholars are interested. Anyone else have any data to share?

23 October 2013

It has long been understood by scientists (but not by enough parents) that the amount that children are talked to has a crucial impact on their later educational development so I was pleased to see the New York Times pick this story up. However it rather wastes this opportunity because it is so clumsily written – particularly in its handling of statistics.

The first paragraph is confusing and unhelpful “…by age 3, the children of wealthier professionals have heard words millions more times than those of less educated parents.” Clearly, rich kids don’t hear millions of times more words than poor ones but that might be what you pick up from a quick scan. Further down the story, “because professional parents speak so much more to their children, the children hear 30 million more words by age 3 than children from low-income households”– unfortunately, this is meaningless unless you know how many million words both kinds of children heard overall. The difference is only hinted at near the end of the piece when you finally find out (through a different study) that “some of the children, who were 19 months at the time, heard as few as 670 “child-directed” words in one day, compared with others in the group who heard as many as 12,000″.

Very annoyingly, despite saying the 20 year old study in the first paragraph was a “landmark” there is no link to the study on the website or information to guide readers so they could find it later. The story makes reference to new findings being based on a “small sample” but doesn’t say how small.

Crucially while it seems to suggest that pre-kindergarden schooling could make up for this gap, it presents no evidence for this. Intuitively, to solve this particular problem a big push to get parents to talk to their babies and small children would be much more effective since they spend much more time with them than any educator could.

Ironically there was a much better-explained story on the same issue also from the NYT back in April – but not alas in the print edition.

So Tim could you take this as a reasonable excuse to bring some important research to the public eye, and Motoko (whose work on the future of reading I have liked a great deal) could you go back to the piece online and tidy it up a bit if you get the chance?

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…

Bibliography

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/

22 June 2012
Filed under:journalism,Old media,Online media,research at12:55 pm

I’m writing a book chapter at the moment about the use of “user generated content” by journalists from the traditional media and to justify why I concentrate on the traditional media I thought I’d dig up a statistic or two about how dependent the public remains on traditional media for its news. I went looking for an update of Robert W. McChesney’s “The Titanic Sails On: Why the Internet won’t sink the media giants” written in 2000 and found his 2011 updated book The Death and Life of American Journalism. On page 17 I found this striking statement, “Harvard’s Alex S Jones estimates that 85% of all professionally reported news originates with daily newspapers and that he has seen credible sources place that figure closer to 95%”. Thinking this sounded like an interesting study I looked up the source and found Alex Jones’ book Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy. On page 4 he says, “my own estimate is that 85% of professionally reported accountability news comes from newspapers, but I have heard guesses from credible sources that go as high as 95%” (emphases mine). In other words either Jones has failed to cite his own research or (more probably) McChesney is reporting second hand and third hand guesswork.

This kind of thing really annoys me particularly when it takes me several minutes to get to the bottom of what turns out to be nothing more than a guess, and particularly when I know that there are a number of studies that discuss the sources of news with a greater deal of rigour. For example, there is How News Happens which argues that in Baltimore in 2009 95% of original news stories came from traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers (although its methodology has come under fire), or Paterson’s fascinating 2007 study showing that the leading online news sources (and to a lesser extent newspapers) are heavily dependent on news agency copy.

23 August 2011

It is certain that not enough children are reading books if by that you mean that children aren’t reading as many books as adults and particularly their parents would like but a BBC report of a new National Literacy Trust survey rather exaggerates and distorts the evidence.

The main problem is that it is a survey of 8-17 year olds but the statistics quoted aren’t broken down by age. Naturally eight year olds (who may not even know how to read adequately) are going to be significantly behind and will make the figures look worse. Also, the headline for the story given on the BBC News front page is “Pupils ‘prefer emails to books'” – a quotation that appears nowhere in the report. In the news piece and executive summary of the report it says “text messages, magazines, emails and websites were the top leisure reading choices of young people” which implies that’s what they like to read most but in fact the survey just shows that it’s what they read most often.

Lastly, I noted that the journalist said, “more girls admit they read text messages, magazines, emails, fiction, song lyrics and social networking message boards and poems than boys” – why “admit”?!

16 June 2011

The LSE recently hosted Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo who delivered a talk (MP3) about their new book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.  I had already read about some of their interesting findings– that a small incentive  to attend would encourage a big increase in immunisation among poor people (and reduce the cost per immunisation) and that even hungry people when given more money tend to spend it on better tasting food rather than more nutritious food.   I didn’t expect them also to comment on academic streaming and on electronic voting but in both cases they had interesting things to say about them from the developing world perspective.

Whatever the problems with electronic voting (and there have been many identified) there is some evidence that because they are more user-friendly for the less literate,  in Brazil they apparently helped  to increase successful voting by the poor and thus changed the political complexion in their favour.

As for academic streaming, a common argument against it is that the students who are less capable if they are all lumped together are not inspired by the example of more able pupils, and that the able pupils tend to get neglected because teachers have to concentrate on teaching to the lowest common denominator. This may be the case in some educational systems, but one study they highlighted found that less able students benefited significantly from streaming because, they suggest, teachers in India tend to concentrate on helping the most able students.

Although their work has been criticised in some quarters for neglecting the macrolevel systemic and political problems that cause difficulties for the poor, this seems to be mere quibbling–it is beyond the scope of even the most able scholars to give a complete picture of how to tackle poverty. Their approach which concentrates on finding the best solution to a series of common problems of the poor in different contexts using randomised controlled trials seem to me a refreshing and thought-provoking one and if you can’t afford the book I recommend you have a look around their extensive website which includes links to a profusion of relevant studies.

21 March 2011
Filed under:e-books,new authorship,research at11:03 am

I found it interesting that Stephen King’s experiments with e-book publishing seem to have been interpreted quite differently by two different authors I’ve been reading recently. According to Kovac’s “Here Comes the Book: Never Mind the Web: The Printed Book is Alive and Kicking” (p. 50, referencing Gomez “Print Is Dead: Books in Our Digital Age“), when, at the end of 1990s, King published his novel ‘The Plant’ electronic only “the outcome was disastrous, with sales … being at least five times lower than the usual sales of his printed books.” On the other hand, according to John B Thompson in “Merchants of Culture“, publisher expectations of the success of ebooks “…were also raised by the startling success of one of Stephen King’s experiments with electronic publishing. In March 2000 he published his 66 page novella ‘Riding the Bullet’ electronically, available only as a digital file that could be downloaded for $2.50: there was an overwhelming response, resulting in around 400,000 downloads in the first 24 hours and 600,000 in the first two weeks.” (p. 313). More recently, in 2009 (and too late for either author) Stephen King released “Ur” in Kindle-only form and it sold “five figures” in three weeks.

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