Reflections on Readings

I think I have confused myself with the dates on the class syllabus – I think I should have posted this last week. I am blogging on readings for my Social Media Theory & Practice Class #SocialJ #J7330 that I am taking at the University of Memphis. As noted in my bio, I am a grad student pursuing an M.A. in Journalism, and by the way, the online program I am taking rocks!

I wanted to start by sharing my thoughts on the first two chapters of Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody. I have previously read Cognitive Surplus by this same author and found it a good read. Shirky has a talent for using detailed stories to convey his message. He begins the book with a lost cellphone and demonstrates the power of the Internet, social media and human persistence in the recovery of the phone along with the arrest of the person who ended up with it. He defines a large portion of people who became connected/interested in this story as the “former audience.” The former audience are people who react to, participate in and even alter a story as it is unfolding. Since people are more dramatically connected to each other than ever before using online tools, there has been a power shift from traditional media to this new audience. It is important to note that although there are altruistic stories like the lost cellphone that represents a human interest in seeking justice, these new social tools extend not only our essential social skills, but our characteristic social failings as well (i.e. trolling, flaming and schadenfreude).

We recently saw an example of this at the university where I work. After a winter storm left some of the sidewalks and steps icy, a student sat in the cafeteria overlooking a back parking lot and filmed students, faculty and staff repeatedly slipping and falling down a set of steps. The student went so far as to set the video to music and post on YouTube. In the time it would have taken to alert campus facilities to fix the problem, this student instead wanted a funny video of other people getting hurt.

Getting back to the book, Shirky notes in the first chapter that for most stories like the lost cellphone to be successful, they must have a “plausible promise” that means the story inspires interest, yet achievable enough to inspire confidence of the desired outcome. I think this holds true as well for stories that achieve high interest from traditional media.

Another concept that struck a chord with me is when Shirky described the institutional dilemma. He defines this as because the institution expends resources to manage resources, there is a gap between what these institutions are capable of in theory and in practice. As I recently took on more administrative and managerial duties at my university job, I can see this at the office level — managing people is tough. There is a way in your head that the workflow should go, and then you throw people and emotions and their motivations into the mix, and that plan goes out the window. I am right now grappling with ways to help project management. We have two revenue accounts in our Communications & Marketing office that charge university departments back for services rendered. These are Photo Services and Creative Services. They start out each year in a negative balance in their revenue accounts and must dig their way out. Right now, I am unraveling the knot of how production gets slowed down and jobs end up not getting billed out, which hurts our office’s bottom line. So I am getting firsthand experience with the institutional dilemma.

Shirky’s second chapter focused on sharing, groups and community. I have always known that getting universal agreement in large groups was difficult, but had never heard it referenced as the Birthday Paradox. I expect to experience this up close and personal at an upcoming Presidential Cabinet meeting where our office will be presenting new visual identity graphics to the highest level administrators at the university — talk about showtime 🙂

I also agree with Shirky’s statement that the collapse of transaction costs makes it easier for people to get together, ease of assembly. He covers material here that was also in the Cognitive Surplus book, specifically the ladder of participation. This is where one goes from sharing (awareness) to cooperation (creation) to collective action (responsibility). I also appreciate that he recognizes that in today’s world, this often translates into content of the lowest denominator (i.e. lolcats). However, there are examples of people doing the right thing for positive, meaningful social change (i.e. #freemona example in the Zeynep article).

I though the articles were good that went along with the book readings. I thought Seth Ashley’s piece was particularly insightful. It is easy to get caught up in the do-gooder potential of the Internet and social tools, but don’t forget that current media power is highly concentrated, especially with gatekeepers like Google and tech giants like Amazon and Facebook. Also, he noted that many of these powerful companies keep detailed data on consumers that is worth a literal fortune in terms of advertising and marketing potential. As for the two articles of pro versus con on if the Internet makes you dumb or smart, I fall on the side of smart. Yes, multitasking does derail your focus, but I believe it you have fundamental skills such as reading/writing (outside of the Net), then you can adapt to today’s 24/7 world just fine. Being connected at all times and able to juggle multiple projects is just a fact of modern work culture. My first photo on my #photoaday project on Flickr was of my new work phone — I was excited to get an iPhone, let alone let my work pay for it, but I knew beforehand that it came with a price, which is my availability and ability to be contacted and respond at a moment’s notice.

As for the article on “The Natives Aren’t Restless Enough,” I agree with the author Derek Willis that most communication students today would classify themselves as digitally savvy, but have no real concept of what that means. They may play with the tools but have no understanding of strategy in terms of using them effectively. I’ve also in general seen a decline in the quality of writing from students in my university’s journalism program and in the basic organization of a story. I believe that in order to be a good writer, you must be a good reader (reading not just other news, but books both fiction and non-fiction). I also agree that coding and technical skills should be a fundamental part of any undergraduate communications/journalism program.


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