Reflections on Readings — Part III

This week in my Social Media Theory & Practice class, we really dug into the Clay Shirky book Here Comes Everybody. In Chapter 3, Shirky discusses at length the eroding line between amateurs and professionals. I agree with Shirky in that a “profession exists to solve a hard problem, which requires some sort of specialization” and that most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management.

Looking back at how I ended up in my current profession of higher education marketing, I can attribute that first step to an event in 1998. At that time, I was a sophomore in high school, intending to pursue a college degree in psychology so I could work with the criminally insane (I know, what was I thinking). I had studied psychology as an interest since middle school, and that was my desired career path — to someday become a clinical psychologist. As a hobby, I was also a reporter for my high school newspaper, The Upperman Times. I had been on the staff since 8th grade and was considered a good writer.

Well, in 1998, I co-authored a sports story on drug testing, and it ended up winning first place for sports story of the year in the TN High School Press Association Awards. That one award as an acknowledgement of my writing skill set me on a new career path — I wanted to be a journalist. I stayed on with my high school paper, eventually becoming Editor-In-Chief. I then went on to study journalism at Tennessee Tech University, and the rest as they say is history, with a few detours into editorial contracting work, reporting and 5 years at a local ad agency.

So, in the sense that Shirky describes, I do take myself seriously as a trained professional. I also agree with him that many in the journalism industry have had blinders on to the disruption of the Internet and now social media. My blinders were not so tightly sealed coming of age with the Internet and working in marketing/advertising. Shirky described this process best in simple terms that the costs for production, reproduction and distribution of media have all dramatically declined, and that the Web is not a competitor for print journalism, but rather a new ecosystem. 

I also think he makes a very interesting case for journalistic privilege (great topic for a media law paper!). That the right of journalists to grant promises of confidentiality in order to convince potential sources to cooperate is much harder to guarantee when the question now is “who is a journalist?” If now anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a journalist.

I thought this chapter of Shirky’s book dovetailed nicely with the article by Jay Rosen “The Twisted Psychology of Bloggers vs Journalists: My Talk at South by Southwest.” In this article, Rosen describes the same scenario of amateurs vs professionals, but in terms of bloggers vs journalists. I am not sure if I agree with Rosen (probably my internal indignation at work in the fact that I was educated/trained in the art of objective journalism, and in fact that opinion/editorial pieces were always difficult for me to write). I think that every reporter has an opinion on the story they are covering, but the heart of objective reporting is to present the facts and let the public form their own opinion (journalists and media are already influencing what the public thinks about with agenda setting).

I almost see objective reporting as a public service not to be tainted with opinionated, partisan efforts (like those of bloggers). On the flip side, I do follow Rosen’s logic — many of the historic examples we read about in journalism’s history are the muckrakers, making waves and “not preserving the facts” but challenging them for the social good.

And I think that ideal works in theory, but not practice — everyone takes a side. For me there is no altruistic venture in blogging, it is always to promote a cause that may or may not benefit the public good. Especially, when it is the public tendency nowadays to expose oneself to only those opinions that closely match one’s own — no diversity in thought; nothing to challenge your worldview. That is where I believe the facts are the most important — sort of like “the truth will set you free.” The facts don’t lie or take sides, they just are. And in a nutshell, that is where I have a problem with blogging being mixed up with the traditional profession of journalism. Its fine to be an advocate, but that does not in my mind replace the positive benefits of objective reporting.

Okay, off my soapbox and back to Shirky. Since I have read his other book, Cognitive Surplus, I thought Chapter 4 on publish, then filter really hit the points in that book. Editors used to serve the function of a filter, deciding what news gets printed, and today with notion of anyone can be a publisher, then how do we separate the good, quality content from the bad? In his other book, Shirky describes at length the concept of filter failure (not mentioned here) and how no good filter yet exists.

But for this chapter, I thought his explanation of user-generated content was good. He notes that user-generated content requires access to recreative tools (Flickr, Wikipedia, etc.) and that this is the way users create and share media with each other with no professionals involved. He also delved into a discussion on fame. Fame in this instance is the point where one’s status outgrows the ability to respond directly to and interact with fans/followers. This is not a function of technological limits, but social ones. The communication stops functioning as two-way and becomes one-way. 

I also thought that Shirky’s concept of a “community of practice” was good. As a higher ed marketing professional, I maintain membership in two organizations: American Marketing Association (AMA) and the TN College Public Relations Association (TCPRA). With my AMA membership, I have resources to national experts and peers to ask questions on forums, access to webinars for training and discussion, and opportunities for face-to-face conferences. It is less personal, but gives me access to things I don’t have at the university level. On the flip side, my membership to TCPRA is more personal. This organization provides direct interaction with peers (and competitors) across the state that work in the same kind of Communications & Marketing office that I do. These folks directly understand the challenges I face on a daily basis. We usually have one big 2-day conference a year (last year, TTU hosted) so we can meet face-to-face and interact at a professional level to gain ideas so that we all become better at our jobs. 

Another topic covered in at the end of Chapter 4 and more in Chapter 5 was the concept of non-financial motives — that you create content not for profit but because you enjoy it and want to share it with like-minded people. Shirky uses LiveJournal as an example. I agree with this — I have several book and TV fandoms I enjoy, and belong to email distribution lists for discussion groups and am an avid reader of fanfic. No one in these groups are in it for the money, but the shared interest and passion for content.

This leads to collaborative production where people have to coordinate with one another to get anything done, which is harder than just sharing. In Chapter 5, Shirky expounds on Wikipedia as a success model for how this process happens. In reading this chapter, I found a correlation between what Wikipedia has done and a social media page that I keep tabs on at the university I work at.

In addition to our main Tennessee Tech Facebook page that boasts 36,000+ fans, there is an organic student-driven page called Tennessee Tech Confessions that has 6,000+ followers. This page first caught my attention last year because it is using an official university logo, which is trademarked, as its profile picture. And since I function as the licensing manager for the university, my first instinct was to ask them to remove it. But after some internal office discussion, we decided to leave them alone and just check in on the page from time to time to see what kind of content is being shared.

Since this is a confessions page, a lot of content is meaningless fluff about someone’s secret crush to dorm life, but some of the content is enlightening. Sometimes students ask each other about professors and whether their classes are hard, or for tips on handling our frustrating parking situation. What I began to see over time was that this page for a select group of students was providing an outlet for expressing frustrations and ultimately sharing knowledge and helping each other. That is why we have left it alone. It is serving a purpose that can’t be handled by an administrative office, and any whiff of oversight would destroy what has been built. It has become an outlet for entertainment, venting and helping each other. 

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