AR; How YouTube videos frame the discussions about them

What is the relationship between a video posted to YouTube, and the comments that the video receives? This is the question that Edgerly et al. pose in a recent article. This is an interesting question. On the one hand, there seem to be some attractively trivial answers – well, comments reflect on the topic, tone, persons, or some other feature of the video (or of the previous comments) – but on the other hand, it’s worth looking into this supposedly trivial relationship, in order to find out the ways in which videos are able to frame the ensuing discussion.

According to the authors, who are lead by somewhat undefined normative considerations (it would be great to have high-quality discussions about important matters), there does seem to be a clear correlation between the topics and tone of videos, and the topics and tone of commentary – and since we can establish the temporal order of events (first came the video, and then the comments arrived), it’s perhaps warranted to suggest a causal relationship.

We find that videos have the ability to direct commentary in specific ways. For each of the topics […] the considerations brought up in the video were more likely to be mentioned in the subsequent commentary. […] We also found that the tone of videos can also affect the tone of comments.

According to the authors, this is good news, because this means that there is likely to be some kind of common ground between commenters, given the topical (and tonal) focus of videos. At the same time, the authors also note that YouTube itself is very much an open platform that can host deliberative discussions just as well as “idle chatter and incivility.”

One interesting point about this article is its treatment of incivility, associated with yelling and swearing in videos, and “profanity and pejorative language” in comments. I’m not sure this is a fruitful way of operationalization. The article itself cites Papacharissi’s famous article from 2004; but then it seems to ignore her important distinction between being impolite and being uncivil. A similar point is made in a recent article by Goode et al.:

[…] the serious and the frivolous, the rational and the emotive, the civic and the carnivalesque, are not so easily prised apart. YouTube is as much village tavern as town hall and the crowd is not so easily dispersed. […] YouTube remains a noisy, messy place that brings people into strange new forms of contact with other people.

So, there is worth in all that noise and mess – labeling it all uncivil risks weakening the power of analysis.

Edgerly, Stephanie, Emily K. Vraga, Kajsa E. Dalrymple, Timothy Macafee & Timothy K. F. Fung (2013): “Directing the Dialogue: The Relationship Between YouTube Videos and the Comments They Spur,” in Journal of Information Technology & Politics, DOI: 10.1080/19331681.2013.794120

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AR; Search engines and ontological security

“To be ontologically secure is to possess, on the level of the unconscious and practical consciousness, ‘answers’ to fundamental existential questions which all human life in some way addresses,” writes Giddens. What does Google have to do with this?

Quite a lot, argue Sanz and Stancik, authors of a recent paper in NMS. They suggest that search engines are important creators of ontological security: whatever we might be actually searching for, Google and co. help us find answers, or at any rate pretend to find answers, to higher level questions- answers which can satisfy us at some level (although this level might not be that of discursive consciousness). “Search turns chaos into control” – or perhaps the illusion of control, but such an illusion is the next best thing.

I don’t think these are revolutionary ideas to anyone familiar with e.g. Carey, and ritual models of communication in general. But it’s very interesting to see some empirical, hard data that is used as, if not their substantiation, then at least their illustration. For instance, there apparently is a statistically significant correlation between a general sense of trust in others and internet use – and it seems that this is a two-way relationship.

Using search engines, then, is often seen as a solitary activity – in the concrete sense, as well as in the sense that one’s search results are often personalized. But while pursuing such a solitary activity, we’re only getting a clearer sense of ourselves – in relation to the community of everyone else.

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The importance of being serendipitous

At a recent seminar (hosted jointly by the Royal School of Library and Information Science and KU’s Centre for Communication and Computing), I had the chance to listen to Lennart Björneborn‘s talk about serendipity. The history of science is full of examples of “happy accidents,” from the discovery of penicillin to that of post-its – and in general I wholeheartedly agree with the point that it’s important to “plan for the unplanned.”

The problem is, of course, that doing so is quite difficult. It is not easy to create work environments conducive to serendipitous discoveries, because what counts such seems to depend very much on individual factors. Remember that bit in The End of Eternity, where technicians from the future can consciously alter the rate of scientific development by e.g. rearranging items on a scientist’s bookshelf? For better or worse, we’re not quite there (yet?).

But the point immediately relevant to me is that, according to Björneborn, algorithmic recommendation systems – from Amazon to Google News and Spotify – are “great serendipity engines:” they seem to be very good at suggesting content that is interesting, inspiring, and that we would’ve missed otherwise.

If this is so, perhaps social news sites are the best serendipity engines – although sometimes I’m afraid that it’s also difficult to find a balance between procrastination (getting distracted) and productivity (getting inspired).

And of course there’s still that big if: what if all this serendipitous content that we get recommended is all fundamentally the same? Nod to Sunstein, Bohman and others: what we society needs is not just serendipity, but individuals’ exposure to markedly different contents and ideas- such that we could not be exposed to through recommendations which come from people just like ourselves.

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AR; Liquid news online

Online news are different: the forms they take, and the contents they deliver, have the capacity of constant change, partly under the influence of readers. There has been a lot of talk about the peculiar nature of online news; Michael Karlsson‘s recent paper is an attempt to synthesize theories and to propose a method of measuring – what he labels, with a tip of the hat to Zygmunt Bauman – the liquidity of online news.

A set of eight variables is proposed to measure liquidity. I think it’s an impressive project, even though there still seems to be some kinks to iron out in the proposed methodology; such as the creation and calibration of a scale. How to interpret different degrees of liquidity?

(For more on such issues, head over to my colleague Aske Kammer’s blog.)

Karlsson, Michael (2012): “Charting the liquidity of online news: Moving towards a method for content analysis of online news” in the International Communication Gazette, 74(4), 385-402.

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AR; Wire agencies and PR

Looking at (online) news production from a perspective influenced by theories of political economy, Susan Forde and Jane Johnston show in a recent article “how wire agencies can become the de facto distributor of PR material.” It’s an interesting read in the latest Journalism Studies; I have two small points of comment.

First- instead of sampling newspapers or other media outlets, and trying to see what percentage of their contents came from wire agencies, the authors followed stories originating from “government and political [PR] offices,” e.g. the office of PM Julia Gillard. They then checked how the PR-releases are filtered (or not) by wire agencies, and then how newspapers pick up (or don’t) the agencies’ stories. What is interesting though is that stories published by such sources turned out to fall into one of 4 different categories: press releases, transcripts of press conferences, transcripts of speeches, and: transcripts of interviews with media.

Transcrips of interviews. So, in a Shyamalian turn of events, the study also seems to illustrate Luke Goode’s point on “metajournalism:” in a sense, there is no original journalism; everything in the press only builds on information previously available.

Second- Forde and Johnston do not overemphasize the normative principles underlying their study, but they do allude to “potentially negative implications for news diversity.” Wire agencies shouldn’t become de facto distributors of PR material, they seem to suggest, because this is likely to favour commercialism, to the detriment of the public good that journalism is supposed to serve.

I agree. But I was also reminded of John Hartley’s article from 2008, which tries to look at things in a broader perspective: maybe journalism as we know it today is only a transitional, temporary form; maybe we have to change our expectations towards journalism, and realize that in a world of hyperconnectivity, everyone might have to take on the responsibilities of editors – pretending otherwise would mean fooling ourselves.

Forde, Susan and Jane Johnston (2012): “The News Triumvirate – Public relations, wire agencies, and online copy” in Journalism Studies, iFirst Article, 1-17.

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AR; Candidate winnowing, and what the “Internet” is

Journalists, through their pre-selecting candidates in primaries, are a crucial part in election campaigns: the more they consider a candidate worthy of attention, the easier it will be for this candidate to raise funding. But the more funds a candidate raises, the newsworthier they will become, in a self-reinforcing process. So far, so good; a recent paper by Todd L. Belt, Marion R. Just, and Ann N. Crigler illustrates this winnowing of candidates through the example of the 2008 US presidential primaries.

There is one point in the article that left me puzzled. After comparing candidate coverage across “a wide range of traditional and new media, including […] legacy and web-native Internet news,” the authors conclude that “the tone of Internet news was slightly more balanced than [that of] traditional outlets.” They also suggest that “although the Internet has the potential to offer substantial in-depth coverage, preoccupation with the horse race dominated the web as it did traditional outlets.”

– none of which is terribly surprising if you consider the online outlets that were included in the sample: CNN.com, Yahoo! News, MSNBC.com, Google News, and AOL News. Mainstream media, when put online, won’t stop being mainstream media. In other words, I think that the diversity potential of the web, if there is such a thing at all, stems from the fact that it makes a large number of (potentially) smaller, alternative, non-elite, non-mainstream sources available. Granted: sampling online sources is always difficult. But I still think that equating “the Internet” with these 5 sources is somewhat unfortunate.

Todd L. Belt, Marion R. Just, Ann N. Crigler (forthcoming): Handicapping the Candidates in Newspapers, on TV, Cable and the Internet. International Journal of Press/Politics.

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AR; Social recommendation of news

Facebook and Twitter are become a “significant source of news for Canadians,” argues a paper very soon to be published in Journalism Studies (it’s already available on the web). This is perhaps not surprising- after all, a lot of news producers are doing the best they can to have their readers do the hard work of distribution for themselves; and social networking site users generally tend to have considerable trust in their circles of friends as editors.

The question, for me, is whether these “circle of friends” could include “friends” on social news sites too. Do users consider news on Reddit more (or less) trustworthy in the light of the particular nature of the editorial board? I wonder.

(“Trustworthy” would not be the first word that I would describe Reddit by, but considering my own experience, I wouldn’t find it all out of place, either. Not because the articles themselves posted would be of uniformly high quality, but because the community seems to do a great job in correcting all sorts of errors. But maybe I’m just lucky with the subreddits I follow.)

Alfred Hermida, Fred Fletcher, Darryl Korell, and Donna Logan (2012): “Share, Like, Recommend – Decoding the social media news consumer”, Journalism Studies, iFirst article, 1-10.

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