(A story of Twitter, academia, and old journalism trying to be new but failing.)
Okay first read this article on CNN about the new whitehouse.gov website, okay you can actually just skim the article and skip to the last three paragraphs. Yes, that’s me being quoted in that article, and yes you are correct that quote makes no sense. What the bleep was I talking about? Perhaps like many stories in the world of journalsim this is partly a story of being misquoted, but there is actually more to it than this. The way the reporter found me, and the context surrounding said quote, while perhaps not a unique story, is certainly illustrative of several trends and problems with old journalism, and perhaps more germanae to this audience, it is a telling story about the future of media and the importance of social networks.
On Tuesday (inauguration day) I was teaching until 11:15 (12:15 ET) and so missed the first part of Obama’s speech, but as class let out and I moved to the lobby of the Arts and Humanities building where they were showing the speech I quickly read through my Twitter feed, glancing over what the most prominent topics of conversation were. Not surprisingly one of the most “tweeted” about items was the introduction of a new whitehouse.gov website. So, following the speech I returned to my office and pulled up the new new site. I really had not looked at it much, perhaps two minutes total when my office phone rang. Now this is a particularly unusual occurence as most everybody I converse with contacts me through email. In fact most of the time when I get a phone call it is somebody else in the building or on campus looking to see if I am in my office as they were planning on stopping by. But when I answered a woman introduced herself as Lisa France a reporter from CNN.com. (In fact she spoke so quickly that following the conversation I did not remember her name, as I totally missed it the first time around, in fact I wasn’t even sure that I heard the CNN.com part of her introduction correct.) What I do recall from her introduction was her sense of relief at having actually reached a person, something in the realm of “thank God I reached someone.” (Not her words just my interpretation of them.)
(Okay quick time out here, I am about to do something pretty “stupid,” that is I am about to critique a major news organization, and while I certainly have problems with the way this played out, I do like making appearances in the press, not only does it help fullfil my vision of being a “public intellectual”—something I am not, but wish to be—but it perhaps more importantly feeds my ego. Yes, I did email the link from the article to my mom because I knew it would make her day . . .So critiquing said news organization is probably not a good way to get asked to be an “expert” again. And, I should also make clear that the reporter, Lisa France, was completely professional, personable, and polite through our whole conversation, this story is more about the forces that produced the process rather than her individual execution of the process.)
Lisa indicated that she was writing a story about the new website, was up against a deadline, and was looking for opinions from “experts.” She asked if I had had a chance to look at the site, to which I responded yes but only briefly, in fact I had just pulled it up. From this she proceeded to ask me a few questions about it, and what I thought. Not having had much time to look at the details of the site I responded with the broadest of characterizations . . .but here is where the story gets a bit confusing. In my comments I was comparing the new Whitehouse.gov site to Obama’s mybarackobama.com, and change.gov. Making the rather basic but important point that Obama had effectively leveraged social media to organize people, creating a digital network that produced the rather difficult to acheive effect of getting people to use online tools to produce change in the physical world. At some point in these comments I said a more complex series of terms, something like “digital networked organization tools” or even the more basic “social media.” There was some confusion about my terminology at this point and so I said something to the effect of “generally referred to as Web 2.0.” Now this conversation happened over a relatively short period of time, not more than two minutes. At this point, Lisa asked me to compare the two sites. Here I am willing to extend the benefit of the doubt and say she said compare the old whitehouse.gov site with the new one, but regardless because I had been talking about Obama’s prior use of websites I began to answer the question in terms of comparing the three iterations of Obama’s web presence (barackobama.com, change.gov, whitehouse.gov). From here the conversation continued perhaps another minute or so, with me talking about one set of comparisons and the reporter hearing me making another set. It is in this context that I said transitional, arguing that change.gov was perhaps a transitional site preparing people for what ought to become a more dynamic version of a government web presence, change.gov as the alpha version, whitehouse.gov as the beta, leading to something hopefully more dynamic in the future. Hence the confuisng nature of that quote. My context was totally separate from her’s. Now misscommunication happens (actually I am found of arguing that misscommunication is a structural necessity of communication as my students will tell you), but it is the particular nature of this conversation that lead to this rather stark communication issue, one that I think is illustrative of the problem(s) in journalism. Let me explain . . .
At the end of the conversation I asked Lisa how she got my name/decided to contact me. Her response was Twitter. Evidently she had used some combination of Twitter and Google to search for academics who could be an “expert” on the matter. (At some point she said “Thank God for Twitter,” which I took to mean “Twitter is a great way to find a source.”) If you look at the CNN article the fourth bullet point, next to the headline, says “Expert: New site is more dynamic than the official Bush White House site.” Through the course of the conversation I realized that she was merely calling in order to be able to write that line. A couple of interesting observations here. First the nature of the conversation didn’t particularly lend itself to me being an “expert” the entire conversation happening very quickly, and only covering the surface. I realize this is the nature of journalism, on TV you only get 30 seconds to make your point, but one this would clearly not have to be a limit placed on print journalism. More importantly I admitted early on that I had only looked at the site for a few moments, and thus didn’t really have much to say yet, but she was up against a deadline (more on this below) and thus just really needed the line “expert says” to legitimate the piece. Second, there are many others out there who are more qualified than me to comment on this both outside of academia and inside (I follow many people on Twitter who work outside of academia who would have much to add to this converation), my work is not particularly focused on the rhetoric of government websites, or digital politics, sure I have taught an undergraduate course in this, but I am by no means an expert (seriously if you want an expert you should consult Liz Losh at virtualpolitik). Heck my Ph.D. is an English one, not a Politics or a History one; I haven’t even spent that many hours looking at the history of federal government websites. If I worked in an English department and my title was Assistant Professor of English I doubt if I would even have been called. So there is this rather bizarree tension here where I am being asked to comment on something as an expert (because the institution authorizes me as such) but the object of said comment is meant to at the very least subvert said heirarchical instituional authority and expertise. Seriously how different could have this article been (and by different I mean better) if CNN reporters could quote the “Twitter stream” as “experts” I am sure that the stream of Twitter comments about the site were far more informative than my surface comments.
In the end it was pretty clear to me that she was writing for an article that had to be published within the next couple of hours, indeed it was on CNN within a few hours, and that the idea was just to have an article that was “signed” by an expert. In fact I got the distinct impression that I was not the first person she called (true or not I don’t know) and that she was just calling people hoping to find an expert (and by expert I mean someone with a title and three letters after their name) who would serve as the “stamp” on the article rather than developing it. Seriously though, go back and read the article, really it only says two things, one Obama has changed the whitehouse.gov site and it is better than the previous ones because experts say it is. Contrast this approach with this article at the NY Times, or Dave Winer’s post after the matter, or perhaps most importantly techPresident (which the article sites but does not link to????), these sites rather than break the news take the longer approach and are relfecting on the news. CNN gets caught here trying to break the news (but four hours after the inauguration this is already old news, but also being too fast to supply any meaningful analysis). How much better would this article be if they broke the news with one/two paragraphs within half an hour of the annoucement, and let people comment on the post, and then filtered the best comments to the top, or if they had taken the “long approach” and contacted somebody like Dave Winer or virutalpolitik to write the article. As a related note I think this points to the future of journalism, playing for the short long term, not trying to break the news, but helping to develop a conversation around stories and provide background and context (for a good example of this see The Daily Beast).
I thought about this because yesterday I was talking to a reporter from The Chronicle of Higher Ed who is doing a story on something that is in my area of expertise. The reporter spent far more time with me on the phone and as a result I am sure he will write a much better story (even if he doesn’t use any of the material I gave him), because at the end he asked the most important question anyone in any field can ask: “Who else should I be talking to?” In other words how else can we expand this conversation rather than how can I quickly close this off to produce a fixed/final work. (Granted The Chronicle piece will become a fixed article, but that is because it spent a lot more time in conversation.)
The other lesson here for academics is that network capital matters, if you want to get noticed build an online profile, give your stuff away for free and you will get noticed . . .but I have been saying that for a while, so I’ll end here.