Category Archives: Technology

The struggles of a news civilian, cont’d: Three views on politics and tech news

My struggles as a news civilian largely fit into two categories:

First, as a civilian who lacks salary-supported info-consumption time, I struggle to get through the never-ending queue of smart/worthwhile/interesting news. And it feels like news soldiers, who do have that time and are otherwise consumed by info consumption, don’t understand that people outside the industry might be like me.

Second, there is also a never-ending queue of pointless/time-suck news, but many news organizations and journalists don’t distinguish worthwhile news from pointless news. (Or industry economics don’t allow them to distinguish the two.)

I’m not talking about TMZ and celebrity gossip. I’m talking about the extremely high percentage of “news” — from the AP, NPR’s daily news shows, tech news orgs, almost every news org that covers politics, etc. — that to the average person is literally trivia, as useful (and useless) to their everyday lives and thoughts as a game of Trivial Pursuit. As a news civilian, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care.

Because news orgs continue to shovel this trivia toward me without explaining why it’s important or rethinking whether they should be producing it, I grow to suspect and resent them and feel less bad about my lack of info-consumption time. Or I continue to waste time on this news  and grow to resent myself. Down that road lies some combination of info-numbness, self-hatred, and a (further) tuned-out citizenry.

Three recent blog posts illustrate my second struggle.

Here’s Brian Lam, in his awesome post about reducing “the overage of technology and noise” in our lives to increase happiness:

I stopped reading the stupid hyped up news stories that are press releases or rants about things that will get fixed in a week. I stopped reading the junk and about the junk that was new, but not good. I stopped reading blogs that write stories like “top 17 photos of awesome clouds by iphone” and “EXCLUSIVE ANGRY BIRDS COMING TO FACEBOOK ON VALENTINES DAY.” And corporate news that only affects the 1%. Most days, I feel like most internet writers and editors are engaging in the kind of vapid conversation you find at parties that is neither enlightening or entertaining, and where everyone is shouting and no one is saying anything. I don’t have time for this.

Ezra Klein, on the “tornado of idiocy that is American politics“:

“Most people don’t care about politics,” [UCLA political scientist Lynn Vavreck] said. “They’re not running around with these preformed opinions in their head. They worry about what they’ll make for dinner and how to get their kids to bed. And that hasn’t changed. For us, that’s an alien world. We think about politics all the time. But we’re not normal. The 24-hour news cycle has not really affected the average American who isn’t into politics. And that’s really important to remember.”

I think most people in Washington believe voters would make better decisions if they spent more time following politics. But I spend a lot of time following politics, and quite often, I couldn’t be happier that voters are tuning out the inanities that obsess this town.

And Om Malik, reflecting on recent news about tech executives changing jobs (via Alexis Madrigal’s awesome essay on app/tech stagnation):

Sure, these are some great people and everyone including me is happy for their new gigs and future success. But when I read these posts and often wonder to myself that have we run out of things to say and write that actually are about technology and the companies behind them? Or do we feel compelled to fill the white space between what matters? Sort of like talk radio?

Something’s percolating here. Can anything be done about it on more than an individual level?

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The ‘game mechanics’ misnomer: Why gamifying the news is so challenging

Chris O’Brien of the San Jose Mercury News has launched NewsTopiaville, an interesting project that will “explore how game mechanics can be applied to reinvent the way we produce, consume and interact with news.” The project is ambitious, interesting, and worthwhile.

But I want to clarify something about the term “game mechanics,” which I think is being misused — or at least oversimplified — in the gamification discussion. Without understanding the term’s fuller context, there’s a risk of masking the challenges of gamifying the news.

In the gamification discussion, “game mechanics” typically refers to (in O’Brien’s words) “features like leaderboards, progress bars, rewards, badges, and virtual goods.”

These are indeed game mechanics; I would categorize them as “motivational” or “psychological” mechanics.* (UPDATE: See footnote for another definition.) They can be a big part of what makes people keep playing a video game — what makes us want to play for just five more minutes (which inevitably turns into two hours) to reach the next goal.

But motivational mechanics are not the only kind of game mechanics.

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Groupon Stores is another big blow to local news organizations’ revenue hopes

Figuring out how to better serve local businesses and connect those businesses to readers is a big part of local news organizations’ hopes and ideas for making money online.

Facebook’s Deals platform, announced in November, was a blow to these hopes. Now Groupon has piled on with its Groupon Stores platform.

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Data journalism needs to be more than external data sets

Paul Bradshaw has a good column at Poynter about how the increasing availability of data will force journalists and news organizations to change:

Data journalism takes in a huge range of disciplines, from Computer Assisted Reporting (CAR) and programming, to visualisation and statistics. If you are a journalist with a strength in one of those areas, you are currently exceptional. This cannot last for long: The industry will have to skill up, or it will have nothing left to sell. …

So on a commercial level, if nothing else, publishing will need to establish where the value lies in this new environment, and where new efficiencies can make journalism viable. Data journalism is one of those areas.

Journalists should read and heed everything Bradshaw writes. But it’s important to make sure the discussion of data doesn’t get too narrowly confined to external data, without considering how journalism itself fits holistically into the data-centric future.

The big challenge for news organizations isn’t just how to better ingest, analyze, and present extant external (if sometimes hard-to-access) data sets. Inculcating a new skill set industrywide may be non-trivial as a matter of scale and institutional-cultural inertia, but at least that skill set is pretty well defined.

Rather, the trickier and less-addressed challenge for news organizations is how to turn the raw materials and finished products of non-database journalism into data.

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How the Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact can make ALL political coverage better

Today’s 2010 Knight-Batten Symposium gave me visions of political debates and speeches transformed from exercises in sound-bitery and emotion into civic lessons and conversations.

It gave me visions of political news stories that provide context not just about the issue at hand, but also context about the people at hand.

(Also, it gave me the vapors. But mostly just visions.)

Here’s one vision:

On TV, political debates display a fact-check tally for each candidate (how many true, truthy, lying-liar, etc. statements each candidate has made). Fact-check details about a particular statement are displayed as soon as they’re available.

No more useless meters showing allegedly uncommitted voters’ emotional reactions:

Instead, imagine if the debate screen looked like this (well, imagine a non-crappy-mockup version that looked vaguely like this):

Here’s another vision:

Online, any streamed speech, debate, or hearing displays a combination of fact-checking material, aggregated contextual material, real-time commentary and public reaction. Any story or video that mentions politicians displays some combination of:

  • Fact-checking details for that person’s recent statements (any of their statements and/or recent statements related to the story being viewed)
  • Campaign contributions to that person from individuals/organizations related to the story’s subject.
  • The candidate’s biggest contributors (individuals/organizations and industries).
  • Lobbying information for the person and/or their staffers
  • If in office, recent votes the person has taken related to the story’s subject.
  • Biographical information about the person.

Now here’s the great thing about these visions: The Sunlight Foundation and PolitiFact have pretty much already fulfilled them!

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Why Sony’s iTunes competitor will fail – and how they could (but won’t) make it work

Back when the Playstation 3 was in the works, I wrote a lot about Sony’s misguided strategy for the console. My doomsday scenarios haven’t come true, but the company is definitely struggling — losses are projected at $674 million this year after $2.6 billion in losses last year, according to BusinessWeek. (“The two worst-performing products: TVs and video games.”)

So it’s great to see Sony has more dynamite ideas up its corporate sleeve. Like building an iTunes-like service. Because everyone knows consumers are looking for yet another site where they can pay to download movies/shows, music, and books!

Surely Sony has some secret sauce that’ll make this service stand out from the zillions of other similar services, both living and dead. Take it away, BusinessWeek:

Sony will try to differentiate its service from iTunes. One example: Users will be able to upload videos shot on camcorders, save photos taken with digital cameras, and post other digital content to their personal online accounts. … At some point down the road, Sony would consider letting independent software developers create applications for the service, much the way Apple does for its iPhone.

[Slaps forehead as crickets chirp.]

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Why pinball disappeared, and why it’s not coming back (sigh)

When was the last time you played pinball?

If you’re a normal person — i.e. you don’t make pilgrimages to arcade “museums”, like I do — I’d guess a decade or more. Where would you even find one to play? The only place I know of in D.C. that has pinball is the Black Cat (Attack From Mars and Spider-Man, I believe).

I thought about pinball’s physical disappearance as I watched Tilt: The Battle to Save Pinball the other night. The 2006 documentary charts the inexorable decline of Williams’ pinball division, as the pre-eminent pinball maker of the ’80s and ’90s tried to “reinvent” pinball at the turn of the millennium.

While Tilt studiously avoids positing a direct cause for Williams’ demise, its subtext is pinball’s cultural disappearance. After all, Williams wouldn’t have needed to make pinball relevant again if it were still part of the culture. But it’s hard for something to stay culturally relevant when people rarely encounter it.

Pinball didn’t reach the brink of extinction — Stern is the only manufacturer left — because people lost interest, but because people forgot pinball even existed. And for this we can’t blame Williams’ doomed-from-the-start Pinball 2000 initiative, Jar-Jar Binks (who played a role in said doomed initiative), or simple disinterest and flipper fatigue. Rather, pinball disappeared from the American cultural map because the one place where most people encountered pinball — the arcade — disappeared, rendered irrelevant by the home-video-game boom heralded by the first Playstation.

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