#thedress for journalism educators

Black and Blue? Gold and White? What does #thedress mean for journalism educators?

The Dress Buzzfeed
Original Buzzfeed post has now had 38 million views.

At the time of writing, the original Buzzfeed post has just under over 38m visitors and 3.4m people have voted in poll at the bottom of the post. Slate created a landing page, aggregating all their posts including a live blog. Cosmo copied Buzzfeed. Time produced a quick post that included a cool little audio slideshowWired published a story on the science of why people see the wrong colours (white and gold). How can we use this in our teaching?

Nearly every single student in my big Introduction to Journalism lecture knew what I was talking about when I mentioned #thedress. I used it as a simple example to illustrate some core concepts for operating in a multi-platform or convergent news-based media  environment.

Multi-Platform Media Event

Journalists used to be trained to develop professional expertise in one platform. Until very recently this included radio, television or print and there was a period from the early to mid-2000s when ‘online’ existed as a fourth category. Now ‘digital’-modes of communication are shaping almost all others. We’ve moved from a ‘platform only’ approach to a ‘platform first’ approach — so that TV journalists also produces text or audio, writers produce visuals, an so on — and what is called a ‘multi-platform’ (or ‘digital first’, ‘convergent’ or ‘platform free’) approach.

When with think ‘multi-platform’, we think about how the elements of a story will be delivered across media channels or platforms:

  • Live – presentations
  • Social – Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, etc.
  • Web – own publishing platform, podcast, video, etc.
  • Mobile – specific app or a mobile-optimised website
  • Television – broadcast, narrowcast stream, etc.
  • Radio – broadcast, digital, etc.
  • Print – ‘publication’

‘Platform’ is the word we use to describe the social and technological relation between a producer and a consumer of a certain piece of media content in the act of transmission or access. In a pre-digital world, transmission or delivery were distinct from what was transmitted.

Thinking in terms of platforms also incorporates how we ‘operate’ or ‘engage’ with content via an ‘interface’ and so on. Most Australians get their daily news from the evening broadcast television news bulletin. Recent figures indicate that most people aged 18-24 actually get their news about politics and elections from online and SNS sources, compared to broadcast TV.

#thedress is a multi-platform media event. It began on Tumblr and then quickly spread via the Buzzfeed post to Twitter and across various websites belonging to news-based media enterprises.  It only makes sense if the viral, mediated character of the event is taken into account.  #thedress media event did not simply propagate, it spread at different rates and at different ways. The amplification effect of celebrities meant #thedress propagated across networks that are different orders of magnitude in scale. Viral is a mode of distribution, but it also produces relations of visibility/exposure.

New News and Old News Conventions

Consumers of news on any platform expect the conventions of established news journalism. What are the conventions of established news journalism?

  • The inverted pyramid
  • The lead/angle
  • Sourcing/attribution
  • Grammar: Active Voice, Tense
  • Punctuation
  • Sentence structure
  • Word use
  • Fairness

When we look at #thedress multi-platform media event we see different media outlets covered the story in different ways. Time magazine wrote the most conventional lead out of any that I have seen; the media event is the story:

Everyone on the Internet Wants to Know What Color This Dress Is
The Internet took a weird turn Thursday when all of a sudden everyone started buzzing about the color of a dress. A woman had taken to Tumblr the day before to ask a seemingly normal question: what color is this dress?

Cosmopolitan largely mediated between the two, both framing the story as an investigation into colour, but also reporting on the virality of the multi-platform media event:

Help Solve the Internet’s Most Baffling Mystery: What Colors Are This Dress?
Blue and black? Or white and gold?
If you think you know what colors are in this dress, you are probably wrong. If you think you’re right, someone on the Internet is about to vehemently disagree with you, because no one can seem to agree on what colors these are.

I’ve only include the head, intro and first par for Time and Cosmo and you can see already they are far more verbose compared to Buzzfeed’s original post. The original Buzzfeed post rearticulated a Tumblr post, but with one important variation:

What Colors Are This Dress?
There’s a lot of debate on Tumblr about this right now, and we need to settle it.
This is important because I think I’m going insane.
Tumblr user swiked uploaded this image.
[Image]
There’s a lot of debate about the color of the dress.
[Examples]
So let’s settle this: what colors are this dress?
68% White and Gold
32% Blue and Black

The Buzzfeed post added an ‘action’: the poll at the bottom of the post. Why is this important?

Buzzfeed, Tumblr and the Relative Value of a Page View

Buzzfeed COO Jon Steinberg addressed the question of the Buzzfeed business model by posting a link to this article back in 2010:

Some of its sponsored “story unit” ad units have clickthrough rates as high as 4% to 5%, with an average around 1.5% to 2%, BuzzFeed President Jon Steinberg says. (That’s better than the roughly 1% clickthrough rate Steinberg says he thought was good for search ads when he worked at Google.) BuzzFeed’s smaller, thumbnail ad units have clickthrough rates around 0.25%.

The main difference now is the importance of mobile. In a 2013 post to LinkedIN Steinberg wrote:

At BuzzFeed our mobile traffic has grown from 20% of monthly unique visitors to 40% in under a year. I see no reason why this won’t go to 70% or even 80% in couple years.

Importantly, Buzzfeed’s business model is still organised around displaying what used to be called ‘custom content’ and what is now commonly referred to as ‘native advertising’ or even ‘content marketing’ when it is a longer piece (like these Westpac sponsored posts at Junkee).

Buzzfeed
Image via Jon Steinberg, LinkedIN

On the other hand, Tumblr is a visual platform; users are encouraged to post, favourite and reblog all kinds of content, but mostly images. For example, .gif-based pop-culture subcultures thrive on tumblr and tumblr icons are those that perform gestures that are easily turned into gifs (Taylor Swift) or static images (#thedress).The new owners of Tumblr, Yahoo, are struggling to commercialise Tumblr’s booming popularity.

I had a discussion with the Matt Liddy and Rosanna Ryan on Twitter this morning about the relative value of the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post versus the value of the 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post. Trying to make sense of what is of value in all this is tricky. At first glance the 73 million views of the original Tumblr post trumps the almost 38 million views of the Buzzfeed post, but how has Tumblr commercialised the relationship between users of the site and content? There is no clear commercialised relationship.

Buzzfeed’s business model is premised on a high click-through rate for their ‘native advertising’. Of key importance in all this is the often overlooked poll at the bottom of the Buzzfeed post. Almost 38 million or even 73 million views pales in comparison to the 3.4 million votes in the poll. Around 8.6% of the millions of people who visited the Buzzfeed article performed an action when they got there. This may not seem as impressive an action as those 483.2 thousand Tumblr uses that reblogged #thedress post, but the difference is that Buzzfeed has a business model that has commercialised performing an action (click-through), while Tumblr has not.

No Shared Identity?

Mark Fisher‘s recent piece on “Exiting the Vampire Castle” earned a response (“B-Grade Politics“) from Angela Mitropoulos.

EDIT 27/11/13: See comments below. I am accused of individualising critique on the grounds it is ‘personal’.

I’ve removed the section that placed Angela’s comments in the context of her other recent online postings where she is critical of what I guess you could call ‘Leninist-brocialism‘. I have expanded the below to clarify my point (considering two people with PhDs do not understand it). Now I have structured this post as 1. very simple rearticulation of the two pieces and 2. an expansion of my point.

Put very simply: Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces approach the question of engaged political critique from different positions. From Mark’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to overcome the individualising mechanisms of capitalism. From Angela’s perspective the point of engaged political activity is to extrapolate from the ways we are exploited at a personal level to find the broader political dimensions. So far, not insurmountable differences.

The differences become insurmountable at the next level: For Mark, what he calls identitarianism is a kind of white-anting within progressive political movements, exacerbated by the way we are encouraged to project a version of the self through social media. For Angela, any move to elide difference is to betray a commitment to anti-racism and/or anti-sexism and to base critical engagement on a political subject that according to this logic is defined as straight, white and male.

Rather than finding some way to overcome these differences, the final level turns them against each other: Mark draws on Nietzschean notions of bad conscience, describing those who subscribe to Angela’s position as the ‘moralising left’. Angela suggests that by ignoring race and sex, Mark is ignoring how capitalist exploitation is actually played out, and maybe ironically (but unlikely) Angela suggests Mark’s post was about his own enjoyment. For Angela, because Mark is relying on a notion of class, he is basically reinscribing the identity-based politics that he is allegedly critiquing.

Good? I hope that is an adequate summary and that I have represented the different positions fairly. I had assumed readers of my original post had read both Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, and had a relatively sophisticated understanding of these issues.

My interest in this the relation between experience, identity and what Spinoza calls a ‘common notion’. Do we have a ‘common notion’ of living in capitalism? I believe Mark was trying to address this.

Of course, my understanding of ‘common notion’ is via Deleuze.

[Spinoza] always defines a common notion like this: it’s the idea of something which is common to all bodies or to several bodies—at least two—and which is common to the whole and to the part. Therefore there surely are common notions which are common to all minds, but they’re common to all minds only to the extent that they are first the idea of something which is common to all bodies. Therefore these are not at all abstract notions. What is common to all bodies? For example, being in movement or at rest. Movement and rest will be objects of notions said to be common to all bodies. Therefore there are common notions which designate something common to all bodies. There are also common notions which designate something common to two bodies or to two souls, for example, someone I love. Once again the common notion is not abstract, it has nothing to do with species or genera, it’s actually the statement [ÈnoncÈ] of what is common to several bodies or to all bodies; or, since there’s no single body which is not itself made up of several, one can say that there are common things or common notions in each body.

I read this in a number of ways. Following Massumi’s notion of “becoming-together”. Following Guattari and Negri’s notion of “new alliances” (PDF). Massumi is useful because he frames this ‘political economy of belonging’ in terms of the experiences shared by those who ‘become-together’. Experience for Massumi may very well be subjectively felt, but it is not ‘subjective’; it is pre-personal and through which the individual is individuated. Guattari and Negri’s notion is useful because it posits a ‘common consciousness’ apprehended by a ‘revolutionary imagination’ that serves as the ‘basis of the constitution of a future movement’.

Deleuze’s reading of Spinoza’s ‘common notion’ is framed in terms of sadness and joy. Sad affects are when bodies are acted upon in conditions that ‘do not agree’ with it, and ‘nothing in sadness can induce you to form a common notion’. On the other hand, joy is the condition of a ‘common notion’ (from Deleuze’s lecture):

One never makes progress on a homogeneous line, something here makes us make progress down there, as if a small joy here had released a trigger. Anew, the necessity of a map: what happened there that unblocked this here? A small joy precipitates us into a world of concrete ideas which sweeps out the sad affects or which is in the process of struggling, all of this makes up part of the continuous variation. But at the same time, this joy propels us somehow beyond the continuous variation, it makes us acquire at least the potentiality of a common notion.

I’ve written a great deal about how affective-complexes involving ‘joy’ and their relation to localised fields of knowledge are played out as ‘enthusiasm’ in working class subcultures.

Returning to the distinction between Mark’s and Angela’s respective pieces, I read both as suggesting that there cannot be a ‘common notion’, but for different reasons. Angela is arguing that racialised and sexed bodies are exploited more than straight, white and male bodies in the current composition of capitalist relations, and that there cannot be a ‘common notion’ across these differences if difference is elided; she writes:

That is, unless ‘success’ has been practically and more or less consciously defined as the recruitment of people who do not want to talk critically about race or gender politics, will not overly criticise those (white men) who present themselves as their ‘leaders,’ and who will actively curtail any committment to anti-racism or anti-sexism in the name of a ‘class unity’ magically redefined as essentially white and male.

Mark, on the other hand, is advocating what is common:

A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group. Class consciousness is always double: it involves a simultaneous knowledge of the way in which class frames and shapes all experience, and a knowledge of the particular position that we occupy in the class structure. It must be remembered that the aim of our struggle is not recognition by the bourgeoisie, nor even the destruction of the bourgeoisie itself. It is the class structure – a structure that wounds everyone, even those who materially profit from it – that must be destroyed.

Mark is using the word ‘class’ here in a specific way; class is necessarily based on the shared experience of living in a capitalist composition of social relations (“frames and shapes all experience”). This is an experience of exploitation in different ways depending on one’s particular position we occupy in the class structure. Already his piece is at odds with an approach which seeks to reduce individuals to their individualising identity. An appeal to a shared experience is problematic for those who believe that they do not share any experience. Class consciousness is a knowledge of this experience and a knowledge of our relational positioning in this shared experience. (At a very simplistic level: most of the commentary about Mark’s piece I have encountered online and offline begins by identifying and agreeing with his experience of ‘snarky social media’ .) Does a ‘brosocialist’ have anything in common with those who identify as queer and/or coloured? Is there a ‘common notion’?

Mark, secondly, is suggesting that the current compositions of capitalist relations encourage the circulation of sad affects and the erasure of what is common; enter his notion of the ‘Vampires’ Castle’:

the Vampires’ Castle seeks to corral people back into identi-camps, where they are forever defined in the terms set by dominant power, crippled by self-consciousness and isolated by a logic of solipsism which insists that we cannot understand one another unless we belong to the same identity group.

The ‘Vampires’ Castle’ is both structure and ephemera; it is an ‘assemblage’ in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense.  The ephemeral character of structure is really very difficult to even describe, let alone talk about. Deleuze discussed it in “What is structuralism?” and instead turned to the terminology of the ‘machinic’, etc.

My overall point, can we have positive identities or a positive sense of identity that is shared? Yes, of course. Mark is describing a situation where we are encouraged to misrecognise this shared dimension. Importantly, to return to Angela’s second point above, she pours scorn on ‘recruitment’. Clearly, she frames her identity in terms of the capacity to talk critically about race or gender politics. It would be interesting to know if Angela thinks she shares any dimension of experience at all and, if so, how does she police the boundaries of how this shared dimension is defined.

As a final additional point, it is amusing that Deleuze frames the development of adequate ideas (adequate ideas are when you appreciate the relations of causality in the balance between positive and negative affects) from common notions in terms of ageing:

Knowing how to age is arriving at the moment when the common notions must make you comprehend in what way things and other bodies disagree with your own.

Economies of Competence

I was forwarded the below email. I am posting it here with comment below for anyone who was also sent the email and who finds it as abhorrent as I do. I make a simple argument below to indicate its fallacies:

An economics teacher at a local school made a statement that he had never failed a single student before, but had recently failed an entire class. That class had insisted that Gillard/Brown socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer.
The teacher then said, “OK, we will have an experiment in this class on the Gillard/Brown plan”. All grades will be averaged and everyone will receive the same grade so no one will fail and no one will receive an A…. (substituting grades for dollars – something closer to home and more readily understood by all).
After the first test, the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. As the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too so they studied little.
The second test average was a D! No one was happy.
When the 3rd test rolled around, the average was an F.
As the tests proceeded, the scores never increased as bickering, blame and name-calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else.
To their great surprise, ALL FAILED and the teacher told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great, but when government takes all the reward away, no one will try or want to succeed. It could not be any simpler than that. (Please pass this on)
Remember, there IS a test coming up. The next election.
These are possibly the 5 best sentences you’ll ever read and all applicable to this experiment:
1. You cannot legislate the poor into prosperity by legislating the wealthy out of prosperity.
2. What one person receives without working for, another person must work for without receiving.
3. The government cannot give to anybody anything that the government does not first take from somebody else.
4. You cannot multiply wealth by dividing it!
5. When half of the people get the idea that they do not have to work because the other half is going to take care of them, and when the other half gets the idea that it does no good to work because somebody else is going to get what they work for, that is the beginning of the end of any nation.

The high school economics teacher who carried out this little experiment should go on some kind of sabbatical to give the teacher time to head back to university and learn some basic political economy. What is wrong with the logic of the email? It equates marks received during education with money. Such an obvious error leads me to believe an actual teacher would never actually carry out such an experiment.
Money is a quantitative measure. The difference between $74 and $75 is only a difference of $1. The difference between a mark of 74 and a mark of 75 is also a difference of one mark, but it is also the difference (at my university, at least) between a distinction grade and a high distinction. Marks are a quantitative measure of a qualitative difference.
Why is this an important distinction to make? You do not take part in education to get marks. You take part in education to get an education. When employed, you work to exchange whatever work you carry out for money; money then allows you to go do things. You do not exchange anything while being educated; the point of education is to be transformed at a basic level from someone without skills or knowledge to someone who has achieved a certain level of competence. Competence is qualitative. There are good and bad students just as there are good and bad teachers.
The worst possible conclusion to draw from the email’s example is that students take part in education so as to ‘accumulate’ marks and not for the explicit purpose of becoming competent. This is actually a common phenomena. Students will try to minimise the amount of effort and work required to learn and expect to achieve the same marks. They follow the exceptionally poor advice and embody the ideology contained in the email. They try to ‘game’ the marking criteria and assessment details so as to ‘accumulate’ marks rather than acquiring competencies. If you have children or friends who are studying at whatever level encourage them to study so as to learn.
People who embody the faulty logic of the email may find it hard to adapt or even imagine some other way of ‘working’ that is not premised on a market model (you work to accumulate some ‘number’ of something, be it marks, money or whatever). Clearly, they have not thought too hard about the various other non-market based economies that operate in most developed countries. Here are a few:
1. Children. How do you measure the ‘success’ of your offspring? In terms of how many you have? Maybe that is good in non-industrial or non-developed agrarian or nomadic societies. In developed countries we invest a huge amount of resources into our children. What sort of return do we get? We hope children will have a high quality of life. One’s quality of life can be represented in quantitative ways, but like educational assessments, the number represents a quality.
2. Education. I don’t mean for students, I mean for the teachers. People don’t become teachers because of some quantitative measure of success. They believe that they can make a difference in the lives of their students, help their students (and others) live better lives. If the local high school teacher did believe what was contained in the above email, then why are they working as a teacher? Surely they would work where they would maximise the economic return for their work?
This leads me to my overall point. Most of our activity as human beings is not carried out to get a quantitative reward. The love of parents or the care and consideration of teachers is more important to the future of Australia. That is why I find the email so offensive. It was written by someone with an axe to grind, but has clearly never thought about the purpose of education.
I won’t even bother engaging with the explicit political point of the email regarding the redistribution of ‘marks’ as if they were a form of money. The abject stupidity of the analogy makes me sad.

Goodbye to the News?

Nikki Usher‘s 2010 article in New Media & Society “Goodbye to the news: how out-of-work journalists assess enduring news values and the new media landscape” examines the goodbye letters, emails, speeches, columns and blog postings — “final musings” — of journalists who have been laid off, taken a ‘voluntary buyout’ or who have left the industry. Usher’s piece is somewhat polemical in tone at times, not that this is necessarily a problem, it just needs to be taken into account when digesting her arguments:

[A]ll these goodbyes reveal a silver lining – those that are being let go may be let go for business reasons, but they may also be the people failing to see the opportunities for new media and those who are unable to help newspapers be entrepreneurial in their attempts to come through the crisis they face. (924)

Usher analysed 31 ‘final musings’ as presented on the Poynter.org blog by Jim Romenesko. The terrific irony of this for anyone following the current state of journalism in the US is that Romenesko resigned from the Poynter Institute late last year after being accused of improper attribution by allegedly not using “quote marks” appropriately. The Romenesko blog was rebranded Romenesko+ and is now simply Media Wire. It is a brilliant example to use in my first lecture for my Online News unit this semester, in concert with Usher’s piece as a set reading, as we introduce and explore with students the role of ‘online news’ in the tensions of the current journalism industry.

Usher’s piece is a useful way to frame traditional understandings of journalism in the context of structural change. The analysis is useful for locating the prevailing culture of legacy print journalism in terms of the relation between individual experiences and the structural shifts that in part form their context. From a Foucaultian perspective Usher is isolating a ‘discourse event’ in the point of inflection between two discursive regimes and correlative compositions of power relations (dispositifs). Usher draws on Fredric Jameson’s conceptualisation of ‘nostalgia’ and Barbie Zelizer’s notion that rather than ‘profession’, US journalists should be understood as belonging to an ‘interpretive community’.

Usher’s use of Jameson’s ‘nostalgia’ begins with her arguing that journalists now work in a ‘post-modern news era’ (914). (What would be absolutely fascinating for me would be to revisit the so-called ‘Media Wars’ of the late-1990s in light of such a description. On the face of it, Keith Windschuttle and his ‘traditionalist’ supporters have lost.) She is mostly describing the shift Fordist modes of news production, which includes changes to reliable occupational routines of ‘newsroom’ work practices and changes to the status and function of the audience. The inherent double movement of Jameson’s nostalgia is that it is backwards oriented and forward directed. Nostalgia produces collective memories of the past while at the same produces a potential of a better future. The nostalgia of journalists, Usher suggests, also masks reality in that bias, corporate control and so on are not constitutive elements:

They are nostalgic for a time when journalism meant stability and economic security, and deeply believe that traditional print journalism contributed to democratic discourse and public service – masking the reality, perhaps, that their work may have helped sustain and perpetuate power structures. The old way of doing newspapers is threatened, and journalists are uncertain about the future. But significantly, they also fail to be forward-looking even as they are backward-looking: their nostalgia is self-limiting because it fails to produce a vision of the future that catapults traditional journalists into the new media world and new media economics. (923)

The current transformations to the legacy news industry serve as an example of what Zelizer calls the ‘interpretive community’. Usher writes:

Discourse about the changes in the news industry creates a discursive community of journalists. This, then, shapes shared meanings about the trials and tribulations journalists face and takes on the collective memory of ‘professional journalism’ in a pre-web, pre-blog, pre-newspaper slump era. (915)

Usher’s analysis is structured around four main areas of journalists’s discourse functioning as an ‘interpretive community’: 1) ‘Journalism as an ideal’ (916-9), 2) ‘New Media Economics’ (919-21), 3) confusion around what is being challenged or changed, mostly in terms of technology (921-2), and 4) a failure to be ‘forward thinking’ (923-5).

The basic tenets of journalism as an ideal are that journalism works in the public interest, it remains impartial, serves the voiceless and provides a crucial link in democracy (916). The ideal of journalism is to serve as ‘public service journalism’. Mark Deuze defines public service journalism as:

Journalists share a sense of ‘doing it for the public’, of working as some kind of representative watchdog of the status quo in the name of people, who ‘vote with their wallets’ for their services (by buying a newspaper, watching or listening to a newscast, visiting and returning to a news site). (447)

Deuze (2005: 448) notes that journalists can learn to have more responsive attitude to their ‘publics’ and therefore use this “age-old ideological value” as a wau to maintain the power relations of the status quo while learbing how to adapt to changing conditions. As Usher describes it, in the context of ‘prestige papers’ (such as the LA Times or New York Times), “these individuals want to reassert their claims to defining the public interest and determining what public service journalism is, rather than creating a more open conversation with a newly engaged audience of news producers and consumers” (917).

In the context of smaller, local newspapers this public service ideal is described in terms of a newspaper being a (more paternalistic than patronizing) ‘caretaker’ helping a public “interpret difficult ideas” and also sustaining local community by reproducing existing routines of newspaper communication and correlative power relations. Usher’s point is that this does not take into account those on- and off-line practices that reproduce ‘community’ that do not have the newspaper at the centre (918). Newspaper in general are seen to be arbiters of democracy in the idealized practice of highlighting the power relations that underpin existing governmental and market-based power relations. There was a general lament, Usher notes, that transformations to journalism are understood in terms of catering to the ‘market’ rather than ‘democracy’. ‘New media economics’ (and ‘new media technologies’) therefore become a threat to the democratic role of public service journalism. Political writer Michele Jacklin’s final column captures a sense of this when she writes, “As a substitute for hard news and insightful analysis, readers are served up a steady diet of splashy graphics, celebrity gossip and stories with the heft of cotton candy.”

In the Australian context, this tension between hard news and insightful analysis versus forms of content designed to increase website visitors and ‘hits’ is represented from the other side of the conflict by NineMSN.com’s online news editor Hal Crawford in his commentary about the Australian Federal Government’s Independent Media Inquiry posted to mUmbrella.com.

Real time data tell you exactly how popular a story is, and to maximise your audience size you need to weed out stories that no one wants to read. This kind of brutal treatment can be hard for an old school journalist to take.
Initially you may get upset that no one is reading the ‘important’ stories, but that arrogance fades quickly. Truly important stories rate. If some piece of news is going to change lives or become socially necessary or is just plain interesting, it gets traffic.

The NineMSN submission to the inquiry similarly seeks to problematise ‘quality journalism’:

The traditional view is that a key role for the news media is to be an independent monitor of government power and therefore quality journalism requires truth, accuracy and independence. We think it’s also important to acknowledge that that news media serves diverse roles. […]
For ninemsn the most important indicator of quality content is that it is trusted. Trust is the key concern for our news team because trust equates to brand reputation which drives of audience. […]
The traditional media are no longer small elite who serve as the gatekeepers of the news. Value in the digital news media is increasingly generated by interactions with users including the use of social media to provide commentary, share stories and drive traffic. News produced for digital platforms has to be a quality product if we want people to engage with our stories, to contribute their own insights and to participate in their dissemination.

The discourse surrounding ‘new media economics’ in Usher’s analysis is less important to my Online News unit this semester, but will be central to the second semester unit organised around ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurial journalism’. The second semester unit is designed to prepare students for a more market-oriented, audience-driven form of journalism at the level of producing individual stories through to the level of creating standalone ‘online media enterprises’. Usher’s analysis notes that individual journalists generally take structural shifts personally, and see their respective departures as a failure of ‘owners’ or ‘Wall St’ to recognise talent. This is important in an educational context because ‘talent’ is still recognised, of course; it is more a question of the character of the ‘talent’ and of the mechanisms of ‘recognition’.

Jacklin’s comments are also interesting in the context of the socio-technical practices and technologies that Usher suggests will assist journalism. She lists a number of “recommendations as the possible salvation for traditional journalism’s problems: increased social networking, conections with the audience, more multimedia platforms, crowd-sourcing, better forums, flash-graphics, newspaper-hosted community blogs and hyperlocal reporting, to name a few” (922).

Lastly, Usher notes that the article odes not mean to say that other journalists are not reconsidering with the public and “are deeply engaged in trying to understand what such things as user-generated content, blogging, comment boards, data-mining, crowd sourcing and the like might mean for their newsrooms” (924-5). She ends with a provocative question: “to what extent are non-traditional journalists concerned with the discourse about traditional news values and the idea of what it means to be a journalist?” My response, shared with other educators, is to work on developing units that hope to empower students when they hit the job market.

Exchange of persuasions and excitement

“From salesman to client, from client to salesman, from consumer to consumer and from producer to producer, whether competing or not, there is a continuous and invisible transmission of feelings — an exchange of persuasions and excitement, through conversations, through newspaper for example — which precedes commercial exchanges, often making them possible, and which always help to set their conditions.” (Gabriel Tarde in Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay “The Science of Passionate Interests”, 39)

My ‘festive season’ reading has largely consisted of Bruno Latour and Vincent Antonin Lepinay’s “The Science of Passionate Interests: An Introduction to Gabriel Tarde’s Economic Anthropology”. It makes for fascinating reading. The extent of my Tarde reading consists of his Laws of Imitation and the special 2007 issue of the journal Economics and Society on his work. (Oh, plus Tarde’s post-apocalyptic science-fiction novella!)

In The Science of Passionate Interests, Latour and Lepinay have produced a diagrammatic reading of Tarde’s masterwork Psychologie Economique (1902). They set up Tarde’s core problematic in terms of developing an adequate critical theory (or ‘science’) of economies that does not fall into the same mistakes as ‘economics’. Here are my notes to part one (1-32). The science part of it is a development of the notion that everything can be measured according to measures appropriate for their terms.

Latour and Lepinay begin with Tarde’s theory of value, and demonstrate its relation to subjectivity. For Tarde subjectivity refers to the “contagious nature of desires and beliefs, jumping from one individual to the next without ever […] going through a social context or structure” (9). Value extends to all desires and beliefs; it is made up of all the continual assessments we make. Bourdieu’s theories of cultural capital is also another way of critically engaging with non-economic economies of social and cultural value. The difference between the two is that Bourdieu’s focus is squarely the deployment of cultural competence and social esteem within structurated fields. Tarde and Bourdieu have different takes on the aquisition of value, for Bourdieu it is learnt as a product of imbrication in a field, for Tarde (immanent social) value is produced through the special interference effect of congruent practices of ‘imitation’, what he calls ‘invention’. Tarde’s value is a mmeasure of talent, Bourdieu’s is a measure of competence.

Tarde argues that economists did not make use of all the possible ways value can be quantified and they instead relied on, firstly, reducing all human behaviour to an ‘objective’ realm and, secondly, extending this reduction to all domains of human activity. Latour and Lepinay argue that economists format social relations. They do this by confusing two orders of measuring. The actual measured measurement that “captures the real state” (15) and the measuring measurement that formats the social world. Latour and Lepinay quote Tarde’s example of how the value of ‘belief’ is (re)produced by monks:

Priests and the religious have studied the factors involved in the production (meaning here reproduction) of beliefs, of ‘truths’, with no less care than the economists have studied the reproduction of wealth. They could give us lessons on the practices best suited to sowing the faith (retreats, forced meditation, preaching) and on the reading, the conversations and types of conduct that weaken it. (Tarde in L&L 15)

For Tarde it is a question of the laborious work of seeking out the specific values of any activity. Latour and Lepinay introduce the term valuemeter to refer to all devices whose specific function is to make visible and readable all the value judgements of what Tarde calls economics (16). The result is a metrology produced by chains of valuemeters. They provide the sociology of science as an example, where a metrology of learned literature “made visible and readable by the very extension of the quasi-currency we call credibility where, better than anywhere else, the very production of the finely differentiated degrees of belief plays out” (19).
The flaw in the approach of economists is to imagine they had to pursue a line of inquiry characterized by a “progress of detachment, objectivity and distance” (20). Latour and Lepinay provide money as an example of a ‘measuring measure’. What money measures, as a process of simplified registering for the purposes of capture (money as an ‘apparatus of capture’?), has kind of link to what is indicated by the numbers (21).

It would be a mistake to imagine, Latour and Lepinay warn, that as the number of metrological chains of valuemeters increases, there is a danger of shifting from passions to reasons, from the inter-subjective of Tarde’s social economy to the anemic economics of neoliberal markets, etc. Nor is it about finally recovering economic reason, but about how the economic rational is always thoroughly irrational. The solution to ward off the epistemological problem of false distance, built on a scaffold of irrationalities, is to properly appreciate value “from up close, in small numbers, and from the inside” (28). Latour and Lepinay are clear on this:

If there is, for Tarde, a mistake to be avoided, it is to take social facts “as things,” whereas, in other sciences, if we take things “as things,” it is for lack of a better alternative! How could sociologists abd, more surprisingly, economists, have had the crazy idea of wanting to imitate physicists and biologists through an entirely artificial effort at distancing, while the very thinkers they tried to imiate would give their right hands to find themselves at last close to particles, cells, frogs, bodies with whom they try top come into intimate association with the help of their instruments? (29)

The central problem has been to mistake the discipline of economics for the economy (31-32).