What is an area of interest?

It is the first week of classes and this week in my Online News unit I’ll be doing the regular introductory spiel, which includes introducing some of the main concepts to be developed with students. The central concept for this week is an ‘area of interest’, which is what an entrepreneurial journalist looks for when devising a strategy to service a community of interest and develop a media enterprise. To introduce the concept of an ‘area of interest’ to students I am using an example provided by a post to Boing Boing last week titled Sunset of a Blog, which provides a narrative of the rise and decline of a special interest site.

The site is Wi-Fi Networking News and it was created and run by tech journalist Glenn Fleishman. It is a useful example for my Online News students to begin thinking about an area of interest. A chronology of the site begins in 2001 when Glenn identified a niche regarding ‘wifi hotspots’ derived from a story he had written for The New York Times. The peak of the site occured in 2006/2007 when Glenn was writing about issues relating to ‘municipal wifi’ and the debate around technology standards.

The forms of content posted to the site fits with what my students will be engaging with this semester (here is some writing of mine that captures some earlier thinking on the subject):
1. News, described as “Mixed straight technology reportage”, i.e. the 5Ws & 1H.
2. Opinion
3. Curatorial, which Glenn describes as “Normal link-to-others blogging”
4. Evergreen, which is not actually isolated as a specific form of content in Glenn’s account, but it is evident from his comment that the “most popular page of all time is how to set a password on a Linksys model that hasn’t been sold for a few years”.

The site was successful enough for Glenn to be able to develop revenue streams of ‘up to tens of $1k per year’ from sponsorship and then later advertising. Ultimately however, the amount of work he was investing into the site was unsustainable. Glenn describes this from the point of view of other similar niche market sites as requiring “at least some moderate recurring income”.

At its peak the site had a market/audience of up to 250k views per month, and this has dropped off to 25k per month. Glenn suggests the decline was due to other media enterprises learning the ‘lessons’ of blogging practice; they “took mojo away from sites that couldn’t market to existing large readerships”. Hence the site lost market/audience share to general tech blogs/sites (Ars Technica, Engadget, Gizmodo, Boing Boing) and “hundreds upon hundreds of similar but inferior sites.

The above is a very basic ‘barebones’ description of an online media enterprise. Over the course of the semester, my students will be developing a case study of an ‘opportunity’ similar to what Glenn Fleishman identified and then acted upon back in 2001. In terms of defining the concept of an area of interest, there is plenty more conceptual detail.

Here are a few ways of understanding an ‘area of interest’ drawing on a couple of different academic areas:

Affective: Interest is one of the primary affects described by clinical psychologist Silvan Tompkins. ‘Interest’ is that moment which the body orientates itself to be attentive to a particular environmental signal. It is a pre-consciousess action of the body. It exists as a functional component of various ‘activation contours’. An ‘activation contour’ describes the process by which affect accelerates in your body turning interest into ‘excitement’, or ‘shame’ concurrently with interest. Content has to be ‘of interest’.

Enthusiasm: Another way to think about ‘interest’ that builds on this basic affective dimension is in terms of ‘enthusiasm’. Enthusiasm is a complex affection (‘affection’ being the experience of the body experiencing itself producing affects). We ‘suffer’ affections, but not necessarily in a bad way. Enthusiasm is interesing (pun intended) because it mobilises enthusiast bodies into action to engage with challenges. Content is characterised, in a general sense, by identifying and describing such challenges. Evergreen content is a prime example of translating ‘know-how’ for engaging with challenges into discourse.

Social: Depending on the context this could be described as ‘socio-technical’. An area of interest is ‘social’ in the sense of enabling the audience/users to participate in a community (imagined/symbolic and/or practical). News-based content serves as a gatekeeping ‘test’ for belonging and, for more extensive engagement, participation. The audience/users participate in economies of competence that may be expressed as allegience (‘fanbois’, political/social stratifications) and authority (‘respect’, authenticity). In Bourdieu’s terminology, an area of interest is a ‘field’, but with some important qualifications, namely it may not necessarily be professional, plus there is a strong ‘horizontal’ set of distinctions that appear to be ‘vertical/hierachical’ from within a field.

Dispositif: For those who read Jay Rosen’s blog, you may have realised that I am assuming that news-based content, above all else, must be useful. Utility of content is contingent on the specific ways that news-based content (re)valorises the interest itself. This is a far more complex point relating to the media operating as a ‘technology of visibility’ (to use Foucaultian terminology) and the way visibility produces valorisation of the news ‘object’ within specific communities of interest.

Media Philosophy of Permanent Beta

I am preparing the first lectures for the two units I am teaching this semester. One is an introductory media studies unit and the other is an advanced online journalism unit. In both units I am grappling with the concept of ‘permanent beta’ for the first lectures. ‘Permanent beta’ is a phrase that I picked up somewhere, I am not sure where. Tim ‘Web 2.0’ O’Reilly discussed the concept of ‘perpetual beta’ to account for ways users were being reconfigured as co-developers. Others have picked this up and talked about ‘perpetual beta’ as a design approach for releasing unperfected products into the wild. Essentially this changes the process of satisficing (making sacrifices while satisfying basic design outcomes) to incorporate an expectation of users that while a product will not be ‘perfect’, it will be ‘useful’ and therefore can be ‘used’. There is a documentary called Life in Permanent Beta that brings together a discussion of technological developments and the question of whether technologies can serve as the locus for an ‘authentic’ life.

I am thinking about ‘permanent beta’ in slightly different way and it is essentially due to being in an educational context. I am using ‘permanent beta’ to describe a situation for preparing students for a future that is only partially defined. In the past, as is the case for most of what I have prepared in the syllabi in both units, students were taught so as to be literate in a given discipline and/or prepared for a certain workplace. ‘Permanent beta’ indicates a situation ‘to come’, one which never actually arrives, and yet affects the current situation. Why doesn’t it arrive? Because there is another situation on the horizon ‘to come’. A Derridean ‘permanent beta’. (On Derrida’s concept of the future, see this.)

For example, Jay Rosen has noted that journalism schools used to prepare students for a certain production culture (broadcast television, radio or print), where the ‘production cycle was god’. He implies that current journalism schools fail if they do not also prepare students for making news useful (and the weird ill-defined workplace of online journalism). I am taking this a step further and experimenting with helping students develop an entrepreneurial disposition to embrace opportunities that may or may not exist yet. (Some previous writing on what I mean by ‘opportunity’ here, but the everyday meaning of the word is suitable.)

Concrete example: We shouldn’t teach journalism students how to use a CMS, but how a CMS is used in different ways. They should be familiar with a range of content management systems and how these different systems afford different ways of representing and producing news, engaging with the audience and so on. Why? They will eventually use a CMS that hasn’t been invented yet, so they need to develop skills for developing best practice to incorporate the ‘new’. Or, better, they will assist the media enterprise where they work (or, better, own (or, even better, have created)) in creating a CMS that features the specific production and publishing affordances that enables them to make the news as useful as possible for the audience represented by the area of interest they are servicing.

Future utility informs current practice all the time in the media industry. Especially in negative ways where I am aware of publishers who have ‘opted up’ of updating sites because they are anxious about constant changes. Rather than developing a production cycle that can incorporate change and then developing a structured and measured approach to changing the production cycle to produce content in its most useful way, they have narrowed their markets (audience and advertisers) until the bare essentials are left, all in the name of retaining existing business models and all the while profit and audiences are rapidly diminishing.

For the media studies unit I am grappling with the question of media literacy. Part of this has been an update from what William Merrin has described as the shift from Media Studies 1.0 to Media Studies 2.0. In his journal article on the subject he describes a disjunction between the ‘world’ of the media studies academic and the ‘world’ of the current crop of students. I am half a generation younger than Merrin (at least, in relation to media engagement habits) so luckily most of what he describes as belonging to his students’ world belongs to mine. But this is not good enough for me. Updating media studies is one thing, and retaining elements of the past broadcast-based media studies disciplinary model is important, but media studies in the age of permanent beta means preparing students to be media literate not in the ‘world’ they already exist in, but for a ‘world’ to come.

It means a big shift has to occur so students can appreciate change as a necessary element of navigating the complex media ecologies of their worlds. My solution has to go with an ‘issues’ based unit design. This does not mean ‘issues’ in a normative political sense. For example, in the second lecture I discuss stupidity. Stupidity is a problem; not too many people want to be stupid. In different ways ‘the media’ has often been blamed for making audiences stupid. Why? How? From critiques of mass-culture to anxieties around social network over-exposure, the ‘idiot’ has been subject to constant critique. But surely some advertisers and media producers want consumers to be stupid, so as to not think too much about what they are about to purchase or watch? So who wants to make us stupid? I run through a history of anxieties around the media and whether it can produce stupidity or not, and if so in what ways. I identify my own stupidities.

I have tried this once before, when teaching print journalism, and it failed miserably. I only focused on the negative side of this process. My failure began with observing that very few, if any, of the students in the lecture would get jobs as traditional journalists. I did not focus on, because I did not see how it was possible myself, how the students were going to be tasked wih the awesome opportunity and responsibility of rejuvenating journalism itself. Part of the reason for framing the journalism unit in particular like this (so students learn to appreciate media-based opportunity) is so students should feel empowered when they enter the job market. I did not want to hobble students with a burden of having a skill set that managers do not have, thus making the now-worker graduates forever be the little worker bee content producers. Or inherit a dystopic view of the industry in general. I want them to be able to see and harness opportunities when they emerge. This is a question of ethics. Yes, they will need to learn the ropes and pay their dues if they work in an established media enterprise. They should also feel empowered to pitch good ideas to management and help isolate and harness opportunities when they emerge for their own survival, if not for the survival of the media enterprise.

Thought fragments: Media Power, Audiences, and Conversation

Following Axel Bruns tweeting of the QUT Industry Conversations: The future of journalism in Australia where Sally Young was making some good observations about the current state of the journalism industry. Sally examines political communication and the media industry. What sparked my interest in this was Axel’s tweet:

Of course, one response to this is to note, as Axel reports Sally as noting, that alternative spaces have emerged primarily online:

This got me thinking about power relations and the media and precisely what is the character of media power in this shifting media environment. I replied to Axel with:

In the past, media power was largely defined in terms of being the power to direct attention (by controlling media channels, hence the problem with media ownership) combined with the power to represent newsworthy events (people, activities, objects, etc.) with a particular ideological bias. Media power was largely collapsed into the politics of media representation. This was combatted on two fronts. Firstly by advocating for increased diversity in media ownership and secondly by advocating for an increased diversity of ‘media voices’ to give expression and self-representation to populations outside of the ideological representive frame. At stake in all this was the reproduction of a hegemonic social order, where ‘common sense’ itself was felt to be programmed by whichever interests held the most media power.

Something has changed however. The above still holds true, but only in limited circumstances as it no longer (if it ever did) defines the entire field of mediated representation. There is a different logic to media power in these ‘alternative spaces’ that Sally and many other people have noted, and that is what I started thinking about based on Sally’s reported comments.

In March 2010 she gave a paper as part of the Papers in Parliament program of the Senate on “Politics on the Media Today“. In it she presents an account of the decreasing audience share for ‘politics’ through traditional media channels (broadcast and print) and the apparent trend of increasing prevalence of ‘politics’ found on the internet. In response to a question at the lecture for the Senate paper, Sally notes that in the context of the coverage of politics that “the people who aren’t interested already, and they are harder to capture”.

Sally is indicating that those holding on to the traditonal models in the media industry are finding it hard to adapt to the new media environment. The new media industry is governed by communities of interests with their own horizons of community engagement determined by these interests. It seems apparent to me (and others!) that a new form of media power is derived from the capacity to capture participants in such a way that the emerging alternative spaces of expression and conversation overlap with the the traditional audience. ‘Owning the conversation’ is what is at stake. How does this happen?

To understand how the audience participates in a community requires following the relations that lead the audience to the community and then hold their interest. Google Adwords is a classic example in the new media economy of media power. Gunther Kress argues that for any given text in a media environment dominated by writing (such as print journalism), the reading path (entry point) is predetermined. You begin at the ‘start’, hence the importance in journalism of a catchy lead. In what he calls ‘multi-modal’ texts the reading path is determined by the criteria of relevance that a reader (as part of a community) brings to the text. For example, on a web page or a new magazine layout, the reader may engage with a flashy image first and then read some text and then flick through more images. There is no single point of entry.

In Kress’s description the community is assumed, but what if one is looking for a ‘community’? Seeding search results with a commercial slant means that the virtual marketplace of ideas or products (or both as cultural commodities) has an ‘entry point’ that is largely determined. #hastags on twitter serve a similar function, they delineate a common thread in the conversation. Paid #hastags direct the conversation to be anchored to particular commercial interests. Social media serves as a driver to media content. Part of the participatory media models that Henry Jenkins and others have written about is that the audience is now an integral part of the mode of distribution.

Then there is the actual ‘space’ of conversation, that is the designed space of the website or blog. In the conservative news space Alan Jones is a strong media channel for disseminating ideologically biased opinion, for example. While Andrew Bolt’s blog is just one of the spaces that ‘owns’ the conversation. Both are ideological in the traditional sense, but Bolt’s blog is organised around and services the community of interest that fuels his large comment threads.

An emergent form of media power — ’emergent’ only to the extent that the media environment is constantly changing with different players, it isn’t ’emergent’ in the sense that structurally it is already established — is to be able to capture a particular community of interest so that (for the traditional media industry) it overlaps with audiences. Hence, Sally Young’s concern that the audience for political coverage in traditional media is falling, yet she is optimistic that engagement with political reportage in ‘alternative spaces’ is increasing. This connects with some of my other thinking about MasterChef (!!!), media and politics that I’ll return to at a later point.

Adorno as a critical theorist of temporality

Any critique of Adorno’s concept of the culture industry or mass culture that begins by introducing the notion of identity and the relation between identity and any segment of culture focuses on what is essentially the weakest, if not inconsequential, part of Adorno’s critique. The ‘identity’ critique is based on an overvaluation of the importance of variation (aesthetic or otherwise) in a cultural commodity or a range of cultural commodities. For example, the distinction made by Bernard Gedron between a cultural text and a functional artefact in his critique of Adorno’s critique of popular music relies on the kind of ‘information’ that Adorno argued was required for patrons of mass culture to be able to identify the objects of their ‘curiosity’. Gedron argues that unlike a particular part of a particular model of a mass produced automobile that can be swapped out for another part, a cultural text does not have this parts interchangeability. A more sophisticated version of this critique in the latter part of Gedron’s article is to suggest that the apparent changes within a given market of popular culture is clearly evident of Adorno’s inability to sufficiently account for variability of identity. A focus on cultural commodities at the expense of other aspects of Adorno’s critique signals an utter misapprehension of Adorno’s critique. More broadly, as noted by Max Pensky, there is a normative mode of engagement with Adorno’s writings that is little more than a “ritualistic gesture, reiterating the familiar charges of elitism, pessimism, and high-modernist myopia.” Pensky continues to say that the “trouble is that such accounts effectively preclude critical engagement with the body of thought in question.”

A far more useful way to read Adorno is as a critical theorist of temporality. By ‘temporality’ I do not mean a temporality in the Hegelian-Marxist sense of a dialectical movement that attempts to capture a teleological historical development from one historical mode to another. Bruno Latour’s argument that we have never been modern strongly suggests an alternative thesis to a developmental conception of history. For Latour, modernity is an event that is differentially repeated and (re)produces particular configurations of relations. This is a Foucauldian type of argument, where epistemic shifts are aggregated dispositifs that must continually (re)produce particular compositions of hierarchical power relations. Power does not come from above however, it runs through populations in the ways they reproduce the conditions of their own subjection.

The theory of temporality that I am extracting from Adorno’s writing has more in common with the later writings of Althusser than with a dialectical negative critique of historical development. A productive ‘philosophy of contingency’ dominates the later work of Althusser, and is very useful for understanding the properly immanent nature of contingency. The ‘encounter’ of an ‘aleatory materialism’ “becomes the basis of all reality”:

Whence the form of order and the form of beings whose birth is induced by this pile-up, determined as they are by the structure of the encounter; whence, once the encounter has been effected (but not before), the primacy of the structure over its elements; whence, finally, what one must call an affinity and a complementarity [completude] of the elements that come into play in the encounter, their `readiness to collide-interlock’ [accrochabilite], in order that this encounter `take hold’, that is to say, `take form’, at last give birth to Forms, and new Forms — just as water ‘takes hold’ when ice is there waiting for it, or milk does when it curdles, mayonnaise when it emulsifies. Hence the primacy of ‘nothing’ over all ‘form’, and of aleatory materialism over all formalism.

“The Schema of Mass Culture” presents an argument for how mass culture produces populations that are trained to process contingencies in ways that reproduce the culture. That is, the schema of mass culture is to modulate the capacity of populations to process a temporal order that belongs to an aleatory materialism. Adorno initially describes this modulation as ‘pre-digestion’: the “permanent self-reflection based upon the infantile compulsion towards the repetition of needs which it creates in the first place”. Difference as that which forces repetition is annihilated; instead there is a circularity that short-circuits self-reflection. This is the ‘totality’ of mass culture, a series of “pre-digested” tendential movements. The elements of this short-circuiting relation are practically irrelevant (which geek with which Apple product? Does it matter beyond an “infantile compulsion”?).

Consumers therefore find themselves in what Adorno calls an “abstract present”. Co-ordinates of recall beyond the short-circuit are extinguished, except in peculiar discursive moments where the past, as ‘nostalgia, is mobilised to valorise the appropriateness or not of the present. The reward for this erasure is that the “tension” of the consumer suspended by the short-circuit is guaranteed a ‘happy ending’ in the “ritual conclusion”. Adorno relates this ‘tension’ to the capacity to witness suffering, that is, negative affect. In its place is a passive affection of the ‘happy ending’. Negative affects are not necessarily passive, as Elspeth Probyn has noted in her work on ‘shame’. The experience of shame signals, in the first instance, that a subject is interested, thus sending the subject off on what Sylvan Tomkins called an ‘activation contour’ that develops in the body as the experience of shame. Perhaps the subject is spurred into action by this negative affect, and thus suffers from ‘active affections’ and the correlative increase in the capacity to act. The resolution of tension in the short-circuit of the ‘happy-ending’ is a depotentialisation of affect, so the short-circuit becomes a mechanism for the production of passive affections or what Weber called ‘charisma’.

What post-structuralist philosophers call a relation of futurity is therefore hobbled. This is not some kind of magical process however. There is a mechanics of the event structurated in perception through a suspended expectation. This is the happiest ending, as it were. An ending where this in fact no resolution, but the constant repetition of tension. Adorno likens this to the variety act, which for spectators is experienced as a kind of ‘waiting’; where the “waiting for the thing in question, which takes place as long as the juggler manages to keep the balls going, is precisely the thing itself”. Adorno describes this as a “suspension of living developmenet”, an apparatus of capture produced through the riveting experience of observing potential failure.

There are therefore two ways that the short-circuits produced by the culture industry ‘end’ (or, better, cycle again for another ‘beginning’) and that is through the projection of a ‘happy ending’ as a resolution of tension to produce the subservience of passive affections or a manipulation of tension as a way to capture attention. What if one becomes aware of this short-circuit? What if it is simply refused? What is the secondary apparatus of capture produced by mass culture that ensures there is no escape?

The secondary apparatus of capture is located in the total commodification of ‘curiosity’ and its relation to what Adorno terms ‘information’. Like the surplus labour that is used to control workers, there is a “reserve army of outsiders” ready to participate. They are organised in relation not to the exchange value of their labour but in the production of visibilities of the latest novelty. Did you hear about…?!

The less the system tolerates anything new, the more those who have been forsaken must be acquainted with all the latest novelties if they are to continue living in society rather than feeling themselves excluded from it.

Mass culture becomes a sport, which is “not play but ritual in which the subjected celebrate their subjection”. There is a compulsive repetition to inflict upon oneself “the same injustice he has already endured at the violent hands of society”. Exemplar: Love it or leave it. Kiss the flag. Are you with us or against us. “The act of repetition schools obedience,” Adorno writes, and in doing so absorbs the radical potential of anxiety. Beyond participation, the spectator contains nothing of the potentially redeemable characteristics of sportsmen (“certain virtues like solidarity, readiness to help others or even enthusiasm which could prove valuable in critical political moments”). Mass culture only wants the “howling devotees of the stadium” as they replace spontaneity is a “crude contemplative curiosity”. There is another circuit here, both an extension and an intensification of the short-circuit of pre-digested interest. Instead of facing towards a circular ending planned into the commodity, the commodification of curiosity is a way of incorporating contingency and dissolving its radical potential.

Adorno describes information as the socialisation of curiosity; that is, information “refers constantly to what has been preformed, to what others already know”.
Information is a socialisation of curiosity in the sense that information as a mechanism of control “enforces solidarity with what has already be judged”. It is a deprivation of knowledge about the object of curiosity for the purposes of bestowing the curiosity with satisfaction. Is this not how the entirety of online ‘discussion’ functions? The distribution of knowledge as a diluted ‘information’ about whatever contingency in the world fires up our ‘curiosity’? Whoever cannot answer the challenge of providing curiosity with its palliative antidote of information, that is, of “effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgements of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual”. This is played out in the production of “hieroglyphic meaning” as consumers cannot escape either short-circuit. They turned inward, that is, turn into the elements of the relation rather than the implication in the relation at all.

The more the film-goer, the hit song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure and so on, the more his attention is displaced towards the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’, and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

Hence, the tension is reproduced as a general anxiety of whether or not the subject of mass culture, the consumer, is sufficiently implicated in its workings: “Participation in mass culture itself stands under the sign of terror”. The micro-fascisms of everyday life betray an anxiety that is harboured “within the very medium of technological communication”. It is not that you are anxious about leaving your mobile phone at home, it is the anxiety produced when you do. What short-circuits have you accidently disconnected yourself from? How will you be an insufficient spectator of pre-digested curiosities? Under a hieroglyphic aegis, how will you be able to smuggle in the judgement of contingency with the satisfaction of knowing what comes next?

Hilarious. Miranda Devine, Say Yes to Climate Action

Miranda Devine’s latest column is a howler. I guess we should expect her to represent the carbon tax as taxing the air we breathe if she thinks that Newspoll is a scientific survey.

Beyond Devine’s built-in hilarity is the location and content of the Google Ad below her article, which links to the climate action website sayyesaustralia.org.au. Considering the quality of Devine’s columns her intended audience is probably very confused by this.