Notes from the Palfrey discussion here

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Tuesday, October 10

Guest: John Palfrey, Director of the Berkman Center


Nesson is sick – he was learning how to edit videos & marrying someone over the weekend and developed a cold. So Rebecca will be taking over the class for today.

Our subject today is political blogs. Our objective in the class right now is making a persuasive argument on an issue that we want to change that targets an audience that’s not forced to be here (like class). So there’s the added element of having to draw in the audience before making our argument. Political blogs are a great example of this task – people make a change & push back against the pressures of big, “traditional” media.

Is it good or bad for everyone to have a voice that wants one? On one hand, it’s good to have more voices in the marketplace of ideas, and we can always sort through the bad ideas to pick out the legitimate ones.

1:30 pm

How do we respond to information differently in the “digital media” market than we do to more traditional forms of information? How is the interaction different? For one thing, it’s much more fragmented now. Rather than read the newspaper front to back, we’re more inclined to bounce around to different blogs/websites/news sources.

Our parents’ generation read the NY Times all the way through & watched Dan Rather. That’s how they got their information; somebody “broadcast” the news & then our parents discussed it. What’s today’s equivalent of reading the NY Times through & through? Maybe listening to NPR, reading, and checking out WikiNews.

Another way that informational interaction is different these days is the way that we filter the news. Rather than flipping through the paper, we can use an RSS feeder to sort through the stuff we don’t care about without actually having to encounter it.

RSS Feeder in a nutshell: Instead of going to a website and sorting through the stories, the Feeder updates stories as they drop & you can just click on the stories that you want to read.

1:40 pm

Most investigative journalism still gets done by newspapers; even though newspapers sales are way down, online newspaper reading is through the rough. So if nothing else, we still rely on the work that the newspapers do in the news room – most blogs just comment on the news, rather than finding it. If newspapers go extinct, there will be that huge void of investigating & legwork to fill.

Maybe we shouldn’t be wedded to the idea that newspapers have to print a physical copy. As long as the investigative service is still being performed & provided, newspapers offer a valuable service. The trick is to find a financially viable business model that allows the papers to profit without selling the “newspaper.”

The fundamental challenge: How do we take the characteristics that make up good journalism, transfer them to the web, & keep a financially viable model?

1:45 pm

Nesson: Newspapers seem to be the platform for whatever the government wants us to know. They may do nothing more than follow the story of the government – if they cease to exist, the gov’t still needs a way to project itself out into the court of public opinion. What will fill that void for the “power interests” that rely on controlling the rhetorical environment of society?

Journalist guy: It IS in the government’s best interest to control the information that reaches the public; gov’t has always been very effective in doing that. One of the benefits of newspapers is that there’s a presumption of credibility – we assume that the facts have been checked, that the story is on the surface, etc., and this credibility has yet to be established on the Internet. As readers, how do we deal with the problem of reliability when we’re reading stuff on the Internet?

Palfrey: As this “bloggers & journalism” debate was just heating up, the Berkman Center held a conference to address it. The question of credibility was the central focus of the conference – do bloggers or traditional journalists have the more legitimate claim of credibility?

Palfrey’s theory on how people encounter information online:

Palfrey thinks that the first thing you do is “graze”; that is, you get a very quick snapshot of the news of the day. This is done very widely & frequently. The next, slightly deeper level is the “deep dive.” We “deep dive” to get either analysis OR opinion of the headline (or other) news. Next, there’s the “feedback loop;” we talk back (through polls, comments, email, etc.) about the ideas that we’re the most interested and passionate about.

Blogs come into the picture primarily for the “feedback loop.” If you’re famous or well-known, you get to participate in the “deep dive”, but nobody’s going to come to one of our personal blogs in search of piercing analysis or persuasive opinion. Instead, blogs serve the useful function of providing chatter to surrounds breaking events & issues.

1:55 pm

How much do blogs impact the flow & emphasis of major news stories? On the one hand, we could argue that we still focus on the stories that are parroted in the major newspapers, rather than the (implicitly more substantive) stories being bounced around by the blogs. But on the other hand, we could say that the focus of the two are indistinguishable; after all, there’s more blogging about the stories newspapers focus on, like the Foley scandal, than about less mainstream topics. So maybe the two outlets focus on the same things, and this argument holds little water. People in the class go both ways.

2:00 pm

It’s fascinating to note how Palfrey’s three levels of information (grazing, deep-diving, and feedback) affect each other. For example, on or, users tag stories so that the stories that float to the top are essentially the stories that the most people found useful.

Maybe it all comes back to our primary motivation for news: is it analogous to “eating our broccoli” (i.e. our duty as a member of democratic society) or do we primarily engage information for entertainment? The answer to this question provides a good foundational context for the ongoing discussion about dissemination of news on the information.

“Grazing,” the initial level of gathering news, colors the rest of our encounter by self-selecting which stories we learn more about, what perspective we hear them from, etc.

== 2:10pm == [tape break] Picking back up on the threads of credibility, authenticity, and trust…

What makes a particular organization, individual, etc. “trustworthy”?

The hard truth is that people trust what they believe. The self-selection that inherently accompanies Internet news leads to big-time polarization, because we aren’t forced to encounter the opposition.

It’s easy to fall into this trap of only exposing yourself to one side of the story. Maybe the easiest way to avoid that trap is to stay away from reading arguments as trustworthy news & try to get a narrative from someone directly involved in the “news” story. One example is reading the personal posts of Lebanese citizens to get a sense of the true state of things there. The Internet enables us to do this relatively easily; it also allows us to fact-check people before trusting them.

== 2:20 pm == Nesson: Worldview dichotomies like Dersh/Chomsky that get played out at an institutional level reflect the same conflict on a more individual level. We like to think that we fall completely on one side of the story or the other, and the major news sources feed into this & keep us comfortable by giving us very toned-down news stories that we erroneously deem credible. Instead, we should think of it like poker, reading the “underside” of all the news that we encounter to find the story that doesn’t make it through the filter.

The politics/blogs relationship is intriguing because for decades “politics” has depended on controlling the flow of information to the citizens. This phenomenon is becoming impossible, however, as more voices crowd the public sphere and prevent the monopolization of news flow. The interesting question then becomes how we can effectively advocate our chosen causes within this new, decentralized structure?

Nesson on Al Gore: Gore advances his argument using primarily digital media to advocate his pet cause (the environment) in a way that could be taken up by a global audience.


Rebecca: Turning to our “empathetic argument” project, we now see the kinds of problems that we can expect to encounter. For one, our class has been thoroughly skeptical of the legitimacy, reliability, and objectivity of online blogging, etc. Maybe the best way to look at this concretely is to focus on one student’s particular class project. We’ll pick Andrew.

Nesson: “I’m a lover of Al Gore.”

Andrew’s Project: The idea is collecting soldiers’ testimonies in various engagements to depict the soldier experience, showing what goes through a soldier’s mind when he does x, y, or z. It would be extremely easy to employ this information to create a vilifying, anti-military website, but that would obviously be a bad idea. The dilemma is this: how can this information be communicated in a way that reserves credibility with both the soldiers (who are giving testimony) AND people who are decidedly anti-military?


Palfrey: The answer to Nesson’s question (how do we advocate effectively in cyberspace) is entirely contextual. It hinges on whether we’re trying to get someone elected, raise awareness, or achieve some other political aim, as well as who our target audience is & how big they are. Palfrey doesn’t seem to think that there’s one universal answer to Nesson’s question.