Ethan Zuckerman on the limits of interconnectedness

Ethan Zuckerberg at Northeastern on Wednesday.
Ethan Zuckerman at Northeastern on Wednesday

The promise of the Internet was that it would break down social, cultural and national barriers, bringing people of diverse backgrounds together in ways that were never before possible. The reality is that online communities have reinforced those barriers.

That was the message of a talk Wednesday evening by Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media. Zuckerman, who spoke at Northeastern, is the author of the 2013 book “Rewire: Digital Cosmopolitans in the Age of Connection.” He is also the co-founder of Global Voices Online, a project begun at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society that tracks citizen media around the world.

I’ve seen Ethan talk on several occasions, and I always learn something new from him. Here is some live-tweeting I did on Wednesday.

One of the most interesting graphics Zuckerman showed was a map of San Francisco based on GPS-tracked cab drivers. Unlike a street map, which shows infrastructure, the taxi map showed flow — where people are actually traveling. Among other things, we could see that the African-American neighborhood of Hunters Point didn’t even appear on the flow map, suggesting that cab drivers do not travel in or out of that neighborhood (reinforcing the oft-stated complaint by African-Americans that cab drivers discriminate against them).

Since we can all be tracked via the GPS in our smartphones, flow maps such as the one Zuckerman demonstrated raise serious privacy implications as well.

We may actually be less cosmopolitan than we were 100 years ago.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg likes to show a map suggesting that Facebook fosters interconnectedness around the world. In fact, upon closer examination the map mainly shows interconnectedness within a country. The United Arab Emirates demonstrates the highest level of international interconnectedness, but that’s because the UAE has an extraordinary number of guest workers who use the Internet to stay in touch with people back home. That leads Ethan Zuckerman to argue that maps often tell us what their designers want us to believe.

This final tweet seems out of context, but I’m including it because I like what Zuckerman said. It explains perfectly why I prefer Twitter to Facebook, even though I’m a heavy user of both. And it explains why many of us, including Zuckerman, rely on Twitter to bring us much of our news and information.

They Posted Clickbait So They’d All Get Rich. What Happened Next Made Them Cry.

WGBH forum
From left: Raney Aronson Rath, deputy executive producer of “Frontline,” who introduced the panel: moderator Joshua Benton, Tim O’Brien, Clay Shirky and Ethan Zuckerman. Photo by Lisa Palone via Twitter.

Cross-posted at WGBH News.

Have we reached the limits of clickbait media exemplified by The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed? According to three experts on Internet journalism, the answer is yes.

At a forum on the future of journalism held in WGBH’s Yawkey Theater on Wednesday, the consensus was that aggregating as many eyeballs as possible in order to show them advertising does not produce enough revenue to support quality journalism. Instead, news organizations like The New York Times are succeeding by persuading a small percentage of their audience to support them through subscription fees. (Click here for some tweets from the session.)

“One of the things that interests me is the end of the audience as a discrete category that can be treated as an aggregate,” said Clay Shirky of New York University. “Scale was the business model,” he said, describing the attitude among Web publishers as “‘At some point scale will play out.’ And it didn’t.”

As it turns out, Shirky continued, pushing people to “a hot new story” didn’t really matter that much. “What really matters,” he said, “is that there’s about 3 percent of that audience who really cares whether that newspaper lives or dies. We’re just at the beginning of that.”

Shirky and his fellow panelists — Tim O’Brien, publisher of Bloomberg View, and Ethan Zuckerman, director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media, moderated by Nieman Journalism Lab editor Joshua Benton — noted that the revenue model being pursued by the Times and others is essentially the same as the system that funds public media outlets such as WGBH, WBUR, NPR and the like.

O’Brien and Zuckerman disagreed over the need for mass media. O’Brien argued that the audience for an entertainment program can come up with ways of paying for it that don’t depend on attracting a larger audience. “We’re talking about different ways to finance passion,” he said.

To which Zuckerman retorted: “We’re not just talking about ‘Downton Abbey.’ We’re talking about news.” The challenge, Zuckerman said, is to find ways not just of funding journalism but of building enough of an audience so that investigative reporting at the local level can have enough clout to influence events.

Zuckerman also raised the issue of how news organizations do and don’t foster civic engagement, offering the example of the sudden closing of North Adams Regional Hospital in western Massachusetts. The closing put about 500 people out of work and left residents about 45 minutes away from the nearest emergency room.

Zuckerman praised the Berkshire Eagle’s coverage, but said the paper offered little sense of what the public could do. That, he said, would require “advocacy journalism” of the sort that makes traditional journalists uncomfortable.

That led to an observation by Shirky that newspaper editors are actually well-versed in telling their readers how to get involved when it comes to something like a theater review. Not only do readers learn whether the critic liked the play or not, but they are also told when and where it is being performed, how much tickets cost and how to buy them. But when covering a political story, Shirky continued, readers never learn how to make a donation or get involved.

Zuckerman said the problem is that news organizations don’t like to promote what-you-can-do measures when it comes to partisan politics.

By contrast, he added, news organizations have no issues with telling their audience how they can help after a natural disaster, explaining: “There is not a huge pro-hurricane constituency.”

About that “Kony 2012” video

We may not have previously seen a social-media phenomenon quite like “Kony 2012,” the online video aimed at raising public awareness about Joseph Kony, the leader of the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda. I saw it on Tuesday, urged on by my son. He was skeptical from the beginning, having seen this. Today, some 50 million views later, “Kony 2012” is on the front page of the New York Times.

You may be familiar with the criticism by now, which I will attempt summarize as follows:

  • It oversimplifies a complex situation.
  • Kony’s forces, which once terrorized Uganda, have dwindled to a few hundred, and have long since fled for parts unknown.
  • Invisible Children, the not-exactly-transparent nonprofit that made “Kony 2012,” is pushing for the U.S. to launch an ill-advised military action.
  • The film plays down the brutal nature of the current Ugandan government, which, among other things, is considering a measure calling for the death penalty for gay men. (A star of the film is U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, who has been accused of inadvertently helping to foment anti-gay hatred in Uganda.)
  • The underlying message of the video is that bringing Kony to justice is something white people must do for poor, helpless black people.

“While I’ve been waiting years for a spotlight to be shown on Kony, what Kony 2012 is all about is shining the spotlight on [filmmaker] Jason Russell,” writes my WGBH colleague Phillip Martin on Facebook. “This is indeed a great white hope form of self-aggrandizement, albeit whatever good intentions he has.”

Personally, I’d been going back and forth on “Kony 2012” until last night, when I ran across this lengthy blog post by Ethan Zuckerman, an Africa expert who is director of MIT’s Center for Civic Media as well as the co-founder of Global Voices Online, which has rounded up African reaction to the film. It’s exactly the sort of nuanced, deeply knowledgeable analysis I would expect from Zuckerman, and I urge you to read it. (If you haven’t seen “Kony 2012” yet, this will take you less time.)

There’s no question that “Kony 2012” will raise awareness, and it’s possible that it will even do some good. But it’s not entirely clear what the goal is, or for that matter should be.

Video recorded by @rosebellk for Al Jazeera.