Do you find it more difficult to read a book these days? Or even a long article? Do you catch yourself pausing every so often (OK, make that every few minutes) to see what’s new on Facebook, scroll through Twitter, check email, or possibly all of the above? Has concentration given way to distraction?
Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy, by Siva Vaidhyanathan. Oxford University Press, 288 pages, $24.95.
The reason that Facebook is so evil is that Mark Zuckerberg is so good. According to Siva Vaidhyanathan, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia, the former wunderkind has drunk deeply of his own Kool-Aid and genuinely believes that his creation is a benevolent force in the world. “Zuckerberg has a vibrant moral passion,” Vaidhyanathan writes in his new book, Antisocial Media. “But he lacks a historical sense of the horrible things that humans are capable of doing to each other and the planet.”
From propagating fake news to violating our privacy, from empowering authoritarian regimes to enabling anti-Semitic advertising, Facebook has become the social network everyone loves to hate. Vaidhyanathan, whose previous books include The Googlization of Everything — and Why We Should Worry (2011), has produced a valuable guide, written in clear, non-academic prose, to the monstrous force Facebook has become. And if his overview of what’s gone wrong with Facebook will seem familiar to those of us who obsess about these things, it nevertheless serves as a worthwhile introduction to the Zuckerborg and all that it has wrought. If only Vaidhyanathan had some compelling ideas on what to do about it. If only any of us did.
Facebook’s malign omnipresence came about quickly. Founded in 2004, it wasn’t until the dawn of the current decade that it became a behemoth. With 2.2 billion active monthly users, Facebook is, for many people, synonymous with the internet itself — the place where your aunt and uncle share photos of their pets, updates from their vacations, and, of course, links to memes and conspiracy theories about George Soros’s non-existent Nazi past and the “deep state” plot to overthrow President Trump.
Such craziness has serious real-world consequences. It may not be an exaggeration to say that Trump became president partly because of Facebook, as Russian propagandists, Cambridge Analytica, and the Trump campaign itself all bought ads to bolster Trump’s message and to persuade possible Hillary Clinton voters to stay home on Election Day. The Facebook effect was probably not as powerful as James Comey’s bizarre obsession with Clinton’s emails — or, for that matter, Electoral College math. But given that Trump was elected by just a handful of votes in a few swing states, it seems plausible that Clinton might otherwise have overcome those obstacles.
There’s nothing new about political advertising, even if Facebook’s tools for microtargeting tiny slices of users based on the information they themselves have provided are unusually precise and pernicious. More ominous, Vaidhyanathan argues, is that the Facebook environment encourages the sort of fragmented thinking and emotional reactions that are antithetical to healthy civic engagement and that helps give rise to an authoritarian figure like Trump. As my friend from DFY Links says, everything looks the same in your news feed. And since Facebook’s algorithm is designed to give you more of the type of content that you interact with, you become increasingly sealed off from viewpoints you don’t agree with. Vaidhyanathan’s attempt to shoehorn Trump into his overarching theory of Facebook is a bit awkward given that Trump’s social-media drug of choice is Twitter. Nevertheless, he is surely on to something in arguing that the reductive discourse that characterizes Facebook helped fuel Trump’s rise.
“After a decade of deep and constant engagement with Facebook, Americans have been conditioned to experience the world Trump style,” Vaidhyanathan writes. “It’s almost as if Trump were designed for Facebook and Facebook were designed for him. Facebook helped make America ready for Trump.”
Vaidhyanathan is not the first to take note of the distractedness that has come to define the digital age. Nicholas Carr, in his 2010 book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, laments that the internet has given rise to a culture of skimming rather than deep reading and warns: “As our window onto the world, and onto ourselves, a popular medium molds what we see and how we see it — and, eventually, if we use it enough, it changes who we are, as individuals and as a society.” Carr barely mentions Facebook, which at the time had not yet become a hegemonic force. But there is little doubt that it has only accelerated those trends.
So what is to be done? In a healthier political climate, Vaidhyanathan writes, we might expect our elected officials to act — by mandating greater privacy protections and by forcing Facebook to sell off some of its related businesses such as Instagram, WhatsApp, and Messenger. But he holds out little hope, even though Europe is moving in that direction. And he identifies a specific reason for his pessimism by describing two competing philosophies of corporate leadership in the United States, neither suited to dealing with the menace we face. One, market fundamentalism, holds that the sole obligation of a corporation is to make as much money as possible for its shareholders. The other, the social responsibility model, sees a role for corporations — but not for government — in addressing environmental and cultural concerns and in helping to make the world better. Vaidhyanathan places Facebook squarely within the latter tradition. Remember, he sees Zuckerberg at root as an earnest if misguided idealist.
The problem is that both of these philosophies are based on differing notions of corporate libertarianism. Each exalts the business leader as the exemplar to which society should aspire. By embracing a binary view of the corporation’s role, we have, Vaidhyanathan argues, essentially eliminated the public sphere from the discussion of how to solve universal problems. Rather than looking to elected leaders, we look to people like Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Laureen Powell Jobs, and, yes, Mark Zuckerberg. We embrace “innovation” rather than real progress that benefits everyone. Given the state of our politics, that might seem like logical behavior. But it’s also behavior based on the nostrum popularized by Ronald Reagan that government is the problem, not the solution. Say something often enough over the course of nearly four decades and it becomes true.
There is some hope. Although Vaidhyanathan doesn’t mention it, there are signs that journalism is becoming less dependent on Facebook. According to the web metrics firm Chartbeat, news organizations are seeing a decreasing amount of referral traffic from Facebook and an increasing amount of direct traffic to their websites and other digital platforms. “The increase in direct traffic matters because it enables publishers to control their own destiny,” writes Lucia Moses of Digiday. “They have more data on reader behavior, which enables them to better target readers with more content and offers for subscriptions and other revenue drivers.” Given the parlous state of the news business, any shift away from Facebook is a positive development.
Moreover, there are signs that we have reached peak Facebook, with young people in particular turning away from the service. According to Hanna Kozlowska, writing in Quartz, Facebook usage among 12- to 24-year-olds is declining, and overall usage in the United States and Canada is starting to shrink as well. That’s not to say Facebook is about to go the way of Friendster or MySpace. But perhaps a shrinking user base, combined with the controversy and legal woes Zuckerberg is dealing over privacy violations and other scandals, will lead to a kinder, gentler Facebook.
Ultimately, Vaidhyanathan says, it’s up to us. “Reviving a healthy social and political life would require a concerted recognition of the damage Facebook has done and a campaign to get beyond its spell,” he writes. “If millions were urged to put Facebook in its proper place, perhaps merely as a source of social and familial contact rather than political knowledge or activism, we could train ourselves out of the habit.” Later he writes: “Resistance is futile. But resistance seems necessary.”
Until recently I had thought my digital news-consumption habits were as archaic as heading down to Newspaper Row to peruse the headlines pasted in the window. Now, with Facebook moving toward a break-up with the news business, it appears that I may have been ahead of my time.
My morning ritual begins with the iPad and coffee. I read The Boston Globe or The Washington Post — I switch back and forth — and then read the other on my iPhone while taking the train and subway to work. I’m not just scanning headlines; I read both papers pretty thoroughly, the way we used to engage with print. Sometime during the day I’ll check in with The New York Times as well.
Now consider the strategy pursued until recently by many publishers. They would post many if not most of their stories to their Facebook page, with headlines aimed at enticing users to click and share. More clicks and more shares meant that more stories from that publisher would show up in your news feed. Finally, more clicks meant that more users visited the publisher’s website or app, where they would encounter advertising — and, as is the case with many quality news outlets these days, be asked to become paid digital subscribers.
Flimsy though that strategy may have been, publishers didn’t believe they had much choice. With more than 2 billion active users, Facebook has, for many people, essentially become the internet. Recently, though, Facebook upended everything by announcing that news posted directly by publishers would be all but eliminatedfrom the algorithmically determined news feed in favor of more social sharing by family and friends. If one of your family members shares a story from the Globe — or from Alex Jones, or from a fake-news content farm run by Macedonian teenagers— then you will still see it. But if you want to read a story posted directly by the Globe, you’ll have to visit the paper’s Facebook page. (You can change that by fiddling around with the settings, but my purpose is not to write a tutorial.)
“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Mother Jones senior editor Ben Dreyfuss told the Columbia Journalism Review’s Mathew Ingram that it could be “an extinction-level event” for some publishers.
What drove the change? In a message to users, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg said he wanted to “encourage meaningful social interactions with family and friends over passive consumption.” No doubt Facebook’s tortured relationship with news, fake news and Russian propaganda had something to do with it. On Monday the Post’s Elizabeth Dwoskin reviewed the “tumultuous 18-month struggle by Facebook to come to grips with its dark side.” Roger McNamee, described as an investor and mentor of Zuckerberg’s, told her: “The problem with Facebook’s whole position is that the algorithm exists to maximize attention, and the best way to do that is to make people angry and afraid.”
As news executives contemplate what it will be like to live in a post-Facebook world, they should be thinking about what it would take to revive the media habits that prevailed before Facebook became our most important news distributor. It won’t be easy. But consider the path that the Post has taken since Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos bought the paper in 2013.
The Post has relied on Facebook as heavily as any newspaper, but always with an eye toward restoring the primacy of what Bezos called the “bundle” — that is, a digital version of the local, national and international news, sports, culture, business, entertainment, the crossword puzzle and everything else that made up the traditional print newspaper. It has worked spectacularly. Today the Post has more than a million paid digital subscribers and has been profitable in each of the past two years, according to publisher Frederick Ryan.
It could be that the effect of Facebook’s latest changes will not be as dire as the most apocalyptic predictions would have it, or that it could even be good news for some. In his message to users, Zuckerberg said that news would fall from 5 percent of the news feed to 4 percent. That’s a 20 percent drop, but it’s not a zeroing-out. Moreover, Zuckerberg said the company is taking steps to ensure that “the news you see, while less overall, is high quality.” That caused investors to boost the price of New York Times Co. stock by nearly 9 percent, according to Rani Molla of Recode. It also led Rupert Murdoch to demand that Facebook start paying for that quality content through “a carriage fee similar to the model adopted by cable companies.” I assume Murdoch is self-aware enough to have been suggesting his Wall Street Journal as a candidate for such quality-based payments rather than the Fox News Channel or the New York Post.
Facebook has always been a lousy partner for journalism. That’s not because Zuckerberg is especially evil. It’s because he’s in one business and news organizations are in another. News is good for Zuckerberg if it results in more users spending more time on Facebook and seeing more ads. It’s bad if it causes unneeded controversy and raises the specter of government regulation.
We’re not going back to the days when newspapers would paste headlines in the window or even when flipping through the pages of a print newspaper was mainstream behavior rather than a niche activity. What we can do is to come up with strategies aimed at encouraging readers to engage with journalism directly instead of through Facebook and other third-party distributors. Sharing on social media should be dessert, not the main course. Because, in the end, Zuckerberg is going to take all the ice cream for himself.
News publishers have been railing against Facebook ever since the gigantic platform began scooping up — along with Google — the lion’s share of digital advertising. But though people in the media business have long feared that they can’t live with Facebook, many of them have also concluded that they can’t live without it.
That second proposition is now being put to a serious test. Last week Facebook announced that it was changing its news feed to give priority to content posted by family and friends, thus downgrading journalism. As The New York Times put it, “Prioritizing what your friends and family share is part of an effort by Facebook to help people spend time on the site in what it thinks is a more meaningful way.”
Like many journalists, I have long relied on Facebook (and Twitter) to promote my work and to engage with my audience. It’s not exactly clear — at least not yet — what this will mean to individuals who post links to news content as opposed to, say, pictures of their cat. But the implications for publishers are clear enough. And at a time when the news business is besieged on multiple fronts, Mark Zuckerberg’s latest brainstorm is one more thing to worry about.
“For publishers who have come to rely on traffic from Facebook — which for some still drives the majority of their traffic; for many others, 30 or 40 percent — this is awful news,” wrote Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Benton added that digital-only news sites that rely on free content, massive audiences and online advertising will be hurt the most. Newspapers that have had some success in getting readers to sign up for digital subscriptions won’t be hurt as badly, he added, although they will suffer from a loss of traffic, too.
At the Columbia Journalism Review, Mathew Ingram predicted that some publishers may go out of business as the result of the change:
Moving from an advertising-focused model to one that relies on reader subscriptions may be the prudent move, but getting from point A to point B could be difficult, and some companies may not be able to make the transition. For them, Facebook’s latest algorithm could be what Mother Jones Senior Editor Ben Dreyfuss called “an extinction-level event.”
There’s no question that a decreased emphasis on news may make life easier for Zuckerberg and company. Facebook’s fecklessness in the “fake news” wars has damaged the company’s reputation, and eschewing journalism, fake or otherwise, in favor of heartwarming family updates is, as Benton noted, more in keeping with Zuckerberg’s original vision.
Yet I can’t help but be concerned that this is one more blow that the news business doesn’t need. Maybe the solution is to develop a news product for legitimate publishers that would be separate from the news feed. That would require Facebook to hire journalists and make editorial judgments. But it could also be a contribution to democracy — an idea that Zuckerberg often pays lip service to with very little in the way of action to back it up.
Facebook and Google may dominate our virtual lives, but it’s Facebook that catches most of the flak. From its role as a platform for fake news to its wildly exaggerated claims about the reach of its advertising to its just-revealed involvement with Russian trolls during the 2016 campaign, Mark Zuckerberg’s creation has become the behemoth that everyone loves to hate.
Now, though, it’s Google’s turn for some long-overdue criticism. It started last week, when The New York Times reported that Barry Lynn, a critic of monopolies, had been fired by a think tank called the New American Foundation after he wrote approvingly of European antitrust regulators for hitting Google with a $2.7 billion fine. Google is a major funder of New America.
Facebook is sucking the life out of the Internet because, for many of its users, it has become the Internet. That has serious implications for anyone seeking to publish online while keeping some distance from Mark Zuckerberg’s social-networking behemoth. Worse, Facebook’s utter dominance makes it increasingly difficult for independent journalism to thrive—or even to get noticed.
Consider some numbers. According to the Economist, Facebook has 1.6 billion users, more than 60 percent of whom are logged on for at least 20 minutes each day. By contrast, the Washington Post, whose web traffic now exceeds that of any other American newspaper, received just 73 million unique visits during the entire month of March. And people who drop in on news sites spend an average of one to three minutes per visit.
Now consider a few recent developments in the world of online news, rounded up by media analyst Ken Doctor for the Nieman Journalism Lab. BuzzFeed, the recent subject of a gushing Fast Company article on how its chief executive, Jonah Peretti, was “Building A 100-Year Media Company,” has stumbled some 90 years short of its mark, falling well below its revenue targets. Layoffs and budget cuts have hit digital media properties such as Salon, the Huffington Post, Mashable, and Gawker. Yahoo could be headed for the glue factory.
There are several possible explanations for the problems these media organizations are experiencing. But surely a significant challenge is that their would-be readers are spending most of their time on Facebook.
I realize I am oversimplifying, and that most news organizations already publish on Facebook as well as on their own websites. The Washington Post, for instance, shares all of its journalism as Facebook Instant Articles, which load on mobile devices—as the name suggests—instantly. But though Instant Articles (and Apple News, a much smaller competitor) offer certain advantages, including the ability to evade ad-blockers, the revenue potential can’t compare with drawing an audience to your own website, especially if you can get them to pay up.
Even though the Post is trying to build its digital subscription base, it doesn’t dare eschew Facebook, says Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer. “To get the exposure we need of our brand and our great storytelling ability, we need to go where the users are,” Prakash told me recently. “For us to not piggyback on that platform, especially with our national and international aspirations, I think would not be the right strategy.”
A news organization like the Post, owned by Amazon chief executive Jeff Bezos, a peer of Zuckerberg’s, is one thing. After all, Bezos has already made the Post’s national digital edition part of Amazon Prime, and if he doesn’t like the deal he’s getting from Facebook there are presumably other steps he can take as well.
But what about a regional newspaper like the Boston Globe? I “like” the Globe’s Facebook page, but its journalism shows up in my newsfeed haphazardly at best. (Fortunately for the Globe, I’m already a paying subscriber.) The same is true with other news sources that I like. Facebook may be essential for media organizations. But the algorithm that determines what you actually see in your newsfeed is one of life’s great mysteries, determined (supposedly) by your behavior, but not in any transparent way you can control. The challenge is as great or greater for small local news sites whose proprietors built their business models around the idea that their readers would visit them on the web, and who must now depend on Facebook for much of their audience.
“Something really dramatic is happening to our media landscape, the public sphere, and our journalism industry, almost without us noticing and certainly without the level of public examination and debate it deserves,” said Emily Bell, director of the Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, in a recent address. The title of her talk as republished in the Columbia Journalism Review: “Facebook is eating the world.”
“Social media and platform companies”—but mainly Facebook— “took over what publishers couldn’t have built even if they wanted to,” Bell added. “Now the news is filtered through algorithms and platforms which are opaque and unpredictable.”
The first half of the digital news revolution that began in the mid-1990s was defined by disaggregation—the break-up of the traditional newspaper bundle into a plethora of specialty sites and blogs devoted to interests such as local news, sports, and celebrity gossip.
The second half has been defined by re-aggregation at the hands of Facebook. And that trend is only accelerating. Mark Zuckerberg is not just the unimaginably wealthy founder and chief executive of the world’s largest social network. He also exercises enormous control, whether he ever wanted to or not, over how we receive the information we need to govern ourselves in a democratic society. That is an unsettling reality, to say the least.
Because I’m working on a book that deals in part with how Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos is transforming The Washington Post, I read The New York Times’ account of Amazon’s brutal workplace environment with great interest.
Reporters Jodi Kantor and David Streitfeld portray a company in which high-ranking employees are regularly reduced to tears, in which everyone is encouraged to drop anonymous dimes on one another, and in which a culture of 80-hour-plus work weeks is so ingrained that nothing — not even serious health problems — must be allowed to interfere.
This story is still playing out, but I have a few preliminary observations.
First, very little in the Times story will surprise anyone who read Brad Stone’s 2013 book “The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon.” Stone goes into great detail about what a difficult place Amazon is to work. A key difference is that Stone, unlike Kantor and Streitfeld, is at least somewhat sympathetic to Bezos and understands that he and his team have built something truly remarkable.
Second, the Times article did not convince me that the culture of Amazon is uniquely awful. If you’ve read Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, you know that the upper reaches of Apple could be pretty hellish back when Jobs was ranting and raving. Occasionally you hear stories along similar lines about other tech companies. Would you want to run afoul of Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison or Steve Ballmer? We’re also talking here about a special kind of white-collar, highly educated hell among people who could easily leave and work elsewhere. How about working as a clerk at Wal-Mart? Or as a farm laborer in California?
Third, some of the details in the Times article are being disputed. Nick Ciubotariu, a high-ranking engineer at Amazon, has written a long response to the Times article defending his company. It’s a mixed bag that will provide fodder for Amazon’s critics and defenders alike. Some of it is mind-bending, such as this: “No one is ‘quizzed’ — the quiz is totally, 100% voluntary.” Huh?
Some of it, though, is worth pondering. Ciubotariu, a newish employee (he’s been there 18 months), writes that he has heard the Amazon culture has improved in recent years, and he accuses the Times of relying on old stories from former employees. That has some resonance, as Stone in “The Everything Store” describes Bezos’ halting efforts to curb some of his excesses.
But Ciubotariu also offers specific denials of some of the Times’ assertions, including the most toxic one of all — that a certain number of employees are fired every year as a deliberate management practice. Here’s how the Times puts it: “Losers leave or are fired in annual cullings of the staff — ‘purposeful Darwinism,’ one former Amazon human resources director said.”
Here’s Ciubotariu: “There is no ‘culling of the staff’ annually. That’s just not true. No one would be here if that actually took place and it was a thing.”
At Re/code, Peter Kafka reports that Bezos himself has responded in a memo to his employees, urging them to read both the Times story and Ciubotariu’s response. Bezos writes in part:
The [Times] article goes further than reporting isolated anecdotes. It claims that our intentional approach is to create a soulless, dystopian workplace where no fun is had and no laughter heard. Again, I don’t recognize this Amazon and I very much hope you don’t, either.
I am sure that we haven’t heard the last word.
Photo (cc) by Luke Dorny and published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.
Remember when the iPad was going to save the news business? How did that work out? But if the redemptive qualities of tablets turned out to be overblown, they are nevertheless a compelling platform for consuming all kinds of text and multimedia material, including news.
This morning I spent way too much time with The Washington Post’s new iOS app, which is detailed at the Nieman Journalism lab by Shan Wang. It is beautiful, with large pictures and highly readable type. I was already a fan of what the Post is now calling “Washington Post Classic.” But this is better.
So do I have a complaint? Of course. The Classic app is more complete; it includes local news (no, I have no connection to the Washington area, but it’s nice to be able to look in on occasion), whereas the new app is aimed at “national, international audiences.”
And both apps rely more on viral content than the print edition, a sluggish version of which is included in Classic.
Quibbles aside, this is a great step forward, and evidence of the breakthroughs that are possible with technology billionaire Jeff Bezos in charge. In fact, the new app is a version of one that was released last fall for the Amazon Fire. So it’s also heartening to see that Bezos isn’t leveraging his ownership of the Post entirely to Amazon’s advantage.
Another paper with a billionaire owner has taken a different approach. Several months ago John Henry’s Boston Globe mothballed its iOS replica edition — that is, an edition based on images of the print paper — and replaced it with an app that is still print-centric but faster and easier to use. It was developed by miLibris, a French company.
The first few iterations were buggy, but it’s gotten better. In general, I’m not a fan of looking at the print edition on a screen. But I find that the Globe’s website is slow enough on my aging iPad that I often turn to the app just so I can zoom through the paper more quickly, even if I’m missing out on video and other Web extras.
One big bug that still needs to be squashed: When you try to tweet a story, the app generates a link that goes not to the story but, rather, to the Apple Store so that you can download the app. Which, of course, you already have.
Finally, it’s worth noting that the Boston Herald has a pretty nice iOS app, developed by DoApp of Minneapolis. It’s based on tiles, so it’s fast and simple to use. It’s so superior to the Herald’s creaky website that I wish there were a Web version.
Do apps for individual news organizations even matter? We are, after all, entering the age of Apple News and Facebook Instant Articles.
My provisional answer is that the news organizations should both experiment with and push back against the drive toward distributed content. It’s fine for news executives to cut deals with the likes of Tim Cook and Mark Zuckerberg. But it would be a huge mistake if, in the process, they let their own platforms wither.
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.
The revolutionary gleam has faded. Yet blogging remains at the center of the digital media toolbox.
From the vantage point of 2014, offering advice on how to write a blog feels a little like telling people how to write a proper newspaper article in 2005. “Blogging is dead,” says the (ahem) blogger Jason Kottke, overtaken by social-media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
But if the revolutionary gleam has worn off, blogging nevertheless is still a valuable tool for anyone practicing digital journalism, whether it be commentary, original reporting, photography, or video. I’ve been blogging since 2002 — on my own at first, then as the media columnist for the late, lamented Boston Phoenix, and since 2005 as the publisher and almost-sole author of Media Nation.
These days there are many places online where you can share your work — not just social platforms but also online publications such as the Huffington Post and Medium, which combine paid content with unpaid blog posts. (God help us, but such hybrids are known in some circles as “platishers.”) So why set up a solo blog?
The reason is that you need an online home that is controlled by you — not by Mark Zuckerberg or Arianna Huffington or some other digital mogul seeking to get rich from your content. Moreover, you need to establish an online identity. If you don’t, others will do it for you. “You can’t allow others to define who you are, or control the way you are perceived. This is especially true today for people in the public eye, but the more we do online the more it’ll be true for the rest of us, too,” writes Dan Gillmor in his book Mediactive. “To the extent that it’s possible to do so, you should control the reference point for people who want to know more about you and your ideas.” (In 2006 I profiled Gillmor for CommonWealth magazine.)
Yes, I’ve uploaded this essay to Medium. I also occasionally self-publish at the Huffington Post and am a (too-) active member of Twitter and Facebook. But I’ll repost this article at Media Nation, as I do with all my work to which I have retained copyright. I don’t have complete control — I use the free blogging platform WordPress.com, and I must adhere to its policies. But I can back up my work and take it with me, and it would be easy to switch to self-hosting using free WordPress.org software if I felt the need. Just as important, the URL for Media Nation is my name: dankennedy.net.
So what is a blog? Taking the most expansive definition possible, a blog consists of content, usually text or mostly text, that is published online in reverse chronological order. That would include everything from the Washington Post’s breaking-news blog to Lisa Bonchek Adams’s diary-style blog about living with metastatic breast cancer. Dave Winer, an early Internet thinker and coder who writes the blog Scripting News, has a more specific definition, which he first gave voice to in 2003. Winer writes:
A blog is the unedited voice of a person.
The lack of editing is central, because it’s one person who’s responsible for every word. When you click the Publish button you should feel butterflies, at least sometimes, because there’s no one to pass the buck to. If someone else wrote the headline, or did a copy edit, or even reviewed what you wrote and critiqued it before it went out, it’s still writing, but it is not a blog.
I don’t believe we need to think about blogs quite that narrowly. For instance, if a journalist asks her editor to read a sensitive post before publishing, that doesn’t mean she’s not writing a blog. Still, there’s no question that a journalistic blog — which is what we are concerned about here — is different from other kinds of journalistic writing: less formal, more conversational, often with no traditional reporting (but never without research), and aimed at a small but passionate audience. (As David Weinberger and others have said, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 people.”)
How to write a good journalistic blog post
There are many ways that a journalist can go about writing a good blog post. It might be a sentence or two. It might be 500 words. But I think the essence of a worthwhile post can be boiled down to several elements:
- Call your audience’s attention to something it doesn’t know — for instance, an environmental blogger might write about a new study regarding electric cars. Above all, don’t be boring. The lede you write for a blog post might be different from what you would write for a news story, but you still need to grab the reader by the throat and not let go.
- Link to the source of your information, which could be a news article or possibly the study itself. Quote a bit from the source, keeping in mind that most of your readers won’t actually click. Shorter quotes can be put in quotation marks; longer quotes should be blockquoted. (Please note that I’m not talking about the sort of blog post that summarizes a news story so thoroughly that there is no incentive to click. I’m talking about a true value-added post. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.)
- Bring in other sources of information. Although there’s nothing wrong with a short one-source blog post, you add value when you pull in other sources, link to them, and attempt to make sense of them.
- Offer your own perspective and analysis so that your readers take away something of value that goes beyond the sources you’re quoting. If you are working for a news organization that does not normally allow you to express your opinion, then don’t. But a first-person conversational tone is appropriate. If expressing opinions is part of your job description, then have at it. In all cases, though, your tone and approach should remain journalistic. One good question to ask yourself: Is this something I would want to show a prospective employer?
Here is a blog post I wrote earlier this year about the sale of the Providence Journal that encompasses all of the elements I discuss above. Please note, though, that you could scroll through many pages of Media Nation and find only a few that are as thorough.
Some additional guidelines to keep in mind:
Choose a beat that is narrow — but not too narrow. The best blogs are specialty sites where you can learn everything there is to know about a subject and where the blogger’s enthusiasm comes through. That is what you should aspire to. But if you pick too narrow a subject, you may find yourself hard-pressed to find enough reading material on which to feed. Boston restaurants? No problem. Ethiopian restaurants in Boston? Eh, probably not. You might make it through a week. But what are you going to do after that?
Compile a wide-ranging reading list. And keep compiling. If your blog is about climate change, you are going to want to put together a list of blogs, websites, and Twitter feeds related to that topic that you check every day. If your blog is a supplement to your regular work as a beat reporter, you might be doing what is sometimes called beat blogging — sharing short stories that might not be of general enough interest for your news organization, keeping on top of developments in your field, and interacting with your audience. (Steve Buttry offers some worthwhile thoughts about beat blogging; he has also written a good beginner’s guide to blogging.)
Maintain a conversation with the “former audience.” Dan Gillmor coined the phrase, and Jay Rosen has written about “the people formerly known as the audience.” They were referring to formerly passive news consumers who have been empowered by technology to talk back to us and among themselves. Your audience is a valuable resource. Tend to the comments on your blog. Always posts links to your blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, which is not only a good way to promote your work but is also where much of the online conversation has migrated in recent years. Remember the Dan Gillmor adage that your readers know more than you do — which is not to say that collectively they know more than you, but that someone in your audience might. Much of reporting consists of finding people who know more than we do and talking with them. Your blog (and your social-media presence) can make that easier.
Don’t try to read people’s minds. This is specialized advice, but since I write opinionated media criticism, it’s something I wrestle with from time to time. Another way of putting it is that you shouldn’t ascribe motives unless you’re willing to pick up the phone and do the reporting. For example, it’s fine to observe that the Boston Globe’s coverage of the Red Sox is soft (if you think that’s the case and can offer evidence) and that the Globe’s owner, John Henry, is also the principal owner of the Red Sox. But it’s out of bounds to speculate without interviewing the principals that Globe staff members are afraid of angering Henry, or that Henry must have sent out an edict of some sort. Facts are facts and opinions are opinions, and each has its place. Speculation is neither fact nor opinion and has no place in your blog.
Learn to use photos within the bounds of copyright law. I like to run photos with my blog posts, but I know I can’t run a photo that is the copyrighted property of, say, the Associated Press or the New York Times. Fortunately, there are troves of photos online that you can use without payment, many of them through Wikimedia Commons and Creative Commons. Be respectful of the photographer by crediting it as he or she would like and by linking to the photo. Here is an example of how I handle such credits. (You may be interested in this Q&A I did with the photographer, Gage Skidmore, for the Nieman Journalism Lab.)
Some bloggers worth paying attention to
The best way to become a good writer is to read as much good writing as you can. The best way to become a good blogger is to study blogs by people who know what they’re doing. Here are some examples from my own personal list and from my followers on Facebook and Twitter. You’ll find a range of approaches and topics here.
Note: This is just a tiny sample. I’ve left out many people, including friends, especially if they are white men writing about politics — the single most common type of blogger. If you’d like more recommendations, please take a look at the blogroll on Media Nation — and see who the people below are linking to.
Andrew Sullivan. A pioneering blogger and a former editor of The New Republic, Sullivan’s The Dish is a model in terms of linking, quoting, offering his own commentary, and posting with the regularity of a Stakhanovite. Sullivan writes most frequently about politics, but nothing is off limits. He is not on my daily must-read list, but strictly in terms of craft and discipline, he may be without peer.
Jay Rosen. The New York University journalism professor’s blog, PressThink, is perhaps the most influential in future-of-journalism conversations. Rosen writes a type of blog that I particularly admire — long, well-thought-out posts in which he attempts to make sense of many strands of information. His attention to comments is impeccable as well.
Adam Gaffin. The founder and editor of Universal Hub, which tracks and excerpts from several hundred blogs and websites in the Boston area, as well as from mainstream news sources. Updated multiple times a day, the emphasis is on the sources, not the writer — although Gaffin’s wicked sense of humor often breaks through. In 2008 I profiled him for CommonWealth magazine.
Ta-Nehisi Coates. A national correspondent at The Atlantic and an occasional columnist for the New York Times, Coates blogs powerfully and intelligently on issues related to race and culture. Beyond his blog, his essay “The Case for Reparations” may be the most important magazine article published so far in 2014.
Meg Heckman. A journalism professor at the University of New Hampshire whose blog, A site of her own, focuses on “women, tech, journalism.”
C.J. Chivers. A war correspondent for the New York Times, his blog is called The Gun.
Virginia Postrel. A libertarian and early blogger, Postrel writes the Dynamist Blog, which is worth a look.
Jim Romenesko. The original media blogger, Romenesko moved from blogging on his own to working for the Poynter Institute, and is now on his own once again at JimRomenesko.com. Essential news-biz gossip.
Ian Donnis and Scott MacKay. Their On Politics blog is a good example of a beat blog, as Donnis and MacKay cover politics for Rhode Island Public Radio.
Michael Marotta. His blog, Vanyaland, is a respected guide to alternative rock.
Marjorie Arons-Barron. Former editorial director at WCVB-TV (Channel 5), she writes a blog — often with political reporting — on politics and public affairs.
Mark Garfinkel. A staff photographer for the Boston Herald whose website, Picture Boston, is an excellent example of a local photojournalism blog.
Photo credits: Blogger (cc) by European Parliament; Dan Gillmor by Joi Ito; Ta-Nehesi Coates by David Shankbone; Meg Heckman by Dan Kennedy. All photos published under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.