On Smartphones and Journalism

For the past two semesters, I’ve worked with students as they reported all over the five boroughs and Long Island for the Multimedia Journalism class. They’ve produced photo slideshows, videos, and podcasts for the class, and my role has been to coach them through the reporting and editing process.

Here at Baruch, we have audio recorders, video cameras and basic still cameras that the students can borrow from the school if they don’t have their own equipment. At this point, we don’t have high-quality DSLR cameras to offer them (and in any case it’s not an advanced-level class). So most of the time, for the photojournalism assignments, we had them use their smartphone cameras.

I noticed fairly early on that some of the students seemed a little bummed that they had to rely on their smartphones rather than professional-grade equipment when it came time to shoot their photo essays. I’ve been a student journalist myself and know what it is like to feel as though my student status and tight budget is holding me back from telling stories as well as I’d like—so I sought to reassure them that there was no need to feel limited.

The first thing I did was tell them about photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown, who has been featured on TIME’s LightBox photo blog for his iPhone photo essays made in Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He told LightBox that he began shooting on his iPhone after dropping his SLR shortly after arriving in Libya, and then found that in many ways he actually preferred it.

Our multimedia class discussed the pros and cons of using a smartphone as a camera. True, the quality of the image isn’t as great with a smartphone, and the camera is much more limited in terms of the light conditions where it can shoot. But something strange happens when you pick up something the size of your palm to take a picture of someone instead of several pounds worth of glass, metal and plastic: You become invisible.

You could be checking your email, posting on Facebook, or playing Angry Birds. But even if the person knows you’re taking their picture, a phone is simply less intimidating. Subjects have blinked and even physically recoiled when I’ve pointed my DSLR quite close to their face to take a portrait. Using a camera phone often conveys a certain intimacy, and it makes you seem less of a threat. I know journalists who have been allowed access to places—field hospitals, for instance—with their iPhones while their colleagues with heavy cameras have been forced to wait outside.

Halfway through the fall semester, Hurricane Sandy shut down Baruch for a week. Many of our students were directly affected, and getting back on track as a class wasn’t easy. But one wonderful thing to come out of Sandy was the fact that it afforded the students an opportunity to report on a major story unfolding in their own backyards, and they did some truly beautiful work.

Sandy also led to an historic moment in photojournalism. For the first time ever, a photograph taken with a smartphone made the cover of TIME magazine.

Screen shot 2013-06-14 at 7.29.42 PM

Photo by Ben Lowy

The photographer, Ben Lowy, along with Brown and three other photojournalists, was commissioned by TIME to document Sandy and its aftermath on Instagram.

Earlier this spring, Baruch invited Australian photographer Andrew Quilty, one of TIME’s five Instagrammers, to speak at a panel called “Your Smartphone: A Window On The World.” Sitting on the panel alongside Quilty were Genevieve Belmaker and Kirsti Itämeri, who have both used smartphones extensively in their work. The presentations and discussion delved into the practical aspects of using smartphones, the ethical ramifications, and the future implications for journalism as they become increasingly ubiquitous and cost-effective tools.

Just two weeks ago, for instance, the photojournalism world was stunned by the news that The Chicago Sun-Times had laid off its entire photo department in favor of putting iPhones into the hands of its reporters. From reading my musings up until now, you might think I applauded this decision, but let me point out one key distinction: Quilty, Lowy, and Brown are all experienced photographers who have spent many years developing an eye for style, composition, and content. When they take pictures with an iPhone, it isn’t as an afterthought, so they have something to run along with the story. As far as I’m concerned, there will always be a need for photojournalists who devote their lives to the craft.

One of the Sun-Times photographers started a Tumblr shortly after being laid off. In the description, he writes, “Rob Hart was replaced with a reporter with an iPhone, so he is documenting his new life with an iPhone, but with the eye of a photojournalist trained in storytelling.” And he delivers.

Ultimately, that’s what I want my students to see. That it’s not about the type of camera, it’s about the journalist holding it.

Tearing Down the Academic Paywall

There are cracks in the great academic paywall. I’m not talking about academic article torrents, though they do exist (I will not link to them here). I’m thinking of how many humanists are cultivating online personas and attempting to bypass the paywall in a number of ways–by blogging about their research or getting permission from journals to share their articles publicly. Optimistically, this is a sign of contemporary scholars’ dedication to openness and democracy. Pessimistically, it is a sign of the pressure on the humanities to justify its existence to the public. Times are difficult when the President of the MLA appeals to CNN.com readers by insisting that “Having strong skills in another language may give you an edge when applying for a job.”

Academics’ efforts to bypass paywalls intensified following the recent suicide of programmer, Reddit co-founder, and hacktivist Aaron Swartz. JSTOR, the database whose articles Swartz allegedly tried to share freely, actually led the charge to bring down paywalls even before Swartz’s passing. In tribute to Swartz, many academics shared their previously-paywalled scholarship publicly, using the hashtag #PDFtribute (which in turn spawned pdftribute.org).

I support the ideal of open access to academic work, but I think that it is worth considering what it would mean to remove academic paywalls when most journals and databases have paid staff.


In a time when adjunctification is rampant, can we really justify de-monetizing all journals and databases? Journal contributors are unpaid to begin with, so for most academics removing paywalls translates into no monetary loss, only a gain in publicity. Yet, like it or not, academic journals, databases, and supportive software companies all make up an industry with paid staff. I personally work for an open-access journal, The Journal of Interactive Technology and PedagogyAt this juncture, our staff do not receive stipends or course release time. In an ideal world, the staff of every journal would receive some kind of support from their institution; yet, this is more likely to be possible at colleges with large endowments, meaning that the playing field could potentially be even more uneven with the removal of paywalls. Again, while I am enthusiastic about the possibilities of open-access scholarship, I also have to point out that the system of labor in the academy is already precarious, so that any new model should avoid exploitative labor practices.

Liberal education itself is broken, torn between the “the life of the mind” and the reality of stifling student debt and increased adjuntification. Fewer students are majoring in English: in 1971 7.6% of conferred degrees were in English, while in 2006 the figure was 3.7%. From a student’s point of view, at least, it seems as though the life of the mind doesn’t pay off.

Neither paywalls nor college enrollment limits can block the natural flow of ideas, especially today. Ideas are viral, they interbreed and sometimes occur spontaneously in different locations. We can see this even in the natural world when separate species independently evolve the same traits–what is known as convergent evolution. Ideas don’t really belong to anyone. They are a product of the accumulation of a variety of factors–social factors, economic factors, previous concepts/discoveries, etc. This is as true in the humanities as it is in the sciences. We often like to focus on one “genius,” one breakthrough moment, when most discoveries or inventions were many centuries and lifetimes in the making. For instance, Thomas Edison was only able to achieve so much success by outsourcing his work to others–to his “muckers.” In my opinion, in the humanities the “superstars” aren’t always the most original thinkers–often they are simply able to synthesize and express preexisting ideas in novel and exciting ways.


Academics in the humanities like to pretend that their ideas are theirs. However, there is no legal basis for such a belief. Intellectual property law doesn’t protect ideas; it only protects the specific expression of an idea. As the U.S. Copyright office states, “Copyright does not protect ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something. You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.”

Now that many academics have made a public turn and are on Twitter, the dissemination, adoption, and critique of ideas within academic discourse is instantaneous and publicly visible:

In the field of English, it seems as though we are already talking and interacting in public and online spaces above (or through) the paywall. The purpose of an academic paywall isn’t to protect authors’ ideas. Rather, it’s an outgrowth of academic labor. In our push to make academic discourse and higher education more open, we also have to consider what the ramifications might be for an academic system of labor that seems to be growing more unequal.

In summary, I suppose that what I’m getting at with this post is that paywalls, tuition, and the intellectual ownership of ideas are unnatural structures that are contrary to the natural spread of ideas and which have grown out of higher education, which, as much as we hate to discuss it as such, is an industry. The new openness of scholarly communication serves to highlight this unnaturalness as well as the tensions between values such as “free thought” and “fair labor,” “ownership” and “openness,” or “prestige” and “access.”

If you see something, tweet something

I watched the first two presidential debates at my friends’ apartment. Sasha and Sam have a projector and a screen, so watching was a regal affair, like watching a movie, but way more depressing.

The frustration during and after the first debate was intense. I spent most of it looking out the window onto beautiful Sixth Avenue in Brooklyn. If Obama wanted to look down at his notes for what seemed to be 99% of Mitt Romney’s speaking time, I’d stare down and watch the people walking on the street below, wondering how they felt about shirking their civic duty, and whether it would be bad if I shirked mine next time around and caught a movie instead of the debate.

But I did go back to Sasha and Sam’s for the next debate. And one thing I thought about, as I sat back to enjoy the show, was why I was so drawn to following twitter while watching.

It is common currency to bemoan the fact that most people are swayed to an alarming extent by whatever pundits they happen to watch on TV. You are who you watch. And the amazing thing about watching our twitter feeds while watching the first debate was that we saw how quickly the pundits, those very same people who define the majority’s opinion, were deciding on twitter that Obama was eating Romney’s dirt. It took about two minutes, based on the people I follow, for the national story to coalesce. Obama was publicly shaming himself. What was he scribbling that whole time, anyway?

From Jon Stewart’s “The Daily Show”

Sam, who also happens to have been Obama’s chief blogger in the 2008 campaign, told us that in a speech he gave a few days ago about social media and elections at Miami University (trickily located in Ohio!) he told the audience that twitter users have a real capacity to sway the election. If the pundits, journalists, academics, and normal-but-witty people who had amassed a twitter audience called the debate for Romney, then Romney would get the headline: Romney won. Since everyone guessed that the second debate would be a closer call, the twittersphere had a real impact. If they uniformly announced that Obama was killing it, then the headline would read: Obama won. And that would sway the polls, cause Romney to falter, backtrack, explain, etc. and give Obama the lead. Call it for Obama two minutes in and save America.

What I actually saw happen on twitter on the night of the second debate was interesting, subtle, and strange. There was continent-sized relief and almost immediately, people were calling it for Obama, but not in a sinister way. They were also calling him on his idiocy (like when he seemed to argue that college students should stop worrying: there are jobs  to be had on the production line!).  They were calling it like it was. If you see something, tweet something.

One question about the twitter/debate combo is, of course, can we watch, listen, process, think, and tweet, or at least watch the twitter stream all at the same time? And does following your twitter stream enhance the experience?

I don’t know if I’d answer this way about every listening experience (the best of the academic talks I go to require every scrap of concentration I can muster; a concert is best attended sans twitter; I can’t imagine ever wanting to tweet or follow twitter at an event I was expecting to find moving, surprising, or deeply meaningful). But watching a debate, which is in many many many (many!) ways a mindless and depressing activity is, I would argue, made manageable, and even fun, by twitter.

I laughed a lot.*

Found buckets of good sense:

I saw my main man Whitman referenced:

Of course, scrolling down twitter is often an onanistic exercise. Doing it, we affirm what we already know or think. We see our funniest, wittiest selves reflected (you, too, can contain multitudes of jokes, memes, witticisms!). And when the next morning’s news comes out, we feel like we had the inside scoop. Of course “binders full of women” is getting hours of news time. We saw it get miles of tweets within seconds of it leaving Romney’s mouth!

It can, though, push us to hear what other people have to say. It depends with whom you populate your twitter feed, to some extent, but even if you’re following mostly like-minded people, there’s always someone who knows something you don’t know, thinks it’s going differently than you think it’s going, or thinks the twitter posts that you find Jon Stewart-worthy are inane. Twitter allows you to settle into yourself comfortably, but it can also startle you out of yourself.

Twitter is, as Doug Henwood suggested on twitter, a hyper-productive cliche production line (with many jobs available for aspiring college grads!).

It has the potential to be an election decider. It’s a sideshow one turns to when the main event promises to be a depressing debacle, no matter how well your horse is doing. It’s a condiment we have come to find necessary to the consumption of a political spectacle.

See you for round three on Monday!

* I promise these tweets were all during the debate (except the Doug Henwood tweet which was the next day). The hours on the side are misleading since I collected them all at varying times the next day.

An Audience for Shenzhen: part four, revisions and continuations

(I swear this will be my last entry on this topic)

Since my last post, even more has been added to the Mike Daisey and Foxconn story. This is the topic that just won’t die. Mike Daisey returned to the Woolly Mammoth to present a revised version of The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs. Apple released a new flagship phone. And stories of labor practices in electronics factories continue to shock readers (for at least a few seconds).

iPhone 5… “Assembled in China” Creative Commons License photo credit: Sean MacEntee

Last time, I discussed how the character of “Mike Daisey” is different from the actual Mike Daisey.
I must admit, I was taking a rather academic approach. I was arguing from the defensive position of a theatre scholar finding theatre under attack. Of course I will argue that a monologue broadcast on the radio is different from the same words spoken in a theatre. My academic career depends on that difference existing. However, with Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, the difference is more than merely academic.

When Daisey defended himself from accusations over his This American Life episode, he argued that people seeing his show in a theatre know this is a performance. For the final production in New York after the scandal, Daisey even added an opening prologue to his monologue that (almost condescendingly) responds to the criticism by reminding audience memebers that this is a performance:

When the lights go down here, I will go backstage. When I come back out, the lights will come back on and I will be telling you a story – and that’s the oldest form of theater, you know. When the light comes onto the stage, I assume that role where I am speaking.

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This prologue was not for anyone in the theatre that afternoon. Anyone who watched the show could tell he was performing a character. While the monologue is delivered sitting in a chair at a desk with yellow legal pad and glass of water, Daisey almost never stops moving for the whole performance. And when he does stop, it is a calculated stillness that dramatically emphasizes his speech. This is almost a dance. On the radio, this element is lost. The dance-like aspect to the performance is lost, and all we hear is the voice.

The performances, however, have extended beyond Daisey himself. Regional and college theatres, Fringe Festival productions (including the mother of all Fringe festivals, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), and even a Twitter “production” that sends out the monologue in less than 140 characters at a time. There is something strange about a Twitter production of a show by a monologist who heretofore never wrote out his scripts. When Daisey performs the monologue, the text is an outline on a yellow legal pad. But when @AgonyEcstasy “performs” it, all we have are the words. Even more than on the radio.

These worldwide productions were possible because of how Daisey distributed his first written script. The scripts are released under a modified “Open Source”-like license. Performers are allowed to download, edit, expand, and produce the show royalty-free. Daisey recently posted “version 2.0″ of the script on his website, which includes a section in the middle about the controversy surrounding his This American Life appearance. Version 1.0 is still available, since, as every computer geek knows, version control is important.

Foxconn Creative Commons License photo credit: Ged Carroll

Since the end of The Agony and the Ecstasy‘s second run at the Woolly Mammoth this summer, the story continues. Apple released a new iPhone. Student “interns” at Foxconn assembled iPhones, but don’t worry, the students were “free to leave at any time,” provided they didn’t care about their future educational or professional opportunities. Samsung, Nokia, and basically every other electronics company uses similar practices.

Foxconn workers in Taiyuan (who make iPhone parts) were not paid their promised wages and went on strike (or riot, depending on which source you read). Armed military guards were called in to quell the dissent. Workers were killed. The factory threatened to shutdown, destroying the livelihood of thousands of workers–but in actuality, it only closed for a few days. Never worry, though, Apple iPhone 5s were shipped with only a slight delay.

Perhaps most tellingly, the influence of Mike Daisey’s monologue and the coverage of his radio scandal managed to provoke not only news coverage, but mainstream satire. This past weekend, Saturday Night Live even poked fun at the tech reviewers’ willful blindness to the conditions in factories–in a mind-blowing bit of “yellow face” racial stereotype, complete with glasses out of Mickey Rooney’s performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s:

When an issue is well-known enough to be used in Saturday Night Live, people can no longer feign ignorance.

You always knew. Just like I knew, before I went, before I read the reports lit up in the glass of my laptop. We’ve always known.
And that’s the lie.
–Mike Daisey, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs (v2.0)

Two Social Media Paradoxes

Paradox Number One:  Social media foments revolution, but a sudden removal of social media can increase mobilization and create even more unrest.

We can all stand witness to the ways in which social and news media can spread a movement within and across nations.  I know an Egyptian who claimed that her family and friends knew that the revolution was going to occur in the weeks and days before it actually happened.  How?  Just by the messages on social media and between individuals.  In a similar fashion, social media proposed and flamed the fires of the occupy wall street movement in the weeks before it emerged, grew, and took hold as a real story in mainstream media outlets.

The protest was set to start on the 17th.  At first, there was a kind of silence.  People questioned whether it was happening at all.

Interestingly, Al Jazeera was one of the media outlets which first recognized the plan for a protest.  Other small news organizations online followed the story from September 17th on.  The New York Times City Room blog picked up the story on September 19th, while nothing was put into print until September 25th, when a version of a September 23rd online article titled “Protesters Are Gunning for Wall Street, With Faulty Aim”  and beginning with the sentence “By late morning on Wednesday, Occupy Wall Street, a noble but fractured and airy movement of rightly frustrated young people, had a default ambassador in a half-naked woman who called herself Zuni Tikka,” was published.

Since then the General Assembly of the occupation has released a declaration and the movement has its own subreddit.  However, the lack of specific demands, particularly from the outset, has been seen as a weakness and has led some people to propose their own.

Clearly, social media has played a key role in this movement.  Yet, ultimately, social media doesn’t stray very far from a standard news cycle.  Here are Google searches and news stories for occupy wall street:

(courtesy of Google Trends)

And here are the tweets containing occupywallstreet:

(taken from Trendistic)

The tweets, Google searches, and news reference frequency all have peaks on the first day of the protest, on Sept. 25 when images of pepper spray being used by the NYPD spread and a high number of arrests occured, and on Oct. 1 when 700 people were arrested on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Eventually, though, whether the movement has succeeded or not, it will fall out of the news cycle and off of people’s radar.  Even though as I type this Egyptians are protesting military rule in Tahrir Square, not many Americans do searches related to Egypt these days:

It’s unfortunate, but it appears that social media news runs alongside the news cycle.  Facebook posts can catch our attention, but only for so long, and what seems to be fueling tweets about the protest are acts of violence rather than its actual rationale.  Also, isn’t there a risk that we are beginning to confuse posting items on Facebook with really exercising our civic duty?  Last week five or more of my friends posted about the execution of Troy Davis, but how many actually took action in contacting local representatives or representatives in Georgia?

In fact, a Yale student recently claimed to have proven that, based on what occurred in Egypt, a “sudden interruption of mass communication accelerates revolutionary mobilization and proliferates decentralized contention.”  A journalist quickly used the study to point out how mass media, even as it spreads consciousness, can create a passive public.

Paradox Number Two:  Social media brings networks of people with like interests together, but in doing so it can create information bubbles.

In May of this year Eli Pariser presented a TED Talk in which he warned about how Google, Facebook, and other online companies use algorithms that customize what information is presented to people based on their individual tastes:

Thus, just by virtue of being ourselves, our internet is filtered.  We go further to filter our own experience when we read websites that cater to our cultural background or to our political interests.  Despite a study which seems to indicate that this personal filtering is not an issue, Bill Davidow and Ethan Zuckerman have argued that online media can give too much attention to extreme groups and views, and that “positive feedback” loops might push us to take more extreme views ourselves.  Eric E. Schmidt, the chief of Google, takes a middle ground view on the issue, acknowledging that for those who don’t know how to curate their own information, the internet can be a breeding ground of ignorance.

In the classroom, discussing and giving assignments that reflect on how media is curated, either invisibly or explicitly, in different contexts (on Wikipedia, in academic journals, on Facebook, in Google Scholar) can give students a wake-up call regarding how they navigate the web (and increasingly, how the web navigates them).


The Medium Isn’t the Message

As the New York Times observed, two of the Academy Award nominees for Best Picture up for Oscars last night were about transformations in communications. “The King’s Speech,” which won, remembers the pressure that radio put on King George VI to minimize his speech impediment in the days leading up to World War II, when his country needed to hear a strong and articulate message from its leaders. “The Social Network” also looks back, all the way back to seven years ago, when Mark Zuckerberg began the journey from outsider geek, to big man on campus, to CEO of the paradigm-changing communications giant that Facebook would become.   Transformations in communications are also part of the way the Oscars were presented this year.  The Academy added many features to appeal to people who now go online and use social media while watching awards shows.  It used younger hosts and an interactive website, and had nominees’ mothers (“mominees”) tweet about the Oscar experience.

“The King’s Speech” is getting dismissed a bit by observers as ‘just’ a historical drama, a costume piece, and a buddy movie (the king and his speech therapist). It does, however, offer some interesting implicit speculation on what kind of king Edward VIII, friendly to Germany, might have been had he not abdicated. “The Social Network” presents a slice of history as well, albeit an incredibly recent one. The fact that the historical moment “The Social Network” explores is so recent certainly highlights the remarkably fast evolution and impact of social networking technologies. Is it because evolution in communications is so rapid, intense, and ongoing, that “The Social Network” manages to pull out the drama of a recent moment as clearly as if it were a costume piece and we’d had decades to process it? Or maybe it’s just the great job that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin did with the screenplay, which also won an Oscar.

“The King’s Speech” deals with politics, and “The Social Network” with academia and the business world, but both of them are ultimately about relationships, the human element that should not get lost in the shuffle when we think about information and communication technologies. With Twitter and Facebook in the news daily as part of the political upheavals occurring in the Middle East, it’s worthwhile to remember that communication is about people, even when technology is their conduit. Twitter isn’t toppling oppressive regimes; it is people who are already energized for change, using it as one tool to communicate, who are effecting that change.  “The King’s Speech” isn’t about radio, it’s about a lonely king as Eliza Doolittle and his pal the speech therapist as Henry Higgins. And “The Social Network” isn’t just about the origins of the social networking tool Facebook. To me, it says much more about social class and exclusion; it could be an Edith Wharton or Henry James novel, for the pitfalls of social climbing and hubris it explores so poignantly.

Both “The King’s Speech” and “The Social Network” are really good movies, both about relationships and communications, and extremely well-done.  “The King’s Speech” was heavily favored, but “The Social Network” was my pick, and not just because of its relevance, nor the fact that social media are observably impacting our lives every day. It’s just a compelling narrative, and I loved the ending, which imagines Zuckerberg sitting at his computer hitting Refresh every few seconds, hoping that the girl who rejected him will ‘friend’ him now on Facebook.

You know what’s cool?  [Hint:  it’s not a billion dollars.]  What’s cool is a timeless story about human frailty, and about the imperative we all feel, as social beings, to communicate and connect with others.  Both movies offer that in spades.

Saign flls aftr US wthdrwl OMFG

Valentine Greeting: Grandpa to Grandma
Creative Commons License photo credit: freeparking

I was doing research for my dissertation at the National Archives a few months ago when I came across a set of “communications files” for General William Westmoreland, a central military planner during the Vietnam War and later Army Chief of Staff.  The files contained all kinds of communications, mostly letters, spanning Westmoreland’s tenure as administrative head of the Army during the final years of U.S. military involvement in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately for my dissertation, I didn’t find anything in the file that directly helped my project.  However, one folder in particular caught my attention more for its form than its content. A collection of papers marked “Wire Transcripts, 1968-72″ contained all of Westmoreland’s communications via wire service, or telegram, and when I opened the folder I was immediately struck by the uncanny sense that I was looking at a Twitter feed.  The pithy, often awkwardly abbreviated transmissions closely resembled the loose, stream-of-consciousness format that Tweets, status updates, and text messages have made ubiquitous.  As I browsed through Westmoreland’s proto-tweets, the effect was like reading an internal history of the Vietnam War broken down to its linguistic essence, and I realized that the impulse to communicate in incredibly short textual bursts was not unique to the Internet Age.

As I approach teaching a history course on Vietnam this summer, I wonder if the tweet-format can have uses in the classroom. Since so many writing exercises attempt to teach students how to organize their thoughts into one powerful central thesis (often in the form of a a single sentence), the informal language of text messaging might provide a natural springboard to develop that process.  A good example of how loads of meaning can be packed into 140 characters is found in these “Twitter Discographies,” which break down entire musical careers into nearly mathematical, often brilliant, aesthetic summaries.  A personal favorite, Neil Young, looks like this:

Neil Young: 1 shak(e)y; 2+3 yin/yang of entire career; 4 the hit; 5-7, 14 fucked-up genius; 8-13,20-33 yin/yang variations; 15-19 the ditch.

While most students already have a great deal of practice composing text messages, how might they benefit from exploring this format in an academic setting?  Are there ways to engage the same critical faculties involved in writing a five-paragraph essay in, let’s say, an exercise that asks students to reduce the Tet Offensive to a series of tweets?

Archiving Tweets

card catalogs
Creative Commons License photo credit: jessamyn

I’m curious what people think about the Library of Congress’s decision to digitally archive every public tweet.

Every public tweet, ever, since Twitter’s inception in March 2006, will be archived digitally at the Library of Congress. That’s a LOT of tweets, by the way: Twitter processes more than 50 million tweets every day, with the total numbering in the billions.

To be honest, I don’t have a Twitter account, I don’t “follow” anyone, and I don’t really “get” the whole tweeting thing.  Obviously, I don’t know enough to have an opinion on this, but I couldn’t help but laugh at this comment made by “Uncle Fred” on a post at the Atlantic about the Twitter archive:

Great, now even future historians can muse over my failed toasted tomato sandwiches.

My questions are for those of you who are, or ever have been, on Twitter: Do you think tweets are something worth archiving? Are there privacy concerns? Will knowledge that your tweets will be archived change the nature of what you write? Any other thoughts or concerns?

Literature Becomes Electric

“Everyone is reading short-form text. Literature has not made that jump.” This is a key line from a recent NYT article “Serving Literature by the Tweet” which concerns a new literary magazine Electric Literature. The name of the magazine startled me at first, as I’m a big believer in the old fashioned way of reading literature: precisely as a long-form text printed on a page where I can make notes in the margins. The editors of this new magazine, Andy Hunter and Scott Lindenbaum, make their texts available in multiple mediums: print, Kindle, e-book, iPhone, Twitter, and even audio books. They publish such well-known authors as Michael Cunningham, Colson Whitehead, Lydia Davis, Jim Shepard.

As I continued reading the article, I realized, despite my initial reservations, how promising this project really is. For instance, the authors are asked to select a line from their work to be animated and posted on YouTube. This is a new and very creative form of literary expression that allows for imaginative possibilities and, as Michael Cunningham pointed out, “maintain[s] the integrity of the written word and extend[s] its range.”

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QPqOy2rvfqM[/youtube] [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FdJieivqFQs[/youtube] [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lSf_4vxWmxg[/youtube]

I was reminded of a few students in our in-class workshops in the past few weeks whose eyes were constantly on their iPhones. The same happens on the subway, in gym classes, and everywhere we go. As much as I’m reluctant to accept the pervasiveness of the electronic world, I must admit that it can effectively create what Rick Moody has called “new envelopes for [literature’s] message.”

The Cost of a Character

As an editor for the Radical History Review, I spend a lot of time counting characters (text characters that is).  Duke University Press, the publisher of the journal, allows a fixed number of journal pages per volume.  Short of typesetting an article, the most accurate way for RHR editors to estimate the length of a given article or entire issue is to count characters (yes, spaces count, and so do footnotes).  Occasionally we have a space crunch toward the end of a volume and the pressure is on.  If there is a huge overage, the game is political, determining which authors might be willing to postpone publication of their piece to a later issue.  If it is a smaller amount, authors and editors are forced to tighten the text or remove/shrink images.  It doesn’t take long before the cutting war becomes a word-by-word battle where every character counts (and the hefty penalty fee assessed by the publisher for overage looms large).  When we begin constructing an issue, the 600,000+ character space seems vast,  but as it comes down to the wire claustrophobia sets in.

Unlike a Twitterer bending to duck a 140-character limit, the journal author/editor can go only so far with creative solutions since the text must adhere to the Chicago Manual of Style and Merriam-Webster Dictionary.  Although the dictionary is growing it doesn’t allow for the creative abbreviations being pioneered by twitterati.  It usually means following Strunk and White’s advice: “Omit useless words.”  Not surprisingly, the intense editing done under the character-limit gun tends to yield excellent results.

As we help our students discover the value that comes along with the frustrations of editing, I think that space constraints can play a valuable role.  When a student shortens a text or tweet, they are employing some of the same skills necessary for communication efficiency in other contexts.

New technologies are not the first to put a price tag on characters.  An Op-Ed in the New York Times over the summer pointed to some humorous abbreviations invented by penny-pinching telegraph senders facing 15-character and 10-word limits.  I am intrigued by the expressions that the editors of the “The Anglo-American Telegraphic Code” (1891) deemed worthy of inclusion.  Some of them are not phrases I see often these days (“can you recommend to me a good female cook,” abbreviated “CRISP”); others are (“taxation is oppressive”, “ORGANISM” for short).

Here is an excerpt, including some other abbreviations you may choose to use in your next tweet:

ABANDONEE Abandoned in a sinking condition
ABETTING Everything depends on the ability with which it is (they are) handled.
ABUSAGE His (their) absence is rather mysterious.
ACESCET Has met with a trifling accident.

I see that this post is already at 2775 characters, so I best stop here.