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Visualizations of space, social data and a bit of history at the 2012 InfographICs conference

Secrets of the far-distant corners of the Universe, paths of human activities seen from above, the history of infographics and even some shots of time travels on board of a DeLorean: the fifth edition of the InfographICs conference, held in the Dutch city of Zeist on 9 March, has been the meeting point of more than 300 professionals for sharing their knowledge and ideas.

John Grimwade on stage at InfographICs 2012 with a DeLorean. Image by Infographic Congres

The day started with an intergalactic travel commanded by Sean McNaughton, staff member of National Geographic until recently, and now senior visual communications designer at Chase Design.

Sean McNaughton on stage at InfographICs 2012. Image by Infographic Congres

McNaughton, a passionate visual journalist, gave valuable insights about how infographics are created at the magazine. Unlike newspapers, where content is mainly driven by text, in this publication “every story is visual; if there is no visual, there is no National Geographic story.” From there, McNaughton told the audience about his joy of playing with new formats as a way “to attract new readers; that’s a question of seduction.” The relaxed ambient of a monthly magazine, without the pressure of breaking news, helps creativity.

Although “infographics are not always the best way to tell a story,” they are about wonder, joy and discovery. He believes in this triumvirate and offers the graphics on fifty years of space exploration and exoplanets as examples: they are close to questions like ‘Are we alone?’, that have fascinated the human kind for ages. If visualizations “amplify cognition” using “computer-based, interactive, visual representations”, as the already classic definition of Card, Mackinlay and Shneiderman says, these projects are the ultimate way to help us understand these far-distant physical objects. Before saying goodbye, McNaughton also shared a remarkable headline: “If you handle it well, complexity is beautiful.”

After traveling to far distant galaxies, the audience went back in time to the early 20th century thanks to the talk given by Michael Stoll, Educational Director of SND. Stoll showed beautiful pieces of vintage infographics. How did he manage to collect all these books? “I watch stuff on the Internet and talk to colleagues. There is a history written in books.” That history is full of demographic tables, which were the preferred topics of early visualizations, like those of J.G. Bartholomew’s Atlas of the World’s Commerce from 1907. Its maps show a fragmented narrative, the blank spaces being filled by bar charts representing the density of population.

Atlas of the World’s Commerce. Screenshot from the National Library of Russia website

His Flickr profile is worth visiting, as it hosts a massive collection of infographics.

Dutch artist Jan Rothuizen introduced his original work combining text and drawings. Rothuizen, author of De Zachte Atlas van Amsterdam (The Soft Atlas of Amsterdam), a collection of hand-drawn maps of the city, wants to tell stories that contain emotions with facts. “Things can only be understood by putting them in stories.” One of these cases is his drawing of Timo Smeehuijzen’s bedroom, included in the Atlas. Smeehuijzen was one of the first Dutch soldiers killed in Afghanistan, and Rothuizen’s work reflects both the intimacy of a post-teenager and the struggle of a mother trying to overcome the death of his son.

Jan Willem van Eck, strategy director of Esri Nederland, offered the cartograph’s perspective and showed the pros and cons of using maps in our times: visualizing things is easier thanks to open data, but this does not mean that information designers will communicate better with their audiences. Projecting means introducing error, stated Van Eck, from the stereographic to Mercator. The slides of Van Eck’s presentation can be found on SlideShare.

The afternoon sessions started with Kat Downs, interactive projects editor at the Washington Post. Young and talented, Downs explained that social data can be a precious resource for journalists, letting them tell stories that would not have space in traditional reporting otherwise. Downs focused her talk on big media like the Guardian, the New York Times and the Washington Post, which have already applied this idea in projects like the interactive presentation of the false rumours spread during the London riots of last summer. In many cases this data comes from social networks, but journalists can also ask their audience directly. That is what the New York Times did after the death of Osama Bin Laden. Many academic texts have addressed the relation between the journalists and their audiences and how new media have changed it. The projects shown by Downs in the InfographICs congress prove how the new forms of journalism improve public life. In these projects readers are not considered users or consumers anymore, but citizens, and their participation is higher than ever. They cannot be considered as citizen journalists, because they are not “responsible for gathering content, visioning, producing and publishing the news product”, according to Joyce Nip’s definition, but there is no doubt about their connection with the classic definition of public journalism as coined in the decade of 1990 by Jay Rosen, helping public life.

As many other speakers, Downs warned about the limits of visual storytelling: “There’s no need to tell stories with every dataset that we have with social data,” as in many cases the graphic presentation does not offer new insights on the content.

The successful series Nederland van Boven (Netherlands from Above) was introduced by the data journalist Frédérik Ruys, one of its authors.

Image by Evert Veldkamp

Their task was finding the patterns behind the data they received from different sources, in all forms and shapes. The method consists of four steps: explore the data, analyze and combine it to eventually visualize it. Good beautiful visualizations are born only from good datasets and their proper combination – “This is fundamental for creating interesting stories” -, added Ruys, who reminded the audience about the importance of having a story you want to tell before putting together the dataset.

The day finished with the unforgettable talk of John Grimwade, who appeared on stage driving a DeLorean car inviting the audience to travel back in time to discover the secret history of graphic visualizations.

The graphics director of Condé Nast Traveler started with DNA’s double helix to move backwards to the classic diagram on the fate of Napoleon’s Army in their attempt of conquering Russia, the Mercator projection of the late 16th century, Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the cave paintings – “the first infographs,” acoording to him -, and finally the Big Bang.

The words of Luke Dubois recalled by Grimwade closed the conference and reminded the audience about the importance of their work: “Last century was the century of electricity. This century is the century of data.”

This article was originally published on Data Driven Journalism. This version is a slightly modified edition of that text.

On Tumblr and News Curation: Interview with Ernie Smith from ShortFormBlog

It’s no news that Tumblr is one of the fastest-growing networks. Latest data from Quantcast indicate that it receives 410,180,736 visits every month, mostly young audiences with a desperate hunger for content and a strong community feel. This hybrid between blogging platform and social network is also a great and open field for new experiences in journalism and news curation. Traditional media conglomerates are trying to gain space here, but the most innovative ideas are coming from independent projects like ShortFormBlog, a successful site that takes advantage of the features of Tumblr. Its motto is clear: “Read a Little. Learn a Lot.” Ernie Smith, who created the page back in 2009, answers to my questions via email, while posting in ShortFormBlog and designing pages for his other job in a Gutenberg-style newspaper.

Why did you create ShortFormBlog and what was your inspiration?

ShortFormBlog’s roots come from a paper I used to work at a few years ago called Link, a free tabloid that The Virginian-Pilot, based in  Norfolk, Va., ran. Link has a lot in common with this paper called RedEye that the Chicago Tribune runs, with one major difference: It had a really interesting editing style, where we cut down long stories to small, easy-to-read bites with lots of visuals — numbers, quotes, blurbs, and clever breakdowns. It was a great paper loved by the community, and as a designer, it was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to do.

But the paper didn’t make it through the financial crisis. It was too far from profitability, and it closed in December of 2008. A real bummer. Rather than being totally heartbroken about my favorite job going away (and kinda waiting to find out about a job I’d just interviewed for), I decided to take a stab at this crazy idea I had in my head, of doing a blog that focused on brevity and design over long blurbs. I gave myself two weeks to pull it off — a bit ambitious seeing that I hadn’t done. I met my deadline. On January 1, 2009, I threw it online. On January 8, I got the job. I’ve done both ever since.

In the beginning, ShortFormBlog was published in WordPress but then you switched to Tumblr. What were the reasons behind that change? What is your favourite Tumblr feature compared to other platforms?

When SFB started on WordPress, it was mostly a proof of concept — an experiment, a way to show how a visually-oriented news site could work. After working on it for a while, it hit me that there wasn’t a community building around the idea. I think the big downfall for independent publishers is the difficulty in building a community around their content, especially in the wake of things like Twitter and Facebook Pages, which have the effect of decentralizing communities away from content. It’s easier to latch onto something else.

One day, a reader noted to me that I should look at Tumblr, saying that my content would be a good fit there. So, after playing with a few ideas, I decided to custom-build a Tumblr theme and to see what happened. We ran both for about four or five months. Within a couple months, it became clear that two things were happening: 1) It was starting to take off (roughly 15,000 followers in a year), and 2) A strong news-oriented community was building up on Tumblr. By February, it was clear the WordPress page wasn’t where the action was happening, so we moved to Tumblr fully and haven’t looked back.

You will not find a more vibrant community on the internet than the Tumblr community; it’s one that flows in many directions and is full of passion about everything, from random memes to truly serious issues. That’s the best part of the site. Everything around it just facilitates the growth of that often-creative, often-brilliant community.

How did you build the design of the page?

The idea started with the design, really. I wanted to create a format that was versatile for quick storytelling, but would look different with each post. So, you look at a quote, and then you see some numbers, then you see some blurbs, and then you see a photo. Keeping a visually-dynamic design has been a huge priority for me, and I’ve tried doing it by keeping a tight leash on the design, as well as being willing to take new risks with it.

We used to use databases for all the styles, but that got too clunky, so I came up with a super-versatile system for us — unordered lists that rely on simple HTML and complex CSS. If you want to change the style, just change the class. It’s worked well for us over the past couple of years.

Now, Tumblr isn’t perfect, from a technical perspective. It’s easily hackable, to a point. What SFB does is beyond that point, at least a little bit. So, as a result, we still keep a customized WordPress backend around to help with our more design-intensive content, as well as to keep a database of old posts (we have roughly 14,000 archived posts on our WordPress site alone). Using a backend allows us to design our posts visually, rather than using HTML and simply guessing on every post.

Ernie attached a screenshot to give us an idea of what he works with. "We have roughly a dozen post styles on top of the ones that Tumblr itself offers. In a way, we're stretching the platform in a different direction."

Ernie attached a screenshot to give us an idea of what he works with: “We have roughly a dozen post styles on top of the ones that Tumblr itself offers. In a way, we’re stretching the platform in a different direction.”

What are the main differences between ShortFormBlog and a traditional news media outlet?

The most important thing is the pivot — the idea of the blog is broad enough that we can make stuff up as we go along. One day we might be a breaking news outlet, another day we’ll be the opinion page and another day after that we might be the place to go for serious analysis or conversation. The effect is that we’re a little all over the place, but you’re guaranteed to get a bit of a mix from us. We don’t do much reporting, but we instead focus on aggregating content. Whether it’s finding a photo or a video from the scene of a big story before anyone else, giving a drab economic story a fresh coat of paint, pontificating like Jay Rosen or Andrew Sullivan, or cracking wise on Herman Cain, the mix is what matters.

We do this all with a small staff, so we’re not perfect, but we think it works well for us. There’s a little bit of opinion in the mix, too. With this type of content, opinions have a great way of taking the content and turning it into something with a touch of emotion. I think people want snark from a site like this, they want perspective, they want direction. We try hard to make that content fascinating. :)

Could you tell us about the page stats? How many visitors or page views do you have?

As I mentioned, we have roughly 15,000 followers on Tumblr, give or take a few, as well as a few thousand Twitter followers and a network of Facebook and Google+ followers, too. Tumblr’s a weird beast — a lot of the traffic heads through the dashboard, so the page itself is not a target of traffic, usually. Our reach, as a result is probably less focused on traffic than most traditional sites. I’d say we get between 40,000 and 50,000 unique visitors a month, some months doing better than others. Our traffic tends to ebb and flow based on the news cycle.

A friend once told me that my style is not something that goes viral quickly. I’m not going after the Buzzfeed market (though I love those guys). I’m going after something headier and more serious. As a result, I have to fight for my readers and build them one by one. I think we’ve done a great job of that over the past few years. I think there’s still much to do, though.

Do you know what kind of news are more appealing to your readers? What stories have been the most successful so far?

The types of posts I find work best fit into three categories: 1) Political posts, 2) Breaking news and 3) Fact-checking. The first tends to catch the passions of people, especially if we can explain it well. The second is a way that we can stand out by offering information before anyone else has it. The third one is interesting — what tends to happen during breaking news is that a piece of information will propagate due to its viral nature, and most people will accept it without turning on their Spidey-sense. What we try to do is research stuff and prove whether or not it’s correct. Sometimes a photo will gain traction during a natural disaster, and correcting the record is a way to build trust with your reader. I’m of the opinion that a real-time fact-checking site (like Snopes, but faster) could be a real hit.

We do some liveblogging, which tends to be popular, especially our debates with DC Decoder. One example:

http://shortformblog.tumblr.com/tagged/cnndebate/chrono

We also tend to do more in-depth things from time to time that do well, such as:

http://shortformblog.tumblr.com/post/7958165012/norway-oslo-update-package
http://shortformblog.tumblr.com/post/7828548123/news-of-the-world-hacking (two examples of our Tumbl-zine style, which uses Tumblr’s photoset to do magazine layouts)

http://shortformblog.tumblr.com/post/9301851473/u-s-fault-lines-nuclear-graphic (a graphic pointing out fault lines vs. nuclear power plants, which came in handy during the DC quake earlier this year)

How many people collaborate with ShortFormBlog at the moment?

We have about four regular writers, including myself, as well as an occasional contributor. One of my writers, Seth Millstein, got a job with The Daily (the iPad-only newspaper) based in part on the work he’s done with the blog, and our occasional contributor, Matthew Keys, is a well-known Twitter curator best known as @ProducerMatthew.

We all bring different things to the content. I tend to do a lot of media analysis-type stuff and posts about technology. Seth and Chris Tognotti tend to do a lot with politics. Sami Main does a lot of slice-of-life, fun stuff. It plays into the whole thing I’ve always said, which is that having a little bit of everything, including opinion, makes for an appealing stew. Everybody brings something to the content, and that’s hugely important.

What other journalistic projects are you interested in?

Well, beyond my job as a designer at the Washington Post Express (yeah, I still have an ink-stained hand in print), I have some strong interests in breaking news. I think there is a lot of untapped potential for making breaking news into something that the community plays a strong hand in propagating. I’m looking at (and thinking about) ideas for this right now, and I hope in the next few months to act on them.

I’m also looking for new curation tools all the time. I think that there is a market for a really slick curation tool that takes twelve steps of blogging down to two or three. My current favorite is Clipboard; I also like Percolate a lot. I think the thing about news is that good curation is really important to understanding all this crazy stuff happening around us. You need direction and focus, or you won’t know where to start. You might miss something. Good curation is all about surfacing things you might’ve missed.

This text was originally published on Masters of Media.

Hey Jimmy Wales, Nobody Cares About your Life in the Spanish Wikipedia

What happens when you knock on the ‘door’ of the Wikipedia founder? Apparently nothing, if you are Spanish language speaker. Compelled to create an article for ‘the mother of all wikis’, I assumed that writing about some hobby or trivial subject was not enough for me, so I decided to ask myself this question.

The next step in order to get an answer was thinking of a plan. After a quick search in Wikipedia I discovered that there was no Spanish article for the Californian ideology –the English version is also a stub, but this is another story. The set of beliefs that inspired the digital entrepreneurs of the dot com bubble back in the 90s was a perfect subject for two reasons. I could write about something related to new media and at the same time give my ‘Jimmy Wales experiment’ a chance.

I used the original text of the English version (a single paragraph) and made it longer, using references from the essay The Californian Ideology written in 1995 by Richard Barbrook and Andy Cameron. I also established a last relationship between Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and this “mix of cybernetics, free market economics, and counter-culture libertarianism”, as defined by Barbrook and Cameron. The first part of All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace, a recent documentary by British filmmaker Adam Curtis, served here both as an inspiration and as a reference for the Wikipedia article, accessible here.

This is the English translation of these last paragraphs:

In his 2011 documentary All Watched Over by Machines of Lov
ing Grace, British filmmaker Adam Curtis establishes a relationship between the Californian Ideology and the Objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand. According to her view, “human beings are alone in the universe and they must free themselves of all forms of political and religious control, and live their lives guided only by their selfish desires. If they did this, they would become heroic figures”.

According to Curtis, Rand’s ideas were an influence for the generation of new entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley during the decade of 1990, like Oracle’s Larry Ellison. Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia, has also declared that he read Rand’s books during his college hears and that some of the values of her work, like the pursuit of independence, are applicable to his own life.

I made two conscious decisions about citations in order to generate controversy. The first one was that I would not include a link to the 2005 interview where Wales declares his youth passion about Rand, because I wanted some user to ask me for it. I also preferred to use a reference from popular culture (a documentary produced by the BBC) instead of an academic one, despite the fact that the influence of Ayn Rand’s work in Jimmy Wales’ philosophy -and the very own inspiration behind Wikipedia- has been established by several authors. In her essay “A Journey from Rough Consensus to Political Creativity”, Johanna Niesyto refers to this previous academic literature when she explains that the neutral point of view of Wikipedia is a principle that “has been interpreted as translating Ayn Rand’s school of thought and other libertarian influences”.

The time to knock on Jimmy Wales’ doors came once the relationship between the Californian ideology, Ayn Rand and Jimmy Wales had been established by my Wikipedia article. How would I ‘knock on his door’? By editing the article about him in Wikipedia and including a reference and a link to the Californian Ideology. The English translation of the previous text about Wales and the sentence I added (you will find my edition in brackets) is as follows:

He has declared that he was influenced by Ayn Rand’s books [and the Californian Ideology] during his youth. He was the owner and moderator of a mailing list called Moderated discussion on Objectivist Philosophy.

I decided to include the reference to the Californian ideology in the article about Jimmy Wales not only because I thought that it was relevant, but also to wait and see the feedback from the other users. Would they consider that my edition was lacking any specific references or citations, or that the ones that I gave, like the documentary, were not encyclopedic enough? “Maybe somebody will start a discussion in the Californian Ideology article, or even in the Jimmy Wales one,” I thought, because some members already talked about this controversial relation some years ago. Instead of all that hassle, the only answer I received was silence. Not even bots took care of Jimbo Wales.

I used to think that the article about Jimmy Wales was one of the most controlled texts in all Wikipedia, but this was a mistaken presumption. Three weeks after the creation of the article about the Californian Ideology and the edition of the Wales’ one, everything still remains the same. There has been only one new post in the discussion section of the article about Jimmy Wales, but related to something completely different.

There is another plausible reason for this indifference. As this is solely a speculation, it is not my intention to establish a causal relationship, only to indicate an historical context. This background includes the forking of the Spanish Wikipedia that happened back in 2001. As Nathaniel Tzack explains in the essay “The Politic of Forking Paths”, forking “refers to splitting a project to create two separate entities”.

The fear of a commercial Wikipedia led most of the Spanish users to abandon the Spanish Wikipedia in 2002 and create the Enciclopedia Libre en Español (EL). The sentence “Good luck with your wikiPAIDia”, written by the Spanish Wikipedia member Edgar Enedy, has become part of the history of the project. In his article, Tzack argues that the Spanish fork was a success, as it clearly impacted the whole project: only after the fork Wikipedia made sure all its members that the project would not be commercially funded.

Whether this indifference about Jimmy Wales is just a coincidence, or rather part of the historical differences between the community of Spanish-speaking users and the Wikipedia elite, is something that cannot be decided at this moment. Nevertheless, it indicates some errors in the management system of this encyclopedia, because nobody seems to care about the accuracy of citations.

References:

Tzack, Nathaniel. “The Politics of Forking Paths.” Critical Point of View. A Wikipedia Reader. Ed. Geert Lovink, Nathaniel Tzack. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. 94-107. Print.

Niesyto, Johanna. “A Journey from Rough Consensus to Political Creativity”. Critical Point of View. A Wikipedia Reader. Ed. Geert Lovink, Nathaniel Tzack. Amsterdam: Institute of Network Cultures, 2011. 139-57. Print.

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace. Dir. Adam Curtis. BBC, 2011. Film. http://www.archive.org/details/AdamCurtis-AllWatchedOverByMachinesOfLovingGrace Accessed October 25, 2011.

Publicado originalmente en Masters of Media.

Appapa: When Geolocation Becomes a Tool for Political Activism

Millions of people gathered last August in the main avenues of Madrid to see Benedict XVI in theWorld Youth Day (WYD), but at the same time his visit was the center of a political controversy concerning its economical costs and the Pope’s remarks on social issues like abortion or gay marriage. The massive protest rallies held in the city during these days were a proof of the steady growth of political activism in Spain during 2011, but this event could also be used to study the importance of new media for political activism from a new perspective. I will use the Appapaapplication to exemplify this idea.

I would not be lying if I say that this application was useful to know where Benedict XVI was in every moment during these days, but I would not be saying the whole truth, as it was not intended for WYD attendants. Let’s better use the words from its own website (translation is mine, as there is no English version available):

Appapa is an application that alerts you when you are 500m or less from the Pope, so you will not have to listen to his remarks on abortion. But above this, we have created it to promote reproductive and sexual rights as an integral part of human rights. Help us spreading it!

The first intention of Appapa was, as their creators indicate, raising awareness of some specific social issues. This application was developed by Solidaridad Internacional, a “non confessional, progressive and independent” NGO created in 1986 (although it receives a 90% of its €10m incomes via public subventions from different Spanish administrations). It runs educational and health programs, mainly in the areas of sexual health and reproductive rights in 20 countries across Latin America, Africa and the Middle East, according to its website.

The graphic interface shows a menu with four options, beside the alarm system included in the application. The first one is a Google map indicating the exact location of the user and the Pope. The second option is a timetable with all the public appearances of Benedict XVI in Madrid. There is also a “Did you know?” section with facts related to sexually transmitted diseases, genital mutilation, homosexuality, or hate crimes. The last part of the application offers a list of reproductive and sexual rights.

Geolocation is the main feature of Appapa, as it is utterly needed to alert about the distance between the user and the Pope. Despite all the concerns about privacy and intimacy rights made by individual freedoms advocates regarding this technology (“They know where you are at every single moment”), it is not odd to define the GPS system as a subversive agent in this particular case. This application reverses this ‘surveillance and control’ method by appropriating the technology, turning it into a useful tool for political activism. The Department of Defense of the United States would have never imagined that its toy could be used this way.

This is not the only appropriation act that makes of Appapa an interesting example for political activists. It also uses marketing methods in a creative way. Many private societies used the WYD to start commercial campaigns, even the most peculiar ones: a cellulose company manufactured a special edition of its best toilet paper in yellow and white colours, a marketing effect using the flag of the Vatican City as an excuse to get media coverage and promote their brand. Why shouldn’t a NGO make an appropriation of these tactics in their own interest? Experience in private companies has shown their effectiveness. Like in the hygienic paper example, the Pope can be seen in Appapa as a mean, a necessary actor, used to raise awareness about some specific interest –social issues, in this case.

The application was a whole success if we consider it as part of a marketing strategy. The number of downloads of Appapa in the Android Market was very low (between 500 and 1,000) but media impact was much bigger: more than 3,000 Likes in Facebook, hundreds of blog posts and articles in newspapers… The video was also helpful spreading the message: more than 20.000 views only in Youtube.

The use of new media by the Left movements and their relationship has been matter for an intense literature, from Walter Benjamin to Donna Haraway, not to forget the historical debate between Hans Magnus Enzensberger and Jean Baudrillard concerning May of 1968. In a more contemporary and practical approach, the arab uprisings, the Anonymous collective, or even the #spanishrevolution movement, serve as study cases in recent academic research about the role of communication technologies in social issues. Given this context, the case of Appapa offers all the new elements indicated above and could be studied as an example of new appropriation tactics for political activism.

Publicado originalmente en Masters of Media.

Tumblr: a Social Network by Another Name

There is no doubt about the impact of social media in the last years. More than a half of the total Internet users have active profiles in networks like FacebookGoogle+ and Diaspora* in the near future, hopefully. What makes these webs important is not the model of communication they try to impose, but the use that individuals make of them. We must not forget that the grandmother of all social media, Friendster, started as an online dating service and only thanks to innovations in the management of their profiles, users became aware of the communicating possibilities of the media.

The first question is precisely; what makes a social network? We are facing a definition problem and therefore we will propose a broad approach to the concept, given that users take part in a hybrid network in which combinations of media are common. Online newspapers like elpais.com imitate microblogging sites (Eskup was created in 2010), audiovisual platforms (Youtube) become TV channels and social media (Facebook) aspire to create the definitive email system through their networks: there is no space -here we should better say ‘time’- for rigid definitions.

People use social media to communicate with friends, but sometimes these media also become means to make new friends and even start -or finish, let’s assume it- affective relations. Social media are useful to express day-to-day sensations and deep, long-thought reflections. Both are frequently expressed through audiovisual media like pictures and videos and shared in circles… sorry Google, this concept is not available to be registered as a trade mark.

All these premises make us look at Tumblr from a different perspective. This is how they describe themselves in their ‘About’ section:

Tumblr lets you effortlessly share anything. Post text, photos, quotes, links, music, and videos, from your browser, phone, desktop, email, or wherever you happen to be. You can customize everything, from colors, to your theme’s HTML.

This definition does not pay too much attention to the social media aspects of Tumblr, although there are many. Some of them are explained in the “Why Tumblr?” section. Users “can create private posts or entire private blogs” and “invite friends, family, or co-workers to view or contribute”, keeping their copyright. It can be easily connected with Facebook, TwitterInstagram or Picplz, so we may also think of it as a Matryoshka doll, as a sort of ‘content factory’ for other social media.

This double condition is due to the active participation of the Tumblr users’ community. People do not only post about their lives: they can also replicate posts from the users they follow or ‘Like’ them, as it happens in Facebook. Clearly related to the retweet action of Twitter, this reproduction (reblogging) tool has been very effective, even creating a new type of crossed and fragmented narrative that we will discuss later.

Traffic figures from Quantcast show that Tumblr grew steadily since its conception as an easy-for-all blogging site in 2007 until this year, when it has started to take over the web. It served more pages in a single day in May 2011 than in 31 days in July two years ago. As of September 2011, Tumblr generated now more pageviews than Wikipedia every month with only a tenth of the ‘democratic encyclopedia’ users. In 2009 Tumblr had a retention rate of 85%, compared to the 40% of Twitter. Demographics also show very interesting data: it is frequently visited from home (86% vs 14% at work) and mostly by teens or people in their twenties.

Social networks are the ultimate personality shaper for the 21st-century teens. As Danah Boydpoints out in “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life” talking about MySpace,

A profile can be seen as a form of digital body where individuals must write themselves into being. Through profiles, teens can express silent aspects of their identity for others to see and interpret. They construct these profiles for their friends and peers to view. (1)

As it happened with the html code loophole in MySpace, which opened the door to profile customization (2), users of Tumblr can use templates to create original pages. Personalization in Tumblr is not only in the continent, but also in the content itself. The characteristic crossed and fragmented narrative of this media, cited above, is a plausible field of research on its own. Every post is a text whose meaning is related to a bigger text (the author’s tumblelog), but once the post is reblogged (and thus reframed) it obtains new meanings. Beside the semiotic aspects of the ‘Tumblr discourse’, quantitative measures about reblogging activities could be made in order to study social interaction in this kind of hybrid social media.

There is a third aspect related to content that can be considered exclusive of Tumblr. Its users have embraced such an outdated technology as the graphics interchange format and given it a new life. GIFs are seen here as a new visual code that can serve to interact without words, allowing the users to start conversations with their peers without worrying about written languages. These graphics like the one below are worth an individual research, as the possibilities of communication developed by them configure a brand new language system.

References:
(1) Boyd, Danah. (2007)  “Why Youth (Heart) Social Network Sites: The Role of Networked Publics in Teenage Social Life.”  MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning – Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume (ed. David Buckingham). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Available at http://www.danah.org/papers/WhyYouthHeart.pdf

(2) Ibid.

*You can follow my own tumblr adventures (basically a collection of random street art pics from different cities) in rincones.tumblr.com.

Publicado originalmente en Masters of Media.

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Book review: ‘Wikileaks, Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy’

Wikileaks has become, in the last years, the symbol of transparency in the 21st Century. The efforts of the organization founded by Julian Assange to offer public access to relevant information about politicians, bankers and rulers of the world are reshaping not only journalism, but also democracies and dictatorial regimes. Wikileaks, Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy (Guardian Books-PublicAffairs, 2011), written by two journalists of the Guardian, claims to be one of the closest sources of information about the history of the site: the reporters worked closely with Assange to develop the Cablegate in 2010.

When David Leigh and Luke Harding finished their book they knew that this story was far from reaching an ending point. What they could not expect is that their own work would eventually become a necessary actor in the next season of this chilling series. The chapter 11 of the book, published last February, starts (135) with the password given by Assange to the journalists of theGuardian in order to access the raw files. The authors included it in the text assuming that the code was not useful anymore, but some later breach of security left the encrypted folder available to the public. Given this, people just had to stick them together to access the 250,000 documents stored by Wikileaks. Assange has blamed the British newspaper for the cable dump.

Fifty eight characters: “ACollectionOfDiplomaticHistorySince_1966_ToThe_PresentDay#”. A combination of alphanumeric symbols that refer briefly to the content of the encrypted data linked to it. This is possibly the biggest paradox in all the history of Wikileaks: the password to gain access to their raw files was leaked and this security breach did not happen by sophisticated methods of encryption, as Assange could have expected. It came in one of the most classical ways: through a book. This is one of the great values of this work: Leigh and Harding try their best to prove the relevance of newspapers in our digital world, but the definitive winner in this match is the old, Gutenberg-style book.

The story around the password may be the fresh news of these last two weeks, but the book has much more to offer. The work of Leigh and Haring, a chronological research of Julian Assange’s life and the rise of his transparency project, is full of references to the “symbiotic relationship” (59) between the former hacker and what he calls the mainstream media. It is a great text book for prospective journalists, as it offers an interesting approach to the role of classical-mainstream-capitalist media in our times. There is, anyway, a lack of any self-criticism in the book, not even a single line is devoted to express concerns about possible mistakes that the newspaper could have made concerning Wikileaks.

Wikileaks has been a good deal for the former Manchester newspaper. November 28th, 2010, was a day that nobody will forget in the newspaper: their webpage received 4.1 million unique users only on that day, and a half of them came from the United States. It also served as a test for an almost newborn journalism genre, data journalism. Stuart Millar, the Guardian’s web news editor, explains it to the readers: “For us, there was a special responsibility to handle the material carefully, and to bring context to the stories, rather than just dump them out.” (183) There are further developments in the book about this new model in which the journalists act as some sort of intermediate manager -translator- between the raw data, provided by Wikileaks or other similar sources, and the audiences.

Wikileaks: Inside Julian Assange’s War on Secrecy is written in a style that seems to be willing a movie version. Despite the title, in this film the leading role would not be for the Australian, depicted here as a maverick nomad. He would have a supporting role, of course, but the real stars in this text are the journalists: their meetings with lawyers, whistleblowers or heads of the US State Department, traveling from Islamabad to New York via Moscow in the pursuit of the decodified truth. It would have some resemblances of All the President’s Men, but moved forward to the digital era. Steven Spielberg has already secured the screen rights for the book. You can make your bets for the cast. Maybe Javier Bardem as David Leigh?

There is another star in this story, maybe the most important –and forgotten one. Bradley Manning, the soldier that supposedly leaked secret information from two laptops in Iraq, is probably the weakest link. Depicted in the book and by his supporters as a young soldier concerned about the lack of security measures and the atrocities committed by the coalition troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, Manning has been under arrest since the spring of 2010. He faces more than 20 charges against him. There will be no Pulitzer prize for him, although he would probably deserve it much more than others.

For Manning, the question might be whether his decision was right and worthwhile or a terrible mistake instead. There is something true: there have been no reported deaths due to the Wikileaks reports, at least until the last dump a few weeks ago. The achievements of Wikileaks concerning transparency are much more obvious than its value as a change factor in diplomatic policies, as stated in other chapter of the book: “Future historians may be able to assess whether that work might make future American and British military adventures anly less reckless and bloody”.

Publicado originalmente en Masters of Media.

Korea: el eterno retorno de la guerra

A Korea le tocó en desgracia ser durante siglos un ni-pa-ti-ni-pa-mí entre Japón y China. Estos días de otoño los medios escupen noticias sobre esta península, eterna doliente por una guerra nunca resuelta que desde hace más de sesenta años rompe en dos su territorio.

Fue el primer enfrentamiento bélico de consideración de la Guerra Fría y también el primero desde el siglo XIX en el que las tropas estadounidenses no salieron totalmente victoriosas. La extravagancia del régimen comunista hereditario que rige desde entonces al norte del paralelo 38 y el estrafalario gusto de su actual líder, un zombie adicto a los peinados arriesgados y los smoothies de cerebro humano [citation needed], le aportan un toque peculiar al asunto. Como espectáculo principal se presenta, además, la posibilidad de un doomsday atómico.
Hay que acudir a las fuentes directas, así que yo me he ido a la web de la agencia de noticias de Korea del Norte (sí, tienen una, pero con dominio japonés). Veamos, November 23 2010 Juche 99 (queda un año para el centenario del nacimiento de Kim Il Sung): “Kim Jong Il Inspects Newly Built Soy Sauce Shop at Ryongsong”. Vale, estos no están por la labor. Mejor acudir a la propaganda clásica para ver cómo empezó aquel conflicto de 1950, que de lo que pasa ahora ya nos enteraremos dentro de unas décadas (o no, ¡boom!).
Este vídeo es el Armed Forces Screen Report 125, una pieza de 1950 tituladaThe Crime of Korea en la que un narrador anónimo que se presenta como corresponsal de guerra discurre sobre la necesidad de la contienda contra los comunistas en aquella esquina de Asia, todo entre comentarios no precisamente cariñosos sobre los japoneses, a los que se sigue llamando japs. Se trata de un compendio de argumentos retóricos salidos de algún manual de introducción de la opción bélica en el discurso público, aunque por momentos resulta algo farragoso en su presentación.
Más interesante resulta el epílogo que sucede al vídeo, a partir del instante 12’11”, en el que Eric Johnston explica a los estadounidenses qué puede hacer cada uno para ayudar en la lucha contra ‘el crimen de Korea’. Entre otras cosas, soltar pasta. ¿Cómo? Comprando lo que él introduce en su discurso como bonos de defensa (defense bonds) pero que en realidad se conocen como bonos de guerra (war bonds).Buena pieza este Johnston, que tras ser presidente de la Cámara de Comercio estadounidense (visitó a Iosif Stalin en Moscú en 1944 comisionado por Roosevelt) se hizo cargo de la Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association. A partir de 1946 se encargó desde su puesto de una labor tan paranoica como ardua, la de crear una lista negra que detectara posibles infiltraciones comunistas en la industria del cine. Y su pituitaria era de una eficacia detectando el azufre que no veas.

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