Full of gratitude

My own students would troll me if I buried the lede, so I won’t. I got a letter from the Lehigh University provost today confirming the Board of Trustees had approved his recommendation for tenure. So as of next month, I’ll be promoted to associated professor.

I won’t stay long here but I wanted to say a few things.

I interviewed for my job here at Lehigh back in 2008. It was, probably, the worst time to be on the academic job market out of PhD school. I applied for 15 jobs, and half the searches were canceled within a month due to the cratering economy. I went on four campus visits, and I fell in love with Lehigh. Like, the kind of hard where I would have been crushed to not get an offer.

There was something about this job. The place, the people, and the opportunity to build out a digital effort that was pretty basic (the latter fits my main advice to any graduate: seek opportunity over salary when you are able to do so). I had a really good visit, and a really good vibe. I was thrilled to get an offer and accepted quickly.

Eight years letter, my love for this place has only grown. I came in with high expectations and they’ve been surpassed. We’ve hired five professors since I’ve started here and I told them all this: This place, this sense you have right now falling in love with the place, it’s not hype. I speak with a lot of PhD school colleagues and this has not always been their first-job experience. It’s fate, dumb luck, whatever … but I walk into work every day feeling like I’m robbing the bank.

Lehigh has its issues institutionally, but there are some good people here who are working on changing us for the better every day. I’m proud and willing to stay engaged in that.

A few quick thank-yous.

First to my PhD school mentors Esther Thorson and Clyde Bentley. They set me on this path as a masters student back in 2004. I wouldn’t be here without them.

My department is amazing. Seriously, a rocking group of people. Jack Lule and Wally Trimble were chairs who helped guide and mentor me. I felt welcome here on the first visit thanks to them. My other colleagues Sharon Friedman and Kathy Olson both helped guide me when I was struggling on publishing early on. I work with so many other good folks: Janey Lee, Haiyan Jia, Matt Veto (a hero without a cape, if there ever was one), and Imaani El-Burki. Nancy Ross retired but was a great colleague. And then the amazing staff, Linda Lipko and Kathy Throne. Our department is a family and I love working with these folks.

Third, I want to thank some folks post-PhD who have really made me what I am. Jen Reeves, once of Mizzou and now setting the world on fire with her advocacy work, has been the best model on releasing my inner nerd that I could have. Really, I am so grateful for her counsel as she’s taught me how to dream big in the classroom. I continue to be inspired by the scholarship and teaching of folks like Seth Lewis, Amy Schmitz Weiss, Cindy Royal and Chip Stewart. We joke sometimes about standing on the shoulders of giants in academia, but sometimes those of us still forging the way need to combine our powers and form Voltron too. Friends doing it out in the real world keep me grounded and serve as models too, and so a shoutout to Beth Carpenter, Shanley Knox and Joy Mayer.

And, of course, my students. I went back to grad school to be a teacher, and the ones I’ve been privileged to teach at Mizzou and Lehigh have made me up my game in ways that — well, that would be a book if I wrote it all down. I’d name names but I’m sure I’d forget a few. But you know who you are, because I’ve made a point to tell you how proud of you I am. I’m inspired to do my best work because of my students. Thank you for letting me try every loony idea I can think of to push both you and myself in the service of experimental journalism. I hope if you took anything from time with me it’s that the spirit of discovery and exploration are the entirety of what education is about.

Finally, and not least of all, my wife Amy. Tenure isn’t my accomplishment alone. Partners and families make sacrifices in ways that are big and subtle. When I needed to hunker down and write, she took up the slack.

I’m grateful, you all. Here’s to things getting better.

Why Spotlight’s victory matters

This was a tweetstorm that I turned into a blog post ….

Spotlight’s Oscar victory for Best Picture honor was a double win.

First, most important: it’s a victory for the victims of these terrible crimes who deserved to have their story told. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Journalism at its best is giving voice to the most vulnerable who don’t have a megaphone like powerful people and institutions. In my mind, it’s the only reason journalism needs to exist.

Second, it’s a victory for the hard work journalists do to hold those in power accountable. We often think of journalism as daily pop culture, entertainment coverage. Even politics-as-entertainment coverage. And those are! But Spotlight showed the tedious, unsung everyday work that reporters often do for communities.

Thank your local investigative reporter who exposes wrongdoing. Thank your local beat reporter who sits through boring city council meetings that are 90% yawnfests, who keep watch because they’re looking out for the people’s interests. Thank the reporter who digs through city records to see what the bastards are trying to get away with today, as a former mentor said (I think he was riffing on someone else’s quote, but I don’t recall whom). Thank your local city editor, who is unflinching in the face of pressure and power and knows that their first loyalty is to readers.

And thank your news leaders with vision. People like Marty Baron, who see the big picture beyond individual stories. Marty Baron wasn’t chasing a Pulitzer, a movie credit, an Oscar. He was chasing the truth, taking a stand against systemic evil.

Yes, there is bad journalism out there. Part of my job requires I do media criticism, and in that role I call balls and strikes (though I certainly am not the final word on that). But most journalists are dedicated pros who care about their communities. They care about getting the story right. They care about truth. Journalism orgs do have their problems. Sometimes they are in the newsroom, often times they are in management. Reporters/editors in the trenches usually are not part of the problem.

And finally, pay for journalism somehow. Subscribe if you can, or patronize advertisers who support rigorous independent journalism. Donate to ProPublica or local nonprofits supporting news. Support independent journalists too!

You might not like all of journalism, but it’s what we have. Sometimes news challenges people we like, institutions we hold dear, or ideas we agree with. That’s the thing about independence. We’ll lose it if it’s of a party or ideology. You can’t just support what affirms your worldview. It’s not sustainable for the news business, and it isn’t sustainable for democracy.

The Elements of Journalism said so well: Journalism’s first obligation is to truth, first loyalty is to citizens. Its essence is a discipline of verification.

I remain bullish on the future of stories. Honor what’s best about “Spotlight” by focusing on critical stories and making the business more sustainable.

 

Breaking news and social media

This morning brings horrifying news about someone shooting two Virginia journalists in cold blood while they were doing a live interview on a TV newscast. It’s so shocking and senseless that I have trouble summoning words for it. The journalists were young and doing what I did myself for years as a reporter — standing there, focused on the source and asking questions, oblivious to whatever was going on around them. Being a journalist can leave you in prone positions, and it’s important to remember that the people who do this job are taking risks as part of the deal even when it’s an innocuous story.

I cope by going into journalist mode, and by being a teacher. I don’t want to add much commentary about the day’s events, but instead I want to talk about several things I noticed while tracking the story on Twitter this morning. It’s how I’m making sense of the news this morning, and it’s a chance for my students to learn and grow. No hot takes here. This isn’t a traffic grab; it’s therapy.

Breaking news has always been hard to think through, given how chaotic the environment can be and how fluid the information is. But social media makes the process even harder.

Official sources in breaking news environments

A tale of two tweets from reporters. Note the time stamps:

and then

We have two potentially contradictory pieces of information here, both from public officials. In journalism school we’re taught that official sources are quotable on the record. Getting information from someone who is publicly accountable usually is gold. Hearing information from the mayor about city happenings is considered more solid (if not confirmed) than hearing it from a random citizen

Breaking news environments are tougher, though, especially in the age of social media. We saw this with the Gabby Giffords shooting a few years ago when a source in the local sheriff’s department confirmed that Giffords had died even though it turned out later to be untrue. But before the latter could come to light, NPR reported that it had confirmed Giffords’ death. It became a classic case study on why we should slow down and confirm things from people directly connected to the incident.

In the Twitter above, you have the governor. Pretty official! But if you stop and consider the information and source, there is reason for skepticism. The governor likely didn’t speak to the people doing the alleged manhunt; he likely got that information second, third, fourth, fifth hand — information passed up the chain from people on the ground through administrators and aides. It’s probably safe to say Terry McAuliffe isn’t intentionally lying, but whether the information is accurate is a tougher call. I think the reporter handled this one pretty well. She put the information in quotes and attributed, which means it’s clear it’s coming from McAuliffe. I would have added to the tweet to alert my audience that breaking news situations are very fluid, and that this information hasn’t been confirmed separately. But Twitter is hard for breaking news because of space limitations.

Then, not 50 minutes later, the second tweet shows one arm of law enforcement saying they’re not involved in the pursuit. What could this mean? It could mean a lot of things. Other groups might claim jurisdiction (such as the FBI), or it could mean that the suspect has left Virginia and they can’t pursue anymore. But my skepticism is raised about the first tweet now, because you’d think in a manhunt the state police would be involved in a tertiary way at least. The second tweet casts potential doubt on the first, or they might actually be compatible. The point is, it’s hard to know.

What I tell students is that breaking news on Twitter is great, but you must be careful. Take your usual skepticism (which better be high to begin with!) and multiply it tenfold. Question everything you read or hear, and make sure that before you pass anything on you feel pretty certain that what you’re sharing is true. The stakes are much higher in terms of your credibility in those moments.

Sharing graphic video

The other issue that cropped up was the use of video. Again, this incident happened on a live broadcast; it’s already out there in some way, and in a world of DVRs, digital rewind, and Vine/Instavideo, people in public are going to re-air the moment because they can. But journalists still need to be judicious about what to do with the video.

On Twitter this morning there emerged three schools of thought on whether TV outlets should re-air the video of the shooting:

  • Don’t re-air: Out of courtesy for the victims and their families, don’t show it. Don’t give the shooter a moment of glory either.
  • Re-air: Journalists shouldn’t sanitize violence. By doing so it spares us the horrific reality of these shootings and leaves us at a policy inertia at a time when the gun control issue is a hot debate. In addition, journalists shouldn’t be the ones choosing what their audiences can choose to see; leave it up to the viewers.
  • Re-air with exceptions: This one is all over the map. CNN inexplicably decided to only show it every hour (and how many public places have CNN on?). Others argued to publish the video but be conscious of disabling autoplay features. I ran into this second one. I shared a link that had a video that wasn’t autoplaying on my Mac, but then discovered that it was autoplaying on mobile. Others said publish it but with giant content warnings.

The Radio TV News Directors Association has a good set of ethics guidelines, particularly the graphic content section. I don’t consider these the authority, but they are excellent things to consider as you choose between those three options above.  If nothing else, it’s a good check on you as you weigh your options.

My gut says go with the third choice. Put giant warnings in front of the video, and no auto-play. Reporters and journalists have the choice of how to air, but it’s difficult to argue with the idea that somebody in the public will post these things if we don’t. We should at least be making sure that people can trust the video is verified as part of the journalistic vetting process. The auto-play issue in particular is thorny because it’s hard for people to avoid, something Facebook users found out today when they were unable to avoid the video.

How good to I feel about that third option? Not very. I can be persuaded. Showing death on video is a serious thing, especially when it’s a criminal shooting done in cold blood. It’s a reminder that newsroom ethics, particularly in breaking news environments, involve a whole lot of discussion and argument, and the results are often messy (and sometimes involves incorrect decisions). You have to slow down and resist the urge to post right away.

Citizen first-person shooter

Complicating this discussion is news that broke about 11:15 am, that the suspected shooter had a Twitter and Facebook account and was posting their motive as the manhunt was supposedly happening. About five minutes later, he posted two videos of him allegedly filming himself doing the shootings. It was horrifying.

Again, news organizations faced a difficult choice. The videos were out there. What is the journalist’s responsibility?

This one felt a bit more clear-cut to me. The first-person perspective is less about documenting with a TV camera and more about glorifying the act. To air this is to give the alleged suspect what he seems to want: attention and glorification. Not airing it is the easier call, but it also becomes imperative to not spread the tweets or information about the suspect’s alleged account.

Tufecki is right. We talk about social media fame a lot, but it can be a tool for entertainment or for despicable acts. There will be copycat versions of this crime, and as media consumers we have a responsibility to not spread this kind of thing.

Apple Watch is changing my life, and I’m grateful

Update: When I wrote this, I was down 12 pounds in a month. Now, as of 5-1/2 months, I’m down 65 pounds.

I know it’s common for tech companies to proclaim all their products world-changing. HBO’s Silicon Valley has a really funny parody of this from an episode about TechCrunch Disrupt, with startup CEOs claiming every little product as life-changing. But in sitting down to write about the Apple Watch after wearing it on my wrist for a month, only one theme is strong on my mind: it’s changing my life.

I’m remaking my health habits, I’m losing weight, and I’m more focused and present in everyday life. It’s been well worth the $450 or so in long-saved gift cards I spent on the Sport model.

Before I get into that, a couple caveats. First, as they say in Cluetrain, your mileage may vary. Apple Watch isn’t for everyone, and though I think their marketing campaign (“it’s our most personal device ever”) is a nebulous message for people who’ve never worn one – WHAT DOES THAT EVEN MEAN?? – I see their point. It’s interactive and customizable, but how each person does those things will be different. Those differences might be enough to not equal a rationale for purchase. Second, yes, I understand that people make choices to have good habits or behaviors, that devices don’t make choices for them. But it’s more complex than that. We’ll get to it.

tl;dr version: the Watch might not be for you, but I encourage you to not base it on a few reviews. Talk to people about what they do with it, people with lots of different use cases. It might fit your life, it might not. I don’t consider it a must-have device, but for certain types of people with certain needs, it’s incredible.

OK, on to the review ….

The Experience

First we’ll start with what it’s like and hit on some of the plusses and minuses. This won’t be all-encompassing. If you’d like to read a couple thoughtful takes on the Watch, I’d recommend Jim Dalrymple’s review and this by Walt Mossberg. Also, this one from The Oatmeal is good, and funny! It’s less about what they have to say and more that they wore it for a long time, and that is much better than some of the reviews where they tested it for a week or a weekend. The Watch is about habits, not individual experiences, and you need time to assess that.

Rather than cover all the features (you can get those anywhere), let’s talk about what it’s like to wear Watch:

It’s comfy: It fits nicely on the wrist, isn’t too big or small and it isn’t heavy. The watch comes in two sizes. I’ve assumed the smaller size is more for women, who on average tend to be smaller. I suppose if you’re around 6 feet tall or so, that’s when you start thinking about the big one. The small version looked ridiculous on my arm. I like some of the more expensive bands, but the black rubber band has been strong, durable, and comfortable.

App notifications: Just as with a phone, you can have all your apps notify you of things whenever something new happens. Email and messages are obvious, but like your phone you can enable everything. Tweet replies, Facebook likes, plans made on TripIt, breaking news on NYT, etc. Enabling everything is a terrible idea. Every review that says keep it minimal is right, because every notification means a chirp and a slight buzz-tap on your wrist that will overwhelm you if you don’t regain control. What I did first is turn off all notifications except email and text messages. What I discovered quickly is most email alerts didn’t matter, so I used my iPhone VIP feature to only alert me to messages from friends and family. I maybe get an email alert or two per day. It’s perfect. Since then I’ve turned on news alerts from the NYT app and a few things, but it’s better to enable more once you’ve worn it a bit.

Apple Watch's activity rings. Pink is for calories burned from moving around, green is for workout time (moving with an accelerated heart rate for extended time) and blue is for standing and moving around for at least a minute during a given hour.
Apple Watch’s activity rings. Red is for calories burned from moving around, green is for workout time (moving with an accelerated heart rate for extended time) and blue is for standing and moving around for at least a minute during a given hour.

Fitness notifications: The reason you keep other notifications to a minimum is because you get different fitness notifications throughout the day, and that just adds to the pile. Visualized as the “three rings”, it is available in a smaller form on your watch home screen, and you can tap it to bring it up to a bigger size such as the picture at the right. You burn something like 2800 calories a day from just being a human, but what about the extras? The red ring measures those extras (for reference, sedentary folks burn about 300-500 a day). You can adjust the red ring to fit goals and push yourself. I started about 250 and within two weeks I was at 350 a day; in fact the Watch will suggest increasing if you’re consistently exceeding targets. The green ring looks at exercise time. The default is to do 30 minutes a day. You don’t have to hit any buttons; Watch knows when you’re elevating your heart rate for extended periods and will add minutes as you go. I’ve learned that going for a slow walk won’t get me exercise credit; I need to do a moderate to brisk pace (3-4 mph). Finally, the inner blue ring gives you credit for standing and moving around for at least a minute per hour. The goal is you do this 12 times a day. I’ve found I generally can get about 8 without thinking about it, but on the others I need some prodding. If you’re in the 50th minute of a given hour and haven’t gotten credit for that hour, Watch buzz-taps you to stand and move around for a minute. It’s helpful.

If you get a Watch, you’ll obsess over these rings. The gamification and data visualization are simple and easy to understand. I find myself pushing myself to hit targets. You get little badges for different things, such as new calorie records or doubling your calorie goal for the day. It’s great and useful, but more on that later.

Battery life: It’s great, way better than how Apple has sold it. Don’t worry about it. I once went through two full days without charging it even though I did hour-long workouts both days (although, to be fair, I used a third-party app instead of the Watch workout app; the latter measures your heart rate every 10 seconds which, I presume, drains the battery more). On a typical day, I have 45% charge left by bed time. Minimal notifications probably play a role, but really if you’re draining your battery you’re on your watch too much, and so you’re using it wrong. The Watch is built for quick information and glanceability; view those photos or play those games on your phone or iPad.

Apple Pay: It’s beautiful. I have an iPhone 5s so I haven’t been able to use it, but Watch will let you use Apple Pay on a 5 model. I’ve used it at a lot of places I frequent and it’s smooth. I’m at the point I’d prefer to shop at places that don’t make me take out my wallet.

Missing stuff: I wish they had integrated the music player with the Workouts app. I have to back out of one to go to the other, and it’s a pain. I wish it had a “daytime” mode for when you’re outdoors in bright light, using a white screen with dark letters. I realize it means battery loss, but if it was easy to turn on for short periods it’d be fine. Pairing with an iPhone is great, but having working wifi built-in would be nice.

No iPhone is bad: I experienced this one inadvertently. Last weekend my iPhone bricked on me, leaving me without a phone for two days. Watch was a way worse experience. It uses the phone for app functionality, for starters, and it has no Internet if it’s not paired to a phone by Bluetooth. It will tell you the time and track some of your three rings (albeit less accurately) but that’s about it. No weather updates, no integrated calendar, etc. It’s a terrible experience. You can’t pair this with an Android phone, so it’s iPhone or nothing. If you don’t own an iPhone, you will not like Apple Watch.

My own experience

I’ve lost 12 pounds in the five weeks I’ve had Apple Watch (update: I’m down 65 pounds in 5.5 months as of Nov. 16).

I’m going to let that sentence sit alone. For those who know me in real life, it’s a tremendous thing. The day I received my Watch I was at 271.1 pounds, and nearly six months later I’m at 206.

I have not taken care of myself since graduate school began and have been slowly adding pounds. The first part of 2015 saw me adding at an accelerated rate. I’ve known I need to get healthy for a while and had been thinking about a fitness tracker. When I saw Apple Watch’s features, I bought on the first day.

Apple Watch isn’t making me lose weight, but it’s helping. There are three areas where it’s been huge:

1. The rings. They really are a help. They make me more mindful in the moment of how I’m doing with the day’s exercise and standing goals. Those subtle taps on the wrist when I haven’t stood in a while, or to update me on calorie burn – those are huge for forming new habits. When you’ve lived a certain way for a while, you aren’t as aware of your own habits. Watch has helped me be more mindful. For someone who hasn’t been mindful, who doesn’t have those habits, this is a breakthrough.

2. Making me think about fitness. Beyond the rings, I found myself immediately interested in knowing more. Was burning 500 calories in a day good? What if I walked? What would I need to burn to lose weight? I found myself downloading calorie trackers, then fitness apps, to my phone to track what I eat and do, all after Watch arrived. I bought a scale to weigh food and (for the first time in my life) really look at portion sizes and allotments among the food groups. I’ve been walking 3-4 days a week. I’ve discovered I eat way, way, way too much sodium, for example. Again, this is huge. I haven’t lived like this. It took me a bit to calibrate my eating to the recommended calories (which are always off) but once I did I’ve been going strong. I feel way more in tune with my body and vitals.

3. HealthKit comes alive. The app was squirreled away in the Useless folder on my iPhone, but with Watch tracking calories and gathering vitals that feeds to HealthKit, and thus all the health apps I’ve tried, I have a good snapshot of my health in a day/week/month window.

Your mileage may vary. I’m the kind of person who does well with goals and data. Feed this to me and it helps me figure out what I’m doing right or wrong, and then I can make adjustments.

I know a bit about motivations from my psych classes in grad school. We are motivated by different things, some internal and some external (such as rewards). The ultimate goal in motivations research is to figure out how it spurs action, and in part how that forms habits. Everything I’ve read seems to indicate it takes about 8-12 weeks of continuous use to form habits.

Watch is designed to help create habits, from offering extrinsic rewards to the little buzz-tap prods on your wrist to remind you to move around and burn calories in case you’re forgetting amidst a busy day. It’s not that I’m lazy; I’m busy, and sometimes my choices are more about prioritizing.

I feel better since I first put Watch on. Not great, and not nearly as well as I should. But I feel a lot better, have more energy than I did, and it’s had a positive effect on my mental state.

One other side benefit. I’m pulling out my phone less than I used to. Watch has helped me whittle notifications down to the bare essentials, and I’ve found I can focus on my family or what I’m working on better by just leaving the phone in the bag. A lot of us complain how we’re addicted to our phones. This is going to sound crazy, but buying a new gadget helped me break poor use habits on another gadget.

The cynical person could mock me for needing a gadget to solve my gadget addiction. I’m weak if I can’t muster that from within. Fair enough. But less time on the phone is less time on the phone, so why argue with how I got there?

Should you buy one?

I don’t know.

Everyone’s reasons are different. Mine were about the fitness tracker and slowing the flow of information coming at me. It’s been everything I hoped for and has been well worth the cost.

Your reasons my differ. You might want other things from it. This isn’t a gadget you should be on all day, like your phone or iPad. If you want that, I don’t think this thing is for you, but I could be wrong.

I wanted a fitness tracker and Watch has been great for that. I know the FitBit and similar devices run at about half the cost, although I’ll say they don’t do things like prod you to get up and walk. Throw in the integrated iOS features and for me it’s been worth the extra $200 or so.

I would suggest, though, that unless you’re loaded you should start with the $349-$399 Sport model. I went with the space gray aluminum with the black band; I wanted to know I was going to use this thing before I started thinking about accessories. I also figured that if I wanted to upgrade to a newer version or the nicer stainless steel models, I’d be able to justify it once I knew I used it.

I can tell you most of the early reviews were way off. They don’t match my experience at all. And why should they? They’re reviewing Watch as a gadget, not as a personal companion to help you live better. They were using it for a week or weekend as a loaner, not integrating it into their lives. They weren’t thinking about habit.

I’m more mindful of how I move, what I eat, and my activity levels because of Watch. It isn’t making me lose weight or eat healthier, but it’s helped spur me in that direction in multiple ways.

In that sense, it’s been well worth the cost.

“This.” has potential to stick around

It seems every few months there’s a new service clamoring for our finite attention. Facebook carved out the detailed social network niche, whereas Twitter has locked in those who like it for scanning information and discussion quickly. Instagram took off because the photo niche had not been done well to that point. The war right now is for messenger service users, featuring players such as Snapchat and WhatsApp.

With every addition to the social landscape comes the potential for social media fatigue. Skepticism by older audiences greets new entries that vie for our attention (“ANOTHER social media product?”) whereas younger users uninterested in adult-dominated networks such as Facebook might give them a look.

The problem of social media fatigue is real, and one of the stronger social media trends in the past year has been about managing the social onslaught. For example, Nuzzel mines your list of Twitter users daily to see what links were shared, and every morning you get a list of the most-shared content from your feed. It’s a data-driven way to show you appealing content that you might have missed. There are other services trying to do the social management thing in different ways, but one of the most intriguing recent entries, “This.” (yes that period is supposed to be there), is taking a unique approach. (more…)

Jon Stewart changed the way we see news

Much will be written about Jon Stewart’s decision to leave The Daily Show, both from a historical and cultural impact. This will not be one of those thinkpieces, probably. Instead I want to briefly share some upcoming research about Stewart’s work that is relevant to reflecting on his tenure as host of one of the most important shows on television.

TCU’s Chip Stewart and I have finished a work (note: this is the first draft of the paper, not the final version) on satire news and TV news credibility, accepted and due to publish in Electronic News in a few months. In our study, we analyzed the The Daily Show and The Colbert Report content in a couple different ways. First, we found television news was portrayed far more negatively than print, radio or online news, and in particular cable news was the prime target. In addition, while newspaper information was used to build jokes about the subject matter (such as information from the New York Times used to make a joke about a politician referenced in that information), for television the target of the joke often was the TV newscast itself, often a portrayal of a network doing a bad job reporting or showing incompetent or illogical presentation.

The second part of our study polled audiences of these two shows and found that credibility ratings were lowest for television compared to other platforms. Second-level agenda setting theory says that media portrayals can influence how we think about media objects and subjects, and the survey confirms that this is happening with these satire shows. We conclude that the relentless negative portrayal and outright mockery of TV news conditions the audience to distrust TV news because those negative characteristics become more salient in viewers’ minds. (more…)

J325 Week 3 Wrapup: The Web and Libertarian Choice

First, a reminder your papers are due by the stroke of midnight, and next week is a paper-discussion week.

We’ve spent three weeks poking around the personality of the Internet. I like to start this way because it offers a great lens on everything else this class is going to cover. Thinking back to Cluetrain and your Internet history readings, the Internet was built by people who did things because they could. It didn’t always have immediate practical application, but these folks were tinkerers and experimenters who just wanted to see what was possible. In aggregate, the birth of the web came about because a lot of these small experiments became one grand new platform.

The right to play, to tinker, to create without restraint or someone telling you “that’s a dumb idea” means that the architects of the web baked libertarian choice and expression right into the Web’s DNA. Hyperlinks, network structures, packet switching, open source web page creation …. they all are about favoring decentralized communication over central control.

When you truly grok this (internet slang, look it up; yes, we’re learning on a Friday afternoon), you’ll see the Internet in a completely new way. It’s why you don’t hear me talking a lot about new fads as dumb and ask why anyone would do it. The answer is always the same. Because we can.

It explains the surface web. It also explains the Dark Web, the horrible things that happen on places like 4Chan and the amazing things people do on the Internet. It explains ice bucket challenges (and the ensuing backlash when the ALS Association stupidly tried to trademark the phenomenon – we hate central control!) and #gamergate abuse of women. It explains Bitcoin and why you likely are intrigued by cryptocurrency even though some of its applications are pretty troubling.

By way of a more recent example, it explains this story from yesterday. Why would Gawker try to use a Coca-Cola campaign about Internet positivity to trick it into tweeting out passages of a book by Adolf Hitler? Partly to make a social point about being careful about your building blocks, but mostly (say it with me) because they can.

This phenomenon itself is neither a negative or positive thing. It’s just what is, and we can critique its application in individual circumstances without denying its existence. This is fundamental to understanding Internet culture. It’s everywhere online. Look around.

See you Monday.

My “unclass” on Internet culture

This is my second semester teaching a senior seminar on Web culture here at Lehigh. This semester’s JOUR 325 The Culture of the Internet is (I hope) an improvement on previous semesters. One thing I tried last time that worked OK but could have been better was the creation of an “unclass” format. I got the idea at an Online News Association convention session two years ago. Similar to an unconference, the unclass is built around a central topic but has no agenda. The students start the semester by determining the direction of the class. They suggest topics and then pick or vote on ones they want to learn about the most. What we decide in that first week becomes the class syllabus

I do have three books and a semester project that leads to a paper, but for the most part the unclass format drives the weekly units and discussion. This type of class structure really only works well if you’re versed in the topic because it requires an agile professor. I went into the semester without a plan for each week, and it is terrifying and wonderful all at the same time. Fortunately I feel like I really know this area and can adjust as needed. (more…)

Glass 1.0 failed, but it’s not dead

Google ended the Glass Explorer program last week, halting sales while simultaneously saying that the program itself is not dead – whether the last part is true or not remains to be seen. People have asked me what I think, and I tell them I’m not surprised.

Glass suffered the same fate a lot of innovative new products suffer. They die, but their useful features (as well as the lessons learned) get reborn in the next generation of products. Wearables are here to stay, folks, and it remains the next big growth area of media gadgets. I was skeptical early about Glass’ staying power because of the social challenges as well as the clunky looking design, but it was a beta product and was naturally going to have some rough spots. The social challenge will be smoothed out, in part by time and in part because of refined design that make wearable gadgets blend more into the background.

Robert Hernandez at USC likes to make this point about cell phones. Remember this guy? Check out this complicated car cell phone from the 1980s and tell me what exactly about that device is mobile. The devices got smaller and more unobtrusive over time, and even the social stigma about having a mobile phone (“stupid yuppies!”) faded to the point now where people have no shame taking them out in public places and ignoring others. The social challenges and clunky designs gave way to something more refined, and acceptance was born.

Room for improvement

So what do we need to do in order to improve on Glass 1.0?

1. One thing we’ve learned about tech as it has spread is that designers often are forgetting the “wear” part of wearables. The fashion matters. When I think of the clunky look of the first iterations of Glass, it reminds me of a quote from U2 lead singer Bono on the Bee Gees and why music history has not recognized the genius of the group’s catalog. The fashion matters!

“It’s a real lesson of: If you get the shoes wrong, the public will not forgive you, however brilliant you are.”

Apple is trying to get the fashion part right with the Apple Watch, to their credit. I also like the simplicity of the Pebble Watch’s design. But the intersection of products that are fashion conscious and usable is more sparse than it should be.

Glass’ track pad, while useful, was just awful to look at. The black version attached to the designer frames looked a bit better, but it really stuck out for the most part. I don’t think the colors helped either. Tangerine and sky blue were bright and useful for smartphones, but on Glass it made people stick out and look strange. There wasn’t wonder attached to the device, only suspicion that people who wore it were weird. It felt weird and self-conscious to wear the device at times. That has to change. Google made some strides with this by partnering with designer frame makers, but by then the public perception was baked in.

Solutions? Embed Glass’ display in actual lenses rather than that giant block of Glass, Trim down the trackpad or figure out a way to eliminate it. Things like that.

2. The battery was awful; it was the thing I complained about most in presentations. If we’re supposed to wear this all day, it can’t go dead in less than a day, which often was the case when making heavy use of the map or camera functions. The miniaturization of the tech just wasn’t there yet.

3. Price. Oh my god, the price. Even after the Explorer program was open to all, Google was asking $1500 to be a beta tester. My assumption had been that a public release would come with a big price cut. It never happened. You can buy several smartphones for that. Glass never felt like a device I’d pay more than $500 for, even if my use was as a media professional. I loved the ability to shoot hands free, but my smartphone camera is good enough if Glass costs twice as much.

4. Then there are the Glassholes. Though some were apocryphal, stories rocketed through media about people behaving badly with Glass in public, or getting attacked. Some of this was due to people being dumb (wearing Glass in a men’s room, for example) but some of it was design. Onlookers never knew when the camera was in use. In the ’90s, video cameras had a red light to let you know it was recording. Glass had nothing like it. It only generated suspicion that became baked in and self-reinforcing over time.

Good things for the next attempt

Some things I did like:

1. The wearable camera was very useful and created some interesting opportunities for media makers (first-person stories) and specific industries that could use live audio feeds. We played with perspective-shifting stories in my multimedia classes. Here’s an example of one that turned out well:

2. I do like the Cards browsing format. It needs some refining, but it is a easy way to enter into using wearables

3. Maps and digital assistant were very helpful. I also liked how it was unobtrusive to the point where you had to consciously look up to see it. Easy access to maps and texts, this is a much better experience on a heads-up display than on the wrist. This was a killer feature, probably my favorite one that had nothing to do with journalistic use.

Glass and the future: Staying ahead of the wave

What about Glass and the future of journalism? I’ve written extensively about how we experimented with the camera in my multimedia classes. I still believe first-person storytelling, whether it be via a wearable or a mounted GoPro, offers exciting possibilities for us and we shouldn’t abandon playing in that realm even if Glass really is done.

We didn’t play much on the app development or augmented reality side of things, but others did. AR in particular is going to increasingly become a part of journalistic storytelling and, with or without Glass, we need to keep pushing the boundaries on it.

We will keep using it in my multimedia classes. I’m not abandoning first-person stories, and it sends the wrong message if we’re encouraging students to only play with tech that we know has staying power. Journalism students need to play, period. They need to learn how to experiment with new gadgets, assess device strengths and weaknesses, learn how to bend it to their will to tell stories in new ways, and how to decide if adopting it is worth the effort and money.

These are thinking and experimentation processes, and we rob our student by making our pedagogy only about established devices because in that mode we are always playing catchup. I want to produce students that are always trying to stay ahead of the wave.

So we’ll keep playing with Glass. We’ll keep playing with lots of things as they emerge. I’m going to get a drone eventually. We’ll keep playing because that’s just what we do.

It’s been almost two years but it’s totally been worth it. The Glass projects my class has been producing have been some of the most unconventional, weird, wonderful attempts at learning storytelling I’ve tried in a class. It made me a better teacher by having to learn the tech and brainstorm ideas with them. This is useful no matter whether Glass returns in evolved form or not.

Coppee Hall “Maker Hours” start Sept. 19, 2-4 p.m.

Hey everyone-

As promised, we are launching Coppee Hall Maker Hours this semester from 2-4 pm every Friday on the third floor of Coppee Hall.

What are Maker Hours? Google the term and you’ll see it’s a reserved time to work on something new or different than what is required. It is rooted in the tradition of tech companies that want to give their employees time to play, improve themselves, or envision new products and services. Gmail, which many of us know and love, started because a Google employee used their maker hours time (known as 20% Time at the company) to reimagine email.

Here at Lehigh we want to continue that tradition and foster a creative playspace. Bring something digital you want to work on (your web site, an info graphic or video for a story, etc.) or come and suggest something we can learn together on the spot. We’ll all be working on doing and learning different things. I am going to use the time too by learning more about how to code. It’s a wide open time driven by you and facilitated by Prof. Veto and I (as well as any other faculty who want to drop in).

You don’t need to have a certain entry level knowledge. Just show up wanting to grow yourself and your skills, and we’ll figure out something together.

So starting this coming Friday, Sept. 19, we will be doing this every week. We have computers upstairs, but bringing your laptop is great too. If you can’t make it every week, come when you can. And spread the word.

We are hoping this will be a fun time to learn outside of class structures and totally driven by you. If you have any questions, please let me know.

Also, if you are planning to come just drop a note or tweet at me (@jeremylittau) so we can plan how to use the space well.