I live in worlds outside of this

‘Don’t get too obsessed with Twitter’ is one of the key lessons we are taught at the beginning of our Social Media and Community Engagement module as Interactive Journalism students at City University. Journalists, we are told, have a tendency to become obsessed with Twitter, to think it is the be-all and end-all of social media interaction, because Twitter is full of other journalists all interacting with each other, patting each other on the back, backing up each other’s points and being obsessed with Twitter. Well, not just journalists, but members of the “digerati“: “the elite of the computer industry and online communities”. (Wikipedia) It’s implied, I think, that this is a well-off, mostly-white, privileged and tech-savvy group. And the tendency of this group to mostly interact with its own members, producing an inflated sense of agreement and concord, is known as the “echo chamber effect”.

I’m all in favour of approaching every kind of social media critically and questioning the assumptions that we make about these platforms where we spend so much of our time. And there’s definitely a lot of truth to the echo chamber idea. But as I see the warnings popping up in my Twitter timeline that “remember guys, Twitter is an illusion; Twitter is just an echo chamber for journalists and members of the digital upper class”, I’ve started to wonder. Aren’t some of the assumptions that are being made here insulting to the users of Twitter who are not members of this group? Is it productive or helpful to dismiss Twitter as just an echo chamber for a certain group of people, rather than encouraging those people to seek out a more diverse community to interact with?

Last month I read an article by the New York Times about the black civil rights movement that has developed on social media as a response to police shootings of unarmed black civilians in the USA. It outlines how young black activists like Johnetta Elzie and DeRay Mckesson are using mobile technology and social media – mostly Twitter – to document protests and police violence, amplify their own voices to call for change, chronicle and broadcast the growth of a movement, spread their message and co-ordinate action. In the article, the two younger activists meet Diane Nash, a founder of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and organiser of the Freedom Riders.

Mckesson told Nash she needed to get on Twitter to share her wisdom.

“Twitter?” Nash asked. “I just figured out how to have a Facebook.”

“Twitter is the revolution, Ms. Nash,” Mckesson said.

For him, the social network seemed to have become not just the site of revolution but the conduit for his ideas. Two days later, on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday, Mckesson was scheduled to speak at a rally before a ceremonial crossing of the bridge. As we drove from Montgomery to Selma, Mckesson wrote drafts of tweets on his phone.

“I do this to make sure what I say can be tweetable,” he explained. “And it helps me be precise in what I say.”

Oh, but Twitter is just an echo chamber for some journalists and the white digital elite, right?

I’m not trying to say that if you dismiss Twitter as an echo chamber, you’re missing out on ~the revolution~. I’m just saying that in actual fact, it’s made up of much more diverse voices saying important things than the “echo chamber” narrative would have you believe. I’m saying that dismissing Twitter out of hand as nothing more than an echo chamber for a certain group of people only helps to reinforce that echo chamber. Because if journalists think of Twitter as an echo chamber and not much more, they’re not going to think it’s worth their time to do anything to try and break that effect. They’ll just pop in to give their opinions and hear them echo around, congratulate themselves on how aware they are of the illusion that is Twitter, and then leave.

I’m reminded of the Medium post ‘A Teenager’s View on Social Media (written by an actual teen)‘ that did the rounds online in January. (Medium is another platform that has had a fair few “echo chamber” accusations – not entirely without basis). Apparently it was much vaunted in digerati circles as finally cutting through all the speculation and supposition about teens’ social media habits to bring the truth about what young people thought of social giants like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr and Snapchat and how they used them. I also read the response post, ‘An Old Fogey’s Analysis of a Teenager’s View on Social Media‘, written by Danah Boyd, who has extensively studied teens’ social networking habits and has published a book about them. (Her post was linked on Twitter by Adam Tinworth, our SMCE lecturer who also taught us about Twitter’s “echo chamber” effect in the first place).

In her response, Boyd speaks out very strongly against the idea that one narrative about social media use (in this instance, teenagers’ social media use, but it’s something that applies to all kinds of narratives about social media) should be taken as representative of the way that social media works for every single demographic. Specfically, she says of Twitter,

The world of Twitter is many things and what journalists and tech elites see from Twitter is not even remotely similar to what many of the teens that I study see, especially black and brown urban youth. For starters, their Twitter feed doesn’t have links; this is often shocking to journalists and digerati whose entire stream is filled with URLs.

She also points out that by tarring every Twitter interaction with the same brush – in this case, categorising everything that is said and done on Twitter as a “complaint” or “self-expression” – commentators risk dismissing a lot of Twitter activity that does not fall into that category by refusing to entertain the possibility that it could be anything other than that, simply because it was published on Twitter. Which is exactly what I think the “echo chamber” narrative is in danger of doing. Again, it’s not that I think the “echo chamber” doesn’t have a basis in fact. But I think that there are more productive ways of dealing with the effect than simply warning journalists against “becoming obsessed with Twitter” because “it’s an echo chamber”. Sometimes it is, but it can also be much more than that – and how echoey your Twitter experience is depends largely on who you interact with.

Follow outside the box

Rather than just blindly repeating the notion that “Twitter is an echo chamber and I should avoid spending too much time there”, maybe journalists should think about how to defeat the echo chamber effect. On Twitter, do you just follow other journalists and media professionals or a wide variety of people who talk about different topics? Are most of the people you follow on Twitter of the same race or socio-economic background? Are they mostly Western? This doesn’t just apply to journalism either, but to areas that you might be interested in reporting on as a journalist – or just your own interests as a person. If you’re interested in feminism, are you following mainly white, cisgender feminists or also feminists of colour and transgender feminists? If you’re reporting on a certain area of the country (or the world), are your Twitter lists made up of news organisations, businesses and politicians from that area or also local people, activists and independent bloggers?

One of the sections for our Social Media and Community Engagement portfolio, the main assignment for our module, required us to demonstrate how we’d linked online and offline interactions by connecting with people that we’d met online in person, and vice versa. This is a good exercise to make sure that we don’t interact with people exclusively in one sphere (online or offline) and that we’re capable of carrying over connections from the digital world to the offline one, and vice versa. But surprise surprise, almost all of the interactions I detailed in this section of my portfolio were with journalists, and journalism events and hackathons and social media meet-ups. They mostly had to be, because meeting up with people offline is geographically limiting, and it’s most likely that I’ll want to meet up with people who work in my industry and then form connections with them. But maybe there should also be an equivalent section for efforts made to defeat Twitter’s echo chamber, to follow outside the box and connect online with a diverse array of people, not just fellow members of the digerati.

So far this year, I’ve had the privilege of attending three #FlashHacks events, data liberation hackathons run by OpenCorporates, which runs the world’s largest open companies database. Attending #FlashHacks has brought me into contact with the world of corporate data, which isn’t something I would ever have considered or had contact with otherwise.

In our Data Journalism classes at City University, we’re taught how to scrape websites and social media networks to get at data; to look for stories in scraped or released data; to visualise data in a number of different ways. But we’ve never really needed to liberate data, that is comb the internet for data sources just for the sake of cataloguing them, or trawl through endless company files looking for connections. That work is more akin to Investigative Journalism than Data Journalism, but it’s also all about data and I think may become part of the everyday work of a data journalist as the data journalism and open journalism movements both advance. Here’s what I’ve learned so far by dipping my toe into the world of corporate data.

Liberating data involves a lot of legwork

This is true of all forms of data journalism, where stories can result from hours or even days of poring over spreadsheets, scraping data, cleaning data, looking for connections. But liberating data in particular is about 90% legwork, 10% payoff. #FlashHacks events are usually split into two sections, or teams; one team works on coding bots, which are programs that crawl over pdfs containing data and parse it into a human-readable format. One day I aspire to learn how to code a bot, but my coding background isn’t quite strong enough yet. It can take hours to push (run) a bot that will convert one pdf into a human-readable format, to say nothing of actually doing anything with the data.

bot

An example of data parsed by a bot during a #FlashHacks meet-up

Then again, the non-bot method of liberating data is even longer. It involves simply trawling through pdfs, registers and other places which house company data, finding what’s relevant and inputting manually it into a huge spreadsheet, from which the data can be visualised and connections can be found. At past #FlashHacks, we’ve made finding data sources into a competition, with a prize awarded to the person who can log the most entries on the group spreadsheet.

Liberating corporate data is best done collaboratively, in other words, with a group of people to share leads, divide up the work, and egg each other on.

The prize for the most spreadsheet entries in this #FlashHacks was an Easter Egg. You can see I never really stood a chance...

The prize for the most spreadsheet entries in this #FlashHacks was an Easter Egg. You can see I never really stood a chance…

Corporations won’t make it easy on you

This one might not come as a surprise, but even here in the UK – which is considered a world leader in terms of making data accessible, thanks to Companies House – corporations don’t make it easy on the public to use their data. The vast majority of companies, for example, file their tax returns in PDF format, which as I’ve mentioned needs special measures before it can be easily edited and exported elsewhere. HM Revenue and Customs recommends that companies file their tax returns in the more readable XBRL format, which they could just as easily do, but the majority continue to publish in PDF format in spite of this.

You also need to know where to look, which again is why collaboration is a key part of liberating corporate data: recording good data sources and advising one another on where to look for the right documents. Data journalism can often seem like a solitary activity (though hopefully less so in the future when data skills are more commonplace and data journalists seen as less of a world apart from regular reporters), but liberating corporate data is always best done in groups (hence why #FlashHacks exists!)

Visualisation can be a challenge (but a rewarding one!)

Visualising data isn’t always possible or necessary when working with corporate data, but it can be a useful tool, for example in mapping companies and their connections to better understand their relationships. OpenCorporates uses an in-house visualisation tool called Octopus to visualise company connections.

An in-progress map of the connections between different companies owned by Aviva PLC, visualised using Octopus

An in-progress map of the connections between different companies owned by Aviva PLC, visualised using Octopus

This map was visualised after an evening’s hard graft at the most recent #FlashHacks event, and as you can see, it’s still far from complete. A company with as many different connections as Aviva PLC (and most multi-national corporations for that matter) can be extremely challenging to visualise and scrutinise, and any map of its connections would probably need to be interactive before it can be explored properly. It can also take a lot of work before any of the links and hierarchies begin to appear.

However, it’s extremely satisfying once it starts to come together, and visualisation can be the best way to get an overview of interlocking corporate networks like these – not to mention it looks cool!

It’s loads of fun!

This might seem odd to say after all the “drawbacks” I’ve listed here, but I find #FlashHacks events really, really fun. I enjoy working in a group towards a larger goal, especially as that larger goal is one of social good which benefits everyone in the long run. I also love the sensation of being part of a greater movement towards open data, which is making some huge strides in 2016 in the UK with the creation of a centralised register of beneficial ownership (showing exactly who owns and controls what). It gives me the chance to work alongside other interested minds in the world of data and go “behind the scenes” with data in a way I normally wouldn’t as a journalist.

Also, the free snacks are a big bonus!

If all this sounds like your cup of tea as well, head on over to Meetup and join us!

You can also read my interview with Hera Hussain, organiser of #FlashHacks events, about the need for open data and the role of journalists in the open data movement, on the Interhacktives website.

#mynameis: A Timeline

It’s been a few days since the climax of Facebook’s “real name” saga, and the furore seems to have mostly died down. Facebook has officially apologised to the hundreds of drag queens, members of the LGBTQIA community, DJs, stage performers and others who use pseudonyms on Facebook for the policy which forced them to switch to their “real”, legal names on Facebook or face being locked out of their accounts and networks. It has made also made noises to the effect of revising, reinterpreting or otherwise adapting the policy to account for the ways in which a good portion of Facebook’s demographic use its service.

A lot took place in a short space of time, by way of protests, petitions, heartfelt personal accounts, hashtags, a suddenly viral new social network and more. So how exactly was it that we got from then to now? And where does the future of identity on Facebook really stand? In this post, I’ll attempt to break down what happened with a timeline of key events, and get to the bottom of where the policy is going.

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If you’ve been following events in the crowdfunding or online tech startup worlds at all, you might have heard of the controversy surrounding Healbe GoBe, an over $1m Indiegogo campaign to fund a device that medical science says can’t possibly work. A startup-focused news site called PandoDaily has been leading the charge on the investigation into Healbe’s possibly fraudulent campaign, and it hasn’t looked good on Indiegogo at all.

A little under a fortnight after the first article ran, Indiegogo responded by modifying the anti-fraud guarantee on its website so that the wording was less absolute. A day later, Pando reported on another Indiegogo campaign which had been funded less than six months earlier, also appears to be medically impossible if it can do everything it claims, and for which the company responsible for the device, TellSpec, has since completely reset the clock on the development of a product they originally claimed to have nearly perfected. A parody of the Healbe GoBe campaign was created called ‘Miracle Health Bracelet: Vaguely Track Your Health, Fitness and More’ which made it past Indiegogo’s supposed anti-fraud algorithm, though it has since been removed. Finally, to cap everything off, Pando reported yesterday that the undisclosed donation which pushed Healbe’s calorie counter over the brink of $1 million came from none other than Indiegogo’s chief of hardware, Kate Drane. Clearly, Indiegogo is determined to throw its full weight behind this campaign in spite of all the negative press, scientific debunking and waves of requests for backer refunds.

There have been arguments made on both sides, some saying that Indiegogo needs to take responsibility for the campaigns promoted on its platform and others saying that it can’t be held liable for what the crowd decides to put its money behind. Either way, the Healbe controversy is bound to have a knock-on effect on Indiegogo’s credibility and the willingness of consumers to back other products on its site. After all, there are plenty of other crowdfunding sites out there with innovative projects, products and ventures. But how can you be sure that they won’t have the same problem?

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As you might have gathered from previous posts on this blog, I’m constantly fascinated by the innovative ways in which different projects on the Internet make use of crowds. I’ve covered Tomnod’s use of crowdsourcing in global crises and the “crowdplaying” of Twitch Plays Pokémon. Then on 1st April, xkcd – “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language” – upped the ante with an interactive, crowdsourced comic strip called Lorenz.

Edward Lorenz, after whom the comic is titled, was an American mathematician and meteorologist. He was a pioneer of chaos theory and coined the term “butterfly effect”, which describes a tiny variable altering events to eventually produce a much more dramatic result, such as a butterfly flapping its wings and eventually causing a hurricane. The comic’s title text (a caption produced by hovering over the strip with your mouse) directly references the butterfly effect, reading, “Every choice, no matter how small, begins a new story.” The comic’s storyline is also dependent on user-submitted dialogue and click statistics and is therefore chaotic in nature.

The comic begins with an image of an individual (their gender has been the subject of much discussion on the Explain xkcd Talk Page, and they are largely agreed to be female based on them being referred to as a “lady” in one line of dialogue. However, as the dialogue is user-submitted, this is not definitive) at their computer. The user is given a choice of four phrases, randomly ordered, for the character to say:

lorenz1

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Last Friday was my birthday (hooray, another year older!) and as I move more into the world of journalism with the aim of hopefully doing a postgraduate course in it next academic year, I asked for a couple of books on the subject. One of those was We the Media: Grassroots Journalism By the People, For the People by Dan Gillmor. First printed in 2004, with the paperback edition that I now own printed in 2006, it’s a little out of date for the fast-moving world of information technology, but is still held in extremely high regard, and I think it’ll be a worthwhile read. It was also written with a rather different audience to myself in mind: one for whom the idea of receiving real-time journalistic updates from inside a press conference or significant world event would be a revelation; who would find the idea that ordinary people might have a voice and views of importance equal to that of designated newsmakers to be controversial; and to whom the Internet must seem like a chaotic, volatile upstart muscling in on the orderly, established world of media.

I grew up on the Internet, and its language and ways are second nature to me. The journalism I’m most familiar with is not heavily-regulated and polished ‘Big Media’ but ever-fluctuating, ever-evolving online journalism, which is not a lecture but a conversation, and one in which the people play a part as important as that of the newsmakers. Online, news breaks first via the people, and newsmakers have to listen to them to find out what’s going on, instead of the other way around.

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In an amazing feat, the chaotic channel chatters at Twitch Plays Pokémon have succeeded in completing Pokémon Crystal in just thirteen days. That’s all sixteen badges, plus a win against the Johto League, rival Silver, and finally Red – and not the Red of the canon Pokémon games, but Red of Twitch Plays, with the iconic team of Zapdos, Lapras, Nidoking, Venomoth, Omastar and Pigeot. As with the first Twitch Plays, a wealth of fanworks has been created around the new team and their individual personalities, their struggles and their losses. If you missed the action, here are ten fancomics which together tell the story of Gold’s – and his Pokémon’s – journey across Johto and Kanto, all the while struggling with the legends of their predecessors and a constant stream of contradictory feedback from “the voices”. (I might have sneaked in an epilogue as well ;) )

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