The ordinary day of a guy at Hope College

Sometimes, it is hard to see the beauty in mundane, daily activities. A student at Hope College that I interviewed, Samuel Boersma, talks about what he does on a typical day start to finish. It’s filled with food, sleep and video games but, most of all, friendship and laughter.

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All for one (brain) and one for all (bigger brain)

Over the past few days, my interpretation of the World Wide Web has changed. I actually never thought about it for that long or hard as a human creation that, from the beginning, was created for worldwide collaboration and communication. In a world of selfishness and greed to land a hefty ROI on new inventions, the fact that the Web is so accessible truly amazes me. In fact, I’m currently writing this post at a coffee shop using free WiFi (although I did buy a coffee).

Ultimately, the World Wide Web makes us smarter. It gives mankind one giant brain to pull ideas, resources and answers from; it’s made me smarter every single day because of the intelligence of others.

The book that changed my opinion was “Net Smart” by Howard Rheingold. He defines five forms of mass collaboration in the chapter “Social-Digital Know-How: The Arts and Sciences of Collective Intelligence” and, because his input affected me so greatly, I would like to summarize and reflect on each form of collaboration: collective intelligence, virtual communities, social production, crowdsourcing and wiki collaboration.

Collective intelligence

Henry enkins refers to collective intelligence as “a situation where norbody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given members knows is accessible to any other member upon request and on ad hoc basis” in his 2006 writing “Collective Intelligence vs. the Wisdom of Crowds.”

This definition depicts a process I notice every single week at The Curragh Irish Pub’s trivia night. The trivia questions are random and difficult, and most team members don’t know the answers by themselves. However, teammates will think about each question aloud and prompt informational recall in other players. Collectively, the group often answers each question correctly. But they only do so by working together to harness the intelligence of each individual.

The internet works in much the same way and allows whole communities to solve complex problems. A few examples Rheingold cited was the website Climate CoLab and the research conducted by The Center for Collective Intelligence.

Virtual communities

As the name implies, virtual communities are defined by Rheingold as “a group of people who may or may not meet one another face to face, and who exchange ideas through the mediation of computer bulliten boards and networks” (“Virtual Communities”, 1987).

The wonderful McLovin from “Superbad”. (Photo courtesy of themoviescore.com)

The first virtual community I thought of was Twitter. It collects and connects people from all over the world at the same time. One great example was the other day when I was watching the movie  “Superbad”. As the movie was playing on Comedy Central, a hashtag trended on the bottom of the screen, encouraging watchers to converse and “hang out” while watching the movie together.

As Rheingold suggests, these virtual communities are computer-mediated communications but that doesn’t mean they aren’t real. The people that I talked with on Twitter felt like my friends for those few hours; I didn’t feel like I was watching a movie alone anymore.

However, my experience was not a true community as we know the term. Rheingold stresses that communities are longer term interactions, where people connect and feel supported on a regular basis.

Although I have not actually experienced this sense of virtual community, this new form of communication intrigues me. Understanding the fact that these communities are real, and not degrading those that participate in online forums, is a new form of media literacy essential to surviving as a respectable millennial.

Crowdsourcing

Crowdsourcing is the third form of mass collaboration, and learning about it truly enlightened me. This concept reminds me of collective intelligence in that many people gather together for one purpose. However, in crowdsourcing, the purpose normally serves the greater good.

One example of this is the First Aid Corps iPhone app that used the experiences and mutual interest of the public to map where cardiac defibrillators are around the world. Mapping the location of these technologies through crowdsourcing uses many people to accomplish one task that, in many cases, can be lifesaving. This cause specifically resonates with me because of a local high school basketball player, Wes Leonard, that could have been saved by an on-site AED.

Crowdsourcing does more than map AED’s, though. It gathers people of similar interests to impact their community through collective action, donations and intelligence. Rheingold even cites instances in which websites utilize the public to contribute to scientific findings.

All the social good that can be completed through crowdsourcing is the essence of democracy. Learning about the power of the Web to enable crowdsourcing resassured me of the goodness of humanity. It’s beautiful.

Social production

Social production relies on crowdsourcing to normal processes of industrial production to form “commons-based peer-production”. Yochai Benkler proposed this form of production in 2002 as a process that creates data and resources for the open-source Web that anyone can use. Although some argue against social production because those that don’t contribute still benefit from the final product, Rheingold argues that this is not a true concern because the cost of “free riders” is significantly less than the overwhelming benefit of collective production.

One example of social production is Wikipedia, which Rheingold refers to as the fifth form of mass collaboration. I hadn’t seen Wikipedia as a true source of knowledge until taking the time to learn more about it.

Now, I think that Wikipedia is a reliable source of information. Anyone can edit a wiki page, but I think that this lends more reliability to the content; the way that Wikipedia operates with a “recent edits” tab, ability for editors to comment back and forth to one another and constant updates sent to main contributors -serves as a system of checks and balances.

In fact, I argue that Wikipedia should be encouraged as a resource for students to reference in their research papers. Wikipedia utilizes collective intelligence and perspectives to come to a conclusion. I cannot say the same, however, for textbooks and research articles that are written by one or two authors. Although these authors may be more educated and “reliable” than the general public, they are also human and humans are prone to bias. Whether or not we would like to admit it, every “scholarly” source will have information in it that others disagree with. In order to be the most fair and reliable, why not reference a source such as Wikipedia that was written by multiple authors in the first place?

I would be interested to see how recent events have changed Rheingold’s interpretation of collaboration. Is it still relevant? Does Wikipedia still function the same way or has it encountered more problems that offer validation to anti-wiki arguments? Although I haven’t done much research beyond Rheingold’s writings, my personal experience with the online world is that it does still encourage mass collaboration.

Overall, Rheingold’s book “Net Smart” has truly changed my opinion about the beauty of the Web. I now see it as a source of innovation, collaboration and unity in a world so often ravaged by arguments and warfare.

Blogging for no one to read. Why bother?

Sometimes blogging is like sticking my head in an empty pot of honey. It’s supposed to be sweet and satisfying, but it ends up empty. “Hello! Hello?” I yell, and no one responds. Sometimes blogging is like Winnie the Pooh. Why even bother?

Photo courtesy of roamingrosie.com

 

I’ve heard that Twitter functions in much the same way. It’s like “shouting into the void” due to an overabundance of information. Almost anyone can have an opinion nowadays and become a professional blogger or social media superstar.

However, I still believe that quality can outshine quantity.

The history of blogging is proof of this. Josh Micah Marshall analyzed major political news and, because of it, removed Trent Lott from the Senate Majority Leader in 2002. Likewise, the blog “Power Line” exposed falsified reports presented as fact by CBS News in 2004. Both of these bloggers showed what a powerful influence citizen journalism can be.

Within a few years, many more jumped on the bandwagon. It is now commonplace for people of all professions to have a personal blog (even if it’s not a good one). These wagon-riders, however, do not get the online traffic that media professionals do. Therefore, they are not fair to call “competitors” that widen the void professional bloggers shout into.

Although blogging has become diluted, it is still relevant and useful to those who use it well.

An example of this is live blogging. Those who are close to events and blog about them as they unfold are a great source of information.

“Journalism has been called the first draft of history, so a good journalistic live blog can serve as the first draft of journalism,” Brian Carroll said in his how-to book “Writing and Editing for Digital Media.” And I agree! Bloggers provide personal insight, emotional accounts and otherwise unheard perspectives that are useful for storytelling. They can help professional journalists collect sources for the nightly news, or they can help the ordinary citizen access personal perspectives about an issue so he or she can form an opinion.

Ultimately, some will be boring bloggers and some will be great. It is those who write well, research thoroughly and utilize the internet to its maximum potential are the reason blogging is still useful. Its gives media professionals feedback and serves as a system of checks and balances while giving ordinary citizens deeper insight into complex issues.

My advice? Keep on blogging! Give a bother about the topics that interest you. Research well. Write well. Engage with your audience. And don’t let the haters bother your bothers.

Photo courtesy of memegenerator.net

My reaction to “The American-Made Benny”

*featured image courtesy of MediaStorm*

My reaction to “The American-Made Benny” has many layers, like onions and Shrek.

If you have not watched this 25-minute documentary, it is well worth your time. Created by MediaStorm, a company of professionals and media students dedicated to digital storytelling, “The American-Made Benny” is the story of a Vietnam veteran living with PTSD, an unhappy wife, no job and a garage full of other people’s valuables. He is a self-proclaimed “garbologist” that his neighbor calls a “good guy” but his daughter calls crazy.

At the surface level, my heart was warmed by the ability for journalists to reach deeply into a man’s life and tell his story. It’s a story of terror and triumph -one that Americans can both admire and despise at the same time.

After peeling back that first layer I began to notice anger. I felt angry at the American government and upset that Benny lived a life that, frankly, I would not want for myself or anyone I know.

Lastly, I was confused. I realized that Benny’s story had more layers than a beach ball sized onion and that a 25-minute interview could not rightfully communicate it all. In fact, I began to feel bad for those involved in Benny’s life. I understood what made him so eccentric and harsh, but my skin still crawled when he called his wife “bitch”.

“On paper it sounded perfect: a former sanitation worker who now sells other people’s garbage out of his garage… but as is often the case, the reality was full of surprises,” said the documentary’s producer, Eric Maierson.

Although Benny seemed like a journalist’s dream come true, the production staff soon found their film to be filled with ethical concerns. First, Benny is an avid marijuana smoker that doesn’t “find anything wrong with it”. Second, he recollects moments in his life that may or may not have happened and, if they did, he tells his story with extreme bias (as all people do).

He talks about a time he was put in jail for three days after being wrongly accused of hitting his daughter. Benny claims he was breaking up a sibling fight and was simply caught in the middle, whereas his wife is the one that tends to hit him. True or not, it is difficult to present such accusations to the American public without hearing the wife’s side. What if community members saw this video and treated her differently because of it? What if Benny’s story is completely fabricated and the wife is viewed negatively because of it? In fact, the workshop leader of the production team,  Rob Finch, recalled a conversation with Benny’s daughter and wife: “It was clear they were concerned about the project,” he said, “They told me about drugs, alchohol, mental illness, verbal abuse, and general meanness.” However, Finch could not persuade them to participate in a formal interview.

The documentary provides enough information for the audience to notice that Benny is not a stable man. However, certain scenes generate pity or admiration from the audience. Should these scenes have been included if Benny is not all that meets the eye, as his family suggests?

Personally, I would not have publicized the documentary in the way MediaStorm did. Although the story is intriguing, which is the essence of journalism -telling a captivating story that, otherwise, would be left untold -I think that it could have been produced differently. For example, MediaStorm could have deviated from their typical storytelling template and included interviews of staff that worked with Benny. Or, at the very least, encouraged viewers to click “The Challenge of The American-Made Benny” immediately after the original film fades to black.

While discussing the challenges of production, Maierson admits that he still struggles with his decision.

“Did I provide enough clues to allow someone to make informed decisions, or did I simply say, ‘Here’s what Benny says; you figure it out.’? I worry it’s the latter,” he said.

Although it is a  journalist’s duty to report news and provide a voice to the voiceless, it is ultimately a reporters duty to depict the truth. In this case, the production team was aware that Benny’s interview may not have been an accurate portrayal of his life and, because of that, should have provided additional commentary or resources to viewers in order to justify publicizing a potentially unethical film.

Rating The Christian Science Monitor website

My favorite part of being a Communication major is that I get to talk about myself the entire time. I get to apply my experiences and opinions to the way I interpret and analyze media and advertisements. Not only that, but I was at a bar the other night and tweeted about my favorite beer for homework (my pre-med friends rolled their eyes).

And now I sit on my living room couch, coffee in hand and blanket on lap, ready to write a blog post about something cool I learned this week. Meanwhile, the same pre-med roommate is memorizing words I can’t pronounce. But that’s okay, because my strength isn’t memorization or taking blood pressure; my strength is analyzing the way humans communicate with one another to get from point A to point B.

If communication does not happen correctly or ethically, point B can be a really nasty place. But, if students like me grow up to be influential media journalists, public relations practitioners, advertisers and promoters, maybe everyone can be on the same page. Maybe getting to point B will be more like a Jamaican cruise than a carriage pulled by a pooping horse.

Speaking of pages, this week’s assignment was to analyze and edit a popular news webpage based on criteria the class has read in “Writing and Editing for Digital Media” by Brian Carroll.

The rest of this post will be dedicated to assessing the impact and success of The Christian Science Monitor centered around three major themes:

  • Design. Are media layered in an interactive and understandable manner? Does the site layout focus on users’ needs?
  • Accessibility. Are articles easily accessed by a simple Google search? Can users easily navigate to and from the site’s pages?
  • Interactivity. Does the site use a variety of media to engage the user? Is content compromised for entertainment, or vice versa?

Before I dive into a critique, it’s important that I share how much I like The Christian Science Monitor. I find their news to be relevant, unbiased and worldly, which are qualities I look for in a news organization. Of course, every company has strengths and weaknesses, so my critique will be an attempt to identify gaps where The Christian Science Monitor can perform even better for its followers.

Design

Advice from Brian Carroll recommends at least 20% white space on a given webpage to give readers “air” from content and clutter. While the CS Monitor seems to have about 20% white space, the balance between negative and positive space makes the top page feel cluttered. From top to bottom, the site begins with the organization’s logo and, below it, a naviagation bar. Immediately below that is an advertisement followed by large photos of news highlights. Although I like seeing news highlights at the top, white space needs to break up these three sections from one another so that the reader can smoothly skim the screen.

In addition, the news highlights are very inconsistent, which may confuse readers about where to direct their attention. At the far left is the CS Monitor’s new iPad app press release. The headline for this article is bold, justified to the right and (at my best guess) 16 point font.

CS monitor

Compare this highlight to the one on the far right titled “Are you smarter than an atheist? A religious quiz.” The image associated with this story is more rectangular than its counterpart on the left and its font is justified to the left instead of the right. Although The Monitor may be going for a centered and streamlined look, headlines and highlights should be formatted consistently and clearly display a hierarchy of importance.

I also prefer a slideshow of news highlights to keep me engaged and interested or one, specific highlight boxed off much like The New Yorker does (notice how much cleaner the design of this website is; readers clearly know which articles to focus on and their eyes run smoothly down the screen).

Accessibility

In regards to accessibility, The CS Monitor’s article headlines are very accessible. They clearly identify the purpose of the article so that the reader can decide whether or not to click on them. I also tried to see how well specific articles appear in a Google search and The CS Monitor appeared right away. However, this test is extremely unreliable because online marketers track your browser history so that websites you frequently read appear first. (Well, I think that’s the case. Correct me if I’m wrong!)

Navigating The CS Monitor is extremely intuitive and easy because of the top navigation bar with detailed drop down menus. If I want to find out more on global warming, all I need to do is hover over the “Energy/Environment” tab at the top navigation menu and click “Global Warming” from the dropdown.

The organization of CS CS Monitor navigationMonitor categories makes the site extremely easy to access. However, as mentioned before, the website design, typography and photo size choices hinder accessibility by cluttering the page. Besides that, I find The Christian Science Monitor very accessible.

Interactivity

The CS Monitor’s interactivity is average. Compared to many other websites that are text-heavy, it does a wonderful job. On the other hand, superior news sites employ innovative web designers that engage readers in the content, trapping them on the site for hours on end. Compare The CS Monitor’s visual elements with that of The Chauncey Baily Project (I found out about this website through Carroll’s book). News is presented in a variety of ways: interactive timelines, slideshows, video, photos and old fashioned text. The stories are also easy to read because the site has a clean, straightforward design.

 Overall, I would give The Christian Science Monitor an A for accessibility, a B for interactivity and a C for design. Unfortunately, accessibility and interactivity are sometimes hindered by an inconsistent and cluttered design.

What do you think? Are there any online newspapers with superior design, accessibility and interactivity?

Today’s blog post proudly features: Features

This week I spent time reading Pulitzer Prize winning feature stories to get an idea of what makes great writing so great. I was specifically drawn to Andrea Elliot’s “A Muslim Leader in Brooklyn, Reconciling 2 Worlds” (2007), because of its applicability to my life. Admittedly, I have always wondered about the lives of Muslims in America. I’ve wondered about their practices, laws and relationships. I want to understand the culture of Islam.

Elliot not only calmed my curiousities, but sparked new ones.

I cross-referenced her storytelling techniques with a book I am currently reading by Bruce Garrison. Garrison outlines Schoenfeld and Diegmueller’s eight essential elements of feature stories (1982) as:

  • Appeal to people
  • Facts
  • Personalities
  • An angle
  • Action
  • Uniqueness and universality
  • Significance
  • Energy increment

Every single one of these elements was present in Elliot’s feature. Her story focused on the life of an imam, Sheik Reda Shata, with an angle that was unique and universal. Not only that, but she covered the rest of the essential elements by providing background stories, personal anecdotes and facts about the Muslim faith to frame Shata’s story and bring his hardships to life.

While I was reading the list of essential feature elements, I was not sure how practical “energy increment” would be. How could a story stir my readers the same way it stirred me?

Although it may be easier said than done, bringing energy to a feature story has to do with truly getting to know the source and topic of your piece.

Elliot clearly knew Shata in and out. She detailed his daily work life down to what type of printer he uses. She interviewed other Muslims in the area that frequently worked with Shata and understood his responsibility as the neighborhood’s 911 operator. Elliot spent enough time side-by-side with Shata to dig to the roots of who he is, and that made the story exciting.

By reading Garrison’s advice on feature writing and seeing how applicable it is through Elliot’s feature piece, I can more clearly approach a piece of my own. Granted, it will not be anywhere near a Pulitzer Prize, but everyone has to start somewhere!

Why am I blogging?

I was sitting on my twin sized bed in an equally small apartment during my second year of college when I saw my future. Well, I didn’t technically see my future; it was shown to me by a YouTube video.

As I watched the video, my mouth slowly started to creep open until the very end when my palm immediately covered my lips and my eyes stared into the computer monitor. The screen went black, but I was still staring. In that blackness was, ironically, hope. Hope for my future, and hope for theirs.

The producer of the video had probably intended to reel in absent-minded teenagers scrolling through the internet to kill time. However, I doubt that  he anticipated lighting such a magnificent flame beneath the seat of a twenty-year-old sorority girl. But I’m glad he did. Because his message shot me right out of bed and sent me running, passionately, down a new career path.

So, what was the video?

All sensory aside, it was a video produced in the Red Light District of AmstRed light districterdam that showed women dancing in a storefront window. This neighborhood is infamous for its legalization of prostitution where women are shopped for like commodities. In the video, they are partitioned into different cells –the women cannot see one another but can only see out onto the city streets.

Then, they start to dance –and not in the style of the Nutcracker. Oh, no. The women move slow and sexy to the music until the beat begins to pick up and they pop their bodies faster and faster to the rhythm of the bass, desperate to prove their worth to the shoppers below.

People gather at the windows and gawk at the free show, even pointing at dancers on the second story of the building. Before the crowd becomes too comfortable, however, the cells go dark and, above the building, a monitor begins playing a slideshow.

“Every year thousands of women are promised a dance career in Europe,” it says, “Sadly, they end up here.”

The audience was still. The audience was quiet.

These women were not prostitutes by choice; they were symbols of the women who are prostitutes by force.

My vision refocused after gazing into the blackness of my computer screen, I realized that I wanted to pursue a career in communication to change the hearts of men shopping for a one night stand.

I wanted to craft messages in surprising, innovative ways to reach audiences that would not normally hear what I have to say; I want to use creativity and communication to cross cultural, physical and emotional boundaries and generate change.

This blog will be about the readings, artwork, music and all other classroom encounters I have in college that inspire me to create and, ultimately, communicate. Hopefully, the reflections I discuss here will be small moments that mark my path toward a promising and powerful career.