"For reading in trains and buses", or, one of the most notable projects of modern times

'The paper is rubbish,' remarked Jasper, 'and the kind of rubbish—oddly enough—which doesn't attract people.'

'Precisely, but the rubbish is capable of being made a very valuable article, if it were only handled properly. I have talked to the people about it again and again, but I can't get them to believe what I say. Now just listen to my notion. In the first place, I should slightly alter the name; only slightly, but that little alteration would in itself have an enormous effect. Instead of Chat I should call it Chit-Chat!'

Jasper exploded with mirth.

'That's brilliant!' he cried. 'A stroke of genius!'

'Are you serious? Or are you making fun of me? I believe it is a stroke of genius. Chat doesn't attract anyone, but Chit-Chat would sell like hot cakes, as they say in America. I know I am right; laugh as you will.'

'On the same principle,' cried Jasper, 'if The Tatler were changed to Tittle-Tattle, its circulation would be trebled.'

Whelpdale smote his knee in delight.

'An admirable idea! Many a true word uttered in joke, and this is an instance! Tittle-Tattle—a magnificent title; the very thing to catch the multitude.'

Dora was joining in the merriment, and for a minute or two nothing but bursts of laughter could be heard.

'Now do let me go on,' implored the man of projects, when the noise subsided. 'That's only one change, though a most important one. What I next propose is this:—I know you will laugh again, but I will demonstrate to you that I am right. No article in the paper is to measure more than two inches in length, and every inch must be broken into at least two paragraphs.'


'But you are joking, Mr Whelpdale!' exclaimed Dora.

'No, I am perfectly serious. Let me explain my principle. I would have the paper address itself to the quarter-educated; that is to say, the great new generation that is being turned out by the Board schools, the young men and women who can just read, but are incapable of sustained attention. People of this kind want something to occupy them in trains and on 'buses and trams. As a rule they care for no newspapers except the Sunday ones; what they want is the lightest and frothiest of chit-chatty information—bits of stories, bits of description, bits of scandal, bits of jokes, bits of statistics, bits of foolery. Am I not right? Everything must be very short, two inches at the utmost; their attention can't sustain itself beyond two inches. Even chat is too solid for them: they want chit-chat.'

Jasper had begun to listen seriously.

'There's something in this, Whelpdale,' he remarked.

'Ha! I have caught you?' cried the other delightedly. 'Of course there's something in it?'

'But—' began Dora, and checked herself.

'You were going to say—' Whelpdale bent towards her with deference.

'Surely these poor, silly people oughtn't to be encouraged in their weakness.'

Whelpdale’s countenance fell. He looked ashamed of himself. But Jasper came speedily to the rescue.

'That's twaddle, Dora. Fools will be fools to the world's end. Answer a fool according to his folly; supply a simpleton with the reading he craves, if it will put money in your pocket. You have discouraged poor Whelpdale in one of the most notable projects of modern times.'

'I shall think no more of it,' said Whelpdale, gravely. 'You are right, Miss Dora.'

Again Jasper burst into merriment. His sister reddened, and looked uncomfortable. She began to speak timidly:

'You said this was for reading in trains and 'buses?'

Whelpdale caught at hope.

'Yes. And really, you know, it may be better at such times to read chit-chat than to be altogether vacant, or to talk unprofitably. I am not sure; I bow to your opinion unreservedly.'

'So long as they only read the paper at such times,' said Dora, still hesitating. 'One knows by experience that one really can't fix one's attention in travelling; even an article in a newspaper is often too long.'

'Exactly! And if you find it so, what must be the case with the mass of untaught people, the quarter-educated? It might encourage in some of them a taste for reading—don't you think?'

'It might,' assented Dora, musingly. 'And in that case you would be doing good!'

'Distinct good!'

They smiled joyfully at each other. Then Whelpdale turned to Jasper:

'You are convinced that there is something in this?'

'Seriously, I think there is. It would all depend on the skill of the fellows who put the thing together every week. There ought always to be one strongly sensational item—we won't call it article. For instance, you might display on a placard: “What the Queen eats!” or “How Gladstone's collars are made!”—things of that kind.'

George Gissing, New Grubb Street (1891)

My article from Monday 12 September for the Guardian Higher Education Network.

[I try to be very cautious about using the verb ‘revolutionise’ and the noun ‘revolution’ when discussing technology. I did not write the title, but I did write the article. :) ]

For the last month and a half I worked organising #SinLugar.

I should perhaps clarify I did this for the sheer pleasure of doing something I thought important. No funding or sponsorship was received; no fees were charged. 

#SinLugar, which roughly translates as “without-a-place”, was a Twitter-centred online “anti-conference.”

The main event took place using Cover It Live, but the discussion was decentralised, through the hashtag #SinLugar, since the platform allows the integration of tweets and because all the participants were twitterers. Though Cover It Live is mainly a live blogging service and not a “chat room,” #SinLugar used the platform in a slightly unusual way by trying to reduce the host’s participation to a minimum. 

The project comprised different online tools organised around a Wordpress.com blog, a Twitter account, a Twitpic account, a YouTube channel, a Slideshare account and a Stroome account.

A few days before July 22, when the live event took place, The Archivist was used to keep track of the Twitter activity with the hashtag #SinLugar. All these accounts were free accounts. From June 15 to 22 July, 777 tweets were posted from @SinLugar2010. 

My motivation was to enable organised,  real-time, online discussion in Spanish of topics I consider relevant amongst the Mexican Twittersphere. The intention was to encourage regular Twitter users (mainly from Mexico) to use online tools in a speedy and imaginative manner and to help “populate” the web with Mexican-made tagged quality content. 

I did not call it an “unconference" because #SinLugar was to have (and indeed had) a pre-determined programme and running order.

Also, unlike most unconferences it had no central physical meeting place: participants and readers would have no geographical restrictions to participate other than time difference and technological limitations (reliable broadband access; Flash-enabled browsers to watch the event). 

Furthermore, the call for presentations was open to anyone who saw it. To participate was free. The CFP required short abstracts of no more than 200 words of proposed videos, slideshows or slidecasts (of no more than 10-minutes approx. running time) on the topics of

1)Internet, digital culture and university in Mexico;

2)Citizenship, democracy and engagement in the digital age in Mexico;

3)Alternatives to mainstream media monopolies in Mexico;

4)International Borders (metaphors and realities). 

Abstracts had to be accompanied by a short bio or explanation (no more than 100 words) of their experience with the proposed topic. It was not necessary to be an academic or a student. To be accepted all the presentations would have to be submitted with a Creative Commons license.  

The whole event, from the publication of the CFP on June 15 2010 to the conclusion of the “live” or real-time meeting on July 22 2010, was planned as an “express” event in which proposals/abstracts would have to be submitted quickly  and presentations sent a week before the actual live event.

Because Twitter is mostly a microblogging platform for the “here and now”, where everything happens very quickly, it made sense to me #SinLugar should also be organised quickly.

I did not want this to be a project that would just become a promise and not a reality. I wanted participants to “think quickly.” I promoted the event solely through the @SinLugar2010 Twitter account. I also made three trailers which I posted on the #SinLugar YouTube account and several poster mashups I posted on the Twitpic account and the blog.  

Two of the trailers were made without sound and offered to be remixed on Stroome. (Tom Grasty had this to say about #SinLugar at the Stroome blog). 

The CFP closed June 28. Eight abstracts were received and the eight proposals were accepted. They all covered the topics suggested by the CFP. In the end only one presenter dropped out before the submission of the actual presentation, so the event had a total of seven presentations. (Abstracts were published on 2 July; the timetabled final programme was published on 21 July). Volunteers helped enliven the discussion as registered panelists along the presenters. 

In the Twitter account, @SinLugar2010 got 125 followers by the first week, and 258 followers by the end of 22 July. 

The blog registered a total of 2,555 total views (not counting own visits of course) and during 22 July in which the live event took place there were 810 total views.

The live event lasted for 6 hours 15 minutes and had 191 readers; in average, each reader lasted 1 hour 17 minutes reading the event; only 25% of readers visited for less than 1 minute. The live event received 226 comments. 

The presentations were set as “private” before their turn in the live programme came, then changed to “unlisted”, then to “public”. (We had a bit of a technical glitch with Slideshare doing this in real time; though the presentation had been changed to “public”, readers could not access it. I had to re-upload the presentation while the event was running). 

All the presentations have been properly tagged with #SinLugar and other relevant metadata. Creative Commons licenses and links have been included in the descriptions. All material is now public and the slides can be downloaded. All the material was posted immediately on the blog after the live event finished, in the original order in which it appeared during the day. (Here.)

All in all I think this was a very positive experiment. Cover It Live was unknown to all the participants so it took a while to get used to the synchronic/diachronic/asynchronous nature of the platform. I think Cover It Live has great potential for citizen journalism and academic/e-learning/e-research activities. 

Like every medium it has its limitations and constraints, but thanks to Cover It Live #SinLugar managed to do the walk and not just the talk, by combining a self-contained live, synchronous discussion environment, the curated integration of Twitter feeds within the interface and the asynchronous hashtagged tweets external to it. 

Discussion “flows” in a very different way using these platforms in the way #SinLugar used them, so interruption, noise and distraction was part of the equation but not in a negative sense.

The discussion both inside the Cover It Live interface and on Twitter with the hashtag #SinLugar was passionate but respectful. There were agreements and disagreements, but most voices expressed themselves respectfully towards others. 

Even though participants came from different backgrounds, there was mutual understanding and a willingness to engage with serious topics and to lead discussions to concrete actions dealing with the current Mexican situation.

The event required minimal moderation, and no significant trolling attacks were registered. In brief, #SinLugar had nothing that the sensationalist Mexican press and their official twitterers would like to report (they didn’t).

One of the conclusions of the discussion was that Twitter and online citizen media in Mexico is still trying to make sense of how to transform online content into concrete actions in the offline world.

The creation of social engagement and awareness of what requires urgent action in the Mexican context required that #SinLugar was also a meta-event, promoting its very own existence/presence as an online work-in-progress through tweets and retweets. “Re-tweets” (or RTs) may seem “repetitive” and unnecessary, informational noise, but he synchronous/asynchronous nature of Twitter means that messages are picked up at different times by different people in different contexts. Hence their relevance when creating awareness is key. 

As I write this RTs of what happened yesterday in #SinLugar (still using the present continuous) are still being posted. Time and place displaced: an “anti-conference” indeed. In the plenary session at the end of the live event the participants opened an online collaborative “writing pad” to work on their conclusions.

The blog was mainly an online billboard closed to comments at the beginning in order to concentrate the discussion on Twitter, but comments are open now for the last post where the event is summarised. Furthermore, presenters and panelists will have an account as contributors. 

I’ve thanked you already  yesterday at the end of the live event,  but I would like to thank everyone involved once again. Muchas gracias. 

Oh Déjà Vu: On Social Media and Narcissism [Redux]

#hackacad [Originally posted on Never Neutral on 2009/08/27].

Panel crop from Geek and Poke

"STUDY: Social Media Is for Narcissists” reads the headline. Symptomatic of a culture of intellectual laziness obsessed with simplified notions and easy solutions, the article summarizes an already-summarized news release from the San Diego State University, which concluded that “social networking sites enhance self-centered traits of young people.”

Unavoidably, there’s the feeling that we have been there, done that, bought the t-shirt. "Narcissism" is a term with a complex theoretical history that is often used very liberally, especially in word of mouth about blogging and social media. Self-centeredness and narcissism are, of course, not necessarily the same thing. The days we live in facilitate the fast distribution of ideas through headlines and catchy phrases (I found out of the study in this way) and rarely is there time for in-depth critical reflection. Without reading the full SDSU study report it’s hard to reach a clear conclusion, but certainly the declaration “Social Media Is for Narcissists” is transmitting the wrong message. The study in question is publicized a few months after the publication of the study’s director’s book, titled The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement. According to the Mashable.com post I quoted above one of the questions used in the survey read:

Question: How much do you agree or disagree with the statement “People in my generation use social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace) for self-promotion, narcissism, and attention-seeking”

I find it hard not to see a bias in the way the question is posited, especially knowing that before the study was publicized by SDSU the study’s director had already published a book with a particular take on the question of narcissism. Here I’d like to go back to 2004, when American psychoanalyst and poet Nick Piombino posted a series of articles on "Blogging and Narcissism" which are still relevant for the debate.

Much of what is being said about “social media” was said about blogging before, as it was said of "traditional" literature and art before that. It is ironic that in a culture that embraces, encourages and demands self-sufficiency and autonomy recent representational methods (such as social media) are being accused of propagating “the narcissism epidemic”. (Susan Sontag would have had a lot to say about the pejorative medical metaphor). As Piombino brilliantly explained,

At this moment in time, blogging, as a writing movement, is blessed with an opportunity to evolve a writing tendency that can combine self-sufficiency with empathy in a way that can be advantageous to the individual writer, and at the same time to the writing community, the local community, the nation, and the world. Blogging is quite capable of allowing individual writers quite a lot of space to take a place on the continuum of community involvement and sustain quite a lot of automonomy. This is largely because of the technological advances inherent in html linking, and the fact that, at the moment, it is being made available free of charge.

We can easily substitute “blogging” in Piombino’s writing for “social media” without betraying its message. Blogging and social media are representational methods which allow the design of “profiles” which are an online extension of ourselves. Social media and blogging do not have to be more “narcissistic” than a good resume or CV. The average professional job advert seeks extraordinary qualities that strictly speaking only pathologically narcissistic individuals would truly believe they honestly possess.

The demands of offline social life and “networking” are based on a self-sufficiency most people struggle to build, and the freedom to design appealing digital profiles is unprecedented. I would dare to say this can be positive in the development of a healthy personality. There is an important contradiction between an understanding of social media as promoting self-centeredness and the phenomenology of social media because the latter is supposed to enable the opening of the self towards the Other. “Linking” and “networking” are the key words here, which short-circuit with a notion of a self which only cares about itself. Moreover, it should be noted that those who think that social media promotes or enables negative attitudes (because there is no doubt that “self-promotion, narcissism and attention-seeking” are used pejoratively) do use social media.

The tensions between a culture that encourages a highly developed sense of self-esteem, popularity amongst peers and competitiveness and a contradictorily conservative and hypocritical condemnation of those same values is enhanced by social media, which in a way is just an online public version of “old media” self-representational methods such as business cards, demos, CVs, statements of purpose, fashion styles, publication lists, etc.

Reading about this study also made me reflect up to what extent academic studies have an ethical responsibility to seek knowledge and ask more open-ended questions rather than looking to confirm previous opinions or the researcher’s academic career (it seems to me the study wanted and needed to prove that social media is “narcissistic”; this study quite conveniently complements the book almost like a media tie-in). One wonders if narcissism is not in the reflecting eye of the researcher. Not that narcissism is a bad thing…

Replicante ha publicado un artículo mío que originalmente publiqué en este blog. Esto sin duda le dará una mayor audiencia, lo cual interroga y confirma, al mismo tiempo, las ideas que me llevaron a escribirlo en primer lugar. Gracias a todos en Replicante.


NYRB Blog: Margaret Atwood in the Twittersphere


Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood, tweeting aboard the Queen Mary 2, August 2009

A long time ago—less than a year ago in fact, but time goes all stretchy in the Twittersphere, just as it does in those folksongs in which the hero spends a night with the Queen of Faerie and then returns to find that a hundred years have passed and all his friends are dead…. Where was I?

Oh yes. A long time ago, back in June of 2009, when we were planning the launch of The Year of the Flood and I was building a Web site for it. Why was I doing this building, rather than the publishers? Well, they had their own sites, and I wanted to do some non-publishing things on mine, such as raise awareness of rare-bird vulnerability and heighten Virtuous Coffee Consumption (Arabica, shade-grown, doesn’t kill birds) and blog the seven-country dramatic-and-musical book tour we were about to do. Anyway, the publishers were at that time hiding under rocks, as it was still the Great Financial Meltdown, not to mention the Horrid Tsunami of Electronic Book Transmission. “That sounds wonderful, Margaret,” they said, with the queasy encouragement shown by those on the shore waving goodbye to someone who’s about to shoot Niagara Falls in a barrel.

Oops! I shouldn’t have said that. Which is typical of “social media”: you’re always saying things you shouldn’t have said.

Read More

This is the third instalment of my series on citizen journalism and online media for the Mexican current affairs magazine Nexos

Tercera parte de mi serie sobre periodismo ciudadano y medios digitales para Nexos.