Dispatches From Blogistan

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the book
Dispatches From Blogistan
by suzanne stefanac
peachpit/new riders
voices that matter series
shipping now
> amazon
> barnes & noble
from the book
> table of contents
> chapter 2 history of open discourse
> chapter 6 history of journalism
> 10 blog design tips
> what is this long tail?
> trackback demystified
> blog ethics primer
> glossary
> resource hotlinks


> cory doctorow

> farai chideya

> bruce sterling

> denise caruso

> craig newmark

> jamais cascio

> laura lemay

> christian crumlish

> jon lebkowsky

interview with farai chideya

Fcap.gifarai Chideya is a one-woman media empire. You may have seen her moderating the Democratic Presidential Debate in 2004, or as a commentator for CNN, MTV, Fox, MSNBC, BET, Oxygen, CBS, or ABC. She was a regular on Bill Maher’s Politically Incorrect television program. Her writings include many articles for print periodicals, as well as three books: “Don’t Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans,” (Plume Penguin, 1995), “The Color of Our Future,” (William Morrow, 1999), and “Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters” (Soft Skull, 2004). These days, she is a host/correspondent for NPR’s News and Notes with Ed Gordon. Plus, she sometimes finds the time to post to one of her blogs. She brings a unique and experienced eye to the new journalism, as her comments below handily prove.

Dispatches: Can you tell our readers a bit about what led to your interest in blogging?

I am a Jaquetta of all media trades: I am the host/correspondent for a national radio show; occasionally do print and TV; write books; run Pop and Politics, a multimedia journalism education nonprofit that started as a blog; and I post occasionally to my own blog. I am at a crossroads with my personal blogging… not as interested in maintaining a blog as I am in seeing and shaping how this world unfolds.

Dispatches: You’ve written several books, one of which is titled Trust: Reaching the 100 Million Missing Voters. How do you see trust playing out within blogging and social networks at large?

Trust is my own cranky assessment of why a two party system will never fulfill true democratic ideals in a pluralistic society. But I try to say that nicely. I would love to use a blog or other online technology to create a robust discussion of the issues, but I’ve got at least 12 jobs and this would make 13 and that’s an unlucky number.

I think right now most trust within blogging is based on both emotional and empirical factors. Human beings aren’t great at separating the two. For example, if a popular blogger (the former Washington Post freelancer referenced below) is proven to have plagiarized, many of his supporters will still support him. That’s emotional/territorial.

I learned that lesson from my family, who discussed politics around the dinner table. But on the other hand, I grew up Catholic, and was taught that truth was passed on by authority figures and you had to agree with them.

Over time, as a journalist, I’ve begun to use more of an empirical method of seeking truth through the intersection of the experiences of people who’ve participated in or witnessed critical moments in history. I’ve been lucky enough to interview the president, fly on Air Force One, talk to Bono and Snoop and Brad Pitt, visit homeless veterans on the street, and talk to people who were imprisoned during apartheid.

I still don’t know THE truth, but then again, I think that thinking you know THE truth is often an ego trap. Everybody’s stories and life experiences guide you towards an understanding of complex issues. Most of what we understand is a hypothesis about how the world works.

Dispatches: With the glut of information pouring online, what are our best bets for improving discovery and for determining quality, relevance, and trust?

Picking up from the last answer…. there are no infallible sources, on or offline. You can judge based on many criteria, including the credentials and track record of the blogger/citizen journalist/reporter and whether or not people who trust her/him are people you trust.

In some ways, you are on a quest for information that could never end. But that does not mean you should not act. Inaction is action. Human beings make some of our best and worst decisions based on partial comprehension of the world around us. Journalism allows us to make decisions about whether to support wars or quash them; whether to rescue refugees or let them sort things out for themselves; whether to provide job benefits or let the market decide compensation. I personally believe we’ll NEVER have perfect information, but the more you know about a subject, the more you know about the people and organization who are producing the information, and the more you can not only categorize the information but the source.

I like to gather information from a variety of different, and sometimes opposing sources. For example, my father’s family is from Zimbabwe. To keep up on the news, I read news from inside Zimbabwe, from the US and UK, and from China (which is heavily investing in this and other African nations). The internet makes it possible for me to read official Chinese news releases in English, instantly. What I do with all that information is sort it through the filter of self-interest: What stakes do the journalists, their organizations, and their home nations have in the story? How might that have biased or at least shaped their reporting? Ultimately, you can look for “reliable sources” on or offline–and some are certainly more reliable than others–but you should also get multiple sources of information and make up your own mind.

Dispatches: How do you envision news being delivered in five years?

Big-media news is often a popularity contest among the people who deliver it, and an emotional bellwether for people who consume it. That’s one reason that during 9/11, news got more personal and more humanistic rather than more analytical. As human beings we respond to emotion. And to the extent that citizen journalists (bloggers and more) can reach our emotions, they will have power to sway us—warranted or unwarranted. You can see this in some of the followings for left and right political bloggers. Those followings are based not just on information, but on how people “vibe” with the tone and voice and emotional pitch of the blogger.

Mainstream or big media should be freaking out right now, and from what I sense, they are. Increasingly, newspapers, TV and radio stations are creating their own blogs or contracting with independent bloggers. I think in some cases it works well and in some cases (as with a conservative blogger who licensed his work to the Washington Post, and some work was plagiarized, which set off a firestorm of debate over whether he was targeted just for being conservative) news organizations aren’t ready for the higher level of opinion and critique that comes with the blogosphere.

Citizen journalists should be aware of journalism basics–the difference between reporting and opinion; libel law; etc. It’s not that citizen journalists will be held to the same standards as “mainstream” journalists, but that coming up with a set of ethical rules you follow will make you better. If you repeat gossip as fact, however, you could actually get yourself in legal trouble, as well as be discredited among your peers.

In five years, every news organization will be multimedia. You already see the New York Times commissioning original short video pieces which stream on its web property; and ABC has a highly read political blog, “The Note.” NPR, for whom I work, does a ton of work online. And The Onion, which was once distributed almost exclusively online, now has newspaper kiosks. In five years, there will be less and less meaning to being “print,” or “online,” or “audio” or “video.” Anyone who can be multimedia will be multimedia.

Dispatches: Some associate the participatory nature of blogs and wikis with an increased democratization of culture. Is this naive?

Well, let’s put it this way: nearly half of Americans are illiterate or have sub-optimal literacy. So you take the problems a lot of people have with the written language, and then you transfer that to a system which is still navigationally text-based, and you can see how that impacts how “democratic” any online culture is at this point. I love blogs and the internet and social networking systems, but they are still limited to an educational if not financial elite. I believe those barriers are becoming lower, but they’re still there and will be for sometime.

Blogs do have great power to bring issues into public debate, by keeping them alive when, for example, larger media companies have decided they’re not worth the time.

Dispatches: The spontaneous collaboration and cultural sampling that often take place on blogs and in podcasts can be at odds with current copyright and trademark laws. How do you see this evolving?

I just had someone post pictures I took in New Orleans after Katrina without asking me or without seeking permission. This pisses me off. But the reality is, it’s very hard to absolutely prevent people from copying your online works. I am trying to get the situation sorted, but it’s very easy to copy and paste.

I am a big fan of Lawrence Lessig’s Creative Commons licenses. If the person who posted my photos had just asked, I probably would have licensed the photos under a no-commercial-reproduction license to the nonprofit. I think the Creative Commons licenses will help reshape the intellectual property landscape, but even then –and certainly until then — the best policy is to follow basic courtesy, as well as legal protocol.

Dispatches: Tags are proving popular for organizing information, as well as serving as attractors holding communities of interest together. How viable are these bottom-up taxonomies in the long run?

User-created tags are just fabulous. The only downside — and this isn’t much of one — is that tags reflect the community of taggers. If new people with new interests enter the system, they may have to create their own lingo. For example, if you are interested in hip hop, you might tag the same posting, variously, as “hip hop,” “rap,” “bay area beats,” or “hyphy”. It’s up to users to decipher the common language among their tags.

Dispatches: Many of the tools and services supporting blogs and other social network environments are offered free of charge. Do you see this trend continuing? If so, what will contribute to the sustainability of these systems?

Serving ads based on the information in emails and discussion topics is definitely one way to continue free basic service. And I think some users will pay for premium services (ad-free; more features, etc.)

Dispatches: The increased transparency that can serve citizens and consumers well can, at the same time, pose potential threats to individual privacy. What safeguards can we build into the systems? How are we likely to define privacy in five, ten years?

Privacy in ten years will be you alone knowing the size and shape of the poop in your toilet — if you have the blinds closed — and not much else. Privacy today is mainly an illusion. There are many ways of dealing with that (besides the standard denial). You can live an utterly boring life and fly beneath the radar because your life is barely worth tracking. You can make yourself naked to those who observe you, much as some celebrities grant exclusives to tabloids. Or you can live fearlessly, and do what you please, all the while knowing that, for example, the federal Terrorist Screening Center maintains a list of 200,000 people suspected of terrorism (plus 150,000 additional partial names or IDs)… this according to a March 14, 2006 report by the Associated Press. Although officials are tracking these 200,000 or 350,000 names, depending on how you count, they’ve made less than 60 arrests. Meanwhile, our credit card purchases, library books, and financial records might end up being sifted for evidence that we belong on this burgeoning list.

Dispatches: With more and more books, periodicals, music and the like being distributed digitally, are we witnessing the death of the artifact?

There will be fewer artifacts but the ones we have will be more valuable.

Dispatches: Do you read any blogs regularly? What keeps you coming back?

I am more of a browser who flits from place to place, but I always come back to bOINGbOING.

Dispatches: What improvements would you like to see in blogging tools?

Read Farai’s Minifesto, How Do You Make Money from This *@^!*ing Thing? Or: Revolutionizing the Economics of Digital Content.

Dispatches: What are the biggest mistakes you see bloggers making?

Being inconsistent in posting. (Hmmmm, that sounds like me!)

Dispatches: Ha. Readers are strongly encouraged to follow both Pop and Politics and Farai’s personal blog. Thanks so much for your time.

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