What's in the works for the next 12 months at OJR?

This week marks my first anniversary as editor of OJR. I’d like to think that we’ve brought you a fair number of innovations and improvements during the year, but I’m not writing today about the past. Instead, I’d like to focus on the next 12 months at OJR.

Transparency helps nurture the relationship between a publication and its readers. So I would like to use the occasion of this anniversary to kick around some ideas for OJR, to get both your feedback, and, I hope, your help in developing them.

When I interviewed for this job, I shared my vision of OJR not simply as a publication, but as a community, where newsroom journalists, freelance writers and independent Web publishers could gather to learn from each other how best to report and write news online. For eight years, I’ve been soliciting content from my Web sites’ readers. In Internet terms, that makes me a hoary codger who’s too darn old to change his ways now. So get used to being asked to write, as well as read, around here. Consider today’s article our first effort in “open source” journalism.

Publishing technology

Let’s start with technology. In the past year, we’ve completely rewritten OJR’s publishing system, and we did it in-house. That gives us the flexibility to create and experiment with new publishing formats, such as the invitation-only wiki Mark Glaser used over three days a few weeks ago to create his industry discussion on video journalists.

I’d love to make OJR your guinea pig for online publishing innovations. Having worked in large, corporate newsrooms, I know that newspaper dot-commers need solid data to make the case for their organizations to adopt such tech improvements. And, also having worked as a solo publisher, I know that many lone eagles don’t want to waste their limited time on something that isn’t going to work. So what tech ideas are out there that you’d like to see us cover… or implement? Video wikis? OPML feeds?

I’m hoping that OJR will debut podcasts later this fall, after students return to USC’s Annenberg School of Journalism for the upcoming academic year. We’ll have a fresh supply of students writing original reports for our news blog, and I’m expecting a few of them to try crafting audio reports and interviews that we’ll podcast through OJR’s RSS feeds.

Susannah Gardner just wrote us an informative look at various blogging tools. In the next few weeks, we’ll be converting her article into a wiki, so that you, our readers, can help us keep the information in that article up to date. I would also like to have a similar article soon on larger online content management systems, so OJR can serve as a starting point for making technology decisions about how you can publish your information online. Let me know what we need to do to make that happen.

Story ideas

Can online journalism be a distributed process?

Many online journalism pioneers are developing grassroots journalism sites based on the model of readers as correspondents, reporting and writing full takes of stories. But, in my experience, the number of readers who are willing to contribute content to any site is inversely proportional to the amount of work that site asks them in order to do to make that contribution.

Plenty of readers will blog about their personal lives. Many will send in a short note about a newsworthy event they’ve witnessed. But only a tiny fraction will show the initiative to do a journalist’s work – to routinely conceive, report, organize and write news stories. And those that do are often motivated by evangelizing an ideology, instead of uncovering facts. Many newspaper dot-com veterans can recall the enthusiasm with which many of us embraced “community publishing” in the late 1990s, only to see those sites die as few community groups stepped forward to maintain them.

Does that mean that these grassroots journalism initiatives are doomed? Hardly. A site doesn’t need hundreds of correspondents to succeed – just a handful can provide informative coverage. But this does suggest there’s great potential in harvesting the power of even larger numbers of readers as reporters in a more distributed process.

Many publications and online writers have developed ways to use their readers as sources. (Heck, OJR wrote more than three years ago about some guy doing that to cover theme park accidents.) But what the industry needs is a model that enables online journalists to gather and manage large reader/source networks with minimal technological expertise. We need something that does for distributed news reporting what Blogger did for online journals. Few of us have the time or expertise to build a new database and Web front-end for every story we want to cover.

Who’s talking about this flavor of online journalism? Who’s doing tech work that could be applied to this? Am I totally full of it with this idea?

Mathematical journalism

The world’s grown too complex for journalists to cover using only literary skills. A generation ago, forward-thinking journalists developed computer-assisted reporting techniques, uncovering stories from public databases, including crime reports, school test scores and census data.

Unfortunately, CARR has remained a specialty within journalism, rather than a core skill. Part of this can be attributed to journalists’ collective hostility toward math and science. I’ve been training journalists in basic math for a decade, and in my experience, it is far easier to teach someone with high math aptitude how to report and write a journalism story than it is to teach a typical journalist math.

Why not, then, try to recruit more math-savvy students into journalism? Perhaps we could, if the typical j-school or newsroom were not so openly hostile to them. The industry’s made commendable progress during the past generation to improve its diversity in race, gender and ethnicity. But we continue to wisecrack about our collective inability to use math or basic scientific research principles in our reporting, helping to drive away young people with those skills who might help us. Even when we keep our mouths shut, traditional journalism curricula include few courses to challenge a math-savvy student who wishes to develop his or her skills.

Have any j-schools developed courses involving post-calculus instruction? What might a curriculum in mathematical journalism look like? I’ll propose that online instructors ought to take the lead in developing such courses. Not only do online folks tend to be more tech-savvy, online provides a more creative (and less hostile) environment for young CARR-savvy journalists in which to work.

What can we do at OJR to lead an effort to create industry standards for an online-based mathematical journalism degree? Should we even try?

Does truth derive from observation or ideology?

This might seem far too philosophical a question for a journalism review. But it reflects a core issue that divides America politically and that fuels much media criticism today.

Daily journalism provides little opportunity to dig into philosophical conflicts that reveal themselves in headlines, especially in cash-strapped newsrooms where managers value double-digit profit margins over insightful news. Journalism reviews, however, can create that opportunity.

One obvious way that this particular question plays out in the United States is in skirmishes between certain religious faiths and science. Millions of Americans reject evolution, global warming and other scientific observations due to their faith in a particular religion or political ideology. And millions of other Americans cannot comprehend why those Americans trust their faith over a scientist’s observations. Bloggers on both sides then attack journalists for real and imagined slights to their point of view.

But don’t get fooled into seeing this philosophical battle only in terms of religion. The question of observation vs. ideology fuels other conflicts over the practice of our craft. How should we report news stories? Should we employ something like the scientific method and start with a declared null hypothesis, which we test through observation? Or should we start with a blank slate, assuming no truth, and gather anecdotes from representatives of the ideologies that our ideology leads us to consider relevant, leaving the reader to draw a conclusion?

OJR can’t resolve this or any other fundamental philosophical question to the satisfaction of all readers. But OJR can illustrate how these divisions are fueling disputes within our industry, so that our readers can better understand them.

Who’d like to start?

And furthermore…

The popularity of online news is driving many legislatures to reconsider open-records and other sunshine laws. At the same time, online writers are seeking protection under shield laws written decades before Tim Berners-Lee thought up this whole Web thing. Who’s got our back here? And who’s trying to stab it?

Some independent Web publishers are enjoying immense market influence as grassroots consumer sites attract millions of readers. Who’s trying to buy influence among them and who’s already sold out? Who’s saying no and putting the interest of readers ahead of sources?

Those are a few of the ideas bouncing around in my head. My e-mail inbox remains open for your story suggestions, too. You can send me a private message via my personal page on OJR.

Writers wanted

If any of these ideas, or another you’ve thought of while reading this piece, interests you, please drop me a note. I am always looking for freelance writers to cover issues of interest to OJR readers. (And, no, I don’t yet have anyone specific in mind for the story ideas I’ve written about today.) Our standard rate for articles is $500 and our writers need to sign an independent contractor’s agreement with the University of Southern California, which publishes OJR. Writers from other countries are welcomed, though USC cuts checks only in U.S. dollars.

Money wanted, too

USC Annenberg has graciously supported this publication for years and the university’s support for the publication remains strong. But let’s face it, the news business ain’t charity. At some point, even journals have to demonstrate tangible market support by bringing in a few bucks.

We’ll be experimenting this year with responsible ways to bring in extra revenue to help pay for those freelance articles we’ll commission. (And, of course, the more we bring in, the more we can increase our standard rate for freelance articles and original research.) Nothing’s been decided yet, but don’t be surprised if you see ads or sponsorships on some pages of the site in the upcoming year as I look for new sources of revenue to preserve and expand OJR. I promise, in whatever we do, to build and respect the “wall.” If we run advertising, we’ll outsource its sales and delivery to another company, so people editing the site will have nothing to do with those ad sales or placement.

Ultimately, I would like to see OJR establish a foundation or endowment to support this site on an ongoing basis. Soon, you’ll see links on OJR article pages inviting you to contribute to ensuring OJR’s continued presence online. I know that some of our readers have managed to make more than a few bucks publishing online, too. If any of those readers (and you know who you are) would like to establish a personal legacy in support of high-quality online journalism, USC and OJR would welcome your financial support.

* * *

So that’s what’s on my mind today, as I look forward to the next 12 months at OJR. What do you think? As always, just click on the button below to leave a public comment or click over to my personal page to send a private response.

Thanks for reading,

Blog different? BlogHer participants illustrate diversity of the Web

Between live blogging and real-time chats, by the time the sun set on the first BlogHer conference in Santa Clara, Calif. last weekend tens of thousands of words already were twisting around the globe — and the posting barely had begun.

It wasn’t long before I realized what we’d taken part in was as much a group Rorschach test as it was a communal experience. No matter how much we shared or talked or had in common, each attendee arrived with a personal agenda and, even though some contents shifted in transit, each left seeing the majority-female conference through that same personal prism.

And, in the end, that may have been the most valuable aspect of all, a unique chance to come as you are, admit you’re not there because you know everything but because you don’t.

I was there, not as a reporter observing events a step or two removed, but as a reporter and registered participant working as a news blogger, trying to find my way around a new personal blog, looking for answers of my own while I learned more about what others needed and wanted to accomplish.

It definitely was different than any of the conferences I’ve attended or covered over the past year — from Bloggercon, ONA and BlogNashville to the combo conferences/trade shows like CES, CTIA , the national cable show and Digital Hollywood. It would be easy to ascribe the difference to the overwhelmingly female majority, but it goes deeper than that.

Part of it came from the cross-section of bloggers self-selected as participants or attending as invited panelists. We could — and did — break into smaller groups (one time slot was set aside for “birds of a feather” groups) but we were there for reasons that pulled us together more than they pulled us apart. Plus, we were determined to make it work.

It helped that the prep for BlogHer included an emphasis on finding ways for people to participate via registration scholarships, sometimes in exchange for live blogging or audio recording. It also helped to have much of the groundwork laid out online before we walked through the door.

BlogHer co-founders Lisa Stone, Jory Des Jardins and Elisa Camahort along with an advisory panel and numerous volunteers pulled off something incredibly difficult: a conference with many of the usual trappings that felt out of the ordinary.

This wasn’t just a kumbaya moment — or, as Nancy White joked afterwards during the informal Saturday night dinner, kum-blog-ya. Many attendees had business on the mind. One was looking for the right way to publicize her mobile accessories. Some people were business blogging or looking for ways to get started in that field. Others wondered how far to go with advertising or sponsorships. One session focused on venture capital.

Vendors mixed in as sponsors — Google provided mini-messenger bags with the BlogHer and feminized Google logo, a notebook, computer kiosks and the WiFi that didn’t deliver always-on; Yahoo sponsored the closing cocktail party; Law.com sponsored lunch — and attendees, listening to comments about their products, answering questions, offering up their own experiences. (I wondered if I’d have even noticed the interaction had it not been for the heated discussions about vendors during BloggerCon; I think I would have because I’ve been sensitized lately to the way sponsorships can be considered an exchange for access — not action, mind you, as in a quid pro quo, to people they might not otherwise be able to reach the same way.)

And it wasn’t all sweetness and light. Anger, frustration, disagreement, disappointment – all made frequent appearances during the weekend and after.

The first full session of the day unleashed some of the emotion that had started this all in the first place. Back in March, several women moved past venting about the lack of online visibility for diverse voices and into action. Halley Suitt urged people to look for new voices and publicize them. Lisa Stone responded with her challenge: “Shall we up the ante and build a global gathering place, online and off, virtual and real, for women bloggers: Bloghercon 2005?” She had been discussing the idea with Elisa Camahort, so the two were poised for action when people urged them on and began volunteering their own services.

Stone framed that first session as a debate over playing by the rules of a male-dominated game — creating different ways of gauging success and value beyond A-lists, traffic and the beleaguered Technorati 100. Panelists/debaters Halley Suitt and Forrester analyst Charlene Li stepped back and, along with Stone, let the room become part of the discussion.

Recalling the session now brings to mind the scene near the end of “War Games,” where the computer realizes nuclear war is as winnable as tic-tac-toe. Between the frustration over how links are counted and valued, the assertions that linking is gender-based (or biased), and the desire by many to be recognized within a system, finding a win was about as likely.

I finally piped up when it became clear that people bent on un-stereotyping the net couldn’t get past some of their own stereotypes. Such as the notion that journalists only pay attention to the top 100 — a faulty list, at best — and A-listers. Some journalists start there, some rely too much on usual suspects and some spend a lot of time seeking out other resources through search engines, referrals and other means.

People of the same gender aren’t all alike. Bloggers aren’t all alike. Neither are journalists. Paint with too broad a brush and a lot of it will end up on the carpet.

No real answers but one true fact: if you don’t call attention to yourself, don’t be surprised if you’re not noticed. This theme came up repeatedly. One of the concerns I had going in was getting the right readership for my newish personal blog, a space established for thoughts that don’t fit in here or my other professional haunts. Like many of the people I met at BlogHer, I’m uncomfortable asking for links. I’d like to think the work speaks for itself but the work can only do the talking when people know it’s there.

Halley Suitt urged us to read “Women Don’t Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide” by Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever. She said ask three times; I heard someone from the audience shout “seven.” But here’s one of the perception problems I can’t shake: men who ask are assertive; women are nags. Then there’s the link-whore issue – that the description of a person begging for links is a pejorative for women didn’t escape this group’s attention – and the fear that of having someone I respect not link after I send a “this may interest you” note. (Suitt was confronted by someone who had asked her for a link and didn’t get it; she has since rectified the situation.)

Now just imagine how daunting is for someone coming in cold, without media or networking experience.

One of the oft-repeated complaints was there were too many choices when it came to sessions. Luckily, between intense live blogging, chat transcripts and the eventual podcasts coming on IT Conversations, it should be possible to get a good sense of the sessions. I skipped the “birds of a feather” session on citizen journalism for one called by the Newspaper Association of America’s Melinda Gipson to talk about fixing traditional media, traded political blogging for blog design, venture capital for “how to get naked” and moblogging for Suffragette Journalism, where I tried very hard to remove the term “citizen journalism” from the lexicon.

The blogging naked session moderated by Des Jardins may have been the greatest eye opener – and not because of the subjects covered. The panel featured three identity bloggers, people who are trying to blog their true self through the reality of their lives and are coping/thriving with the consequences. Exposing yourself so completely is beyond the pale for most of us. Heather Armstrong, who blogs as Dooce and whose firing over her blog created the Internet verb “dooced”, threw me a little by talking openly to a room full of people about details she decided not to publish on her blog. Armstrong, who is number 10 on the Technorati 100, uses a PO Box and obscures pictures of her home but posts photos of her toddler daughter.

Koan Bremner was a portrait of courage as she explained how she unveiled her transgendered life using her blog. “I’ve already outed myself in every respect that could possibly hurt me,” she said, during an exchange about how much to post. She warned would-be naked bloggers to think it through very carefully and to make boundaries they will keep. Ronni Bennett actually started a private blog in addition to her public writing about aging after a family member figured out who was who in her public posts using initials.

Many in the packed room became part of the discussion. Six Apart co-founder Mena Trott, who has taken grief for everything from software decisions to going on vacation, warned, “For people who are looking for traffic be careful what you ask for because you may regret it.” It’s more rewarding to write for people who care about you, she added. Lots of advice came through about how to decide when not to blog about something — imaginine it on the front page of the New York Times or think of the worst person possible finding it. (It’s easy for me: I know my mother reads everything I write online.)

I hit a TMI wall – too much information – when Amy Gahran of Contentious mentioned her plans to add a sexual preference description to her professional web site. She and her husband are polyamorous, open to relationships beyond each other. I admire Gahran and knowing this doesn’t change that but the idea of injecting that kind of information into her work setting still strikes me as, well, distracting. Gahran since has backtracked, opting instead for a new personal blog called Mass of Contradictions. She was surprised by the controversy. “Some of the people who advised against this move I respect greatly – others frankly appear ignorant, fearful, or mean-spirited.”

Earlier, explaining her decision to go public at BlogHer, Gahran wrote: “I outed myself in that forum in order to make the larger point that humanity is not one-size-fits-all — that many people who are out of the mainstream in one way or another, or who or endure difficult circumstances in silence, often feel alone and vulnerable. That not only hurts them worse — it hurts society by allowing us to remain less aware and compassionate.”

So I should have been the tiniest bit prepared when I read about someone else’s reaction to Koan Bremner. “What I didn’t expect was a male dressed up as a woman (commonly referred to by the progressive society as a ‘transsexual,’ a term I will not use because it consciously validates our society’s dysfunction),” wrote Ambra Nykola. It gets worse from there, saying a lot more about the author than the subject.

Like I said, it wasn’t all sweetness and light.

Take the lunch session “Flame, Blame & Shame,” about some of the most difficult aspects of blogging. Moblogger Debi Jones suggested using anger as a tool. “There are times when I use anger to get attention for issues that are important,” she said. She also said that she “finds it easier to get angry with men. … Men won’t take it personally.” (She must know some very different men than I do.)

The most perplexing member of that panel moderated by Liza Sabater was author Alisa Valdes-Rodriguez, the former LA Times staffer whose 4,000-word resignation letter reverberated around the industry; she spoke of learning communication skills to deal with her online readers and of worrying about the effect her blogging could have on sales of her novels. She talked, sold some books, left the conference and shut down her blog. Worse – from my perspective – she literally deleted it. Now she’s asking if it she should start blogging again. (The responses.) “It was a certain kind of release for me. Doing this blog. And I think the good vibe people far outnumber the bad. I didn’t realize that before,” she wrote a few days later. Valdes-Rodriguez also has an active Yahoo group so by dropping her blog she wasn’t disappearing; still, the timing of her act on was a tad odd and offputting enough to make me think twice about buying her new book.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the “Suffragette Journalism: Op-Ed Pages Of Our Own” discussion led by Lisa Stone with political journalist Chris Nolan, youth culture blogger and Current TV staffer Anastasia Goodstein and consultant/blogger Evelyn Rodriguez. One of the questions that bubbled up was whether personal narrative is journalism. The answer from Nolan and others: It depends.

Rodriguez learned this first-hand when she switched course in December after surviving the tsunami in Thailand. She wound up reporting about it and being reported about, knowing that her first-hand experiences and those of others she could share were more real than most of the “journalism” being done. Why should it have to be funneled through mainstream journalism to be considered news? Her coverage helped raise money for tsunami relief. She tried to apply for a follow-up fellowship from a media organization but it was limited to professional journalists. Now she’s starting a micro-fund “to support ‘real people, real story’ artisan journalism type projects.” The first one will be an anniversary trip for her – and possibly others – to the tsunami zone.

A chunk of the discussion went to ways to break through the barriers between those who want to have a voice in mainstream journalism and the news outlets. Goodstein urged those looking for experience to “Work it out on your blog and get your writing chops up.” NYU professor and blogger Jay Rosen suggested they contact local news outlets about blogging their communities. (I was reminded of the very different worlds represented at BlogHer when I read a reference later to Rosen as “some journalist dude?” who “greatly needs feminism 101 class.”) Stone gave pitch advice and solicited some from the room. Much more in media lawyer Cathy Kirklands’ live blog.

One of the most difficult aspects of journalism for me is knowing that just my presence — even if I don’t say a word beyond identification — can alter events, sometimes in imperceptible ways like someone choosing not to say something, sometimes more noticeably.

That affect isn’t limited to journalists as Latthanapon “Ponzi” Indharasophang of Ponzi’s Schemes realized after BlogHer. Part of it boils down to definitions: when she asked if she could podcast the hiphop session featuring Spin/Vibe GM Lynne D. Johnson, other people heard her asking to record it. That’s not her podcasting style, though — she is an active participant, not a recording observer.

One perturbed blogger wrote: “Instead she proceeded to take over the session, interrupting Lynne to ask questions, and otherwise being rather intrusive. Even I felt uncomfortable. Brave new world indeed.” Ponzi explains her thinking on her own blog but wonders post mortem about the difference between her proactive podcasting (my term) and asking questions from the audience. “Would it still be considered ‘taking over the session and being rather intrusive’ or is just amplified because of the mic in hand? … If I choose to hold a mic again does that mean I have to forfeit my place to ask questions of the speakers who speak into my mic in order to please those who do not hold the mic?” (The protesting blogger, Justin, later amended his post to say he wished he’d offered constructive criticism.)

Taking on the role of a journalist comes with baggage.

Did 24 hours in Santa Clara change anything?

The creation of BlogHer ’05 may have ignited as much — or more — change than the actual gathering. I don’t say that lightly. This post from co-founder Elisa Camahort illustrates the kind of chain reaction that starting to organize the conference set off by explaining how the nearly 60-person roster of speakers came to be through a mix of organizer ideas, suggestions, research and self-recommendations. Broken down by stats, about 20 percent volunteered; 30 percent were recommended from the community of people interested in BlogHer; 25 percent came from “traditional ‘power’ channels” and 25 percent were “blog crushes” — bloggers the organizers didn’t know but wanted to have on board. Providing the ability for people to create their own topics at break-out sessions increased the mix.

Expanding the speaker roster at conferences beyond the usual and all too-often white male universe is one of the hottest topics going. (The BlogHer roster still had usual suspects — some of “the” women at those male-laden conferences.) Here’s how the thinking goes: expanding voices will expand interest; people who feel represented are more likely to attend, which will change the tone and the impact; various circles will widen and new circles will be formed.

One of the concrete results from BlogHer: Mary Hodder started the Speaker’s Wiki as part of her post-BlogHer to-do list. The database is completely self-selecting with no parameters other than this description: “A listing of speakers, their websites and affiliation, contact information, past speaking engagements and other important information to help conference organizers choose speakers to talk on important topics.” (Want to contribute? Think of someone you’d like to see on the list and send them the link; share the list with various conference organizers; add constructive comments about speakers you’ve heard.) At the same time, the organizers of SXSW Interactive sent out a call for submissions and suggestions from BlogHer attendees and already are getting feedback.

Conversations sparked by the conference are continuing. Online communities have been extended or are being built. Plans for BlogHer ’06 are in the offing and a survey is being conducted. People left with ideas about how to do what they do better or how to do something news and lots of contacts. Post-BlogHer to-do lists are popping up all over and items are being crossed off.

As Evelyn Rodriguez wrote with a thank you to the organizers, “I think all the lights went on for me Saturday.” Personally, I don’t think it had to be majority women for me to leave with more energy but that majority is what made it stand out among the plethora of conferences and it’s what got a lot of voices heard beyond the event.

Nancy White identified these measures months ago:
“– We each hatch plans to support/mentor other women who want to blog (but not guilt them into it. We have enough guilt, eh?) We have a way to share what we learn/do in the process.
— We tell the stories of women bloggers in all their diversity, richness, and messiness – and hopefully we unearth stories that fall on the long tail, not just the spike.
— We identify and point to blogging resources that are useful to us – no matter our technological savvy. We celebrate what what we know and learn what we don’t.
— We identify strategies for second wave adoption (which follows on that last point.)”

So far, so good.

The avatar versus the journalist: Making meaning, finding truth

The Avatar

Imagine Wikipedia as if it were Bombay city — a sprawling metropolis under construction by purpose-driven swarms and hoardes of people with an Internet connection. A city constantly threatened by impending monsoons, visited by floods of spam, terrorised by vandals, punctuated by unclaimed land-like stubs, a vast and virtual terra nova that refuses to stop growing.

The creators of this city lurk in the ‘talk’ and ‘discuss’ pages of Wikipedia, leaving their footprints at every alteration. The articles themselves are not unlike pheromones that attract stray ants and formulate the process by which stigmergic growth takes place in the colony. They also have their queens and drones, even labor unions that have emerged from a pseudo-democratic process.

The General Secretary of the Association of Deletionists is a user named Ambi, who goes by the description “Hunter of all things self-promotory.” He won the seat as the result of an election, reaping seven out of eight votes. The Secretary can resign or be removed from office by a 60 percent majority among the Association’s members. Inclusionists, Anarchists and Mergists have also emerged as pseudo-democratic associations. You may also come across the Cleaning Department, the Association of Apathetic Wikipedians, and the rather descriptive Association of Wikipedians Who Dislike Making Broad Judgements About the Worthiness of a General Category of Article, and Who Are In Favor of the Deletion of Some Particularly Bad Articles, but That Doesn’t Mean They are Deletionist.

In the non-hierarchical but highly active Cleaning Department of Wikipedia, user Eloquence comes around with his broom every 15th of the month, Cimon Avaro on the 31st, Delirium checks daily those articles whose 7-day wait has expired, and Cyan fills in for Delirium in his absence. Most users like Rossami, however, come when time permits. Cimon Avaro is the avatar of a Finnish contributor called Jussi-Ville Heiskanen, now one of the candidates for the 2005 Elections of the Board Of Trustees.

As the avatars started working on Wikipedia, they developed neologisms and notions of acceptable etiquette, and myths surrounding a secret Cabal that “is ultimately responsible for the development of Wikipedia. Supposedly, the Cabal acts to stifle dissent and impose their private points of view while hypocritically extolling NPOV (Neutral Point Of View). Admins who take action against users for seemingly illogical or immature reasons are often claimed to be acting on behalf of the Cabal.”

The policies and technical matters of the world’s fastest growing encyclopedia are resolved at the Village Pump, where you will find Colonel Gazpacho, self-proclaimed leader of Inclusionists, hollering his manifesto: “The situation has grown more dire since the last time I addressed you. The encroaching hordes of Deletionists at Votes for Deletion (VFD) are growing more, not less, rabid by the day and the time has come to put a stop to it. We must do battle on this territory which heretofore has been assumed to be irrevocably held in the clutches of the enemy.” It is conceivable that Colonel Gazpacho could be a 16-year old girl hobbyist in analog computers, or a 70-year old professor in the computer science department at the Indian Institute Of Technology, Bombay.

Each person can be many avatars, depending on the diversity of his or her skill set, and can contribute a drop every now and then in the vast ocean that is human knowledge. When needed, another avatar of the same Wikipedian, or even a stray visitor, can ‘clean up’ some polluted part of the living document with a bit of editing. Therefore, people do not populate Wikipedia community as they do Bombay or Mexico – an online community consists of ‘versions’ of people, their fragmented avatars. It’s more like an ant colony without ants.

“Joining Wikipedia, I thought I will write articles in mathematics, computer science, and dancing. It soon mysteriously turned out that my interests in real life took but a tiny fraction of my editorial work,” said a user called Mikkalai.

The idea of avatars is very old, in fact, it is the central idea of creation in Hindu mythology, and much older than the idea of authorless, collaborative texts. The creators of ancient Hindu treatises called the Upanishads and the Vedas share a lot of philosophy in common with Wikipedia. Collectively, they are known as Shruti scriptures, or “what is heard.” The central essence of authorless texts is discussed at length in Robert T. Oliver’s book Communication and Culture In Ancient India & China:

“Neither is it accidental that the Upanishads contain no internal evidence as to when, where or by whom they were composed. Their very thesis is that we dwell in the midst of a timeless eternity. With everything so indissolubly united that particular areas or places are of no concern. Who might be the author of an idea or a way of communicating it must be of no importance whatsoever, since truth is truth.”

One popular aspect of Hindu tradition is the mythology of Lord Krishna that has mutated and transformed him into a supernatural entity. Although we can’t be sure, he may have been an ancient day David, a common shepherd who became a hero to his people. Whatever the origin may be, the legends surrounding him grew over 5,000 years to convert him into a God worshipped by millions. The creation of popular mythology surrounding Krishna is similar to the process of constructing Wikipedia, since Hinduism is a religion based on collective myth-manufacturing. Krishna’s primary teachings are recorded in the Bhagwad Gita, which contains an important commentary on journalism, discussed later in this article.

The number of Hindu Gods and their avatars at one time was more than the number of Hindus, at a staggering 330 million deities. This aspect is also central to Wikipedia, in that the number of pages or stories (“myths” to a skeptic) far exceeds the number of the community. Joseph Campbell explained this symbiotic relationship: “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.”

The evolution of the Internet as collective, public dream via electronic interfaces, and the evolution of human beings into civilizations, has many striking parallels. The earliest networks were often protected by their owners, and communities were relatively secretive or “cave-dwelling.” The wiki, on the other hand, is out in the open field, where its vulnerability is on display and under attack. The process of its growth resembles agriculture and farming more than anything else.

In a certain sense then, the hyperlink is an extension of the wheel, allowing the traveler to go from one location to another, while the search engine is an explorer ship with its set of built-in navigational instruments. One could say that the word-of-mouth phenomenon is recreated by blogs, and farming on virtual terrain is akin to wikis — or fertile land.

Internet MeatSpace Notes/Analogy
Private Net Caves Hunter-gatherers, hackers
Online communities Cave Networks Tribes, Clans
Search engine Ship Coming out of the cave
Blogs Word of Mouth Language, Culture
Wikis Agriculture Settling Down
Flame Wars Forest Fires City riots
Singularity Neolithic Revolution Complete tranformation

The Journalist

“Just as people at the end of the Middle Ages rediscovered the wisdom of the Classic world, so we are re-discovering the experience of tribal life. I don’t mean by this that we will have to take up hunting and live in caves. For we have made a Great Return before and we know how it will play out. Renaissance men did not put on togas. What they did was to remember the wisdom of the classic world that had been forgotten in a millennium dark age and applied this wisdom to the world of their time.” – Robert Paterson, in Going Home: Our Reformation

In the same way that the Neolithic Revolution transformed human society totally, cultural aspects of wiki communities are a rich artifact, an unavoidable lesson for newspapers. The avatar and the journalist have some things in common, for instance, the quest for objectivity.

NPOV or “the agreement to report subjective opinions objectively”, is held sacred by Wikipedians, that is, it is Wikipedian “religion”.

When decorum fails, one is likely to see “forest fires” and “edit wars” in Wikipedia, akin to riots in a city. On a peaceful day, though, one might wonder how neutrality is made manifest in Wikipedia. In fact, is it even possible to have an article that is completely unbiased, whether in Wikipedia or in a newspaper? An explanation for this is the concept of “systemic bias” or the sum of prejudices inherently present and active in the human group we are dealing with. As the community grows and awareness about the bias spreads, it is hoped that the articles, by assimilating as many point of views as possible, will become increasingly objective.

This idea is dangerous, in that it undermines the work of an excellent, dedicated journalist coming up with a very objective report. It is dangerous to assume that the language of crowds can be so easily deciphered, or that location/access is the only important criterion for credibility. Wikipedia is a populist history of the world, a myth, a history in consensus. However, the fact that it can be changed makes it more reliable than Encarta or Brittannica.

It appears that the newspaper is making its second mistake after going capitalist – going populist. The shift of certain traditional mass media towards participatory journalism is not guided by altruist ideas, or survival, but by the opportunity of cutting costs involved in traditional journalism. It is motivated by the possibility that the traditional reporter can be replaced by a zero-cost mob reporting several points of view, even eyewitness reports. This removes the need to hire a dedicated journalist, the seeker of truth, and replaces him (or her) with a murmur of crowds.

In the Bhagwad Gita, the role of an ideal journalist is played by Sanjay, the charioteer of a blind king, who describes the Kurukshetra war as it happens. Sanjay has been given a divine ability to see things happening at a distance, without interfering with them – much like television, cellphones or the even more startling images from Google Earth. Sanjaya describes the discourse between Krishna and Arjun to his master Dhritrashtra, who represents the blindness of minds.

Sanjay is the chosen war-correspondent in this way, and his qualification for divine insight comes directly from his name, which means completely victorious, or “one who has conquered himself.” Sri Sri Paramhansa Yogananda describes this in detail in his interpretation of the Bhagwad Gita, subtitled The Royal Science of God-realisation (Chapter 1, Verse 1):

Sanjaya represents the power of impartial intuitive self-analysis, discerning introspection. It is the ability to stand aside, observe oneself without any prejudice, and judge accurately. Thoughts may be present without one’s conscious awareness. Introspection is the power of intuition by which the consciousness can watch its thoughts. It does not reason, it feels – not with biased emotion, but with clear, calm intuition.

Lord Krishna is considered the eighth avatar of Vishnu, and the thing with avatars is – they appear only when they’re needed, and then they go away.

In the meantime, as Wikipedia becomes more and more like a newspaper everyday, should not the newspapers try and become more like the journalist?