Media140 and the future of journalism in the Social Media Age

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twitterMedia140 Sydney is asking “What is the future of journalism in the Social Media Age?”

It’s an important question to be asking in these times of newspaper companies in trouble and growth of new media channels.

The venue is the ABC’s Eugene Goossens’ Hall, Sydney on November 5th and 6th. It’s apparently the first time that the ABC has hosted a Twitter conference!

Media140 Sydney plans to explore the

“… disruptive nature of ‘real-time’ social media looking at tools such as Twitter, live-blogging, Facebook and other social networking tools as they rapidly transform the media in real-time.”

There’s a bunch of the Sydney Twitterati attending & speaking on panels – sounds like fun. I’m hoping to get along there too.

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Democratization of Technology

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This is a term I’ve used for a while now and never really defined.  It is probably worth discussing as it has come to form an important part of my thinking.

Starting with democracy in its ancient Greek meaning of popular government, or government by the people – δῆμος (dêmos), “people” and Κράτος  (krátos), “rule, strength”.  And, it is worth noting, that in those days people meant citizens or free men, not women or slaves.

The notion that citizens of the internet, or netizens (sometimes referred to as users), should determine their own future has been substantially excluded from the domain of technology until very recently.  This is particularly true with regards to both software and *hardware.

In relation to software this exclusion has largely been due to the highly technical nature of skills required to create software artifacts.  But with the advent of web 2.0 and social computing the nexus between technical skills in software development and the creation of useful software artifacts has been broken. It is no longer necessary to find an adept of the art of software to create online applications.

It is the breaking of this nexus between technical knowledge and the creation of software that enables the democratization of technology. Now ordinary people who can read and use some basic equipment (like a keyboard, mouse and a web browser)  can create and share software artifacts.  The simplicity of the act of creation in a web 2.0 world means that citizens of the web can create their own artifacts now.

In the recent past to create similar kinds of software it was necessary to master a programming or scripting language and, in addition,  learn how to use tools like FTP and a web server. Now this technology is still required to create and share software artifacts but the explicit use of these things is abstracted from the creator’s gaze.

Thus we are seeing online applications becoming utilities, much as a light switch it for most of us.  We press the light switches in our homes and offices without much thought, except for an expectation that light will appear.  Most of us do not understand how it happens. We don’t know or care about the breakers and switches that make it work, nor do we care that it is single phase power of a certain voltage.  We simply expect it to work and are mildly annoyed when it does not work.

This kind of utility perspective is increasingly common for online applications.  And it is a very big shift from the realm of the expert (who still exists behind the scenes) to the ordinary person using it in everyday ways. The shift of software is from that of an art to an engineering based utility.

This shift has important implications for the technically skilled people who enable the abstraction of the ordinary user away from the technical complexity.

More on this later …

* Note: For the purposes of this discussion consideration of hardware has been put aside.

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Thoughts on innovation & revolution

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“Innovation always comes unexpectedly & from the periphery.” – Source: Me

Once I see an innovation it always seems obvious – except that it was not obvious until I saw it. The iPhone is a great example of this – sure it is currently less than 5% of handsets on the market, but it has radically shifted the entire concept of what a mobile actually is and does. All the other mobile phone manufacturers were going on their merry way, consistently  improving their products, when Apple suddenly changed the game entirely. And now the other manufacturers are rapidly shifting to the new ground of competition as set by Apple.

Another striking thing about innovation is that often it is not based on completely new technology. Rather it is often older technology being used in different ways or being combined with some new technology. Web 2.0 is a great example of this phenomenon. The technology stack that enables web 2.0 is old, it’s been around for years. The novelty is how it has been adapted and implemented to create new kinds of applications that democratise technology. Thus the key innovation in web 2.0 is making it easy for ordinary people to create online content without requiring them to become technically competent beyond basic computer usage.

It is this democratisation of technology that is one of the most interesting innovations of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  In the past creation of software artifacts required high levels of skill and knowledge.  Now an office worker or school child with limited technical skills can create a web site or blog, add some software widgets, create some video content and have it live on the web in less than an hour.  They can also combine existing content from a variety of sources and republish it as co-creators, .e.g mashups.  They can now take the power of hypertext and use its principles to co-create content and potentially divert the original content away from the intent of its creators.  We are increasingly seeing this happen with brands (the famous Diet Coke & Mentos meme on YouTube is a good example).

This is a revolutionary change that is as important as the ability to print books and share them with literate audiences during the Reformation.  We are only seeing the beginning of this revolution and it opens up a myriad of possibilities for both good and ill.

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