Educators Should Use Social Media to Engage and Empower Students

(This post is by Kristy Roschke, a high school teacher in Phoenix who is working on lesson plans for Mediactive. Kristy has a master’s degree from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.)

When I first started teaching high school eight years ago, it did not occur to me to give students my phone number or personal email address. Not because I thought it was inappropriate, but because it seemed unnecessary. Funny how things change.

Today, I share my mobile phone number, my Gmail address and my Twitter handle with my publications staffs on the first day of school.  Why the 180? It’s certainly not my great desire to be accessible to my students 24 hours a day. But it only takes a few instances of a missing memory card or dead battery in a camera during an important football game to realize that many high school journalism emergencies can be avoided with a little communication. And although I do sometimes get annoyed by the 9 p.m. emails asking what the word count on the aforementioned football story should be, I know it was my decision to open those lines of communication (and to push it out to my iPhone at all hours of the day), and so I answer the question. The fact is, the way my students and I communicate — in our own lives and with each other — has evolved over the past eight years because communication itself has evolved. And while I don’t believe that just because you can use it, you should (as is the case with Facebook, which I’ll explain later), I think it’s incredibly short-sighted and naive to pretend these profound changes to the way we communicate aren’t relevant to the way we teach our students.

Some in education will read this and think I’m nuts. They think that communicating with students outside of school is never appropriate, and that social media is little more than a breeding ground for potential improprieties. I will put these people in two categories: those whose relationships with students never extend past classroom hours (for any reason, whether it be a sport or club or tutoring), and those who are reluctant to embrace new technology. These people don’t need to share their personal information because a student would never have occasion to use it. That’s just fine for them, but it simply doesn’t work for me and an ever-growing number of educators out there who want to run their classrooms like it’s the 21st century.

The school district in which I teach, like most school districts, I’m sure, is extremely cautious with new technology, particularly with social media. The Internet within the confines of our district’s filtering system looks a little like the Internet of the 1990s — there is no YouTube, Facebook, Twitter or Ning, and only parts of Google work.  I can understand why this is.  I use all of these services and I see what’s out there. And I know that all it takes is one call from one parent whose child came across something inappropriate while searching YouTube at school to shut down the whole Information Superhighway.

But here’s the thing: I’m an educator. My job is to educate students, and while my teaching certificate says I’m qualified to teach high schoolers about Journalism and English, I believe it extends way beyond that. I believe my job is to educate students on how to survive their lives outside of high school. In my own little corner of the school, I do this by teaching them how to use their words (and images and designs) to effectively communicate, not just in a literary analysis essay, but also in a job interview or an important client meeting or to an ailing patient’s family or in front of their own classrooms.  How can I do this without mentioning social media? Are we really to pretend that these methods of communication will not play a prominent role in the rest of their lives? And if we, the educators, are not allowed to show students how to effectively use these tools, who will?

We live in a world where most communication is narrowed down to 140 characters. Young people abbreviate everything, capitalize nothing and punctuate at random. But it goes far beyond the obvious language usage issues. Young people are the stars in their own reality shows. They (over)share information about themselves that makes even me blush. Everything they do is available for public consumption. Those of us who were fortunate enough to make our youthful mistakes before the invention of the mobile phone camera understand how misguided and damaging this type of disclosure can be. Just like I teach my students the proper way to send a professional email, I should be modeling for my students the proper way to manage their other online interactions.

The state of Missouri doesn’t want teachers to send private messages to students, whether it be through non-district email or Twitter or Facebook direct messages. I understand their intent — to discourage sexual misconduct and prevent teachers accused of such behavior from being hired in another school district — but this action is misguided. Those troubled individuals who exploit their position as an educator will continue to exist, sadly, with or without technology. By putting such restrictions on technology use, the Missouri state government has publicly admitted how little it understands about the evolving nature of communication, not to mention how little faith it has in its educators as ethical professionals.

I have a very active online profile, which I take great care to manage. My passions are education, media and technology, and I am lucky I get to integrate these things into my daily life. I would not be doing my job as a journalism educator if I didn’t stay abreast of new modes of communication and share them with my students.  I use my Twitter account mainly to share articles and insights about the subjects I teach. I encourage my students to follow me so they can benefit from this information. And while I don’t share my personal blog with my students because it’s really just silly fun, I don’t hide it from them. It’s the first thing that turns up when you search my name on Google, so it would be futile to try to. The knowledge that students might read my blog is always in the back of my mind when I post.

I do not friend high school students on Facebook. When former students sends me friend requests, I typically accept them, but I put them in a separate list with its own set of privacy rules. This is not because I’m embarrassed about what I share on Facebook. It’s for the same reason I live on the other side of town from my school: I don’t want my students knowing too much about my life outside of the classroom. This is my choice, though, and I should have that option.

Like Missouri educator Sean Nash, who so astutely outlined his thoughts on social media in education, I don’t see Facebook having much value in the classroom at this point. My student publications use it as a marketing and reporting tool outside of class, and it’s great for that. The brand-new Google+, with its close integration to other useful Google tools and its Hangouts, however, could possibly be a game-changer for the classroom. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but I will undoubtedly have to be on the sidelines for that one, as it’s only a matter of time before my school district blocks the site.

The point here is that I am a fervent user of technology, so I understand the important role it plays in my students’ lives, both now and in the future. I have a duty to help them utilize it in a mature manner and to help maximize its potential as a learning tool. Hiding from social media is just another way public schools are running from any real education reform. Even as school districts across the country are demanding we integrate technology in the classroom (Show them a PowerPoint with animated graphics! Have them complete a Web Quest on the Great Depression!), they are making our classrooms less relevant to the outside world. Even worse, we are losing our ability to engage our students.

Teachers, administrators and school board officials need social media training. They need to learn how to manage their own profiles and understand that they have some pretty effective controls on what they share and don’t share — which means their students do, too. They need to understand how their students use these sites, and what skills they need to use them in a more appropriate manner. Think of the potential positive outcomes of this: training to prevent cyberbullying or to help students navigate relationships, showing students how their online profiles could be used to get (or not get) a job or scholarship or internship, using social media as an RSS feed to stay up on current events. Educators are in a position to show young people that social media doesn’t have to be all social.

Yes, the Internet is a scary place. But we’ve known for a long time that, like rock ‘n’ roll, it’s here to stay. I, for one, want to emphasize all that is good about it and give my students the tools they need to confidently navigate it. To me, this seems like the only rational way to keep them from getting taken in by it.

Chapter 0 of Mediactive Japanese Edition

Note: Mediactive was published several weeks ago in Japan by Asahi, a major publisher there. For that edition I wrote a new chapter, which we called Chapter 0. Here it is. (I’ll be adding links soon.)

On March 25, 2011, the mayor of Minamisoma, Japan, recorded an 11-minute video entitled “SOS from Mayor of Minami Soma City, next to the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant, Japan.” Visibly exhausted and distraught, Mayor Katsunobu Sakurai reported that his community, nearly ruined by the triple disasters of the massive March 11 earthquake and tsunami plus dangerous radiation from the damaged Fukushima reactors, was isolated and running out of time.

Mayor Sakurai didn’t send the video to Japanese officials in Tokyo, or to NHK, the nation’s biggest broadcaster. He posted it on YouTube — aiming his message at anyone who might listen. Many heard, and helped. “Suddenly, the world was extending its hand to us,” he later told the New York Times. “We learned we’re not alone.”

The same day the mayor was making his video, The Hindu, a newspaper in India, reported that American diplomats in New Delhi believed Indian support for a United Nations resolution critical of Israel was an attempt to “curry favor” with Muslim nations. The newspaper’s information regarding the US views came from sources that, unusually in diplomatic circles,  were not anonymous. The information came, albeit indirectly, from the diplomats themselves.

But this was not a case of deliberately public statecraft. Like many other media organizations around the globe, The Hindu had relied on documents from a new kind of media organization: WikiLeaks. For months, traditional journalists had been reporting on diplomatic cables from United States State Department that had found their way into the hands of WikiLeaks, which in turn was making them available to the media and the public. The Indian disclosures were only the latest in a phenomenon that has had a major impact on the media, not just diplomacy.

Just weeks later, as American military forces located and killed Osama Bin Laden, Sohaib Athar posted a series of Twitter “tweets” from his home in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In the early hours of May 2, he reported what he was seeing and hearing as helicopters hovered over what turned out to be the compound where Bin Laden had been hiding. Althar’s first-hand account became a piece of the media coverage, an essential one in many ways.

When I completed Mediactive in the fall of 2010, the WikiLeaks “Cable-Gate” story hadn’t yet broken. The Higashi-Nihon Dai-Shinsai disasters, and the death of Bin Laden, were still months away. Yet in the spring of 2011, as I write this new chapter for the Japanese edition of the book, it is clear that they had something in common.

They pointed to a dramatic shift in the way we interact with media. They reflect some of the challenges – and opportunities – we all face in making sense of our world.

I’ve spent years as a participant in the media world, and from my perspective the media elements of these events are harbingers of our shared journalistic future. In this new chapter in the Japanese edition of Mediactive, I want to talk about them in that context.

As Clay Shirky just pointed out in his Foreword, one of my main goals here is to upgrade all of us as media users. As I’ll also explain in my Introduction, coming up after this chapter, I don’t expect you to spend the kind of time that I devote to media analysis. Think of what follows here as a way to help set the scene for understanding the challenges, and taking advantage of the opportunities.

Disaster and a Human Response

No event in history has been so thoroughly documented as Japan’s triple disaster in early 2011. No event has sparked a greater outpouring of media, from individuals as well as journalism organizations. The wealth of information available to the public may have been unprecedented (though even so, there was insufficient data about radiation levels at and near the crippled nuclear plant). We also had ways to make sense of it all, or at least begin to sort it out. The most essential tool, of course, was common sense.

In the hours and days after the disasters, I spent a great deal of time watching the English translation of NHK World, where announcers and reporters provided calm and thorough coverage of the events. (My wife, who is Japanese, was watching the original streaming feed.) The contrast with the shrill drama on American cable-television news channels was dramatic – and a reminder of the role that quality journalism can play in our chaotic world. In a break from its own tradition, HNK had allowed streaming video of its broadcast to be carried around the world on the Internet. In the process, the broadcaster won legions of new fans among people who wanted to learn more.

Joi Ito, a Japanese entrepreneur who was named director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab in April 2011, told me that video played a huge role in the aftermath of the disasters. Not only were there hundreds of citizen-captured videos from the scene, but the decision by NHK to stream its programming — especially government press conferences, which traditionally have been open only to members of Japan’s journalism elite — was also a pivotal shift for the broadcaster. During the state of emergency, said Ito, who is a friend, the Internet turned out to be the most reliable mechanism for receiving information, and this gave NHK a much larger audience inside the country, not just outside. He also noted that newspapers pulled down their “paywalls” during the peak of the crisis, because they, too, understood that the public’s need for information amid an national catastrophe outweighed other considerations.

What Japanese media companies had in common, he said, was that they were reacting in the pressure of a situation with no real precedent, and for which they had no pre-arranged plan to put into action. “When you don’t have a plan, you can be ad hoc and agile,” he said. “It can work better.”

Meanwhile, media companies and Japanese citizens in the stricken areas were finding an ally in Google, which created a Person Finder Web application that became an essential part of the crisis infrastructure as part of a Crisis Response resource page. At the same time, the open-source Ushahidi project software became a vital conduit for aid and government workers. Ushahidi’s “Crisis Map” project has origins in the Haiti earthquake, and brings together reports from affected areas with people who can assess the quality of the information.

The flow of information from people in the affected areas to those who could help became not just part of the aid effort, but also the media itself. During those early days after the disasters, many people also spent a great deal of time following an ad-hoc collection of sources. For me, these sources included Twitter feeds from people on the ground in Japan, and from others who were aggregating what they considered the best English-language information they could find, much of which was related more to the constantly shifting nuclear issues than the staggering loss of life from the natural disaster.

From Twitter feeds – and on Facebook pages and a variety of blogs by people I knew or people whose work had been recommended to me by people I trusted – I was sent to other text messages plus photos and videos that brought the multiple disasters into sharper focus. I watched horrific videos taken by brave people who kept their mobile-phone cameras running even as the water rose closer and closer to the high places where they’d taken refuge, and watched as the water and debris swept away entire neighborhoods. The sheer volume of data was stunning, a vast increase over the amount we’d seen from the last major tsunami to hit Asia in 2005, when tourists in South Asia captured videos of destruction there.

My new media sources also pointed me to helpful information from knowledgeable people and organizations that were following the events in Japan. One was the MIT nuclear engineering department, that explained in plain language how the threats to safety and health were developing in the Fukushima reactors, and what might yet occur.

As happens more and more in the evolving media ecosystem, an interplay developed between the old and new. In one remarkable case, Ito and other Japanese-speaking bloggers helped slow the spread of dramatic misinformation. On March 16, as Ito reported in his blog, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yukio Edano said there had been a jump in radiation at Reactor 3 and that TEPCO staff were being relocated to “a 安全な地域 or ‘a safe region’.” Ito wrote:

The foreign press misunderstood this and started reporting that the TEPCO staff had evacuated the reactor causing a broad panic. Hiroko Tabuchi of the New York Times  contacted the Nuclear Industry Safety Agency and TEPCO directly to clarify and confirmed that they had not in fact been evacuated, but just moved temporarily to a safer area inside the plant during the spike. Jun Seita then reported that as of 11:30AM, NHK was reporting that the staff were back to work.

The frustrating thing was that once this corrosive and sensational misinformation was in the main stream media via the wires, it was very hard to get them to fix it. Al Jazeera was the first that I saw to edit their news story to reflect that indeed they had not been evacuated.

Some observers of Japanese media believe—a view shared by many around the world—that breaking news is becoming the province of social media and other online media creation. I don’t believe we should make that judgment, at least not quite yet. Yes, Twitter users were first to report the death of Osama Bin Laden in early May, 2011,  but Twitter users have also been first to report the deaths of people who weren’t actually dead.

Moreover, as Ito notes, Japanese media organizations didn’t sustain their ad-hoc innovations once the immediate crises abated. NHK stopped live-streaming, for example. “The minute people stop paying attention,” he said, “the old patterns start to kick in.”

But the earthquake and its aftermath plainly did shake up Japan’s view of itself and its media, as well as the rest of the world’s view of Japan. We on the outside saw a nation that was suffering but holding to its legendary self-discipline and manners, a nation that — far more than Americans, for example, could ever imagine in themselves — refused to allow these staggering disasters to bring a wider collapse.

WikiLeaks and Transparency

Even as the events in Japan unfolded, the media world was embroiled over an emerging power in journalism: WikiLeaks. The now-famed site, run by Australian-born Julian Assange, had become much more than a source of newsworthy documents leaked by anonymous whistleblowers. It had, in many ways, become a central example of how the journalism ecosystem was evolving.

In the winter of 2011, the WikiLeaks debate centered around a trove of documents from the U.S. State Department, such as the ones discussed by The Hindu newspaper. These documents were leaked diplomatic cables from American diplomatic personnel stationed around the world.

But the WikiLeaks story had begun years earlier. After its founding in 2006, WikiLeaks said its mission was to put a spotlight on unethical acts by powerful people in business and government. Among its early targets were politicians in Kenya and Peru; banks in Switzerland and the United Kingdom; and Scientology.

It was in 2010 that WikiLeaks became a globally recognized name. That April, the organization released documents and videos documenting American activities in the Iraq War, including a video of a 2007 shooting of journalists and Iraqi civilians, most unarmed, from a U.S. helicopter. American officials were furious, and WikiLeaks soared in search rankings.

In July 2010, a breakthrough occurred when WikiLeaks became a partner with several major media organizations: the New York Times in the United States, the Guardian in the United Kingdom and Der Spiegel in Germany. They reported on what became known as the Afghanistan War Diaries, a trove of documents leaked from the US military about operations in the war there. The power of the stories was apparent quickly, and could be measured in part by the fury of the American government at what was being disclosed.

The meaning of WikiLeaks was starting to become apparent. If information existed in digital form, it could find its way to the world if a single person with access to that information wanted to make it public. One observer who grasped the impact of that reality was Daniel Ellsberg, who’d given the famous “Pentagon Papers” to the New York Times back in the early 1970s. He said what happened with WikiLeaks was comparable — and said if was contemplating the same decision now, he’d just scan the documents and put them online.

The partnership with media organizations was a major shift for WikiLeaks. Assange had concluded that simply posting documents wasn’t enough. While media were and are becoming democratized, there was still the matter of getting people’s attention beyond a small circle of those who care deeply about any given topic. In a profile about him in the New Yorker magazine, Assange had lamented the general disinterest he perceived among journalists when it came to huge stories when everyone had the same information; if everyone knew, it wasn’t as big a story. But when a few selected journalists at major institutions get the information first, then it becomes bigger news. (This says more about journalists’ competitive instincts and their response to “exclusives” than it did about their willingness to actually do their jobs for their audiences.)

Even though the Iraq material had become a minor sensation, Assange wanted what WikiLeaks was disclosing to have more impact, so he took what he had to major media organizations. This was symbiosis, far from the traditional relationship of a source to a journalist.

Now WikiLeaks’ role was broader: source, intermediary, publisher, P.R. agent and more. Others have done some of these things at the same time, but the size and importance of Afghanistan story elevated the shifting changes in media to new levels. This was true, in part, because of the nature of WikiLeaks itself. This “stateless news organization,” as New York University Professor Jay Rosen elegantly put it, was subverting many media assumptions of the past.

Part of the uproar over WikiLeaks was what the Afghanistan documents contained: the names of some local citizens who’d cooperated with anti-Taliban forces and who might be in danger of retaliation. The New York Times took huge care in what it printed, and kept some of the material out of its own reports at the request of the Obama administration. WikiLeaks also held back some of the documents, but it came under withering attack for what it disclosed despite the fact that no U.S. official was able to point to any Afghan who suffered any retaliation.

Then, in November 2010, came the State Department cables. The Obama administration and governments around the world were furious. It is clear, based on newspaper reports, that the Obama administration is seeking to move forward with some kind of prosecution based on the WikiLeaks disclosures. But at the time of this writing, it is not clear who, if anyone, will be charged with a crime.

Some American politicians called for prosecution of Assange under an old espionage law that makes it illegal to leak secret information (and quite possibly to publish it), but which has not been used to prosecute a journalist. This raised an obvious issue: If WikiLeaks people could be charged with such crimes, why wouldn’t the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and many other U.S. news organizations also be vulnerable, given their frequent reliance on secret documents? If WikiLeaks – surely a media organization by any standard – is open to prosecution, why isn’t Bob Woodward, the famous correspondent from the Washington Post who has made a career of publishing secret documents.

Journalism organizations have learned some lessons from WikiLeaks, too. One is the need to be open to leaks in new ways. In May 2011 the Wall Street Journal launched a project called site called SafeHouse. The pitch to users:

  • Help The Wall Street Journal uncover fraud, abuse and other wrongdoing.
  • Send documents to us using a special system built to be secure.
  • Keep your identity anonymous or confidential, if needed.

Unfortunately, SafeHouse was not secure, nor necessarily confidential, in its initial phase. Security experts found major flaws. And the site’s Terms of Service gave the newspaper “the right to disclose any information about you to law enforcement authorities or to a requesting third party, without notice, in order to comply with any applicable laws and/or requests under legal process, to operate our systems properly, to protect the property or rights of Dow Jones or any affiliated companies, and to safeguard the interests of others.”

The Journal was working to fix the security issues. Whether it can repair the trust it lost with a flawed launch was much less certain. But the project, and others like it that other news organizations and advocacy groups are sure to be launching, tells us a great deal about the impact of WikiLeaks, and what it means in the long run.

When more than a few people have access to newsworthy digital information, it is increasingly likely to reach the public eye. For public officials and corporations  — and maybe, in the end, for all of us – this has alarming aspects. But it is a reality we cannot ignore.

Bin Laden and Media Change

My wife and I had just finished watching a video of “The Social Network” on the evening of May 1. Routinely, we checked the news online before getting ready for sleep — and learned that America had finally caught up with Osama bin Laden. Like every other American for whom Sept. 11, 2001 is seared into memory, I had a sense of relief and quiet satisfaction that this epic murderer hadn’t died of old age in some sanctuary.

I also thought back, as I watched a streaming broadcast of BBC News on my computer, to the event that made Bin Laden a household name around the world: the September 11, 2001, attacks in New York and Washington. And I reflected on the continuing evolution in news over the past decade — accelerating changes in the ways we experience and participate in the flow of news and information in a digital age.

What’s changed most since 2001 are the spread of wireless data communications and the rise of robust social networks, but the outlines of where we were headed were clear even then. The 9/11 attacks brought emerging possibilities fully to the surface, as I wrote in my 2004 book We the Media:

By the turn of the new century, the key building blocks of emergent, grassroots journalism were in place. The Web was already a place where established news organizations and newcomers were plying an old trade in updated ways, but the tools were making it easier for anyone to participate. We needed a catalyst to show how far we’d come. On September 11, 2001, we got that catalyst in a terrible way.

I was in South Africa. The news came to me and four other people in a van, on the way to an airport, via a mobile phone. Our driver’s wife called from Johannesburg, where she was watching TV, to say a plane had apparently hit the World Trade Center. She called again to say another plane had hit the other tower, and yet again to report the attack on the Pentagon. We arrived at the Port Elizabeth airport in time to watch, live and in horror, as the towers disintegrated.

Had I been there in 2011, we would have received more than a phone call. We’d have been pulling information from the Internet via a mobile device that could provide everything from voice to Web pages to video. And we’d have been checking  our social media feeds.

For plenty of people in 2011, the news of bin Laden’s death did arrive via Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, rumors spread widely on Twitter before President Obama’s official announcement, and got wide credence when an aide to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tweeted, “So I’m told by a reputable person that they have killed Osama Bin Laden. Hot damn.” His source was correct, as it turned out, but we should keep in mind that Twitter users have also been the first to report the “news” that someone died when, in fact, that person was alive. On May 1 and 2, Twitter served a different function for me: It became a value-adding system once the basic facts were known. I relied, as I increasingly do in breaking news events, on the people I follow there to provide links to the best coverage from traditional media, as well as links to a variety of other sources.

The best traditional media organizations, including newspapers, did their jobs in the usual way as the bin Laden story became the story of the day. They covered the immediate news and added perspective.

That part was reminiscent of 2001, but only to a point:

The next day our party of journalists, which the Freedom Forum, a journalism foundation, had brought to Africa to give talks and workshops about journalism and the Internet, flew to Lusaka, Zambia. The BBC and CNN’s international edition were on the hotel television. The local newspapers ran consider able news about the attacks, but they were more preoccupied with an upcoming election, charges of corruption, and other news that was simply more relevant to them at the moment.

What I could not do in those initial days was read my news paper, the San Jose Mercury News, or the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Wall Street Journal, or any of the other papers I normally scanned each morning at home. I could barely get to their web sites because the Net connection to Zambia was slow and trans-Atlantic data traffic was over whelming as people everywhere went online for more information, or simply to talk with each other.

Today, we no longer subscribe to those newspapers (apart from the New York Times and a local paper on Sundays), because we get most of our newspaper journalism online. The reason is that broadband has become much more widespread and robust, even though it’s lagging in the U.S. compared to the rest of the developed world. The fiber backbones are reaching everywhere now.

[In 2001] I could retrieve my email, however, and my inbox over flowed with useful news from Dave Farber, one of the new breed of editors.

Then a telecommunications professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Farber had a mailing list called “Interesting People”30 that he’d run since the mid-1980s. Most of what he sent out had first been sent to him by correspondents he knew from around the nation and the world. If they saw something they thought he’d find interesting, they sent it along, and Farber relayed a portion of what he received, sometimes with his own commentary. In the wake of the attacks, his correspondents’ perspectives on issues ranging from national-security issues to critiques of religion became essential reading for their breadth and depth. Farber told me later he’d gone into overdrive, because this event obliged him to do so.

“I consider myself an editor in a real sense,” Farber explained. “This is a funny form of new newspaper, where the Net is sort of my wire service. My job is to decide what goes out and what doesn’t…Even though I don’t edit in the sense of real editing, I make the choices.”

Dave Farber still makes these choices on the IP list. It’s still a must-read source of news and wisdom for me and the legions of people who continue to follow this particular wire service.

The value of this service — we now tend to call it “curation” and “aggregation” — wasn’t as clear a decade ago as it is today, however. We are overwhelmed with information today, vastly more so than in 2001. As I discuss in Mediactive, one of our most pressing issues is how we deal with that flood of data. Dave Farber was and remains an excellent curator and aggregator. The people I follow on Twitter, especially in special lists I’ve created for people I consider experts in specific fields, are created another valuable space for curation and aggregation.

One of the emails Farber sent [in 2001], dated September 12, still stands out for me. It was an email from an unidentified sender who wrote: “SPOT infrared satellite image of Manhattan, acquired on September 11 at 11:55 AM ET. Image may be freely reproduced with ‘CNES/SPOT Image 2001’ copyright attribution.” A web address, linking to the photo, followed. The picture showed an ugly brown-black cloud of dust and debris hanging over much of lower Manhattan. The image stayed with me.

Here was context.

Our ability to see the world in visual ways has expanded. It took almost no time for the Net to tell us about the various satellite images from Pakistan, showing the bin Laden compound and its surroundings.

Back in America [in 2001], members of the then nascent weblog community had discovered the power of their publishing tool. They offered abundant links to articles from large and small news organizations, domestic and foreign. New York City bloggers posted personal views of what they’d seen, with photographs, providing more information and context to what the major media was providing.

“I’m okay. Everyone I know is okay,” Amy Phillips wrote September 11 on her blog, “The 50 Minute Hour.”31 A Brooklyn blogger named Gus wrote: “The wind just changed direction and now I know what a burning city smells like. It has the smell of burning plastic. It comes with acrid brown skies with jet fighters flying above them. The stuff I’m seeing on teevee is like some sort of bad Japanese Godzilla movie, with less convincing special effects. Then I’m outside, seeing it with my naked eyes.”

If Twitter and Facebook took on more of this function in 2011, that reflected the immediacy —  the ease of use and especially the social context — of these new services, which didn’t even exist in 2001.

For all the value of these social networks, they represent a step back in some respects. As I note elsewhere in Mediactive, Facebook and Twitter are private companies with their own agendas. While they are superbly engineered tools that provide users fantastic capabilities, what we put into those services is, in the end, owned by those services. Our words and pictures and videos are only part of what we put in; the social connections are even more important, and we don’t own those when we live in others’ universes.

We would have had a much different media experience a decade ago if AOL or Microsoft had succeeded in what they were trying to do in the 1990s: Make our online experience a universal walled garden. Facebook, more so than Twitter, aims to be precisely that in this new era. If we allow that to happen, we will literally be turning over a significant part of our history to a private company that operates in its own best interests, not ours.

The promise of the Internet was flowering in 2001. We saw only the possibilities and the immense freedom of this emerging sphere for communications and collaboration.

The vision we shared then is in some real jeopardy today. Governments and private companies scheme to wrest control from us at the edges of the networks and pull it back into the center, where it manifestly should not belong. They may win.

A decade from now, we’ll surely experience another major event with newer media we cannot even imagine today. I hope we’ll be using tools that renew the Internet’s promise — technologies and policies that honor a simple notion, of genuine freedom to learn, create and collaborate.

A Site License for Mediactive

I’ve just signed a site license with a journalism school for the e-book. We worked out a sliding scale of payments. The university will pay a discounted rate from the list price for the first 40 copies. For each copy beyond that, up to 250, the rate will be lower yet. And after 250, the license will be free for anyone else at the university who wants to download the book.

This is a good deal for both sides. The school gets a deeply discounted book. I get some cash. If more schools sign up for this kind of thing, I could end up making a non-trivial amount of money.

Why should the schools pay? Because they are engaged in a business arrangement in which they sell courses to students and assign this book as part of that arrangement. The Creative Commons license I’ve used to publish Mediactive allows copying at will for non-commercial purposes, but universities using the book in classroom settings are, in fact, engaged in a commercial activity even if the universities are not-for-profit entities themselves.

My agent, David Miller, says he’s heard of major publishers doing site licenses for books. He hasn’t heard of self-published authors doing it this way. That doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, of course — but it’s definitely new to me! (I continue to learn new things about the publishing business with this project, which is one reason I’m doing it this way…)

If you are teaching journalism (or anything else) and are interested in using this book, please get in touch to discuss a site license. They book isn’t expensive even at its list price, but there are even better deals for bulk orders, especially e-book bulk orders.

By the way, I’m working with several colleagues on lesson plans for Mediactive. They’re coming along nicely and will be available, if all goes well, by mid-summer or so. We have a few nifty ideas in mind for this part of the project, so stay tuned.

Review: ‘…like a chick cracking open its shell’

At MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media, Jack Driscoll sees Mediactive as a common-sense follow-up to We the Media. The book, he writes, assumes “we no longer are receptacles of information but active participants in the process, who are called on to break out of our ‘comfort zone’ like a chick cracking open its shell.”

Free Copy of Next Print Version for Error Finders

I’m grateful to folks who’ve found and reported mistakes in the book. Not only do I plan to name you on a special page, but I’ll be offering you a copy of the next print edition of the book (later this year, I hope). I haven’t worked out the details, but consider this a promise.

Fine print: As you might guess, this applies only to the first person to report each specific mistake.

Two New Interviews

Levi Sumagaysay, who writes Good Morning Silicon Valley, the long-running tech blog of the San Jose Mercury News, interviewed me about the book and the project. Here’s an excerpt:

GMSV: You write in Mediactive: “There’s no conflict between having a world view and doing great journalism.” Do you think people understand that? Or has the myth been pounded into their heads that there needs to be two “balanced” sides in every story?

Gillmor: I hope that we’re making progress toward the reality that it’s not balanced to give equal weight to two sides when one side is lying. People understand that’s not the way the world is, that that’s just bogus. [But I see more] journalists pointing out outright lies. It’s hard for them to do it, but it’s a good thing. They don’t want to be regarded as partisan. I’d rather be falsely called a partisan than correctly called a dupe.

Read the full interview here.

Meanwhile, the Boston Phoenix blog features a crossposting of a long Q&A I did with former Phoenix media critic Dan Kennedy, a professor of journalism at Boston University, at his Media Nation site. Dan generously advises:

[Y]ou should all read “Mediactive.” It’s edgier and less optimistic than “We the Media,” but Gillmor has lost none of his passion for urging readers, viewers and listeners – the “former audience,” as Gillmor dubbed them in his first book – to get up off their seats and demand that the media be held accountable.

Here’s a link to the Phoenix piece, and to Dan’s original Media Nation posting.

Many thanks to both Dan and Levi.

Ed Felten goes to Washington

This article was originally published on Salon on November 8, 2010.

Princeton computer scientist named FTC’s chief technology officer; he could make a real difference.

Ed Felten is a mad scientist. In the best possible way.

A computer scientist and Princeton University professor by trade, and a tinkerer at heart, Felten has been pushing and prodding at the edges of technology and policy for well over a decade. He and his colleagues have been showing us bugs in all kinds of systems  — and showing up powerful institutions in the process.

Continue reading Ed Felten goes to Washington

PR Educator Calls Mediactive Top Book of the Year

Behind Spin logoRichard Bailey, who writes the public relations education blog “Behind the Spin,” puts Mediactive at the top of his “books of the year” — what he considers the “five best books about – or of value for – public relations students and practitioners published in 2010” — saying (among other things):

[the book’s ideas] apply to all media consumers and media content creators (ie to all of us) and core concepts such as trust and transparency are central to public relations practice.

Here’s his full review.