Here are some quick thoughts on The Globe and Mail’s announcement that it will create a paywall around their online content on October 22, 2012. On the one hand, I’m okay with this. Creators ought to be compensated for their work, and though The Globe has very, very deep pockets, I believe that it’s important that consumers begin to remember again that content isn’t free, labour has been invested into the journalism they are reading, and that there is a cost to what they want to read and view online. (Of course, let’s hope the price stays fair. Journalism may have value, but no one wants to be gouged a few years down the line).
My professional perspective, though, is marked by a somewhat cynical reaction against change:
Putting my librarian’s hat on, my first thought is that Globe’s paywall will alter how students find, access, and use news and current events in their assignments. Showing our users the obvious benefits of using scholarly databases (i.e., do you want to find high-quality material or do you want instant, yet sub-par results?) can already be a trying experience, and I wonder how many people we might lose – people who won’t want to turn to our Factiva and Lexis subscriptions to get the Globe’s perspective – after the paywall is installed? Why bother loading up Yet Another Database when there are so many other free newspapers to consider, or even just Google News?
Of course, it isn’t that bad. Once students are told that scholarly databases are a requisite for their research, and once they’re given an opportunity to test and learn them, many do use them, and many do use them well enough. So when next term’s assignment calls for two or three newspaper sources alongside the scholarly resources, we’ll show them how to use Factiva and Lexis, and many of our users will navigate these databases effectively. Come down off the cliff, librarian. Things are going to be okay.
But I still have a concern about this paywall announcement, and it lies in the everyday consumption of news information. Honestly, I quickly got over the Librarian’s Dilemma that I noted above; I sincerely do think that things will be okay (or at least “okay enough”). But I’m thinking about the day when most reliable journalism sources will have instituted a paywall, and how the constraints that this subscription model places on our ability to read top-flight information would affect our culture. While I desire a balance between access to information and valued compensation to information creators, producers, etc., I do want to see easy, widespread access to high quality information. I don’t ever want to see an Internet that has priced the best reporting, art, opinion, and literature out of the hands of the majority of internet users, and I hope that a “paywalled” web will not inhibit our society’s ability to access and consume the best content out there.
Let me put it another way. I’m not really a fan of opera (even though I’d like to be) and I don’t go to the opera, but I appreciate that opera is no longer an exclusive night out for the highbrow elite amoung us. Today, opera is accessible and affordable, and anyone who can at least get to a stage can catch a performance if they want to see one. Let’s hope that the come age of Internet paywalls doesn’t price most of us out of the best art and news and content that this medium can deliver. So yes, I think a paywall is acceptable, but let’s just make sure we will all still be able to get to goods that same way that many of us can see legitimate theatre when we want to.
This morning, I was playing around on Google Books while doing some research on the documentary history of the Province of Nova Scotia. Google Books is not my first choice as a resource since it’s such a difficult beast to break in spite of all its great historical content, but I was curious to see what might be digitized on the subject. That’s when I came across these pages in the front of The Documentary History of the State of Maine (1869), Vol. 1:
It seems that in the act of digitizing the text, David, our digitizer, has scanned his hand right into the book. David, his ring, and his tiny-finger gloves have become digitized marginalia. Like a student’s note in the margins or a phone number quickly inscribed in the front matter, David’s fingers are now part of the text, forever.¹
Marginalia has always fascinated me. I owe this to a distinguished professor who held court in one of my undergraduate seminars many years ago. He once explained to us the pleasure he found when discovering his students’ notes in the margins of texts in the university library. As he was an older professor and had taught at the school for many years, he knew the library’s collection and his students’ use of texts in his field quite well. He enjoyed discovering hand-written notes in his assigned texts or in books that were pertinent to his subject matter since these notes became “analog trails” (my term, and a pun on “digital trails”, of course) that led back to the discussions held in his seminars and to the knowledge developed in them.
I’ve since come to look upon marginalia as tiny clues that show how a text has linked different people and ideas together. I often wonder, in a nostalgic way, how these bonds will change when ebooks become ubiquitous. We can append and share notes in digital texts, of course. But these notes, which were at one time inscribed in the book or on a piece of paper and left to be discovered by another reader, have been transformed by common fonts and encoding that might link and share thoughts but don’t show significance or meaning in quite the same way. In the e-book cloud and on our social websites, readers and the value of notes are flattened, which, I think, affects the importance and allure of this marginalia.²
It goes without saying that the e-book has altered our relationship to the text and to knowledge. No longer do we have a one-to-one relationship with the physical object in front of us. Now we can potentially have a one-to-many relationship with all of the text’s readers. There are clear benefits to be gained from this, i.e., don’t think that I’m a Luddite and want to turn my back on the new communities of readers that are developing thanks to e-book innovations. But my thoughts today (and what this post is only scratching the surface of) are focused on how the physical manifestation of a text – i.e. the book, affects our relationship with its content. A book’s marginalia often represents one person’s relationship with a particular copy of a text rather than one’s relationship with a community of fellow readers. Reading marginalia is almost like reading a diary since one is reading notes and thoughts left primarily for personal consumption. When we encounter marginalia, we are discovering secrets and clues left behind by other readers – clues that can alter our interpretations of the text, but only in the copy we are holding in our hands.
Marginalia also individualizes or “makes unique” texts that are published in large volumes. Just as violinists treasure their violin’s lineage from one musician to another, many readers treasure the sign’s of a book’s “borrowing history”: the notes on the pages left behind by previous readers, the dog-eared corners, the discolored, yellowed pages which signify its age and in some ways, its value to the collection. All these marks, notes, dents, and scribbles create a “lineage” of readers for the text. They show the would-be reader the value that others have found in the text, and the added value he or she may acquire upon reading it. These scribbles and folds haunt a physical book; they create a history of reading, marked in time and place by the thoughts of its previous readers.
We are shifting away from a centuries-old period where the content and its container were inseparable – where the content was signified by the container, and where the container gave the reader clues about the content’s worth. Although it hasn’t been difficult for our culture to make the transition to our new digital period where the container’s role has been diminished, I wonder if we should be paying more attention to how our interaction with texts – whether it is writing marginalia or selecting ebooks from a virtual shelf – affects our understanding of knowledge and the development of “collective wisdom.” That’s not to say that things are worse (or better) off today compared to “time before e-books” so much as it is to suggest that when our interaction with knowledge has for so long been focused on reading the written word with a pen and paper close at hand, it may be a useful to exercise to study how our new tools and technologies affect the ways we think and learn.
I’ll leave these theoretical and literary implications alone for another day when I have the courage to transform these meandering thoughts into a well-sourced argument that might provide understanding. And I’ll end by acknowledging the irony found in writing these thoughts in digital form for a larger community of readers.
1. For the record, David caught his mistake and re-scanned the page. The next scans in the Google Books scroll of images are clean digital images of these pages. Also, my research on early Nova Scotian documents continues.
2. I am not suggesting that no extra meaning or significance can be found in e-book notes or on social reading websites. Social sites actually do an incredible job at adding meaning to a text, but they do this in different ways, e.g., crowd-sourced discussions and reviews.
The new Google Reader was released this week. Its UI changes have streamlined its sharing functions in order to integrate it as easily as possible with Google Plus. At first, I didn’t mind the changes, mostly because the clean white interface has kept distractions to a minimum on the Reader Interface.
But I’ve now changed my mind. I’m not sure I like the Google Reader changes. The new interface’s clean lines means that readability has stayed the same, if not improved, i.e., its look and feel seem to promote the act of reading over skimming. But the changes to its sharing function really is an issue. Sure, I can share things to G+, but clicking on the +1 button is akin to shouting into the din of the Internet. I can share and share and share as much as I like, but I don’t know if people are sharing their own Google Reader items back into my G+ stream. Furthermore, I don’t know what kind of content they’re sharing anymore. Are the shared items in my Google+ Stream coming from a valued Google Reader store? Or are these items just clicks and pages found while surfing the net? At best, the former Google Reader dialogue is now feigned (it’s now a monologue on G+), and the quality of those shared pages on G+ is indeterminable. I’m now looking for options.
The changes we’ve seen to Google Reader has got me thinking again about the nature of reading, skimming, and sharing on the Internet. What made Google Reader so great (aside from the emphasis on reading, see above) was the assurance of quality that came with its shared items. Shared Items on Google Reader were posts that came from blogs and websites that people believed were important enough to read regularly as opposed to mere posts and pages found while they or their friends surfed – and skimmed – the Internet. People who used Google Reader had a better assurance that the content they found in their shared folder was carefully chosen, was fit for consumption, and required some of their time and attention in order to synthesize.
The fact that blog posts and shared items in Google Reader sat in a folder until the user actually read them shows the importance of the items’ content. Google Reader’s interface – like all RSS interfaces – demanded the user actually read the content he or she saved to the system: content did not disappear until you at least saw that it arrived for you to read. This premise behind Google Reader, i.e., posts are to be saved for later reading, meant that its users selected content that was not merely ephemeral. By its very nature, Google Reader asked the user to choose only the best content on the web and to store it in a separate space to read at a later time. By and large, shared items on Google Reader had a quality assurance label stuck to them: these posts were determined to be distinct from the general “of the moment” nature of the web and therefore should be treated with care. Anything shared on Google Reader required special attention because some one said, “This content came from a valued source and ought to be read, and it is not going away until you at least see that I’ve shared it with you.”
Google Plus, Twitter, Facebook, and so many other social sites do not do this. Social networks promote connections above all else, so the content is almost always “of the moment” (that’s the second time I’ve said that). Content on social sites is pinned to a moment in time, but the conversation always moves forward. If you log in to Facebook at 2pm, you only see the conversations happening at 2pm; you must look carefully for what your friends shared earlier in the day. That shared content may have been valuable, but there is no easy way to flag that value on social networks since content is subordinated to relationships and connections as they exist the moment you are online.
I like Google Plus, I really do. But like other social media sites, Google Plus emphasizes shared connections and the constant stream of chatter that arrives on your screen. Of course, we can stop that stream at any time, click on a link, and fully consume what has been offered to us, but a social site’s design promotes social conversations over thought and analysis. I still believe that the “Internet Age” is an age of skimming. We are living in a time where thorough, critical analysis has been subordinated to the conversation. I’d like to see a balance restored between the two. So long as we aren’t reading well – so long as we aren’t taking the time to think critically about what we visit and read online – we are preventing those conversations from reaching their full potential.
This post came down my Google+ stream today, which I wanted to share:
This post is a request to share another post and an invitation to the check out Google+ Ripples. Google+ Ripples is a Google+ feature that visualizes a post’s activitiy. It will show you a post’s broadcast potential by visualizing who has shared it:
I don’t have much to say yet on Google Ripples – it’s still very new and novel and I think people are playing with it more than they are thinking about what it does, how it does it, and what it might mean (if it means anything.).
One thing did cross my mind as people in my own Google+ stream started to share my own share of the post, though. I’m curious to see how Google+ Ripples will turn out. It may only be visualizing and making public the links we all make to one post on the Goog, but I’m interested to know if there might be a backlash against it.
This is interesting because people, including myself, often become uncomfortable and vocal when information about our relationships between ourselves and the information that actually connects us is revealed on the Internet, so I’m almost expecting a public pushback against Google+ Ripples (even though the information and not the carrier is centered in its graphs). But once the Info.Corps back down and put the cover back over our social graphs, we stop worrying and carry on with our day on the Internet – business as usual. The thing that gets to me, though, is that we don’t really think twice about the fact that this information about us has already been collected, and on some social media networks, is being shared with third parties without our knowledge.
Don’t take that to think that I’m being alarmist – I’m not suggesting we shut down all of our accounts immediately. I’m only observing the way we sometimes object to the public display of our social graphs but don’t seem to worry that the information is being collected in the first place.
P.s. I think the + in Google+ is a little silly at this point. I really want to just call it “Google Ripples.”
Why are we up in arms about Facebook, though? Never did we see such digital fifth-column attacks against the likes of MySpace or now FourSquare. And with the exception of the poor planning around Buzz, the digital world is more or less complacent when it comes to the amount of data we give to Google Inc.
Facebook is a different beast, however, because its original design helped us find our friends online and then to speak to only our friends online. In its original incarnation, Facebook encouraged shared information and shared data, but it encouraged this shared used amoung friends only. We signed up because we liked that the website helped us share things securely with our friends; we gave little heed to the fact that Facebook, Inc was offering a service and we didn’t think that maybe this data storage and exchange might be the price to pay for their effort.
Somewhere along the way, Facebook matured into a wildly successful social network. (Yes, it is a mature system.) It also regularly tweaked the user agreements that mediates its relationship with its now-400 million users and their data in a manner that often opened access to user profiles, not unlike other social media systems. Here’s the crux: Facebook grew into a successful platform because it allowed people to share data; their constant tweaks to their user agreements and privacy policies merely improved on their success by giving its users even greater opportunity to share data widely and in a open manner – just as these users can do on other systems. Social media systems like Twitter, FourSquare, MySpace, and even others like Flickr, Tumblr and LiveJournal have given users more opportunities to share themselves to the world and to be a part of it in return. Social Media may as well be called the “Social Internet” because the paradigm inserts the human element into all the links and connections that our networks are already made of. In short, Facebook is doing what others are also doing : they’re in the business of helping people come together and share the things that make up their lives.
But what about that word – sharing – and what about that concept we’ve been batting around – privacy ? Sharing information online is not like sharing your dessert, and online privacy has little to do with traditional notions of the private, such as a person’s relationship with the state or other people. It’s when we start discussing these things that so many of us want to argue that we thought the information we uploaded to Facebook was going to remain private between our friends and ourselves, that Facebook had neither the right to share our information with others nor the privilege to make it easier for others to share things with us. But while there is merit to the argument that Facebook has broken the trust it had with its users, the way that we often assume a perpetual obligation on the part of Facebook to serve our needs for online privacy is plain wrong.
It is wrong because sharing information is what Facebook has always been about. Facebook is a successful company because it developed a system that facilitates information exchange, and invariably, information exchange is what we want and what we do with the Internet. If we felt we had a right to privacy on Facebook and that Facebook Inc has an equal obligation to keep the data secure and never use it except when we tell them when and how, then we were being foolish. We were especially foolish as we’ve been dropping bits and pieces of information all over the Internet since it became a popular tool in the 1990s. What we give to Facebook is not private. And what we write in our e-mails – be it on a company, government, or educational server, or a private hosted account like Gmail – is not entirely private or secure. The only things that are private in our world are the things we keep to ourselves. Like other Internet companies, Facebook is not in the business of keeping secrets – it’s in the business of sharing things.
At this point I’m reminded of one of Robert Scoble’s most recent discussions on Facebook and privacy. Scoble tells us he has a very-public Facebook profile that can be accessed on the wider public web. His wide-access Facebook account helps him connect to people – people he knows well, and people he probably doesn’t know so well. Facebook, to Scoble, is a social service that is successful because it opens our information to others – it is in the business of sharing things. And when it comes to the nagging facebook privacy question, Scoble reminds us where the user stands in his own relationship with Facebook:
Facebook is a free service that I don’t control. Neither do you. The only control we have is whether we use it or not. I’ve decided to use it, but have already gotten ahead of Zuckerberg: I’ve turned every privacy setting to “as public as possible.” If Zuckerberg wants to make Facebook as public as Twitter or as public as Foursquare, I’m cool with that, but will not use it to store anything private.
I like this quotation because it summarizes some of the most important things about our relationship with Facebook. Although Scoble’s entire post is largely about how trust affects privacy, this quotation touches on things more to the point: control and agency. We must stop saying things like “Facebook is doing things with my data!” and we must stop saying it now because it’s plain wrong. We control our data and we choose where we store it and who we share it with. But when we upload our data to Facebook, the nature of the data changes: no longer is it “our data” (if it was ours in the first place). Now it becomes “data about us.” When we put our information on Facebook, we cede total control of it in return for something: the pleasure of social exchange. We are the ones who choose to upload data; it is part of a transaction we made in return for the service Facebook provides. What we offer to Facebook can no longer be private to ourselves because it is no longer ours to control. Facebook may give us back a say on how much of this information may be presented at certain times on the Internet, but this is a service they provide to us as opposed to an obligation. We control what we put on Facebook and if we are uncomfortable telling secrets then we certainly should not offer it on a social media company whose stated mission is to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.
I like social media and I’m happy it’s in my life. And frankly, Facebook can and does do a lot of great things for its users. And although I think Zuckerberg needs to grow a little more to be a successful executive, his learning has thus far been a trial by fire and his work in the past week to sort out the privacy PR mess shows that the company is more responsive to the concerns of its users than many of us like to believe. In terms of privacy and control, Facebook may have fumbled the ball a couple times, but I’d argue that its users have collectively fumbled the ball as well. We cannot and we should not expect privacy from a company that wants to share our information and wants things to be open. If privacy is what you need from Facebook, then it may be best to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a system than can help you share things about yourself to others you may or may not know, then right now Facebook is the best thing going on the Internet. When people say things like “Facebook is the Internet”, they may be half-joking, but they are actually half-right, because the Internet facilitates information exchange, and the facilitation of information exchange is Facebook’s expertise.
[post-script: I wonder if Scoble ever uses the phrase, “in real life” when talking about the Internet – I would expect that he does not. We really should move past the idea that what we project about ourselves on the Internet is any different from the ways that we project ourselves to different people when not sitting with a computer, iphone, or ipad in hand.]
The Google Blog’s post also provides a link to their Hot Trends for June 25. Pittman shows this page so we can see just how often the Google index was searched with a phrase such as “michael jackson rushed to hospital.” I particularly like the fact that the second-most popular search for the day is “michael jackson dead 2009” – showing that when it comes to celebrity deaths, many of us hold to the saying, “once bitten, twice shy”.
But what’s more interesting, I think is, is the number of Michael Jackson-related phrases that made it to the top 100. 26 of the 100 most popular searches on June 25 were directly related to Michael Jackson and 6 more were directly related to Los Angeles-based media. Dozens more made requests for other news outlets, as well. Pittman doesn’t tell us in this post exactly how many times information was requested on MJ, but that fact that 26 different permutations of the subject made for the most popular retrievals of the day calls to mind how important the Google-verse has become to ready reference. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing since it reveals just how adept this search engine has become at retrieving useful data.
But at the same time, it reminds me of the difficulties we (scholars and professionals) have when contending with the giant Googlebot. Google really can be everything to everyone sometimes, but this can blur the boundaries between what might be useful and what might be peripheral to a student’s research. At the time that the world was demanding their MJ fix through Google, I was putting the finishing touches on some library materials to help teach students how to access scholarly materials via Google Scholar and Google Books. And now, after contemplating the Hot Trends page this evening, I’m finding it difficult to reconcile the fact that I can help some one to create an effective Google search strategy for post-human feminism and sci-fi film by using the same search box they used to search “jeff goldblum is watching you poop” (no. 68 on the Hot Trends list, above).
That’s not to say that Google is bad or that popular culture is bad – I love both. But perhaps it highlights the need for information professionals to show people how to wade through all the flotsam and jetsam that exists out there in the Internet. Google and other indexes may have brought the world to our fingertips, but we could all use a little help organizing it and determining its utility.
Here’s a little something think about and e-mail to all of your friends of neighbours over the next few days. June 2009, you will recall, has the unfortunate pleasure of marking the tenth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Uprising. Many people were hurt, killed, and repressed. But, as a good friend noted when he forwarded me this article, many more today don’t even realize it happened or just consider it only a tiny blip on the way to domestic prosperity. Mirroring this sentiment is a post that a user at LIS News made that links to Frontline‘s 2006 exposé on Google’s self-censorship on keyword searches on Google.cn. This page is a stirring reminder that Google’s mantra of “Don’t be evil” is often lost in translation or subordinated to a footnote in a corporate annual report.
Looking at the screenshots that Frontline made in 2006 is a good way to put our love for Google in check. So many of us (and I count myself in this bunch) are inextricably tired to various Google products and apps, from its powerful index and search engine to its free e-mail service and RSS reader. Google makes the Internet so easy to work with that we hardly notice the tidy profit they make from our love for their wares. Yet, when we are given a chance to take a serious look at what Google does to its own index of the Internet so that it may increase its market share in foreign or closed markets, we can see clearly that Google and “Don’t be evil” aren’t tied to the hip like we like to believe they are.
I’m not going to cut-and-paste Frontline’s images into this post because I think it’s important that you visit the Frontline website for yourself – continued traffic will hopefully give them pause to keep this page up for a rather long time. When you do make it there, however, I’m confident you’ll be at least a tiny bit shocked to see firsthand what Google sacrificed in order to enter the domestic Chinese market. Self-censorship has become key to the Google business model in China. Searching for “Tiananmen Square” in Google’s image database from a café in Chengdu won’t retrieve links to the ubiquitous photo of the anonymous student who confronted a column of tanks as it would in Toronto, London or Rome but will rather show warm photos of the tourist site. Meanwhile, searching for “Falun Dafa” will not return a single hit. In order to maintain a place in the Chinese market, Google restricts access to its database and sees higher ad rates and click-throughs (and presumably a healthier bottom line) in the long run.
That’s the problem with Google and “Don’t be evil.” Sitting in our offices and cozy living rooms and dens and bedrooms here in the West, we don’t notice that Google has self-censored and altered access to its index. We hear about this from time to time, but it hardly affects us, so we tend to forget about it. Google China‘s practices isn’t doing any harm to you or I, and they’re certainly not doing any harm to its shareholders’ ROI, but they are actively restricting the type of information that can be retrieved for millions of Internet users on the other side of world.
This is perhaps one of the largest reminders we have that corporate interests are not always aligned with the interests of the people. Think for a second who controls the way you access information on the Internet, from your local service providers to search engines to backbone consortia. The Internet isn’t free and Google isn’t benevolent. Remember that the next time you might look for something controversial in an index.