Cirque de Googles

The Google Big Tent event in London on 23 May was very hot,  for much of the day the heat came form the sun baking the plastic tent type enclosure.

The first session promised a great deal on an important topic, children’s ability to access pornography on the Internet, and almost delivered. Amanda Platell (Daily Mail), Andrew Heany (Talk Talk), Kirsty Hughes (Index on Censorship) and Sarah Hunter (Google), potentially a strong panel, organised by Google’s event producer, Claudia Baker, jumped into the deep end quickly turning the debate to censorship and responsibility. From The Guardian Blog (TGB):

“Platell quotes stats about how many children have seen porn before age of 16. Concern seems to be that it’s affecting middle-class images. “These images are so damaging”. Moderator asks if she’s in favour of censorship. She says yes, in some circumstances.”

A reddish rag to Google’s Sarah Hunter, who believed children shouldn’t be watching porn online, but felt the responsibility lay elsewhere:

“We don’t want children to be unsafe online… Google also says: it’s not that easy. Solutions being discussed aren’t perfect. There are problems – deskilling parents by giving them solution that aren’t themselves perfect. So most important thing is making sure parents know the risks children face online, give tools to protect children”

It was almost agreed that it’s  the parents responsibility to monitor Internet usage in the home. They  disagreed on exactly how, or what the corporate responsibility was, before the panel eased up on each other and Google. I wondered why they backed off, until Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt (ES), reminded us, in his keynote that we were part of ‘our (Google’s) conversation’.

This conversation could have and needs to grow, Google set the agenda (all credit) and provided the forum, but somehow traction about this critical issue of online safety – where panelists shifted responsibility back to the user – lost momentum.  Sure responsibility needs also to be with the user – we know this story – but if that’s the resolve then why have the debate. As parents we don’t shirk our role as protector and adviser.  Maybe we needed a legal view on stage providing a more diverse opinion of Google, advertiser, parent and children’s responsibility, especially given the overarching debate about privacy and ownership of online content.

Ironically, it wasn’t until 40 minutes into this session that someone mentioned the best filter of all – education – and this suggestion came from the audience. The other bit of irony was that this discussion, centering around the ease with which children and or teenagers can access pornography on the Internet and what to do about it was missing a major group of participants, children and or teenagers.

Young people, commenting about porn on the Internet either in person or tweeting from a classroom, would have given this important topic a more complete and possibly relevant perspective. I’m sure Google care, they cared enough to have the debate,  and that’s what makes this omission  even more obvious. So I said as much – TGB:

“we find that education is the best filter (from an Australian journalist) – that using mobile gets kids engaged’ And makes the very good point that “it’s a little hypocritical to be discussing this without a teenager up there on the stage.” (Best comment of the day.)”

When I asked Google about this, they asked if I knew ‘how hard it was to get children to something like this’ and ‘how could you make a decision on which child – have you ever tried?’. Well, frankly, yes I have. Many times. Successfully. But I’m not a lone ranger here. The #kidzonline conference run by intellectUK.org in London  on June 14 focuses on safety online and is all about having kids participate in the debate.

We understand (sort of) the business model. It is naive to think that any communications company running an event would treat it any differently. From a corporate point of view the Google conversation (a term for getting more people online with Google) needs to be driven by Google. And while many of us (me especially) wouldn’t know how to shop, have fun, get the news, translate (wow), or travel in a world sans Google, we need to understand that the ‘conversation’ is a friendlier way of describing a ‘business model’ that Google is partially basing  their corporate future on. It’s a communication that we’re buying into in droves (150 million+ on Google+). If ES is right, Google will have another 5 billion voices participating in their conversation and along with that the largest repository of personal information on the planet.

The ownership of the conversation – allowing companies to store our personal information in an algorithmic online sentinel –  is one of the major issues we face as we grapple with the issue of Big Brother type global control vs the many benefits Google offers us. Somehow I feel ‘the conversation’ is the one thing that needs always to remain ‘ours’ and it’s in this distinction, between a corporate driven model and one that’s citizen-centric, that we begin to appreciate the relevance of maintaining an open Internet.

I was up later in the day in the Future of News category and I and my co presenters were advised that we only had five minutes each on stage before questions.  But in a workshop before ours, psychologist Alex Krotoskli, was lucky enough to get 20 minutes and more to talk about her Serendipity engine. I wondered if it’s serendipitous that Google is actually diminishing our choice every time it learns more about us and offers more finite information in response to our searches. This is either truly brilliant AI, or a calculated act based on an algorithm that’s driving the latest corporate communications imperative taking us to a new AI frontier of algorithmic semantics and beyond, or probably both. The following transcript from TGB provides an interesting perspective from ES:

Q:you feel Google’s role is to make sure people have access to information. Aleks was talking about the next step, serendipity, what you start to do with that information. Is the future of Google how people use information or just providing it?

Schmidt: what I think future of Google is – these 10 links we provide, trying to go from that kind of answer to an insightful answer, like who is the PM of Britain. Our AI is getting good enough that we’ll go from syntax to semantics, and we’ll be offering that.

From syntax to semantics – to working out a meaning behind what we’re asking. And this explanation about how it’s being done:

Q: your social strategy – rumours that Google+ hasn’t realised success you were hoping for. And place of social in Google and in the search engine?

Schmidt: this is a rumour creating a target we didn’t say about internal goals we don’t have comparing us to a rival that’s very well managed and has been around 12 years. [Facebook? It’s 8.]

Our Google+ efforts did start in the last 6-12 months… now more than 150 million users. They are using in ways that make sense to us, Hangouts seems to be the current breakout product. For us there’s value in creating that social graph. Don’t you think YouTube would be better if we have better information about your friends, with your permission? Don’t you think we’ll have better info for search if we have those signals … we are already seeing that in our core business. Google+ is doing better than I expected given the difficulty of entering the market.

So well that according to the Guardian Blog (I unfortunately missed this session) ES almost had Internet critic and author of The Cult of the Amateur, who famously called Internet users who uploaded content, a group of amateur monkeys, agreeing with his view. Keen who has been accused of attacking Google ‘as a parasite’ was reported in the TGB saying:

‘Consumers think they can have everything, from these free services, and at the same time own their own data. Google has done a good job branding itself as a public utility, but people have to get used to the idea that people have to pay for services which explicitly say they won’t do anything with that data.

I give Google the benefit of the doubt, with Circles in Google+ they are trying to preserve privacy, more than Facebook, but it’s these new companies which are making privacy the core of the product’.

As we move beyond Rheingold’s virtual colonies to communities of choice, Google is maybe asking us to create colonies (groups) again. On the surface this may be about privacy, but it could also be a way of controlling the ‘virtual mass’. Unlike the larger ‘Occupy’ gatherings smaller groups maybe easier to coral, easier to convince. From TGB:

Harkaway: as an individual you have very little power to make that happen. As a group, you can demand much more…We need to create the institutions that will support the society we want to live in. The only answer is collective action.

In  a sense this is something Google+ is trying to control, as they say, smaller collectives or groups are better than big.

And about those trust discussions with the European Commission (EC), suggesting that Google, who has a 90% share of the EU search business, has violated EU monopoly rules, ES wasn’t budging on his position that Google doesn’t yet know what the issues (specifics) are:

Schmidt: I had a nice conversation with the commissioner, and a letter on Monday, in our conversation and in his letter and my response we’ve agreed to have further discussions, the letter is all we’ve heard from them, we haven’t heard the details, I’m not going to speculate on the details.

EC antitrust commissioner, Joaquín Almunia, wrote to Schmidt advising the EC has identified four concerns where Google business practices may be considered an abuse ‘of dominance’.

Q: but you must know what they are. Seems like you’re not playing ball. If you don’t accept these remedies…those four areas.. you’re not answering the question here. Surprised you don’t have a better response.

Schmidt: he hasn’t told us… you and I don’t agree [to questioner]. He is encouraging us to have conversation. We completely agree [to that]. We disagree that we are in violation in general. Until they are precise about what areas of the law we have violated it will be very difficult for me to speculate. Google actually wants data – give us the precise example, the precise problem, we don’t know yet.

According to The Guardian, the four areas of concern identified in Almunia’s letter were:

Google’s promotion of its own products over rivals’ in searches for items such as shopping, over its copying and re-display of content from restaurant sites, over its restrictions on competitors’ ads appearing alongside its own, and the portability of advertising campaigns from Google’s Adwords system.

Schmidt and Google have been asked to enter into ‘conversation’, which they are baulking at…hello…and are basing their defense on their belief they haven’t broken any laws:

Until they (EC) are precise about what areas of the law we have violated, it will be very difficult for me to speculate.

I guess when you’re investing as heavily as Google is in new communications practices you’d expect a new set of rules governing  new possibilities. Conversely it’s often not until we see these type of practices in action that we’re able to set appropriate rules. A Catch 22 of online communications developments.

The ministerial keynote was provided by the Rt Hon David Willetts MP, who did a right honorable job of holding up ministerial tradition, by skirting around every question he was asked. What a shame and a shame that he was not challenged more than he was.

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin, the new head of the  HuffPostLive, the Huffs new streaming venture, who was on our Future of News panel declared that MSM believe technology is more important than editorial.  Have a chat with Murdoch, I thought. But a few days later in his post in the Media section of the Huff (May 31), Ahmed  explains:

‘Truth, transparency and accountability should trump objectivity. The pursuit of as many angles and voices should replace this notion of getting one sides perspective and the other’s sides, disregarding countless others. “

Again I’m not certain that’s the only issue. We all welcome multiple views on an event. What is also needed is a complete view and also from  citizen storytellers that makes them more than citizen witnesses, and an ‘orchestration of those complete views’ into a format. Maybe the Huff’s new venture is exactly that, taking the disparate and life changing online witness moments and packaging them into the ‘Huff’s conversation’. The  format may also be a terrific opportunity for  creating a window to encourage and publish more complete stories from citizens.

I think there needs also to be a continuing debate about the relevance of and how news operations can purpose story as well as raw footage. Where the editorial occurs is valid at two levels (a) who uploads the footage is more often than not different to who tells the story; and (b) telling story involves a consideration of the beginning, middle and end, not only about the story, but about the impact of the story. I believe this ‘editorial action’ is critical to sustainable self determining citizen journalism. And maybe Ahmed’s vision will do just that:

“So often on TV news shows they discuss the hottest thing, the current thing, but they never spend time digging deeper to talk about the thing about the thing. That’s what we will aim to do. Our segments will be as long or as short as they need to be to sustain the conversation. We won’t be limited by the usual time-constrains of TV. But perhaps most importantly, rather than just booking the usual talking head suspects as guests, we’ve built into our website and mobile platforms multiple ways for our users to engage with the network — including coming on and joining us live as a guest. The idea being that the more we call on you the more nuanced the conversation will be.”

The need to get information out there is critical. At the end of the Bosnian war I found my self as probably the only journalist at Laniste when the two mass graves were uncovered. My choice was do I hold onto the footage and go public with it in my documentary in a month or more, or do I give it away to a news agency, I chose a middle ground. I gave  the footage to APTV, on the proviso that I could make the edit.  The result was different because of that. We cut a 3 and 1/2 minute news item rather than the usual 1 minute, primarily because my on the ground story behind this news event, informed the edit.

Alan Rusbridger the Editor of The Guardian, believes the on the ground is critical. He had this to say to Nieman Journalism Lab.

What about the 900 other people in the audience…is it conceivable no one else in the audience has an interesting opinion that could add to your understanding?

He adds:

Editorially, it is generally better to try and harness multiple views. So then, if you accept that, then I think there are only two questions. One is how do you sort interesting people from uninteresting people, and how do you sort people of particular interests from other interests?

The sorting is an editorial overview not unique to news. Rusbridger adds that if he doesn’t lower the gates someone else will. So he feels it is a bad business and journalism to put up  paywalls:

Commercially, it seems to me, that’s a very foolish step to take, as well as it is wrong. So you have to be really, really confident your expert voice is worth a multiple of free voices, if what you want to do is create a model that’s actually a 19th-, 20th-century model, where you’re going to insist your content is worth paying for.

To leave out the 900 in the audience is, according to Rusbridger, to stop the story when it’s possibly only beginning:

We’ve moved from an era in which a reporter writes a story and goes home and that’s the story written. I think that we’re living in the world at the moment where the moment you press send on your story, the responses start coming in. And so I think journalists have to work out what to do about those responses: How do you incorporate those responses? And in this world, in which as a news reporter you’re going to — if you go along with open journalism — you’re going to be open to other sources, other than what can be created in your own newsroom, you’re going to incorporate those responses.

The process of incorporation of new journalism or journalism in the new news room is still editorial across platforms and someone with a specific journalistic skill set will be hired to do this. The craft of curating the aggregated materials is an editorial skill, that still about story telling and very much like creating a documentary using archival footage and current interviews and maybe drama reconstruction. Lots of elements being stitched together to create a story that’s current and derived from multiple sources.

I look forward to The Guardian’s 900 growing and having greater impact and the HuffPostLive being a format that gives citizen witnesses an opportunity to become citizen journalists.

The Big Tent was, to use an ES term, ‘fun’. Like Lennon Brothers family circus, traveling to  areas where , more often than not, no circus has gone before,  setting up and looking after business. However, in the age of the Internet, controlling the performance, or the conversation, is never quite as simple as just shutting the gate.

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2 thoughts on “Cirque de Googles

    • Nice to hear from you Jonathan. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with Google regulating the themes and I’m not sure that’s what I said. I merely think the discussion around online safety stopped short of the mark. One reason is obvious – there were no teenagers on the panel. The other is more a feeling some participants had – more to do with time constraints (always happens) and the panelists own unwillingness to push it. But, as I mentioned, Google had the guts to tackle this issue and have begun their online safety conversation.

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