YouTube and basketball memories: FreeDarko’s Pasha Malla on fandom, curation, and democratized media

Editor’s Note: Last week, I read The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the second NBA book produced by the people behind the NBA blog FreeDarko. (The first, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, was really good too.) If you’re not familiar with FreeDarko, Deadspin founder Will Leitch described its writers as like “overcaffeinated, overeducated philosophy grad students who decided they could learn a lot more from NBA LeaguePass than from their professors. They saw Nietzsche in Zach Randolph, John Coltrane in the triangle offense, Moses in Moses Malone.”

It was the book’s final chapter that got me thinking beyond basketball and to more Lab-like matters. In it, writer Pasha Malla describes how YouTube’s endless seas of NBA clips, old and new, allow fans to recontextualize basketball history, challenging established narratives and creating a space for fans to push their own impressions of events and personalities. That sort of democratizing force has impacts across all media, including for news organizations.

I’m very pleased that the folks behind FreeDarko and the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury USA, have let me reprint that final chapter here. —Josh

As its name suggests, the Shot — Michael Jordan’s series-winning buzzer-beater against the Cavs during the 1989 playoffs — is iconic: “As the ball nestled through the net,” confirms NBA.com, describing an image we all can easily visualize, “Jordan pumped his fists in jubilation, completing a video highlight for the ages.” In time, the endlessly replayed Shot became representative of MJ’s transformation from showman to champion and a metonym for the very idea of legacy — it’s not just how dominantly you play the game, but how you’re remembered.

Yet this version of the Shot is also, to some extent, a fabrication. The original CBS telecast cut immediately (and in retrospect, bafflingly) to the reaction of then Bulls coach Doug Collins; Jordan’s celebratory histrionics only surfaced later, in archival footage. If the NBA is to be believed, the popularized version ranks with the moon landing and JFK assassination among the great live moments in American television history; this redux has become our memory of something most of us, watching Coach Collins tear around our TV screens, never saw.

The Shot was featured among the NBA’s “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” spots during the 2009 playoffs — as was a LeBron James dunk, a Manu Ginobili layup, and an alley-oop to Andrei Kirilenko, each slowed down, flipped to black-and-white, and soundtracked like the sad parts from Amélie.

The spots were solemn, bursting with meaning, somehow both stark and expansive, saying nothing and everything about these players and the sport they played. To call the clips highlights would be misleading; apart from Dr. J’s staggering reverse layup, few were aesthetically or athletically “amazing.” Rather, taking the Shot as a blueprint, they served as shorthand for larger narratives — of teams, of individuals, of the game itself. The goal of the campaign was to station these moments firmly, proprietarily, as commercials for an NBA product. As the Association has manipulated the import of Jordan’s ‘89 game winner, so was this a perversion of nostalgia, wrenching moments out of context and playing them back as advertisements — effectively co-opting the personal experience of players and fans to reaffirm and sustain the NBA product. They also presented the potential for posterity as incentive to stay focused for all two and a half months of the playoffs: Don’t change that dial, the ads suggested; you might miss out on what we later decide is history.

Since the whole business self-referentially recognized the league as the locus of “Where Amazing Happens,” subsumed into this corporate agenda was the individual. Consider what the less blatantly commercial focus would have been had the choice of interrogatives been not “where” but “who.” Not only would celebrating the people who made these moments happen have rescued poor Manu and Andrei from the generic, stuff-of-history, NBA-sanctioned Jordan model, but it would have also acknowledged that the Association’s true organ of experience is much more human than what can be captured by a branding strategy.

The WWAHTY? campaign suggested that having experienced these scenes for yourself, awash in your own set of feelings, was secondary to the teleological packaging. But any fan’s enjoyment (or misery, or bafflement, or envy) is always colored by his or her own subjectivity. We bring to professional basketball, and project upon its athletes, our own hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, and (sure, failed) dreams. For the league to try and tell us which moments are definitive and epochal seems not only counterintuitive but ignorant of the two-part engine, far beyond the NBA executive, that drives the game in the first place: players and fans.

But there’s hope, a place where we find individualism — the “who” ignored by the league — rekindled, a place that reemphasizes the relationship between the great (and, occasionally, not-so-great) athletes of the NBA and those who obsess over them, a place that puts the power back in the hands of the people: YouTube.

It’s on YouTube that WWAHTY? has spawned a legion of imitators. In the same style and with the same background music, these homemade approximations reclaim the subjectivity ignored by that thoughtless campaign. Take, for example, DWade3TV’s version, which ends with “Where Will Amazing Happens [sic] This Year?” superimposed in Arial bold italics over Dwyane Wade celebrating a regular-season game winner. Similar DIY spots have been created for Vince Carter, Derrick Rose, Joe Johnson, Allen Iverson, and countless others who didn’t make the “official” cut but who do have legions of slighted fans who in turn have done something about it.

Much like the knock-off “Abibas” high-tops you might find in a Chennai market stall, there’s something wonderfully fallible and defiant about these clips when contrasted with the NBA’s slick production. And while it’s sometimes hard to tell when the irony is intentional and the defiance inadvertent, it mostly doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that YouTube affords fans a venue to curate what they, not the league, consider “Amazing.” Rather than having history defined from on high, this unauthorized alternative of who and what (and where) might be the only venue for this sort of agency. Most important, it serves as an archive of collective memory, a much more comprehensive document of what professional basketball means to its fans than the league’s various CliffsNotes versions.

Basketball is a sport of continuous motion, or unbroken action, of games that must be seen from the start for that final buzzer-beater to make you leap screaming off the couch or hang your head in disgrace and shame. But the era of the highlight, as with all similar packaging of real-world content, forever changed the way the NBA was consumed. SportsCenter, as a convenient example, has since its advent in 1980 made the summary of games a project of fragmentation, and viewers have come to accept this as a means of understanding what happened around the league on any given night. What summarizing games in snippets misses, of course, is all the tension and nuance of the original: We get the final score and the big plays but, regardless how hysterical the accompanying narration, none of the feeling of the game itself. That feeling is, of course, always subjective, and nothing that can be transmitted without the totality of all forty-eight minutes (and all those off-the-clock minutes in between). While it was surely just as emotionally riveting at the time, who besides the odd nostalgic Cavs fan remembers Craig Ehlo’s apparently series-clinching layup only seconds before Michael Jordan made the Shot? (Check it out on YouTube!)

But if fragmentation has become the process by which basketball is replayed, and so remembered, at least on YouTube what the game means to actual human beings, as opposed to the league or the networks, is being restored. Beyond the WWAHTY? rips, here fans celebrate and share not only the amazing, the remarkable, and the sublime, but also the banal and the ridiculous. It’s a long, long season, and maintaining engagement often means having to nerd-out on the details; what’s “Amazing” about the NBA, to many of us, certainly isn’t limited to its career-defining moments. There aren’t many of those, anyway, and the crystal-ball project of trying to identify them as they happen, without the value of hindsight, can be spurious, if not impossible. The Shot, after all, didn’t become the Shot until Michael Jordan the guard became Michael Jordan the ultimate triumphant megastar and the NBA decided it was the birth of a legend.

“Amazing,” for YouTube user marik1234, is “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles.” In this seventy-nine-second clip, Robinson sends poor, hapless Calderon flopping to the floor with a ruthless crossover, is fouled on the ensuing drive, and has his shot swatted away. It’s a dead play, without any of the narrative weight we associate with the Shot — and never the stuff, for myriad reasons, of a WWAHTY? commercial. Fifteen years ago it would have been forgotten, lost and deleted from the league’s official record. But marik1234 has ensured that the moment will live on — if not for eternity, at least long enough that a staggering 1.5 million viewers have watched the clip since its posting.

If that number is any indication, YouTube represents a new kind of communal mythmaking, one that resists the great dictatorial hegemony of the NBA administration in favor of something approaching democracy. Like any democracy, it’s flawed (unfettered access can make the site something of a crazy train), but taken as an archive, hoops-on-YouTube offers a much more comprehensive understanding of how the game is played, watched, and remembered than those limited moments sanctioned by the league. And, fittingly, each post mirrors the remarkable self-expression so prevalent in professional basketball: Think what we learn or can at least speculate about marik1234 from his post — every portrait is a portrait of the artist, after all.

There’s an assertion of autobiography, of stamping one’s existence onto the world, in any creative gesture — be it a Nate Robinson crossover or curating (appreciating, recording, editing, posting, sharing) that crossover for mass consumption. YouTube is about fans appreciating the game on their terms: It allows the masses to contribute to the larger narrative of the NBA beyond the league’s savvy marketing and even the players’ own attempts at self-definition. YouTube renders meaningless the whole “this broadcast may not be retransmitted” legalese, a fitting demonstration of the limits of the league’s jurisdiction over personalized experience, as well as how backward it is for a corporation to claim our game as their property. In a culture with increasingly fewer opportunities for the individual to trump the institution, YouTube has become a platform for fans to assert themselves and what they feel to be their personal relationships with the game and its players.

On one hand, YouTube represents an even more radical descent into pastiche, with seemingly random moments and insignificant games elevated to the same level as the ones that really made a difference. But if any official record of NBA games (or careers) is a fall from the paradise of fan subjectivity, then these bits and pieces become — however unwittingly — an attempt to restore the notion of individualized experience. After all, one fan’s insignificance is another’s “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles” — or “Nate Robinson breaks Steve Blake’s ankles,” or “Nate Robinson breaks ankles of a boy in an exhibition in Málaga.”

Who knows if YouTube will ever succeed in overthrowing its own ontology — there are scores of old games sitting on there, and none are as often viewed as the so-called mix tapes that abbreviate the careers of Clyde Drexler or Dominique Wilkins into a sequence of money shots, most of them dunks. However, what’s key isn’t that the wholeness of game-as-text be restored, but that the complexity and totality of the game’s emotional truths are creeping back into fandom, and that fans now have a venue to share them.

While, if the Shot is any indication, the NBA’s branding engine seems content to feed us an image we never saw as a way of remembering a moment that only gained significance in retrospect, at least the curations of marik1234 and his thousands of fellow archivists are helping create an alternate, potentially more honest record of the sport as it has always been played and consumed. And if fans continue to corrupt the league’s attempts at memorializing professional basketball — as they have with the WWAHTY? rips — YouTube will not only challenge, but possibly even replace, the “official” document of what moves, frustrates, confuses, and amazes us about the NBA.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems, sort of). His first novel, People Park, will be published in late 2011.

Reprinted from FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, published by Bloomsbury USA.

“It just feels inevitable”: Nick Denton on Gawker Media sites’ long-in-the-works new layout

This morning, “the biggest event in Gawker Media history” took place: Gawker’s sites have officially launched their redesigns. Go to gawker.com — or jezebel.com or deadspin.com or lifehacker.com or the other sites that make up Gawker Media at the moment — and you’ll see the new page layout that’s been on display in beta-dot form for the past couple of months, brought to life on the properties’ home URLs.

The new look, with its emphasis on images and its de-emphasis of the reverse-chronological format, moves Gawker beyond its blog-formatted past — a shift most aptly described, in a November Lifehacker post, by Nick Denton himself. And, in true blog style, the post-blogization of Gawker is something that’s been described and discussed in the blogosphere long before today’s official drop date. The utter unsurprisingness of Gawker’s new look is probably a good thing for a web property, given how indignantly resistant to design change we web users tend to be.

“It just feels inevitable,” Denton says. “We have a crying need to showcase both exclusives and visual posts. The visual posts are now at least half of our top-performing stories. And audience growth on sites like Deadspin and Gawker has been driven by our most sensational scoops.”

The biggest change to note is the two-panel layout, which makes for a front page that, as Gawker editor Remy Stern put it this morning, is “dominated by one big story (or a roundup of several different stories), and a list of headlines appear in a column down the right side of the page.”

For that, “the antecedents are software products, however, rather than web sites,” Denton told me over Gchat. “We’ve definitely been influenced by two-pane email and news reading apps.” One of the keys to the redesign is the new emphasis on visuals — most strikingly embodied in the huge image slot leading the page. As Denton noted in his Lifehacker post, “This visual slot will be 640×360 pixels in size — that’s 64 percent larger than in the current design — and be in the most prominent location on every page, above even the headline itself. Viewers will be able to toggle to a high-definition 960×540 version — a full 3.7 times larger than the current video standard.” (Gizmodo, notably, has been investing in bigger and better visuals as a way to make stories stand out.)

The redesign is a kind of convergence in action: blog, magazine, and television, all collapsing into each other. “Outside observers will note that this layout represents some convergence of blog, magazine and television,” Denton notes — yup — and though “that’s true in the abstract but it’s more of a description than an argument” — fair enough — when it comes to marketing, the redesign is a kind of argument. Online, increasingly, the ad-sales choice boils down to two general strategies: build ad revenues directly, or build audience (which in turn accrues to revenue).

The new layout is a double-down on the latter. With the design’s increased emphasis on engagement/the lean-back experience/etc., Gawker properties will ostensibly beef up their time-on-site stats while — for the short term, at least — taking a cut on pageviews as readers engage with and lean back into their content. It’s an app-like approach being realized, intriguingly, on the open web. And, in it, Gawker’s taking a TV-like attitude toward ad sales: one that’s more about nebulous mass consumption — zeitgeist, if you will — than about simple CPMs. Essentially, as Felix Salmon has noted: Gawker is selling time, not space. It’s not selling reader eyeballs so much as reader attention.

And that’s an idea that’s been in the works for a while. Last spring, Gawker’s head of marketing and advertising operations, Erin Pettigrew, wrote a post about Gawker’s new emphasis on branded traffic via an attempt to measure “recurring reader affection.” I chatted with her about that post; here’s what she told me at the time:

First, for so long we concerned ourselves with reach and becoming a significant enough web population such that advertisers would move us into their consideration set for marketing spend. Now that we have attained a certain level of reach and that spend consideration, we’re looking for additional ways to differentiate ourselves against other publisher populations. So branded traffic helps to illuminate our readership’s quality over its quantity, a nuanced benefit over many of the more broadly reaching sites on the web.

Secondly, there’s a myth, especially in advertising, that frequency of visitation is wasteful to ad spend. As far as premium content sites and brand marketers go, however, that myth is untrue. So, the ‘branded traffic’ measure is part of a larger case we’re making that advertising to a core audience (who visits repeatedly) is extremely effective.

That’s a magazine model; Gawker has simply been translating it to the web. (“If you’re going to working with the most storied brands,” Denton puts it, “the appeal has to go beyond the numbers. Conde Nast — at its peak — sold the magic.”) And Gawker certainly hasn’t been alone in doing that: See Slate, Salon, and their peer group, who go out of their way to emphasize the smartness (more cynically: the affluence) of their readers to advertisers. And yet Gawker seems to have reached a critical mass (or, to use the language of a writer from one of those Conde Nast titles, a tipping point): It’s moved, it seems, beyond simply selling its readers to advertisers. Now, it is simply selling itself. The readers are implied. They can be, in the best sense, taken for granted.

Check out, for example, the Advertising page on Gawker. In place of a traditional media kit (replete with demographic data about readers and the like), you’ll find a slickly produced video detailing Gawker’s (literally) storied history. The thing has the feel of an Oscar clip reel, complete with a strings-heavy sidetrack; you’re compelled, almost in spite of yourself. The video presents Gawker through the prism of a kind of epic inevitability, noting, accurately, how much the site and its sisters have done to change the media world. The message is, implicitly and essentially: Gawker is the future. Be part of it.

Which doesn’t mean that Gawker isn’t also selling readers to advertisers in the traditional magazine (and, for that matter, newspaper) model; it still is, definitely. It’s just doing it in a slightly more indirect way. The advertising videos are “about the stories,” Denton says. “And the stories define the readers — and the readers define the stories.” The delivering-readers-you-want-to-reach aspect is only one part of Gawker’s marketing argument. “The pitch to advertisers is twofold,” Denton says. “One — and this is the constant — that our audience consists of the young and upscale people who have disappeared from newspapers and other traditional media. And, second, that we increasingly have the scale and production values of — say — cable television.”

It’s that second idea that the redesign is trying to capture. And it’s the resonance, and competition, with cable that will be fascinating to watch as the new Gawker layout becomes, simply, the Gawker layout. (Readers have the option of continuing with the blog format, if they prefer, which won’t serve the 640×360 ads; see the cola-nostalgic Deadspin Classic, for instance. But “I doubt it will represent any more than 10 percent of impressions, anyway,” Denton notes.) Denton sees his competition, he told me, not only as sites like TMZ, Deadline Hollywood, and Perez Hilton, but also — and more so — AOL. (A rivalry that, around midnight last night, suddenly got much more interesting.) “And — in the long term — we’ll compete for audiences with cable groups such as NBC Universal,” Denton says.

It’s a big experiment — and a big gamble. One that, like so many similarly grand experiments being made by the big media companies out there — the Times’ paywall will rise any day now — will be instructive for everyone else. History’s definitely on Denton’s side — he’s been right about a lot so far — but the future is up for grabs. It’s far from certain that the redesign, and the marketing logic that goes with it, will pay off.

Yesterday, after former Gawker editor Gabriel Snyder observed that, since the redesign, pageviews were down at the beta sites of Jalopnik and i09, Rex Sorgatz issued a bet: “I’m on the record that I think the redesigns will fail. And I’m now officially opening the betting pool. I think Denton is going to be forced to pull back on this. If anyone wants to wager that the redesign don’t get yanked back (or greatly modified) by, let’s say, June 1… I’ll take your bet.”

One person who took Sorgatz up on his offer: Denton himself. (“Money where your mouth is,” he told me.) The measure will be October pageviews on Quantcast. The market’s at 510 million pageviews at the moment — so “for every million over that, he pays me $10,” Denton says. And “for every million under, I pay him.”

“I’m going to clean him out.”

Links on Twitter: Interactive billboards, a trusted tech industry, an exhausted stash of ISPs

February 3, 2011: The day the Internet ran out of numbers http://nie.mn/h6mMz8 »

Nice! @CJR goes back to the launches of Slate and Salon to glean some lessons for The Daily http://nie.mn/hrHWKl »

What if your hometown disappeared from the map? http://nie.mn/gwJhbY »

On Edelman’s Trust Barometer, the tech industry gets an 81%; the media industry gets a 54. Discuss. http://nie.mn/eG90FD »

Interactive billboards! Think of all the cool things news orgs could do with them… http://nie.mn/gBTBHx »

Congrats! RT @mattwaite: I’m overjoyed to announce I’ll be joining the faculty at the Univ of Nebraska-Lincoln as a professor of journalism. »

"Imagine if Angry Birds were available as part of “The Daily” instead of as a standalone app." http://nie.mn/gM98Y4 »

"Welcome to the first Transmedia Bowl" http://nie.mn/eOH8UO (via @iwantmedia) »

Der Spiegel, The Guardian, and the NYT are all considering building drop-boxes for anonymous tips http://nie.mn/gTNoSI »

Seven years ago today, Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook http://nie.mn/ggjx85 »

Popular on Twitter: Taking on Gladwell, Spiers to lead NYO, “Thank you Facebook”

  • Elizabeth Spiers is the New York Observer’s new editor-in-chief
  • Social media and revolution: Weinberger responds to Gladwell
  • NBC fires the guy who posted the Today Show “What Is Internet?” video
  • Rosenberg: Murdoch has officially left the open web
  • Spiers reax: “But New York still needs to have something to itself”
  • Egypt protester sign: “Thank you facebook”
  • Tufekci: Why the “how” of social organizing matters
  • The Wired iPad issue takes a loooong time to download
  • TBD editors evaluate Dan Synder’s various claims in his lawsuit against WCP
  • This Week in Review: Egypt’s uprisings, Apple’s restrictions, The Daily’s debut
  • #DemandAlJazeera: How Al Jazeera is using social media to cover Egypt—and distribute its content in the US

    Mark noted in today’s This Week in Review that ”the organization that has shined the brightest over the past 10 days is unquestionably Al Jazeera.” Most viewers in the US, though, have had to watch the news network’s coverage of the uprisings in Egypt on their computers rather than their televisions: Al Jazeera isn’t part of most U.S. cable packages.

    So, hoping to cement an “I want my MTV” moment, Al Jazeera is taking to Twitter to find its way onto TVs in the US. The network is using a promoted trend on Twitter, #DemandAlJazeera, to make the case that it’s time for the Qatar-based broadcast to debut on TVs here in America.

    In using Twitter, Al Jazeera is tapping a network that has been particularly beneficial to it as events have unfolded in Egypt. If you’ve been online in the past two weeks, it’s almost hard to escape Al Jazeera’s coverage of the demonstrations and political turmoil around Cairo, whether in the channel’s breathless reporting on its site or its updates on Twitter. But it has largely been the channel’s online livestream that has caught the attention of many in the US, and the result has been big traffic.

    “We’ve had a lot of people writing about ‘Why do we have to watch this online, why can’t we get (Al Jazeera) in the US,’” Riyaad Minty, head of social media for Al Jazeera, told me. “Almost 50 percent of traffic to our livestream is coming from the US.”

    Al Jazeera has explored using promoted trending topics on Twitter before, Minty said, but couldn’t find the right conditions for it. Do you use it to promote single stories, broader coverage, or the network itself? Egypt, however, provided the right opportunity for experimentation. ”We knew a lot of people would be turning to Twitter to get news as we’ve seen in past world events,” Minty said. “Specifically in breaking news events, people use the search function quite a lot.”

    This isn’t the first time we’ve seen a news organization use a trending topic on Twitter to try and promote itself: This past fall, The Washington Post sponsored the #Election hashtag on Election Day. With #demandaljazeera, though, Al Jazeera is trying to promote itself in a slightly different way: by simply ensuring that people have access to it. The channel wants to help build momentum to try and convince cable providers to carry it in their lineup. Twitter users who follow the link off the trending topic will be taken to page where they can fill out a simple form to notify the cable operator in their area that they want it to offer Al Jazeera English (the English-language sister channel of Al Jazeera). Al Jazeera is also coordinating meet-ups in over 200 cities around the world.

    “Specifically because of our coverage from Egypt, the whole world, you could say, has turned to watch our screens,” Minty said.

    The network has been receiving praise and winning fans for its Egypt coverage, and Minty attributes that to a combination of old-fashioned shoe leather reporting and ingenuity in using new media. It all starts, Minty said, with the simple fact that Al Jazeera was in place when events set to motion in Egypt.

    “The biggest key to all of this has been mainstream media,” he said. “We’ve had traditional media on the ground in Egypt before the story broke.” That included not just reporters, producers, and camera teams on the ground, but also a network of bloggers and citizen journalists Al Jazeera had identified in advance, Minty said. All of that became more important, of course, as Internet access was shut down in the country.

    “Generally, from previous experience, what we realize is: Once communication goes offline, you need to be able to deal with old technologies in a new fashion,” he said. “So new media doesn’t only mean the latest trending topic that’s out there or the latest social network.”

    When people couldn’t tune in because their broadcast signal went down, Al Jazeera distributed pamphlets with the latest updates and information about alternate ways to access its news coverage. It also published phoned-in reports using Scribble Live and Audioboo. Online staffs, Minty said, have been using Storify internally to curate and keep track of citizen videos and other social content. (And as many noted last week, the network has also offered up some of its coverage through Creative Commons.)

    The non-stop news coverage and resulting traffic has also taken a toll on Al Jazeera’s site, at several times causing servers to crash. But Al Jazeera’s distribution across social media helped there, too. ”Even if people couldn’t access us on our domain name, we had our social campaign that was up and running,” Minty said. “So we could just redirect traffic across to other platforms and people could still see us and access us.”

    Al Jazeera faces a more difficult path than most in trying to crack the US TV market, something Minty acknowledges. For many in the US, there’s been a lack of understanding about the network, coupled with some misconceptions about its mission and philosophy. In some ways, the #DemandAlJazeera campaign will be a test of people’s perceptions of the network, providing something like market research on its brand within the US. But its coverage of the turmoil in Egypt has demonstrated Al Jazeera’s capabilities and value, Minty said. And that’s something the network intends to build off of.

    “We believe that our product speaks for itself,” Minty said. “It’s just a question of sending people to our website. Read our news, watch our packages on YouTube, find us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter, or watch our stream online — and you’ll know what Al Jazeera is all about.”

    Storyful, YouTube: The value of the impermanent team-up

    The turmoil in Egypt has shown, yet again, the key role that curation plays in a networked news environment. But as valuable as all the text-based aggregators are — which is to say, hugely valuable — the constantly shifting events on the ground in Egypt make clear how powerful a role video can play in connecting people with the news. You don’t just want to read about or hear about what’s going on; you want to see it. For yourself.

    One place you can do that on the web: CitizenTube, YouTube’s news and politics channel. “Raw footage from individuals on the ground offers a visceral window into the situation in Egypt, where crowds are gathering to demand President Mubarak’s resignation,” the channel notes. To present that footage, YouTube has partnered with Storyful, a startup whose goal is to curate the real-time web, to do the important work of filtration.

    “It was an invitation that came up in the last week or so,” David Clinch, Storyful’s co-founder and editorial director, told me. Storyful had been curating Egypt video already — not just since January 25, he says, but since the bombing of a Coptic church in Alexandria that took place over New Year’s. YouTube “reached out to us, and said, ‘Look, you guys are the experts, so let’s work together on this.’”

    It’s a fascinating experiment. YouTube, after all, for all its obvious benefits, can be difficult to use for a news experience: Videos can be hard to find, they’re not vetted for origin or author, they often lack context, etc. Channels like CitizenTube have tried to provide a solution to those problems — but, to be effective, they generally require some kind of editorial mechanism to bring order to all the tumult. “If you’ve found videos on YouTube that document what’s happening on the streets of Egypt’s cities, please add the links here,” the channel says, making explicit YouTube’s implicit invitation to submit user-generated videos. But, after that invitation’s offered, for an editorial product like CitizenTube, someone needs to sort through the invite’s responses. Someone needs to do the crucial work of curation.

    That’s where Storyful comes in. Both Clinch and his Storyful co-founder, Mark Little, are seasoned journalists — both of them, Clinch says, “amazingly, voluntarily, left secure jobs at news companies” to start Storyful. And it’s telling that their experience spans both broadcast journalism and new media. Storyful is in some sense a combination of both. It uses “a proprietary system” that, Clinch says, “is constantly tracking across every platform”: from the biggies of social networking — Facebook, Twitter, YouTube — on down.

    The idea is to glean an on-the-ground perspective on the news by harnessing the information pinging around on worldwide social networks. Storyful is, as they say, “a good listener.” It tries to know what the big stories are before they become, in the media-coverage sense, Big Stories. A big part of the value it offers is in anticipating, in fact, what the next big story will be. (Storyful is in that sense somewhat similar to Sulia, the Twitter lists-based curation service I wrote about earlier this week, which essentially practices preemptive curation by crawling Twitter for authorities on topics even before they bubble up to the media more broadly.)

    Storyful’s partnership with CitizenTube is very much an experiment, Clinch emphasizes, rather than an ongoing collaboration. (CitizenTube seconds that: As a YouTube spokeswoman emphasized in an email, “We’re experimenting with Storyful on curating YouTube videos to improve discovery of Egyptian protest content for our users.”) But that makes the team-up, to some extent, even more meaningful than a more ongoing partnership might be. The Storyful/YouTube collaboration is a marriage of convenience — in the best sense. It didn’t require a lot of legal haggling or back-room dealing. It simply required an invitation and an acceptance, with no further commitment necessary. We talk a lot about the “shifting public,” the interest group that, on the web, can dissolve as quickly as it comes together. Those dynamic confederacies, in their efficiency, can be powerful. And equally powerful can be collaborations that come together to serve a purpose, content to be nothing more — and nothing less — than experiments.

    This Week in Review: Egypt’s media lessons, The Daily’s detractors, and Apple’s strike against e-books

    Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news.

    Al Jazeera, the network, and social activism: For the last week, the eyes of the world have been riveted on the ongoing protests in Egypt, and not surprisingly, the news media themselves have been a big part of that story, too. Many of them have been attacked by President Hosni Mubarak’s lackeys, but the crisis has also been a breeding ground for innovative journalism techniques. Mashable put together a roundup of the ways journalists have used Twitter, Facebook, streaming video, Tumblr, and Audioboo, and the Lab highlighted reporting efforts on Facebook, curation by Sulia, and explainers by Mother Jones. Google and Twitter also created Speak to Tweet to allow Egyptians cut off from the Internet to communicate.

    But the organization that has shined the brightest over the past 10 days is unquestionably Al Jazeera. The Qatar-based TV network has dominated web viewing, and has used web audio updates and Creative Commons to get information out quickly to as many people as possible.

    Al Jazeera also faced stiff censorship efforts from the Egyptian government, which stripped its Egyptian license and shut down its Cairo bureau, then later stole some of its camera equipment. Through it all, the broadcaster kept up live coverage that, both online and offline, was considered the most comprehensive of any news organization’s. As Lost Remote’s Cory Bergman pointed out, Al Jazeera’s coverage showed the continued power of compelling live video in a multimedia world.

    Salon’s Alex Pareene called Al Jazeera’s coverage an indictment on the U.S.’ cable networks, and CUNY j-prof Jeff Jarvis and others urged cable companies to carry Al Jazeera English. Tech pioneer Doc Searls used the moment as a call for a more open form of cable TV: “The message cable should be getting is not just ‘carry Al Jazeera,’ but ‘normalize to the Internet.’ Open the pipes. Give us à la carte choices. Let us get and pay for what we want, not just what gets force-fed in bundles.”

    The protests also served as fresh fuel for an ongoing debate about the role of social media in social change and global political activism. Several critics — including Wired’s David Kravets, The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, and SUNY Oswego prof Ulises Mejias — downplayed the role of social media tools such as Twitter in protests like Egypt’s. Others, though, countered with a relatively unified theme: It’s not really about the media tools per se, but about the decentralized, hyperconnected network in which they are bound up. J-profs Jeremy Littau and Robert Hernandez, along with GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram, wrote the most thoughtful versions of this theme, and they’re all worth checking out.

    Tepid reviews for The Daily: Within the bubble of media geeks, one story dominated the others this week: On Wednesday, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. released The Daily, the first daily updated news publication produced specifically for the iPad. If you can’t get enough coverage of The Daily, go check out Mediagazer’s smorgasbord of links. I’ll try to offer you a digestible (but still a bit overwhelming, I’ll admit) summary of what people are saying about it.

    Leading up to Wednesday’s launch, Poynter’s Damon Kiesow found many of the people who are working for the heretofore secretive publication, and media analyst Alan Mutter and All Things Digital’s Peter Kafka examined the reasons why it might or might not take off. Once the app was released Wednesday afternoon, the reviews came pouring in.

    First, the good: The first impressions of most of the digital experts polled by Poynter were positive, with several praising its visual design and one calling it “what I’ve always hoped newspapers would do with their tablet editions.” PaidContent’s Staci Kramer was generally complimentary, and The Guardian’s Ian Betteridge gave it a (not terribly enthusiastic) “buy.”

    Most of the initial reviews, though, were not so kind. Much of the ‘meh’ was directed at lackluster content, as reviewer after reviewer expressed similar sentiments: “a general-interest publication that is not generally interesting” (The Columbia Journalism Review); ”Murdoch’s reinvention of journalism looks a lot like the one before it” (Macworld); “fairly humdrum day-old stories that you might read in, well…a regular old printed newspaper” (Mathew Ingram); “little [of Murdoch's money], it appears, has been invested in editorial talent” (Mashable); “the Etch A Sketch edition of Us Magazine” (Alan Mutter); “barely brings digital journalism into the late 20th century, much less the 21st” (Mark Potts).

    The bulk of that criticism seemed to be built on two foundational questions, asked by the Lab’s Joshua Benton, which The Daily has apparently yet to answer convincingly: “Who is The Daily trying to reach? What problem is it trying to solve?” TechCrunch (and several of the above reviewers) asked similar questions, and GigaOM’s Darrell Etherington attempted an answer, arguing that The Daily’s not for the obsessively-Twitter-checking news junkies, but for iPad users struggling to adjust to life after newspapers.

    A few other issues surrounding The Daily that drew attention: One was its separation from the web by virtue of its place within the proprietary iTunes Store and iPad, as well as the general lack of links in or out. (That hasn’t stopped an unauthorized daily index of links to the web versions of articles from springing up, though.) Salon alum Scott Rosenberg (in two posts) and j-prof Dan Kennedy led the charge against the walled garden, while the Lab’s Megan Garber pointed out the draconian anti-aggregation language on The Daily’s AP content, and Justin Ellis wondered how user engagement will work in that closed environment.

    Then there were the economics of the publication: Media analyst Ken Doctor had two good sets of questions about what it will take for The Daily to financially succeed (the latter is more number-crunchy). Jeff Jarvis also looked at some possible numbers, and media consultant Amy Gahran chastised Murdoch for investing so much money in the venture. Gahran also looked at the hazards of dealing with Apple, and paidContent’s Staci Kramer noted that Murdoch wants Apple to lower its share of The Daily’s subscription revenue. And on the News Corp. front, Slate’s Jack Shafer wrote about the role Murdoch’s impatience will play in its fate, and Subhub’s Evan Radowski gave us a history lesson on News Corp. initiatives like this one.

    Apple strikes against e-publishers: In its ongoing tightening of App Store access and regulations, Apple made a significant move this week by rejecting a Sony iPhone app that would have allowed users to buy e-books from the Sony Reader Store. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram did a great job of putting the decision in the context of Apple’s past moves, explaining why they make good business sense: “What’s the point of controlling a platform like the iPhone and the iPad if you can’t force people to pay you a carrying charge for hosting their content and connecting them with their customers?”

    But others (even at GigaOM) were more skeptical. Jason Kincaid of TechCrunch said the decision underscores the downside of closed content platforms, and posited that it’s the first shot in a war between Apple and Amazon’s Kindle, and Slate’s Farhad Manjoo urged Amazon to pull its Kindle app out of the App Store. In another widely expected move along the same lines, Apple also told publishers that within two months, any app that doesn’t take payments through its iTunes Store would be rejected.

    AOL follows Demand’s content-farming path: We talked last week about Demand Media’s explosive IPO and Google’s intention to make content farms harder to find in searches, and we have a couple of updates to those issues this week. First, Seamus McCauley of Virtual Economics explained why he’s skeptical about Demand’s true valuation, not to mention its accounting methods. And while Google’s algorithm limiting content farms is not yet live, search engine startup Blekko has banned many content farm domains, including Demand’s eHow, from its search results. Meanwhile, the debate over Demand continued, with Adotas’ Gavin Dunaway and MinnPost’s John Reinan delivering this week’s broadsides against the company.

    AOL hasn’t been talked about as a content farm too much as of yet, but that may change after Business Insider’s publication this week of a leaked internal document called “The AOL Way,” which reads a lot like the textbook content farm strategy guide. GigaOM’s Mathew Ingram and Fortune’s Dan Mitchell blasted the plan, with Ingram asserting that “the chasing of eyeballs and pageviews is a game of constantly diminishing returns.” Martin Bryant of The Next Web, on the other hand, said AOL’s model is not a misguided, diabolical plan, but “an inevitable, turbo-powered evolution of what’s happened in the media industry for many years.”

    Reading roundup: A few things to check out this weekend while you’re most likely snowed in somewhere:

    — This week’s WikiLeaks update: Julian Assange sat down with 60 Minutes for an interview (there’s also a video on what it took to make that happen), WikiLeaks was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, The Guardian’s Alan Rusbridger gave his own account about working with WikiLeaks, and NYU’s Adam Penenberg made the case for Assange as a journalist. Reuters also profiled the new WikiLeaks spinoff OpenLeaks.

    — A few paid-content notes: The New York Times isn’t releasing details of its paywall plan just yet, but it is fixing technological glitches with the system right now, while Media Week reported that some industry analysts are skeptical of the wall’s chances. Meanwhile, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News announced they’ll start offering an e-edition to paying subscribers.

    — GigaOM founder Om Malik wrote a simple but insightful guide to creating a successful consumer Internet service, focusing on three elements: A clear purpose, ease of use, and fun.

    — Berkman fellow David Weinberger has a short, thought-provoking post offering a 21st-century update on Marshall McLuhan’s famous “the medium is the message” aphorism: “We are the medium.” It’s a simple idea, but it has some potentially profound implications, a few of which Weinberger begins to flesh out.