The problem in the cases of ousted Gen. Stanley McChrystal and ousted Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel is not that they had opinions. Of course, they had opinions. Indeed, we should damned well want them to have opinions. If they each only accepted what they were told without doubts and complaints, without discrimination, they’d each be be very bad at their jobs, wouldn’t they?
The problem is not that those opinions were reported. Publicness — transparency, openness, authenticity, honesty — is good. It should lead to more trust. But here it didn’t. It led to public disgrace. Why?
The problem, then, is our myth of the opinionless man*.
I don’t think that is society’s myth. We all know better than to believe that men have no beliefs — because we are all merely men* with beliefs of our own.
No, the opinionless man is an institutional myth, a fiction maintained by news organizations, political organizations, governments, businesses, churches, and armies. The opinionless man is meant to be an empty vessel to do the bidding of these hierarchies. But opinions and openness about them subvert hierarchies. Or to translate that to modern times, via the Cluetrain Manifesto, links subvert hierarchies. This is the age of links. So hierarchies: beware. One opinion leaks out of the opinionless man and it is shared and linked and spread instantly. The institutions treat this revelation as a shock and scandal — as a threat — and they eject the opinionated men. That is what happened to McChrystal and Weigel.
In my thinking for my book on publicness, I keep trying to look at such fears and offenses and turn them around to ask what they say not about the scandalous but instead about the scandalized — about us and about our myths and realities.
Former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the self-drawn archetype of the opinionless man. He famously refused to vote, thinking it somehow made him immune from opinions and their corruption of his journalism. That heritage is what led to Weigel’s ejection from the Post. But as Liz Mair argues (via @jayrosen_nyu), it’s ridiculous to assume that Weigel should accept and agree with everyone and and everything he encountered on his beat covering conservatives. He should be skeptical. Isn’t that a reporter’s job? And what is the source of that skepticism but opinions? We want to know.
Mayhill Fowler wrote a superb HuffingtonPost piece — inspired by McChrystal and her own experience in the Obama campaign — about journalism as a dance of seduction and betrayal. The corrupting temptation isn’t sex or beauty or wealth or even fame but access. Her perspective is so valuable because she came to journalism and politics as an outsider and maintained that perspective.
Michael Walsh, however, speaks for the institutions as he blows his vuvuzela until he’s red-faced warning of the dangers of such openness:
But the most important thing to emerge from this mess is the notion of privacy, that there is a difference between on and off the record, and it simply must be observed unless freedom of speech — and thus of thought — is irrevocably chilled. For decades, reporters have observed the distinction between what is meant for public consumption and what is spoken of behind closed doors. The principle is not only enshrined in journalism, but in the government: “executive privilege,” however at times abused, is vital to the decision-making process, and freewheeling (if often “offensive”) conversation and characterizations are part of that process. If we have arrived at a point where we literally have to watch every word we speak, than we are no better than North Korea or the former East Germany. Somewhere, Gen. McChrystal is smiling…
Still, the days when “gentlemen don’t read other gentlemen’s mail” are long gone, and in cyberspace any utterance, no matter how “private,” is now potentially public — and potentially career-ending. That’s the real lesson from the Weigel flap: in the war of ideas in cyberspace, truth is no longer the first casualty. Trust is.
Whoa, boy*. I think exactly the opposite: that privacy for government and those who cover it is exactly what we do not need, exactly what we are working to eliminate with sunshine and publicness. Journalists should have been the ones opening the drapes on those dark rooms but they didn’t because they were seduced by their invitations in. So outsiders are forcing them open. Hurrah. Privacy is what protects the tyrants of North Korea and East Germany. Transparency is what kills them.
So if we want more transparency — and I believe that we, the people, do even if they, our institutions, often do not — then we must stop going along with the myth of the opinionless man and the scandal of the opinionated man. We should celebrate openness and honesty whenever they manage to break through. We should recognize that — to reform Walsh’s bottom line — transparency leads to trust. We should remind our institutions — government and the journalists who are supposed to cover them — that we expect them to judge and we will respect their actions more if we understand their judgment.
The institutions’ myth of the opinionless man is what is behind their disdain for the internet and its inhabitants — us. Don’t you hear it all the time: Oh, the internet is filled with nothing but opinions, as if opinions — our opinions — were worthless. But opinions and the arguments about them — and, yes, the facts needed to win those arguments — are the basis of decision-making in any organization and in society itself. Opinions are the soil of democracy. Publicness is the sunshine that lets it grow. (/metaphor)
What we’re witnessing in these cases is more than a mere two-day kerfuffle. We are witnessing small evidence of a cultural shift away from the privacy, secrecy, and control that empowered and protected institutions in a centralized, mass society to new cultural norms of publicness. That publicness grants us independence from the powerful; it wrests control from their hands. That is why we are grappling so with questions of privacy and publicness. (That is some of what I am trying to grapple with in my book.)
Alan F. Westin’s influential 1967 book Privacy and Freedom expresses the view of the prior era: “The greatest threat to civilized social life,” he says in his gravest possible terms, “would be a situation in which each individual was utterly candid in his communications with others, saying exactly what he knew or felt at all times.” Well, hasn’t he just described the internet? There we see our emerging social norm of publicness. There we see the war of the private and the public. It’s about more than Facebook photos.
Jürgen Habermas idealized the emergence of the (bourgeois) public sphere of rational discourse in the 18th century as a counterpoint to government authority and he lamented its eventual corruption by media and commercialization. I will argue in my book that perhaps now, in our post-institutional age, we may see his public sphere emerge after all. It’s not going to look idealized for it is built on discourse — on internet opinions — and to those accustomed to the neatness of control by government and media, that looks messy. But if we have faith in our fellow man* then we can at least hope that out of this discourse, rationality may emerge.
In such discourse, the opinionless man is silent. I’d rather hear him.
* You needn’t supply your rant about how I should not use the word “man.” I’m using it unapologetically — well, except for this footnote. I’m using it because there’s nothing wrong with the word man but moreso because if you take every instance of the word “man” in this post and replace it with “men and women” or “persons” or “humans” it would result in awkward English and lose cultural reference. Besides, in this case, we happen to be talking about two men. And I am one myself. I’m unapologetic about that.
: LATER: Matthew Yglesias on having no opinion as make-believe.
Something about Joe Klein’s sedition claim against Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin has struck a very deep chord with conservatives. Although Palin herself hasn’t responded, Beck has reacted with calm but passionate reiterations of his love for America, which even garnered him some tender reinforcement from Bill O’Reilly. Rush Limbaugh shot back at the criticisms in a WSJ op-ed this morning, calling the claims “self-serving nonsense.”
While Limbaugh was not an original member of the Beck/Palin sedition team, John Heilemann added him to the mix, and the subsequent comments from former President Bill Clinton assumed that Timothy McVeigh was partially influenced by ’90s conservative talk radio. Dismissing the claims that right-wing angst can lead to violence, Limbaugh argued that it was protesters on the left that are problematic: “We’re used to seeing leftist malcontents take to the streets. Sometimes they’re violent, breaking shop windows with bricks and throwing rocks at police… Not all leftists are violent, of course. But most are angry. It’s in their DNA.” He also continued his line of attack from last week, throwing the Oklahoma City hot potato back at Clinton with the Waco tragedy.
He was not completely on the offensive though, reiterating his love of country in the collected manner Beck brought to his program throughout the week. What was wrong, he argued, with simply asking questions and wanting to keep the country on the right track?:
Like the millions of citizens who’ve peacefully risen up and attended thousands of rallies in protest, I seek nothing more than the preservation of the social contract that undergirds our society. I do not hate the government, as the left does when it is not running it. I love this country. And because I do, I insist that the temporary inhabitants of high political office comply with the Constitution, honor our God-given unalienable rights, and respect our hard-earned private property. For this I am called seditious, among other things, by some of the very people who’ve condemned this society?
To what degree this measured response to the claim is a source reaction from the original attacks on the right or a response to Beck’s successful attempt at displaying vulnerability (“like a horse stepped on my chest”) and resilience (“I love my country,” etc) before the attacks is unclear, though this seems to be the new mode of muted attack the right will adhere to as liberals become more aggressive.
After reading Matt Cutts‘s recent update on this August post at Google Webmaster Central about a project codenamed Caffeine, it is evident that Google insists in perfectioning the search engine algorrithms by adapting them to the present state of the web and this time is more than just a small tweak. In a scenario where the common information streamline has changed from a peaceful water spring into a violent torrent, traditional search methods rapidly get to be obsolete and obstrusive. If you are one of those concerned about your SEO, you must have noticed the constant fluctuations in your SERPs due to the influence of social networks like Facebook or Twitter just to mention some. The clot in search results is thicker than ever up to the point that you can’t tell good content from bad efficiently. So there came real time search options like Updates. But now things promise to get even better. Google has decided to face 2010 with full power by adapting their best weapon in a way that it turns faster and deadlier, now more multimedia aware and generic search-friendly maybe with an eye on Bing and/or Rupert Murdoch and building the perfect nest for the ads goose to lay more golden eggs of course. Expectations have grown to test the new possibilities the implementation of this under-the-hood system will bring since Matt confirmed that after the holidays Caffeine will be available in all Google data centers. SEO companies are worried for obvious reasons as traditional ways to get clients or themselves to front page Google results may soon change. Of course, this is just a theory, but previous experience advice to be on alert. The principle of having good content in a spider friendly and clean neighborhood context will prevail I assume although it would be interesting to see how we can influence results via social networks. It is not a crazy thing to say that those who continuously post relevant content and update faster and most important, with a higher social recognition within trendy social networks will stay on top perhaps by introducing social search experiment features that are now in Google Experimental labs for example. Whatever it is 2010 brings I think it will be for the better and once again thanks guess who. If I were in MS’ shoes I’d start spying on this secret experiment codenamed Caffeine to be unveiled next January before it’s too late.
Things at Google sometimes go slow but they certainly work in the end once the product is solid. In other words, when the app sees the light of day it is going to be a reliable asset on the market. Besides generally buying the right stuff from the right people at the right moment, they have this 20 percent time company policy for engineers to indulge in developing an idea once a week. On top of the given productivity yielded that day lies Google Labs, founded by the company in 2002 . Many bright ideas have evolved in there on their way to success while some others still rest at the bottom of a drawer or get personally killed by Google from time to time. The idea does not always appear from scratch but belongs to another company with a lot of expectations set on passing the key tests Google imposes on the ultimate toy before it comes of age. That’s simply the way Google has in order to be sure about certain products. They give their employees some time to play with raw material, domestic or imported, let everybody see what’s happening on the benchmark, allowing customer feedback, if interest grows then that project gets the green light and full priority. If the stuff is superb but is shunned by potential users, then it is bound to fail. The equation favors demand so the odds are higher for it to succeed by reducing the error margin. But why am I giving you this sermon today? The purpose of this introduction is to announce the recent appearance of a new Google Labs project called Image Swirl.
What is Image Swirl?: It is a tool that takes features from Similar Images recently introduced in Google Images as a “Find similar images” link under many of the pictures and Google Wonder Wheel launched in May 2009 and shown in the options section of Google search engine results. This time, instead of grouping relevant words in a cluster as in the latter we will be dealing with images. Not that the idea of clusters is new but applying this technology to Google Images is definitely an interesting move. Perhaps the project is finally buried when users get bored of fumbling with the brand new contrivance but the intention behind revamping Google Images is what counts. Google Images search handles a gargantuan amount of traffic and of course the company does not do this out of philanthropy. News like Google giving funds to Pixazza last March (finally they raised $5.75 million in Series A funding), a sort of Adsense for images “enlisting people to tag photos with links that let Web surfers buy the products shown” ring a bell now in November. What is Google up to? (redundant question lately). I don’t really know. Hopefully, that huge investment is not related to Image Swirl at all but I am reluctant to accept that this is just to improve the user experience. Guess what, last Oct 27 they announced here a brand new Product ideas for Google Images page. After all this time!?
So here is my point, this is not just one more insignificant minor project to play around with cluster technology, this is just the tip of an iceberg. Adsense ads are already on top of the thumbnails while you use Google Image but what about placing the ads inside any odd harmless picture in every cluster. But let’s not be that negative and hope for the best; let’s just expect new technologies to be applied in our favorite search engine. Business is business and people have to make a little money to make ends meet.
This is an update to previous post: Smarter Connections with Glue by AdaptiveBlue
After the huge success of AdaptiveBlue with their browser plugin Glue, a sort of toolbar buddy that collects your cultural likings while you surf and allows you to share them with your memes, the company finally has decided to materialize its virtual world into a solid social network with the announcement last October 26th of GetGlue.com. If you had your doubts about the steady growth of Glue take a look at the number of downloads at the plugin page:
In spite of the fact that the plugin has evolved into a more efficient tool the arrival of this new site is indeed welcomed by users as the plugin seemed somehow beheaded without a physical social network to improve communication channels. The content was all there but inside a bubble of your own. Now there is a more personal contact and we can say that Glue has finally come of age. But what is GetGlue.com and what does it offer? According to the press brief on their site, I quote:
GetGlue.com is a social recommendation network for interests like books, music, and movies. GetGlue.com offers a stream of suggestions based on user interests, friends activity and things that are popular with everyone. Users can also add GetGlue to their browser to more quickly build their taste profile and get suggestions in context, on hundreds of popular sites like Amazon, Last.fm, Netflix, Wine.com and Citysearch.
1. Suggestions Stream: A continuous stream of suggestions is generated for the users based on what they liked, friend’s favorites and everyone’s popular.
2. GetGlue Profiles: New profiles make it easy for users to save and share their favorite books, music and movies.
3. Stickers and Guru: Users can earn stickers for participating and get recognized as a Guru for things they actively comment on.
4. Browser Addon: Glue appears around the web providing in context suggestions, friend reviews, clips, and a way to quickly build a taste profile.
As some images are worth a thousand words take a look at the promo video and judge by yourselves.
I wouldn’t like to sound phony and cast false predictions without a solid foundation but I see that some other people have the same feeling about the present and future of Twitter. I don’t know about you but I am getting bored lately with the increasing flood of spam on Twitter. I was swimming in some exotic beach with pristine waters and all of a sudden civilization popped in, you know, with their towels, their hammocks, their suntans and all the garbage left behind. At least, that’s the feeling I have. At what point did that occur? No idea. Now Twitter looks as shabby and decrepit as Facebook, Myspace or Blogger. The idea is good and the mechanism is going to last; the way people interact, the speed and the social power will continue to exist but somewhere else, like a new volcanic island that suddenly appears on the surface. Jack Dorsey et al, founded a brief empire without even knowing it. They didn’t have the vision or the money it takes to conquer more territory and send dangerous messages to neighboring empires. In comparison to Facebook, Twitter never went beyond the mediocre barbarian invasion, with a lot of impetus, yes, but with a poor strategy, so on numerous occasions the hordes of Twitterers tried to find some meaning, claimed for leaders that helped expand the fresh sap of social networking and compete with the rotten empires of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg but Twitter execs were at a loss, turning their backs on foreign affairs and so it came that the empire-to-be succumbed to its own lack of perspective and ambitions and its people indulged in an orgy of neglect and narcissism. I still visit Twitter sometimes but I get a bittersweet taste more than often so I run and hide in my blog. I wonder what is going to come next. I am sure something new will see the light. In the meantime, I will keep visiting the village for food and perhaps some thoughtful conversation with a philosopher or two, but I will try to return to my own secret hideaway before dusk. History books will record the events and future generations will learn about the curious deeds of a brave tribe that wanted to build an empire but never went beyond its boundaries.