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Opening sessions at Digital Citizen Indaba

Well, we won’t be blogging realtime from the Digital Citizen Indaba. Rhodes University has pretty conservative policies on access to their academic network – I had to provide my passport before the IT department would issue me a temporary password. This got me onto the flaky wireless network at the Highway Africa conference. This network, unfortunately, doesn’t extend into the room where we’re having the plenary sessions of the Digital Citizen Indaba. Hence, the tea breaks are bit breaks, where we all are rushing to a nearby building and logging on. I’m going to do my best to blog in near-realtime, but it may take a bit before I post my slides from my keynote this morning.

After my opening keynote (slides up in a bit, I hope), the next session was “The Editors’ Forum”, a chance for mainstream media professionals to talk about blogging.

Chris Roper and Bryan Porter are the founding editors of 24.com. Chris describes himself as a “corporate whore” as well as a blogger. Fascinated with language, his personal blog is The Lookingglass Wars, a reference to the way words can mean whatever you want them to mean. He argues that “anyone can write, and that’s unfortunate” – what’s important is learning how to read in this new medium. (He recommends Joyce, specifically Finnegan’s Wake, which he sees as a hyperlinked piece of “paperspace”.) Learning to read the blogosphere means navigating between “my cat died” and “the current government killed my cat.” Roper isn’t especially concerned about the blogger versus journalism debate – he invokes Thomas Aquinas’s “Via Negativa”, the idea that we can only know God in terms of what God is not. Perhaps bloggers can tell us what journalism is by being what journalism is not.

Bryan Porter’s presentation is a bit more button-downed, with more power point and less
linguistic philosophy. He notes that South African journalists started noticing blogs about a year ago. This leads to a situation he describes in a slide that reads:

Journalist: “Mr. Online Editor, what threat do blogs pose to traditional media?” – insert vague vomiting sounds here

He’s got a ready answer, as the former editor of News24: the proliferation of alternatives of online media just strengthens the power of a trusted news brand. Better yet, it lets media organizations enter into two-way communication with their readers.

In the run up to Survivor Africa (a huge event on the continent, as Andrew Heavens wrote about the other day), 24.com identified a blogger writing about Survivor on their blog site. They offered him access to some of the contestants, gave him some exclusive media clips and featured his blog on the front page of 24.com – the result was 13,000 views of the blog in a very short amount of time. On more serious matters, News24 has invited bloggers to weigh in on recent conflicts in the Middle East. They also run “The Great South African Blogoff”, which attracted 300 bloggers as competitors – they’re trying to figure out whether they feature bloggers on a weekly basis, or give an annual prize.

24.com is very interested in MySpace and the fact that 100 million users have put up profiles on MySpace – 24.com jokes about founding “Braaispace”, a South African version of the idea, letting users post their own content, including audio and video media. 24.com hopes to present a great deal of online audio and video content, some of it created by users.

Ray Hartley, the Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times admits that his publication is still trying to figure out how his publication handles this new, rapidly arriving world. He’s doing his reading, trying to understand how the new medium works. He opens with a pair of photos – one of a male celebrity apparently kissing the hindquarters of a female talkshow host, the other of Thabo Mbeki. His point is that there’s a divergence between what gets your attention and what’s important.

He invokes digital guru John Seely Brown, who notes that it took 10 to 20 years for filmmakers to discover techniques like fades, dissolves, flashbacks, and space and time folds – it’s going to take time for bloggers to develop their techniques as well. Brown also suggests that the new literacy is the ability to navigate through information, since the amount of knowledge in the world is doubling every 18 months (a figure I’d argue strongly with…) He believes that South Africa is at a disadvantage in learning to navigate, because mass broadband hasn’t reached South Africa the way it has in the United States.

Harley believes that the “fast context switcing” digital natives engage in causes new ways of thinking. Invoking Malcolm Gladwell’s “Blink”, he suggests that people are making faster decisions, based on first impressions. This is part of the attention economy – attention is the scarce resource, Richard Lanham suggests. The creation of new media means that there’s more to pay attention to, more demands on the attention of a reader. He notes that in the US, 39% of 18-34 year olds get their news from the web, as opposed to 9% from a daily newspaper – he warns us that we may be on the way here in South Africa as well. (We are. And I’m not convinced it’s a bad thing.)

Juanita Williams is a news editor for the Independent Online. She began blogging for the Independent in August, as the IOL starts figuing how to “stick their toe into the water” of blogging. She’s blogging from the perspective of the inside of the IOL, talking about how stories get made. She wonders how to draw the line between personal opinion and her official role. “Do I be objective about this? Or do I tell you what I really think on this Mugabe story and just get to it?” It’s giving her a unique perspective on what her readers are interested in, especially the questions they want answered, since many of the folks who write to her are sugggesting topics for the daily site poll.

A question from the audience asks the folks at 24.com about defamatory content – aren’t they worried that their users will create content that gets them sued. The answer: sure, we are, but we get this question every year. We’ve got an abuse department, but the calls are hard to make – a recent post said “Those damned Americans and those fucking Yids are at it again” – the staff decided that “Yids” was offensive, but “damned Americans” wasn’t… :-)

5 thoughts on “Opening sessions at Digital Citizen Indaba”

  1. Um, I wouldn’t really call Bryan and Chris the co-founders of 24.com – they were instrumental in it being launched yes but while working for Media24.

  2. We’re founding editors, or joint editors… Well met, Ethan – I really enjoyed your presentations and panel discussions. Keep well – Bryan Porter (with a ‘y’ ;)

  3. Pingback: Inside IOL » Blog Archives » Ethan's take on the Editors' Panel

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