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David Weinberger and the Ninja Gap

David Weinberger somehow manages to find time to write books, write thoughtful blog posts, AND produce a periodic newsletter – Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization – that’s one of he best reads on the ‘net. I’m deeply flattered that the current issue features David’s thoughts on some of the topics I’m obsessed with: media attention, caring, international understanding. More generously, he gives me the chance to react to his essay within the essay…

David’s generosity isn’t the main reason I’m linking to his piece – it’s that he’s broken some important theoretical ground with his important new concept in media criticism: The Ninja Gap. It takes a moment or two to explain – bear with me.

Almost anyone who’s heard me give a public talk has heard me observe that Japan and Nigeria have roughly the same populations, but vastly different media representation: you’re roughly 8-12 times more likely to find an article focused on Japan in an American newspaper than an article on Nigeria. There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, from racism to comparative economic power. David offers a new one: Japan’s got ninjas, and Nigeria doesn’t.

It’s a brilliant observation because it’s funny, true and highly relevant to conversations about media attention. Johan Galtung, in his seminal “The Structure of Foreign News“, draws a persuasive metaphor between a radio receiver’s ability to tune in one of many radio stations, and a listener’s likelihood to “receive” a piece of news:

F4: The more meaningful the signal, the more probable that it will be recorded as worth listening to.
F5: The more consonant the signal is with the mental image of what one expects to find, the more probable that it will be recorded as worth listening to.

F7: The more a signal has been tuned in to the more likely it will continue to be tuned in to as worth listening to.

Context matters, Galtung argues. If we’ve got a mental image of Africa as a backwards and technically retrograde place, we’re likely to miss stories about innovation in mobile commerce (see the lead story in issue 407…) or success in venture capital. Galtung’s fifth maxim is closely linked to the idea of cognitive dissonance – it’s uncomfortable to attempt to resolve new information that conflicts with existing perceptions, beliefs and behaviors.

Context doesn’t just come from hard news – we all consume far more entertainment and advertising content than we consume of hard news. This information helps shape our views of these countries, and likely helps us unconsciously decide what sort of information to accept or reject. These perceptions construct something over time that might be thought of as a “nation brand” – as the man who coined that term,marketer Simon Anholt, observed, “Ethiopia is well branded to receive aid, but poorly branded as a tourism destination.”

In this context, Japan is a place branded in many of our minds as a place that’s innovative, high-tech, and more than a little strange. Whether or not we’ve been to Japan, we’ve encountered anime, monster movies, martial arts flicks, SONY tv’s and Toyota trucks. Whether or not our ideas about Japan are well-founded, reflect the reality on the ground, are rich in stereotypes, etc., we’ve got preconceptions about Japan. On some level, the fact that we know that “Japan = Ninjas” means that we’ve got receptivity for a story about Japan that we might not have for Nigeria.

And so, Nigeria needs ninja. Or as David explains:

One reason we care about Japan more than Nigeria (generally) is that Japan has a cool culture. We’ve heard about that culture because some Westerners wrote bestselling books about ninjas, and then Hollywood made ninja movies. Love them ninjas! Nigeria undoubtedly has something as cool as ninjas. Ok, something almost as cool as ninjas. If we had some blockblusters about the Nigerian equivalent of ninjas, we’d start to be interested Nigeria.

In other words, we’re more inclined to pay attention to Japan because we’ve got some context – a weird, non-representative context, for sure – while we have almost no context for stories about Nigeria. The context we do have for Nigeria – 419 scams – tends to be pretty corrosive, and may make us likelier to pick up only the stories that portray Nigeria as wildly corrupt and criminal.

David’s observation leads him to some concrete advice for those of us trying to inspire xenophilia: write better: “Good writing can make anything interesting. We will read the story about the Nigerian peddler and his neighborhood if there is a writer able to tell that story in a compelling way.”

That’s harder than it sounds. But it’s also one of the best pieces of constructive advice I’ve seen on cultivating xenophilia: tell good stories in a compelling way. And it wouldn’t hurt to throw a ninja or two in there while you’re at it.

If you haven’t had your daily dose of Weinberger from this post – and you might be surprised to know that the USDA for Weinberger is higher than you probably think – you might consider watching this video interview, produced by Ulrike Reinhard, who was kind enough to interview me a few days earlier. Feel free to ignore the first couple of minutes of Dr. Weinberger being unspeakably nice to me and fast-forward to the point where he disagrees with me and points out my pessimism and his comparative optimism on the Internet’s ability to help us encounter serendipity.

While we’re on the homophily/xenophilia/serendipity track, allow me to point you to a wonderful comment on my H/X/S post from Aaditeshwar Seth, a computer science researcher and new media innovator, who offers a useful perspective on xenophilia and homophily in terms of strong and weak social ties. Citing Mark Granovetter’s “The Strength of Weak Ties“, Seth argues that we can see social graphs cluster in terms of strong and weak ties, and that xenophiles may be people who connect different strong-tied groups. I’ve got one of Seth’s papers queued up for addition to a future homophily reading list – hope to post some of the papers I’ve been reading later this week or early the next.

14 thoughts on “David Weinberger and the Ninja Gap”

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  2. I guess to sum it up, what David is trying to say is that Edutainment could be a better way of putting countries like Nigeria on the attention map.

    Nice! :)

  3. There is a book by Arjun Appadurai (Modernity at Large) that complements David’s observations. It has a chapter about the mental “landscapes” we create about our ethno-environment, and how we form imagined communites. This process in large part helped by the news and information we receive and process, enhanced by technology. The role of the public discourse on “far away” lands is crucial in constructing the “landscape” of reference for our judgement.

  4. it is a very good article … how big is your “we” is a hugely important criterion, if when you say “we” you are not referring to everyone on the planet, i don’t want to hear you, basically

    and, just wondering, how do we explain the presence in the newspaper every day for fifty years, of a very tiny country … israel … i am getting fed up, thinking of dropping them from my “we” … funny weird world

  5. I’m not sure about the cognitive dissonance part of this argument as a reason why certain countries aren’t covered in the news. Journalists love some storylines because of cognitive dissonance: Arabs and Jews cooperate on anything, rich nation totally unprepared for hurricane relief, evangelical minister consorts with gay prostitute. But those three examples that came to mind are in areas where there is already media attention.

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  8. I buy the “brands” argument having made a similar one not too long ago myself: http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=311034&rel_no=1
    Nowadays I am inclined to be less exploratory in my search for rationales for media undercoverage of certain issues, climes and trends: laziness:) Good journalism (the one that doesnt make the journalist sound like a clown) is hard to do right. “Branded news” is easy to get right: if everybody is a clown why fret over your costume?

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