The first term of our Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield draws to a close this week as students submit their learning logs, written on either WordPress, Blogger or Medium, reflecting on what they’ve looked at so far in the lectures and practical workshops. The last lecture of the series was on Monday and was about a company a little different from the others in that it has traditionally been all about retail: Amazon.
However, it’s more than just The Everything Store these days. Amazon dominates cloud computing through Amazon Web Services with a third of the market (Microsoft is next, languishing at 9%), and the beginning of The Grand Tour – enjoyed by many of my students taking advantage of a free six-month Amazon Prime trial for those in education – is in biggest move yet into content creation. There’ll be more to come, too. Amazon is now firmly one of the ‘big four’ media and technology companies, alongside Google, Apple and Facebook.
The theory attached to this lecture was Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, first outlined in this memorable piece in Wired magazine in 2004. Part of the theory states that hits are becoming smaller as it becomes easier for consumers to find niche products more to their taste. Re-reading the book before the lecture, his section about hits notes that *NSYNC’s record for the fastest selling album in US history, set at the music industry’s peak in 2000, was unlikely to ever be beaten. Well, eventually it was, by Adele in 2015. I suppose you could even say she said Hello to the record, forcing *NSYNC to bid it Bye Bye Bye. But perhaps you’d better not.
Journalism Technologies moved on this week to direct messaging, encompassing everything from texting to an area of much less familiarity to men in their 30s like me: Snapchat. In the lecture, I noted some notable similarities and differences between the developments of these particular technologies, compared with those looked at in previous weeks. As is so often the case, universities were involved: whether M.I.T. as with the Compatible Time Sharing System back in the 1960s, or Stanford (alma mater of Google and, at a push, Apple) through Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat.
One interesting difference comes with texting. Never a big deal in America, this was initially conceived by a Finnish engineer, while the first SMS was sent between two British engineers in 1992. The Finns helped popularise it though, thanks to all those almost-indestructible Nokia handsets which were everywhere from 1999 onwards, when users began to be able to text friends on different networks. Even though Twitter was initially designed as a form of public text messaging, some in the office hadn’t even heard of texting when the idea was first mooted there in the mid-2000s.
Even now, the world’s biggest messaging platform, WhatsApp, is not an especially significant player in the US. Only 7% of American internet users have the app, while that figure is a third in Europe and significantly higher in Africa and the Middle East. That last point, its penetration in areas which in many cases missed out on the desktop computer revolution almost completely, helps explain why Facebook paid such big money for it back in 2014.
This week’s theory was UGT: Uses and Gratifications Theory. It’s a body of scholarship which examines why we use particular forms of media, and what we get out of it when we do. A classic example is a 1949 study of newspaper readers, deprived of their daily read by a strike, who told interviewers that it was the ritual of reading the paper they missed, rather than the actual content of the articles. An interesting 2016 study by Vaterlaus et al applied UGT to Snapchat, asking students at an American university why they liked it so much. Something well worth presenting to my own first year students, I thought, especially as many acknowledged in the workshops that it was at least rivalling, if not surpassing, Facebook and Twitter as their social platform of choice.
We’ve been looking at audio and podcasting in Journalism Technologies this week. My colleague Caroline Pringle delivered Monday’s lecture, which explored the origins of platforms including Soundcloud and Audioboom, as well as how podcasts including Serial and Radiolab have led to a renewed interest in longform documentary-style journalism.
The workshops involved getting students to record and upload a basic piece of audio to Audioboom using their phones, but also listening to a podcast. This was something that a small group of students had never done before. By contrast, some were keen podcast listeners (my three groups of Sports Journalism students had a lot of love for Joe Rogan’s UFC podcast), but most had only dabbled occasionally in podcasting. Often it was simply that they didn’t know where to start, and needed a recommendation or two.
It’s just over a decade since Jawed Karim stood in front of some elephants at a zoo in San Diego and mumbled into his friend’s camera for 18 seconds. It was the first video uploaded to YouTube, which Karim co-founded along with two other former employees of PayPal. A year and a half later, it had already grown to become the fifth largest website on the internet, and was sold to Google for $1.65bn – a fortune at the time, but cheap at the price considering its continued impact on the media landscape.
This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies took in the story of YouTube’s rise and rise (there still hasn’t been a fall), by way of its various battles with the old big media companies, angry at how their content was being shared and shared again. YouTube, with Google’s help, was ultimately able to resist years of legal pressure and avoid going the same way as Napster. The final irony is that YouTube has become much more like broadcast television – a home for professionally made content rather than the ‘broadcast yourself’ homemade videos on which it made its reputation – while any TV station you care to name has a platform which somewhat resembles YouTube, not least the BBC’s iPlayer.
For a theoretical approach, I turned to Spreadable Media, a 2013 book by the father of participatory cultures, Henry Jenkins, along with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Explaining the way certain videos spread on YouTube, they draw a contrast with sticky content, a term popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his memorable book The Tipping Point. Jenkins and the others say that no matter how good – sticky – a piece of content is, these days it still needs people to share, recommend and remix it to their networks, so it can reach a large audience.
The practical sessions involved getting students to actually make quick and easy YouTube videos, using the platform’s basic in-built editor and some of the copyright-free footage and music available on there. Despite being big consumers of YouTube, only relatively few students in the groups had ever uploaded anything themselves before. At least now they know where all that tinkly music so beloved of vloggers comes from!
“How many of you in the room have a Flickr account?” asked my colleague Caroline during her lecture on photo sharing in Journalism Technologies this week. Not a hand went up, other than ours. An indication of how selfies, filters and apps have taken over this space, since the days a decade ago when putting pictures on the internet meant looking at those familiar blue-and-pink dots.
The stories of Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram took up much of Caroline’s lecture. The key concept she introduced was that of mass amateurisation, memorably applied to the social web by Clay Shirky. Because reading lists don’t always have to feature readings, we made his 2005 TED talk on the subject required viewing this week. The workshop featured a bit on how to take your own smartphone photos and embed them, before some guidance on searching Google Images and, yes, Flickr, for Creative Commons images.
Getting journalism students to keep their heads up and look out for interesting things in the world around them is a perennial challenge. When you’re a journalist, all sorts of things can seem like potential stories – from the planning sign pinned to a lamppost, to all those posters on the community noticeboard. The next homework task is to get them to take just such a picture while walking around Huddersfield, do a bit more research into the story, then write it along with the embedded image in their blogs. I’m looking forward to seeing what they all find.
Back then, I used to say then that while Twitter probably wasn’t going to remain the key journalistic tool it had become, it was something students had to learn to be successful in 2011. And I can still say the same now. Despite Twitter’s many boardroom battles and other business woes in the years since, it’s still an essential part of a media professional’s daily life.
That corporate strife was a theme of much of the lecture I gave on Monday. The origin stories of these major tech companies can be instructive about the sort of operations they have become: Apple at the intersection of technology and art like Steve Jobs, and Google where engineers like Larry and Sergey are king. For Twitter, it’s a confused mess, with a group of bickering rivals who stumbled on a remarkable communications tool with a user base which developed most of its key strengths (from the @ reply to retweets) while its creators fumbled through trying to turn it into a business.
The Public Sphere was the week’s key theory, important not just because it’s a concept which helps explain Twitter’s centrality to modern public life, but also as the students had already looked at Habermas in another module in week two, and this was a timely refresher for them. But alongside a discussion on that, the workshop featured some quick practical tasks as we ran through more advanced Twitter features including Advanced Search, Lists and Followerwonk, as well as embedding tweets and making your own personal profile look a bit more professional.
Jim Crowley and Freddie Tylicki being attended to. Steve Drowne and Ted Durkan walked into the weighing room.
One of Monday afternoon’s classes with a group of Sports Journalism students coincided with the horrific pile-up involving four horses and jockeys at Kempton. Quickly, I was able to show the students how to use the location filter on Advanced Search to track down a journalist tweeting from the course. It’s yet another new important skill, in a career more full of them than ever before.
Meanwhile, it’s congratulations to Journalism first year Maria Ward-Brennan, who won a £10 app store voucher in a little competition I ran during Monday’s lecture. I challenged the students to find a creative way to use Twitter while I was talking, and to post their entries on #journotech. Maria won for this, which was annoyingly accurate.
You can’t discuss social media for very long before you arrive at Facebook, so in a way it’s a surprise we’ve waited until five weeks into our Journalism Technologies module to get onto it. This was the lecture delivered by my colleague Caroline Pringle on Monday, focusing in particular on the development of the platform. It’s tempting to think that it’s been around forever, and for 18-year-olds it just about has, so going back and exploring how it became what it is today is really worthwhile. And, as a show of hands confirmed, not that many teenagers have seen The Social Network.
The key concept introduced was that of The Filter Bubble, a term coined by Eli Pariser – best known for his role at MoveOn.org – and explained by him in this TED talk. Roughly speaking, it describes what happens when algorithms, such as those which power Facebook’s news feed, increasingly show us only content it thinks we’re going to be interested in, based on our previous online behaviour. It’s ironic that Pariser went on to co-found Upworthy, one of a series of BuzzFeed rivals which suffered a big drop in traffic thanks to a Facebook algorithm tweak in 2014.
The workshops focused on using Facebook for practical journalistic purposes. In part, this is about finding appropriate groups and pages to like, helping to turn the news feeds of our students into ones more useful to trainee journalists. Less Unilad and more, well, everything else. The highlight though was the section on using Facebook for broadcasting, when everyone had a go at Facebook Live. Even though I reminded all the groups to set their privacy to ‘Only Me’ to avoid spamming confused family and friends, one was enjoying himself so much he let everyone in his network see his stream. “Are you sure you’re supposed to be doing this in a lesson?” wrote his mum in a comment. I can vouch for him: he was.
This week in Journalism Technologies we’re looking at Apple as well as the use of apps to help us do journalism. I didn’t expect the students would have had much experience with read later apps or using browser extensions (as it happened, I don’t think any did), so giving them the choice of Kindle or Pocket and getting them to send next week’s reading from the desktop to the app using Chrome’s Send to Kindle widget, worked well as a class activity.
No bank, no oil company, no military supplier, has ever turned in numbers as Apple has, boosted by products ranging from the iMac and the iconic iPod, to today’s almost ubiquitous iPhones and iPads. Even if Apple were a company which had virtually no involvement in media and technology, it would still be worthy of a study for a room full of trainee journalists. The fact it has had and is having an inevitable impact on journalism, too, just makes it all the more relevant.
The week’s key concept was the debate over open vs closed in tech, and the increasing use of vertical integration by Apple and its main rivals, Google, Facebook and Amazon. Underlining this in the workshops, I asked students how many had ever smashed their iPhones, and what they’d done about it. Some soldiered on with a broken phone, others got a dodgy repair job from an unofficial operator, while others stumped up the not inconsiderable cost of going into the Apple Store and getting it done there. The fact that you have to pay Apple to fix the Apple phone you bought from Apple in the first place, is a good example of a hidden (but very real) cost of the vertically integrated, closed system which has helped propel Apple to such success.
It’s blogs week on our new Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield. And that means setting students up with their own professional blogs – from a menu of WordPress, Blogger and Medium – as well as the above lecture tracing the recent history of how the audience turned into something a bit more than that.
Putting the lecture together a few weeks ago, I was struck by how old hat it all seemed now. I made Web 2.0 the week’s key concept, but even as I was discussing it during Monday’s class, I was struggling to remember the last time I’d even had cause to say the term out loud. Blogs have been around long enough to have passed from flavour of the month to workmanlike part of internet furniture.
I actually spent the lecture and the practical workshops posing the question: why blog today? Basically as a way of justifying why I’m making each of the students do it for their first assessment this term. I still think blogging is hugely valuable, in particular for journalism students. It allows them to learn straightforward tools of online publishing and sharing, gives them a professional-looking online home, and even offers the more ambitious the chance to tinker with a bit of html around the edges of their customisable templates.
The danger is that students are encouraged to start a blog, but after they post once or twice, it just sort of withers, unloved and never updated. While it’s important for students to blog, the only thing worse than not bothering is doing so half-heartedly, as it hints at disengagement from the world the students want to enter after their courses. By the end of this first term everyone on the module will have a busy-looking blog with a series of (hopefully) interesting posts reflecting on current trends in journalism and tech. I’ll report back on how they get on.
As well as my new first year module called Journalism Technologies, I’m teaching a second new class at the University of Huddersfield this year. Journalism Innovation is an optional module for final years doing journalism and media courses, and includes themes of entrepreneurship and using social and online tools to do journalism in new ways. I’ve got 50 students doing it, which is great.
It’s being taught in two-hour workshops, and I used this week’s to cover a couple of skills which are increasingly vital for young media graduates to know about – adding subtitles to a Facebook video, and creating a social media-ready graphic to display a quote.
For the latter we used CardKit, which has been created by the excellent digital development team at The Times for their own use, and put on GitHub for the rest of us to play with. It works within any browser (although a couple of students had a problem downloading it from within Internet Explorer – as with most things, Chrome and Firefox are a better bet) and easily allows a few tweaks to make an appealing graphic for either Twitter or Facebook.
Even allowing for a bit of time dotting around the class helping individual students here and there, everyone had created a suitable image and posted it within about half an hour. But you could do it much faster once you’re familiar with the tool. Plenty of the students are doing placements which require them to make social content, so hopefully it’ll come in useful for some of them at work before too long.