Thursday, September 25, 2008

European Parliament and bloggers - 2.0

As I mentioned Tuesday, there has been a suggestion for a report on Concentration and pluralism in the media in the European Union presented to the EU Parliament this week. This happened Monday, and several amendments have been made to the original report by Marianne Mikko. Most significantly for bloggers, the current report (document 002-002) reads:
22. Encourages an open discussion on all issues relating to the status of weblogs;

This is a pretty radical change from the original plan for a registry of bloggers. But perhaps the most interesting amendment is not in the suggestions, but in the list or "whereas" - the reasons and the background for the suggestions:
AD. whereas weblogs represent an important new contribution to freedom of expression and are increasingly used by media professionals as well as by private persons,

This is quite a turn about, from a document that was asking for a registry og bloggers in order to combat spam, desinformation and pollution of the internet, to an aknowledgement that weblogs contribute to the freedom of expression.

So, despite the somewhat omnious encouragement for debate on the status of weblogs (read: we're not done with you yet, bloggers!), this document is a lot more uplifting than the earlier documents. This is however not the only direction in which the document has been changed.

From being a fairly direct attack on media ownership structures, it is now an even more direct endorsement and encouragement of public broadcasting as an alternative in order to retain or regain media diversity. For instance, on how new technology is embraced in the name of pluralism:
R. whereas, however, respect for pluralism of information and diversity of content is not automatically guaranteed by technological advances, but must come about through an active, consistent and vigilant policy on the part of the national public authorities,

And in the suggestions:
4. Calls, therefore, both for a balance between public and private broadcasters - in those Member States where public broadcasters presently exist - and for the interlinking of competition and media law to be guaranteed in order to strengthen the plurality of the media; emphasises that public media broadcasters are also increasingly driven by profit-making, often raising questions relating to the appropriate use of public funds;

5. Believes that the main objectives of public authorities should be to create conditions that ensure a high level of media quality (including those of the public media), secure media diversity and guarantee the full independence of journalists;

However, the perhaps most interesting point comes tucked in almost at the end, as suggestion number 48:
48. Calls for greater transparency with respect to personal data and information kept on users by Internet search engines, email providers and social networking sites;

Suddenly there is an added point about social networking sites, search engines, email providers, and their use and potential abuse of the information we, as participants upload to them. I have to say that this starts getting interesting. Organisations such as Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and other of the main actors in this field have become so big that it takes a union of nations to be able to ask them vital questions such as: What do you do with the information you are collecting about us all?

This is a very different and much more interesting document than the original one, and while I am both repelled and fascinated by the style and language of these documents, they are proof that group processes and the machinery of democracy sometimes do lead to better results


There has been another school killing in Finland, a horrible tragedy that turns out to have been the result of a long-standing plan. A young man has entered a school and killed students, teachers, a health professional and himself. He killed 10 people.

In the shock of this people look for something to blame. And look, he played Battlefield II just before he committed his acts.

Battlefield II is a multi-user game from the producers of Battlefield 1942. It's a game where they put a lot of emphasis on details and correctness both in images and in the function of the weapons and strategies. A lot of people who are interested in strategy, tactics, weapons, uniforms, history, current politics and a long list of other issues that connect into the playing of a complex game, like Battlefield II.

The two school-shooters in Finland in (2008) and (2007), knew each other, according to witnesses. One of the things they did together was to play Battlefield II.

It's very easy to assume that the game caused the killings, when you look at it like this. But the truth is, it's harder to find a person their age who has NOT played a computer/video game, than one who has. And if your main interest in life is weapons, violence and death, you won't be playing Tiger Woods PGA Tour.

The second killer probably did a lot of very common things the last hours before his act. He got dressed. He probably ate or drank something. He was studying to become a cook, and went to his school. He had a cat. He played a computer game.

These are not the things that turn a person into a killer. A person who wants to kill others may choose to surround himself with things that will make his decision and his task easier and more acceptable to himself. If you believe the only solution to a problem is violence, then you surround yourself with proof of this. There's enough proof. Look at Iraq. Israel. Afghanistan. Or closer: the entire south/east of Europe. People who believe that a problem can be solved by violence are not hard to find. Did the second killer watch the news? Did he listen to the radio? Did he read a newspaper? Did he hear George Bush speak about warfare, and a firm line?

Faltin Karlsen is interviewed in, where they discuss games and violence, and the fact that the second killer played before he died. Faltin's research is on games and violence, and his response is as sane as it can be. To plan for six years to kill others is not something you do impulsively after playing a computer game. It's absurd to say there's no connection, as it's probably not a coincidence that a man with his interests preferred Battlefield II. But it's equally absurd to claim there is a direct causal connection from gaming to killing. It's more likely that his gaming is a result of what ever made the second killer kill. He wanted to shoot. The game let him pretend to shoot. So he played the game. Gaming should be viewed as an effect, not a cause.

Karlsen suggests another angle at the end of the article. He points out that the media give killers a huge amount of attention. If you want to be famous, murdering your schoolmates means instant fame. Like terrorists, they use terror to become visible.

A way to dampen this trend might be to stop fetishising the killers. Don't show their pictures, don't mention their names. They are not heroes, they deserve no fame. Give their victims a face, show the lives they disrupt and ruin, show the devastation left in their path, and grieve the deaths they cause. But don't make them famous.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

European bloggers and the freedom of speach

In June there was a lot of discussion all over the blogosphere, and in some newspapers as well, about a draft report fom the Committee on Culture and Education, written by Marianne Mikko. This report was discussed yesterday, as the European Parliament is currently in session. This is taken from the short draft of the main topics for this week's session.:
Call to defend media pluralism, but questions over blogging
Parliament will vote on draft resolution tabled by the Culture Committee that calls for steps to be taken to ward off threats to media freedom and diversity from owners, shareholders and governments. At the same time the committee voices concern about the uncontrolled nature of blogs and other on-line media. The own-initiative report, drafted by Marianne MIKKO (PES, ET), argues that "the unrestricted concentration of ownership jeopardises pluralism and cultural diversity" and that there is a "considerable risk" that concentration of ownership and the private media's pursuit of profit can compromise its ability to act as a watchdog for democracy

Obviously something like this gets picked up by the bloggers, and there was apparently quite an outrage when this was first discussed in June this year. Some think this outrage was more than a little misplaced. Jon Worth at the Euroblog delivers a quite sober analysis of the case.

Still, there is reason for concern and to follow what is happening right now closely. The draft does suggest certain changes which may impact bloggers in Europe in probably not exactly well-thought-out ways.

This is the premise for the suggestions in the report (which is written in a fascinating legaleese) which most directly concerns bloggers:
whereas weblogs are an increasingly common medium for self-expression by media professionals as well as private persons, the status of their authors and publishers, including their legal status, is neither determined nor made clear to the readers of the weblogs, causing uncertainties regarding impartiality, reliability, source protection, applicability of ethical codes and the assignment of liability in the event of lawsuits,

Several of the suggestions respond to this:
4. Stresses the need to institute monitoring and implementation systems for media pluralism based on reliable and impartial indicators;

7. Proposes the introduction of fees commensurate with the commercial value of the usergenerated content as well as ethical codes and terms of usage for user-generated content in commercial publications;
8. Welcomes the dynamics and diversity brought into the media landscape by the new media and encourages responsible use of new channels such as mobile TV;
9. Suggests clarifying the status, legal or otherwise, of weblogs and encourages their voluntary labelling according to the professional and financial responsibilities and interests of their authors and publishers;

11. Encourages the disclosure of ownership of the media outlets to help to understand the aims and background of the publisher;

This doesn't look so bad, does it?

The problem particularly with point 9 is that it does not really reflect an understanding of who the bloggers are. It assumes that all bloggers are adults who blog on topics of public interest and which does not disclose potentially harming information about the individual. Or that they all should be. It does not take into consideration how much time and energy is currently being used by parents and teachers to teach kids and teen-agers NOT to disclose everything about themselves, including name, address and their economic situation, to random strangers online. It absolutely counters the work for internet smartness and safety. It also ensures that people will stop discussion sensitive issues, which may be everything from the many grief-sites written by parents who have lost their children, by way of tentative artistic expressions and self-published art and poetry, to discussions of culturally stimatising sexual behaviour.

The assumption that full disclosure is good for all is probably correct for much of the news, academic and politics blogging which happens in Europe. But those are not the main mass of bloggers. Underage bloggers talking about hobbies, games, interests, loves, sexuality, fears, personal experiences or exchanging pictures of their cats comprise a large blogging group, and blogging is an important part of their learning process, in aquiring increased media literacy. Now, of course, the draft says "voluntairy" and "economic interests", and those with no economic interests can just stay unenclosed, can't they? Or should this group stop blogging alltogether?

Marianne Mikko says:
Ms Mikko told us "the blogosphere has so far been a haven of good intentions and relatively honest dealing. However, with blogs becoming commonplace, less principled people will want to use them".

Asked if she considered bloggers to be "a threat", she said "we do not see bloggers as a threat. They are in position, however, to considerably pollute cyberspace. We already have too much spam, misinformation and malicious intent in cyberspace". She added, "I think the public is still very trusting towards blogs, it is still seen as sincere. And it should remain sincere. For that we need a quality mark, a disclosure of who is really writing and why. "

Are blogs with cat images "pollution"? Are blogs with information which counters the official line "pollution"? Are blogs that criticise and disagree with EU in general and Marianne Mikko in particular "pollution"?

Some of the points in this draft are really good. I'd be interested in a full disclosure of ownership structures in European media. I suspect the Norwegian media ownership structure is no worse than the rest of Europe, in which case a very few owners control almost the entire organised publishing sphere. There will be a few alternatives, and Europe still has a fairly strong structure of national public broadcasting organisations, which offer some plurality. But a European map of the commercial news organisations was pretty bleak already in the eighties. Axel Springer Verlag introduced a model which has become quite effective and dominant, with Michael Murdock as a good follow-up. Wikipedia has an interesting article on media concentration, and I don't know the details well enough to say how precise it is. The many frames in this article asking for assistance in the clean-up and expansion indicate that this is a matter of concern and conflict. If the European Union managed to map the media conglomerates of Europe, that would be quite a feat.

But with the ownership of registered, organised media as hard to track as it is, how can anybody ask for full disclosure from all bloggers? First of all: What is a blog? Any homepage can be a blog. And blog software can be used to create pages and sites which don't look like blogs at all. To try to remove all "spam" from the Internet by removing blogs means to revoke the public's right to publish online without a license. In Norway at the beginning of the 19th century there was a death penalty to start a newspaper without a license from Copenhagen and the king. With no further comparison: is the Committee of Culture and Education really suggesting that all people who want to use the Internet for anything but email should register in a database and disclose all their personal information, including their economic connections?

The suggestion must fall on its own lack of reason.
First: It's impossible to define blogs in a way that will single out this group, and not include all the other communication strategies common online.
Second: Short of closing down the 'net, there's no way to control all communication through it. Amusingly, the report indicates voluntairy registration, which is an appeal to the community spirit which has built so many useful and good resources online.
Third: There's no way EU can argue against information control in China, and try to impose the Chinese vision of full public control of online communication on the European citizens without running into some really unpleasant clashes with their own ideals.

With the example of the milk scandal in China running at full force at the moment, the potential for abuse of a weblog registry should be obvious. Also full disclosure would make whistle-blowing a lot more problematic. Certain things are more reliable when told by an anonymous source, this is why sources need to be protected from disclosure.

But, anyway, the draft report is not a law. It's a suggestion which may or may not influence European media policy. And it's an example of how hidebound it's easy to become, when all you read are the blogs that concern your own field. Read a little wider, Marianne Mikko. Start your own blog. Who knows, you might like to be able to talk back, and not feel such an urge towards regulation. If the spam bothers you - start working for developing a European based, independent search engine to challenge the hegemony of the few US based ones. How that would be interesting.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Found smile

Found smile
Originally uploaded by Rotill
I spent the week-end scanning pictures together with my mother. My mother is 84 years old and her health is steadily deteriorating. Worst is perhaps the lack of interest in the world around her, the way in which she falls behind everything. Not that she is feeble-minded, not at all. But she has for instance been paranoid about computers for years, and not wanted to even listen when we have offered to hook her up to the world.

This week-end she changed her tune. I scanned some really old negatives she had never seen before, and kept nagging her: Who is this, where is this, do you know these people, can this be my father on this picture? With her bad eyesight she tried to get a glass to look at the negatives, but then I just enlarged the pictures on the screen.

Understanding technology comes with realising that it can be useful. My mother has never had the slightest interest in more news than she gets through newspapers, the radio and the television, social networking or academic pursuits. But this machine could help her see again, more clearly and easily the things she remembered and cared about. Finally a reason to care for computer technology!

Friday, September 19, 2008

Research blogging and blog norms, the news portal associated with The Research Council of Norway, has just started a blog. It's a site where researchers contribute to a national project of making research easier accessible and visible in Norway. Apart from their normal journalistic work, they have cooperated in many different ways with research and educational communities in universities and colleges. My own students have for instance in many different periods written for, and had their articles edited, commented on and published by specialists - an extremely useful exercize for students of Public Information.

Jill Walker Rettberg, probably the most highly profiled blogger in Norwegian academia, is however not happy with the blog as it's organised. She wants technical changes, more specialised blog-tools and different behaviour from the bloggers. I agree with her comments on form (we agree on a lot of stuff, as long-time readers of our blogs know), and have already communicated much the same to, making it clear that our blog will not look quite like what they have published so far. But it's going to take a little while yet until I get on with blogging there and get to see how much of her criticism of the tool and of NFR's policy of blogging that is too-the-point, and how much is just a matter of letting a new group and a new publisher get some time to settle into their role.

As for the comments on payment - one of the responsibilities of a publicly paid academic is to participate in the public debate. Yes, there should be ways to register blogging in a way that would give us "points" when counting publications, and I am certain this would propel Norwegian academics into a blogging frenzy all over the country. However, we are already paid to be part of a public exchange of thoughts and ideas. No, I wouldn't turn down the money if paid me for this. But yes, I am willing to do it because it's part of what I am supposed to do.

And what am I going to do?

What is taking a little time to organise is a group-blog within the framework of Three other Norwegian game researchers are joining me, and we will be blogging on game research. The first post on this blog is circulating among the bloggers as we speak. I promise, the first blogpost will be about establishing the blog, its topic and style, as well as introducing the bloggers and saying a fw words about game research. After the first post it's free for all: to engage with the field of game research according to the preferences of each blogger. We will produce at least one post every second week, which means a minimum of one post every two months as we are four. This is not an unreasonable amount of text. Most likely we will produce more, long and short posts, and will pick a post to feature on the front page when they see something they like.

Will we adhere to Jill's style demands? Sometimes. Will it be a brilliant blog by experienced bloggers? Sometimes. But blogging is about more than one style. Blogging is about freedom of expression, of the potential of the writer and the tool, and about the choices made in a process, not according to some already set norm. If it was not about breaking norms of publishing and experimenting with form, blogging would not have developed much in the first place, would it?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Festival of blogs

I have been invited by the wonderful people at the University of Urbino "Carlo Bo" to join them for the blogfest in October 10th - 12th. I have promised to contribute to the barcamp, and am looking wildly forwards to it.

I am planning to talk about topics which will become the main focus for my research for the next year or so: the playing of the web. One of my very early hypotheses, and the reason why I started studying computer games, was that the new technology invites an approach which is more playful than mundane. In order to understand this hunch, I had to explore games and theory around games. Well, with one thing and the other, I have been doing that for a while. Now it's time to lift my nose out of the virtual worlds and start drawing the lines from the game-projects I have been involved in, and to larger contexts.

While Italy looks like a counter-productive place to start discussing these topics, as I am afraid I won't be able to get as much out of the general activities as I would in a place where I could understand all of the language, I am looking forwards to hang out with Luca and Fabio and the rest of the crowd from Urbino, and I'll ruthlessly make them listen to me, as well as translate what I don't "get".

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Secret blogs

Once upon a time I had a secret blog. Many others did as well, and some were shared: For a while several of your established blogging researchers shared one. Some of these secret blogs were not all that secret, as we told each other about them. It was blogs about things too personal to share under our own names, but sometimes too painful or too exiting to hide. I have deleted most of those secret blogs, but some are still out there, even beyond my control. Life moves on, the immediately urgent topic is not so urgent any more, things change and passwords get lost. The ones that are now lost are not particularly personal though, so I don't fear to be tracked own and have to face them.

When I thought about these secret blogs now, it is because I suddenly intensely miss having one. I wish there was a spot in the blogosphere where I could write about personal grief and anger, in such a way that it would not harm me or anybody else, but I could still voice it. By writing it, giving words to my frustration, I could release it, forget the password and move on. But I have no more secret blogs, and I don't believe in that kind of exorcism for this. It creates no bonds and no protection against shifts in priorities, guilt, anger and the desire to rewrite history.

Still, I know the attraction of the secret blog. I'd write about it there, my anger, my disappointment, my grief. Instead I have to rewrite and sublimate it all into a metapost, a post about the usefullness of a certain type of blogs.