At Google, we’re not evil…

just compliant when it comes to totalitarian governments that control large markets. Google, wake up, helping keep information from 1.3 billion people in order to preserve the Chinese revenue you enjoy is a shocking example of what Hannah Arendt described as “the fearsome, word-and-thought-defying banality of evil.”

Paris-based Reporters Without Borders said the government had been blocking Google’s English-language Web site (www.news.google.com) for about 10 days, after Google launched a Chinese-language version that removed politically sensitive reports.

“China is censoring Google News to force Internet users to use the Chinese version of the site, which has been purged of the most critical news reports,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement.

“By agreeing to launch a news service that excludes publications disliked by the government, Google has let itself be used by Beijing,” the organization added.

Socratic Media: Wikinews & Wikiconsequences

Interesting, this announcement of a citizen journalist-made wiki news site. Network-Centric Advocacy says:

Want to move news. Be a peer-journalist on Wikinews. This will be worth participating in and reading. It is an amazingly cool experiment.

Having run a civic journalism site, Correspondences.org, for the past couple years, I sincerely wonder whether wiki news will be any more informative than any other source. There are a number of reasons why it may be less so.

First, as David Weinberger writes at Release 1.0 today, the problem of separating fact and opinion is susceptible to accretive solutions, such as collaborative editing, but ultimately the final judgment lies with the reader. Weinberger explores how UBio, a collaborative name server system under development by a group of scientists led by David Remsen of the Marine Biological Laboratory and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, manages disputes over the naming of biological species, following a philosophy of inclusiveness and postponement of judgment calls until all views are heard.

Weinberger cites the news-related example of Wikipedia, where battling versions of reality in the entry for George W. Bush have led to a lock-down on changes to the article, which strives for neutrality. Pro- and anti-Bush contributors were injecting opinions into the articles so often that no definitive version was available.

Wikipedia gets much of its value from the fact that when many people filter an article, the bogus and the partisan tend to be dropped. But where the division between facts and values can be made fairly cleanly, the strategy of inclusion and postponement gives rich access to the known facts while putting the decision about values and opinions into the proper hands: those of the individual.

Reporting, like writing history, is a subjective experience even under the best of conditions. A reader depending on a single source of news never gets all the facts, they must explore many sources to assemble even part of the picture. There is, too often these days, a tendency among news outlets to quote one another so that there is a perception conveyed that there is a single version of events, when such a thing seldom exists. If you look at the transcript of an event, even a government transcript, they may be edited differently. For example, the “record” of a Bush campaign speech posted at WhiteHouse.gov, with applause and “boos” aimed at the opponent inserted, will read very differently than an “objective” transcript without those audience reactions noted; moreover, if the opposition releases a transcript of the same event, it may insert different reactions, such as the interruption by a heckler. Which is the correct or full record? None of them.

I think Wikipedia produces great articles on a variety of subjects—the collaborative process is an excellent way to churn out explanations of things and events—but the Bush entry, which is timely due to the fact he is still in office, is sterile and rather kind to the most controversial and divisive president we’ve had in decades. It offers details about Bush’s fraternity, baseball and rugby play and the name of the officer that recommended his promotion in the Air National Guard, but passes over whether he served under the terms of his enlistment with a comment that “These issues were publicized during the 2004 campaign by Texans for Truth and other Bush critics. See George W. Bush military service controversy for details.”

Granted, one could follow the link about the service controversy, but given the intensity with which Bush attacked his rivals’ military records throughout both his presidential runs (covered in only three paragraphs further down in the article), an unbiased editor would, in my opinion, have done more with the subject in the context of Bush’s biography rather than outside of it.

Here’s where I disagree with elements of David Weinberger’s conclusion that the decision about values and opinions must be left to the individual; this is impossible if the medium reduces facts to a single report. We don’t rely on the individual to decide much of anything in these days of mass marketing and, yet, this is the reality we live with and it is impossible to wish it away. Some filtering and decision-making is necessary if the reader is not going to be forced to consume all versions of events in order to achieve full knowledge and judge every aspect of the event and its impact on other aspects of life before coming to an informed decision. Any act of redaction inserts some value judgment into our perceptions and we need to be aware of it. An article deemed neutral and objective is deeply subjective, especially if it is designed not to offend (which is what the Bush bio on Wikipedia seems to accomplish almost entirely).

As journalists, bloggers, citizen journalists or civic journalists, we need to acknowledge the obligation to examine our own subjectivity and point it out as frequently as possible. Having been cloaked behind a veil of professionalism and craving the spotlight of celebrity for half a century, journalism has largely forgotten that essential elements of the practice of recording events is humility and scathing self-examination.

I believe David Weinberger aspires to exactly this kind of self-aware media, but the path to it won’t lead through the poppy fields that sing “trust the reader to sort it all out” as we fall into a gentle sleep halfway to the Emerald City. We are, like it or not, still very much in Kansas.

Take a look at the history of American anti-American witch hunts. The record of the U.S. government during World War I and immediately after, when a fear of communism was sweeping the nation, was reported very differently during the McCarthy era by distinguished historians than by those same historians in the 1970s, because the current environment in which those events were interpreted had changed. The internment of German-born American citizens during World War I and Japanese during World War II is now treated as a regrettable necessity by contemporary commentators, many of whom would have condemned those events before Sept. 11, 2001.

You can see an example of this subjectivity in the historical assessments of Joe McCarthy himself, who is being lionized by the far right to prop up Bush-era policies today.

Life itself is subjective to the extent that everyone experiences it through their own senses, not a shared sensory system providing objective readings of our surroundings, and filters it through their personal history. A husband and wife arguing see things differently. A cop and a protester see things differently. The mayor and the city clerk. Billy, who hit Tommy because he called him a “booger eater,” had a different experience than Tommy, who is crying. It depends what you mean by “is.” One man’s rule is another man’s excuse. Lenny Bruce describes this perfectly in his version of the social contract story:

‘Let’s see. I tell you what we’ll do. We’ll have a vote. We’ll sleep in area A, is that cool?’ – ‘Okay, good.’ – ‘We’ll eat in area B. Good?’ – ‘Good.’ – ‘We’ll throw a crap in area C. Good?’ – ‘Good.’ Simple rules. So, everything went along pretty cool, you know, everybody’s very happy. One night everybody was sleeping, one guy woke up, Pow! He got a faceful of crap, and he said: ‘Hey, what’s the deal here, I thought we had a rule: Eat, Sleep, and Crap, and I was sleeping and I got a faceful of crap…’ So they said, ‘Well, ah, the rule was substantive -‘

A news report about the situation in the Ukraine today would be very different depending on whether the witness were standing among the Yanukovich or Yushchenko partisans. But readers need both sides of the story to understand it, and neither side is right or wrong, rather they see things differently. It’s up to the reader to decide which side they think should win the conflict over leadership of the Ukraine or if they even care.

The challenge for a reporter is to take those views and the “supporting evidence” each side provides in order to verify claims of fact. it’s something the press barely did in our election, so it’s hard to imagine it happening in coverage of the Ukrainian election crisis, either. Nevertheless, that is what reporters do when they have adequate resources and high integrity. At Correspondences.org during the past two year, where there have been about 90 contributors at most times, we have had citizen reporters take up opposite sides of stories only two or three times, because so few people have the time or wherewithal to report a story, even from their own perspective. Nevertheless, we can count on comments to inject partisan analysis into a story (the site is Movable Type-based, supporting blog comments).

This is not to argue that the blog format is better for relating the news, only to explain that the WikiNews approach may not be appropriate to sheering fact from fiction.

In a medium defined by timeliness—news, as compared to an encyclopedia article, which can be authored over months or years—collaborative editing is not likely to result in objective reports, but rather a battle of perspectives very much like the starkly partisan George W. Bush articles authors produced at Wikipedia that resulted in the editing interface being locked down. In a situation where the reader needs information quickly in order to make a judgment about events or their role in them, the collaborative approach to authoring information may be too slow.

We have a tendency in the United States these days to assume the collective opinion of the majority is the closest to correct, yet we seldom examine the differences of opinion themselves objectively. This leaves the individual faced with limited time and a desire to find some truth to decide about the sources they trust, each offering their own “neutral” and “objective” view of events. A wiki-based news source that became a “wiki of record” for events could contribute to the establishment of echo chambers just as easily as a major newspaper or television network that becomes the sole source of news for an audience.

Readers often tend to identify a few sources they trust until such time as those sources disappoint them; but they don’t review all their beliefs that were built on the representation of reality provided by the source, only what disappointed them, since people are not accustomed to deconstructing their views with any regularity.

A media that did offer different opinions in full and with extensive supporting information side-by-side with all other opinions would better prepare people for the difficult process of defining and redefining their values and opinions throughout their lives. Call it the Socratic Media, but I am sure the unexamined life is not worth living.

This begs the question, why with unlimited bandwidth and storage capacity, couldn’t multiple versions of the Bush biography (not just the history of edits and abuses by all comers) be posted with equal access and a little context on Wikipedia? This constitutes the best of the inclusive approach UBio uses, since history will ultimately judge Bush and then change it’s mind again and again and again. Multiple versions of the Bush story, say from the Bush side, the Center for Freedom and Progress (Democratic), as well as views from foreign writers that may emphasize Bush’s foreign policy decisions, could be presented in an index and a patient and interested reader would be able to digest the different views and decide for themselves. One article about Bush is the problem, not the solution to the problem of describing Bush. Thinking that an article can be finished is another problem, because we’ve entered a time when news, because of its relationship to history and the ease and rapidity of editing and publication, is never complete.

That process, though, takes time and the news cycles are fast-paced. We seldom look back at what happened last week, let alone a month ago or a year ago. Collaborative editing of a definitive story about events in this environment is nearly impossible and it would be better to offer multiple views than a refined version. If WikiNews editors acted as a peer-review committee and called out shortcomings in fact-checking or the accuracy of facts, this could be a powerful enhancement to multiple versions of events that helped the reader decide for themselves what actually happened. But reducing a report to a single version, especially based on contributions from people who were not actually there to record the event, is of questionable value.

News is expensive, which is why it has suffered under the yoke of increasingly profit-driven companies. WikiNews’ intention, to distribute the news gathering and editing process, is excellent, but the artifact produced should not be a single article, but an interface to dozens or hundreds of reports that allow the inquisitive reader to explore the many faces of events. A readership accustomed to this approach to the news may be more tolerant, more judicious and participate in the events that make news due to their increased confidence in their ability to embrace uncertainty than the modern human weaned on one or two major media sources.

MORE: Mark Glaser wants to work for a media company that is open and collaborative—an excellent complementary read to this piece. Question is, who wants to finance this? I know, having built ON24 to run on the smallest editorial budget imaginable for a 24/7 video news network, a lot of the ins and outs. There are clearly a ton of smart folks willing to participate. Who wants to put the money behind it?

BlogExplosion

I tried BlogExplosion and found it lacking. It’s a form of unstructured Webrings with advertising and a navigation banner atop a list of blogs that, apparently, match the description the user enters for their blog. The navigation system awards points—it is rather Pavlovian—and even displays a message that I am “surfing too fast” as I scroll through the sites looking for something that interests me. The banner ticks down until the time I can look at the next site while not penalizing myself. The points appear to buy attention by bringing your site up to the top of the list more frequently, but I’m not going to hang around to see if it works in any comprehensible way.

It slowed down my surfing and didn’t present me with any insight, putting me on a treadmill instead.

What mobile buyers want

Research firm NPD Group, according to an AlwaysOn posting, will be looking for the following features in a new mobile handset during the coming year:

Longer Battery Life. Yes, I got rid of a Treo 300 because I couldn’t replace the battery. But I want longer life in the replaceable battery, which is what the new Treo 650 offers as a solution: Carry multiple batteries. No, I want a phone that gets me through the day. What I went with was the Samsung MM-A700, because it combined the other features I was looking for with solid battery life.

Caller ID. Who doesn’t use caller ID? Linking it to the address book, so I can see who is calling is the critical caller ID feature. Vanilla Caller ID is only confusing, because you stand there thinking “Who do I know in North Carolina?” or “Where is the 907 area code?”

Changeable Ringtone. I can’t figure out how to change my ringtones, but I changed them once and they are embarrassing. However, I would not pay $1.95 to have a particular song as my ringtone for six weeks. A few more ringtones to choose from would be nice, but ease of use is most important to me. I understand the Samsung supports MP3 ringtones, but I am more concerned about the signal quality on the Sprint network.

Color Screen. Dude, the color is important, but it’s not like its HDTV. The Samsung promises streaming TV and gives me pixelated 10- or 12-frame-per-second clips that I have to wait for. Eccch. I don’t think I’ll ever watch TV on my phone, but then I also thought I’d never want to take a picture with my phone, either.

Voice-Activated Dialing. I suppose it’s nice to have voice-activated dialing, but I remember screaming at the Wildfire audio assistant whenever I called from a car because of the background noise interfering with the voice recognition features. This is an Apple Newton kind of feature that, if it promises voice activation and provides it only 80 percent of the time, will only disappoint. I still haven’t activated this feature of the Samsung phone.

Built-In Camera. I am both impressed by the quality of the Samsung camera and the phone phun to be had with it. It takes fairly high quality movies—looks like about 18 fps and the audio ain’t bad. I often have a camera with me in the car, but it’s never as easily accessible as my phone, which is always in my pocket.

SMS. I’m old. I call people when I want to get a message through, even though I live on email. In Korea, only the nearly dead send email. I’ve sent about 10 SMS messages, ever, and no one responded. What can I say? My friends are old, too.

Email. You need a full-sized keyboard to send email. This is a writer thing. The Treo was painful. If I was trapped in a car underwater and there wasn’t enough air to make a phone call, then I might send email from my phone. I do mail pictures from my phone, which seems like a great combination of immediacy and the rich media capabilities of my phone.

Internet Access (only 28 percent of buyers say they want it). I use this, particularly when I want to keep up on something that’s going on, like a ballgame, an election, or a particular news story. I believe that a close survey of usage of Net access on a mobile would find it is spiky and related very closely to breaking events, rather than habitual usage.

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PDA Features (only 18 percent). This is highly over-rated by phone designers. An address book is a feature of a phone—in the deskset phone world it’s called “speed dial.” Every other feature of a PDA is of little use, because navigation and screen geometry make them more work to use than carrying notes on paper or in a real PDA or laptop. I use my brain and laptop to keep my schedule.

Iraq: Sinkhole for U.S. history

The news out of Iraq just gets better and better: U.S. Death Toll in Iraq Nears Record.

It is astonishing that the Administration fails to see it is, as Tom Friedman put it in The New York Times yesterday, “losing a public relations war in the Muslim world to people sawing the heads off other Muslims.”

Meanwhile the Defense Department’s news service argues there is no controversy at all, saying “Iraq’s interim government is committed to holding free and fair elections … as planned on Jan. 30 [2005]” even though this is very much an open question based on the fact that the Sunni minority—and a minority’s concerns need to be respected in a democracy—are calling for a delay to ensure that the election includes all regions. Just because the Shi’ite majority says the elections must go on does not mean it is a settled issue. The Shi’ite religious leader, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, may agree with the timetable, but that actually raises concerns that the current timetable will be perceived as creating an advantage for some parties. It all comes back to the PR war for Muslim hearts and minds—no solution will satisfy everyone in Iraq, so insisting the Bush Administration’s timetable is the right answer only exacerbates the perception that someone is getting the short end of the stick.

Paid-to-blog; paid-to-write; write-to-live

The feedback begins to come in about the Marqui blogger campaign. Just a thought, following on my comments about the abrupt interview with a Globe and Mail journo last week: About 20 years ago, when I started trying to earn a living writing (it took eight years to reach a level where the bartending job could go by the wayside), there were writers making $2 and $3 a word, or more, and then there was me, making three cents to five cents a word. I got to the “elite” level, at which I made $2 or $3 a word, not for the money, but because I want to write and explain and think for a living.

Today, I’m back to probably less than five cents a word as a blogger, on average between what I pull down here and over at Red Herring, but there’s really no one making any more from their blogging (I still make a lot more when I write for pay, believe me). So, if there is nowhere to go but up for the entire market, it’s a pretty solid bet to start getting paid at current “standard” levels for bloggers. Maybe when I am 64, I’ll be making what I do today solely through blogging, which would be a great way to spend my “retirement,” because when I stop writing I expect the very first thing I’ll do is die.

MORE: Well, well, now we’re “shills” because there are ads on the blog and those of Marc, the Head Lemur and Richard, among others. This from Stowe Boyd, who has ads on his Corante blog and makes precisely the point I have about saying “thanks” to Marqui for the $800 bucks, that it doesn’t affect what he has to say about companies whose ads surround his prose.

I am not a purist who turns away from ads. On the contrary. But I think there needs to be a clear separation from content and commerce. I don’t say good things about Silkroad just because they are sponsoring my blog and the True Voice seminar series. Their ad occupies the upper right rectangle on the blog, and by all means, click through sometime and see what they have to offer. And if they don’t get enough traffic, I am sure that they will put their ad dollars elsewhere. But I am not being paid to write about Silkblogs once per week. And that distinction, although nuanced, is important.

Stowe admits what Marc, Lemur and I are doing is “not evil,” just a form of affiliate marketing, which really underscores how little effort to be honest about this goes into criticisms of the program. Stowe talks about how Corante created a disclosure for its relationship with Zero Degrees. Two years ago, I put a disclosure page on my blog that explains past and present business relationships. It smacks of the pot calling the kettle black, and awfully late.

He also focuses on the fact that Corante has “no incentives based on click throughs or sales” in contrast to Marqui’s program, which offers $50 per qualified lead to bloggers, which is still undefined and, frankly, not of interest to me. I’m not trying to sell Marqui’s product, but for some reason Stowe insists that judging this blog is different than judging the objectivity of his. It’s just not clear what that difference is, because he hasn’t made a case clearly as to what exactly that difference might be, though he insists there is some substantial nuance involved.

Of course Corante has incentives to increase click throughs, because most ad programs are priced based on click performance. Sorry, but the condescension here is just annoying, since the substance of the Marqui agreement seems to be identical to the ads placed on Stowe’s site, from the simple click through on the SilkRoad ad to the “free” seminar offer (Corante presumably gets some kind of compensation for promoting the conference, even if it is sponsorship placement at the event) that are clearly compensated placements or else they would not be on the page. I’ve been a publisher and editor and trade show producer, so let’s step back from the ledge (or “Get Real,” as Stowe’s blog is called) right here and now: Admit that publishers, especially early-stage publishing companies, exist on in-kind trades. If these are not “not evil,” how are they qualitatively different than what I am doing in relation to Marqui? I put a sponsorship graphic on my site and say thanks once a week, creating a kind of periodicity in the appearance of the company’s name in the blog, just as Corante creates a special section sponsored by Zero Degrees that features fresh links.

I suppose the Amazon links, for which I am compensated when someone buys a book I point them to makes me a two-dollar hooker? Does the fact that I write about issues involving companies I work with (always disclosing that fact) make me a $2,500-a-day prostitute? Stowe managed to mention his advertisers repeatedly in the posting, so what does that make him other than a writer writing about an issue he cares about? I care about my work, which is why I write about the stuff I do, too.

As a veteran of the tech trades, too, I can tell you that the ads placed in MacWEEK never influenced my coverage of companies there. My columns on ZD Net were written with total disinterest in what ads were appearing on the site. I’ve offended plenty of people and, basically, that’s what I get paid to do as often as not, because the function of a good reporter to put the truth out there, like it or not. As a commentator, I excel at pissing people off and if I start telling you Marqui is the only choice for communications management, you should recognize that I’ve gone stark raving mad with greed. I’m going to thank them once a week. I may even ask you to be nice enough to visit their site so that they keep delivering the checks, but I’m going to tell you when I think they make bad design and development decisions.

At every publication and at the ON24 Network, we’ve had a rigorous system for keeping ad people out of editorial (it only occasionally involved cattle prods) and as an editor at other publications I had to wrestle and still wrestle with the business side over the supposed influence of a dollar coming in the door. In the newsletter business, for instance, the battle is whether or not subscribers will get your honest opinion or simply get you to tell them what they want to hear so they can use it in their business presentations.

There are bloggers who rave about the free hardware they use, but don’t tell you it was free. There are bloggers who go on junkets and don’t disclose that their way was paid by a company they are suddenly in love with. There are reviewers who use and keep products, but never mention that they especially like to keep certain products for which they have become cheerleaders. We’re all human, but until Stowe actually explains a substantive difference between a flat $800-a-month sponsorship agreement and the various advertising and marketing programs his company offers, I’m going to reiterate that his accusation we Marqui-sponsored bloggers have become second-class citizens is not well-founded.

The proof will lie with the people on both sides of the argument, though I am not going to spend a lot of time and effort—probably none—policing the other guys, like Corante, since my focus is on what I want to write about. That’s where I’ll be judged and I’m perfectly content with that….

The Jobs President hires a lay-off CEO

The Daily KOS cuts to the bone of President Bush’s selection of Carlos Gutierrez, CEO of Kellog Co. as the next Secretary of Commerce.

Now, I am going to give the Neocons credit for their diversity. It is really great that people, like Gutierrez, who is Cuban-born, are being nominated to the Cabinet. There is true diversity in America today, not because of these people, but because white liberals of privilege first reached out to establish diversity as an essential criterion for freedom.

It’s unfortunate, though, that the criteria for selection to the second Bush Cabinet is that, regardless of color, one must be a mindless ideologue who supports the neocon agenda without dissent.

Now, why is Gutierrez the right pick if his record for job creation is, as KOS points out, dismal? Because the Bush Administration sees the United States as a candidate for restructuring—radical restructuring, including massive layoffs to improve returns to the richest one percent of Americans who own lots more of the country than the huge numbers of small and medium-sized business owners who actually create most of the economic value described as GDP.

Cool—Casting about for everything; Dawn of the PJ

Feedster delivers Feedster.tv, rich media RSS feeds. Particularly interesting is the Enclosure Watch at the bottom of the page, which shows that in the roughly three months since RSS media enclosures capture public attention, 165,326 enclosures have been posted to the Web.

Here’s what will define success for the enterprising podcaster: Clever production and combinations of content that defy simple categorization. A podcast like Evil Genius Chronicles, which is about just about anything on Dave Slusher’s mind, may be talk, but it’s not just about tech or music or anything else. Say hello to Vague Verticals (in the marketing sense) defined by the breadth of subjects and the personality interested in those subjects instead of the narrowness of subjects covered by a program.

How long will it be until we start talking about PodJockeys—call them PJs, a la VJs from the introduction of MTV and DJs from the dawn of popular music on the airwaves?