In the abstract, applause is stupid: You hit yourself, but only when in the company of others hitting themselves, to show approval.
The end of applause occurred to me as I watched recent events: Apple’s latest product announcement sans clapping geeks and sycophants (revealing its true aesthetic as just another infomercial); the US Open with tepid, sitcom-like clap-tracks where cheers would have been; the Democrats’ intimate and audience-free YouTube convention — which I wrote about here; and Sarah Cooper’s opener for Jimmy Kimmel’s show. I’m in awe of Cooper anyway, but watching her monologue, I marveled at the courage of a comedian telling jokes without the immediate feedback of laughter, applause, and cheers: without an audience, or at least one that could be heard. YouTubers find this normal; old farts, strange.
Applause is binary: it is or it isn’t. To put this in McLuhanesque terms, hands are a medium with but one message at a time. Hands can hit each other. Hands can pound a table. (The first time I ended a presentation in a German board room, they started banging on the table and I thought, ‘Oh, hell, I’ve just pissed off a bunch of angry Germans,’ only to realize this was deutsch for applause.) Hands can also silently show a thumb or a finger or a fist. The hand was the medium allowed to an audience.
Jay Rosen famously talks about “the people formerly known as the audience,” his heuristic to get us to think about the change in the relationship of journalist or media with the public, who are no longer passive recipients and consumers of the commodity we call content but who now have a voice.
Voice brings substance, nuance, complexity. That richer message can be expressed on Twitter, Facebook, TikTok, Reddit, YouTube, forums, comments. It’s not easy to listen to voice. Media do not know how to listen to us. It’s a lot easier to reduce people to the noise of a crowd — applause, cheers, chants — or to numbers in a poll — red v. blue, black v. white, 99% v. 1%, pro v. con. Mass media abhor any voice but their own.
The internet abhors being silenced. It will burst around any barrier to enable its users to be heard another way. Donald Trump may have tried to ban TikTok and silence Sarah Cooper — as the Chinese government tries to ban American platforms and silence its citizens — but both will fail. People will find their voices elsewhere.
Even so, media will still insist on trying to agglomerate the voices on the net into binary buckets, reductionist headlines, and shallow hot takes. I despise headlines that declare, “Twitter hates…” or “Twitter loves…” or “Twitter goes nuts over…” as if there were one social voice, Twitter, and our only role in it is to contribute to a single, monolithic bottom line of collective opinion. In writing those takes, media people ignore the essence of what social media enable: individual voices. This is how media failed to provide a place for #BlackLivesMatter; social media had to.
But social media companies are not blameless in this attempt to reduce the voices of their users to applause or boos. I also abhor “trending” features on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere, for they seriously misrepresent the experience there. Many years ago, when I interviewed Mark Zuckerberg for a book, he said that no two people on earth see the same Facebook. That is true, too, of Twitter — and the internet, for that matter — unlike old media. So to say — as The New York Times’ Kevin Roose tries to, using Facebook’s own data — that this story or that is the most seen on Facebook is to elevate something few people see into something more important than it is, as Casey Newton explains. It is like saying all of America — or half of America — is under the sway of Fox News when, in fact, only about 3 million people (1 percent of the country) watch in prime time. In my social feed, I see very few of the topics that are trending and I see next to none of the poisonous right-wing stories media fret about because I and my friends are neither hip nor nazi.
The late Columbia professor James Carey famously wrote that the press exists not to transmit information but instead to provide ritual — that is, a confirming view of ourselves, like a mass (the Catholic kind, not the media, marketing, or manufacturing kind). The picture that the press paints of us is distorted. The view that the press presents of our life in social media is false. The net finally allows us to be heard as more than the sounds of hands clapping and yet we are still reduced to poll numbers or trending topics or ersatz applause. And so, I do not regret the passing of applause in the pandemic. I await the sound of the voices we can now hear instead.
There is much work yet to do to help us hear each others’ voices. As I’ve said before, until now, the net has been built just to speak, not to listen. I celebrate that speech, the voices too long not heard in mass media. But we need many more tools to help us discover voices and messages worth listening to, to better represent the nuanced public conversation, to convene us into true conversation. It will come, in time. Until then, learn to enjoy the absence of applause, the silence.
Here’s an update on an impressive pandemic-inspired pivot by Samir Arora’s Sage, the company I wrote about at the start of the year that is building what I hope is a next phase of the net: a expert-based web.
When the pandemic hit and travel was all but shut down I worried particularly about two friends’ businesses because each was centered on travel. One is Samir’s Sage, which was starting its expert network with expertise about destinations — hotels, restaurants, places. I’ll tell you how he reacted in a moment.
The other was Rafat Ali’s Skift, which covers the travel industry and built its business around in-person events: a double whammy. I interviewed Rafat for the Newmark J-School’s leadership program about the painful decisions he had to make to keep the business alive. I think you’ll find it informative. Since we had this conversation, Skift shifted to offer a daily news subscription service and Rafat now says “subscription-first is the path forward for us.”
Now to Samir and Sage. He has made his career building tools to support creation: When he was developing an early web-authoring tool, NetObjects Fusion, he gained much valuable experience using it to help my friend Rick Smolan put together his amazing A Day in the Life of America project. Glam, Samir’s later company, was inspired by putting together networks of bloggers to build their businesses; I blogged about that 13 years ago. His latest company, SagePlus for Experts, which I wrote about here, was about to go public with tools for experts in travel and food to build their online presences and businesses with networks around them.
Before the shutdown, Samir had been introduced by William Morris Endeavor to celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson, who got excited about using Sage to build his digital presence — across books (he has one upcoming), restaurants, and events — and to amplify the voices of experts not heard in mainstream media.
In the pandemic, Samuelsson started working with celebrity chef and food philanthropist José Andrés on relief for communities and restaurant workers. Samuelsson’s CEO, Derek Evans, called Samir about a dozen weeks ago asking him to extend the Sage platform to handle charitable projects and contributions: a campaign management system. In no time, Samir’s team volunteered to make it happen and on July 18, they went public with a platform for Harlem Serves Up. In 24 hours, it handled an amazing $100,000 in contributions.
This became Project Bento, an end-to-end platform for campaigns, which now include also Black Businesses Matter; Hand in Hand, a Daniel Boulud Fund; and the Project Bento Fund, which in turn gives money to Citymeals on Wheels and World Central Kitchen, in addition to funds to support restaurant workers. As of this writing, the team has raised $5.1 million in donations to charities and to create meals. Individual donations go 100% to the charities.
So now the Sage platform has more capabilities. It already had the mechanisms for experts to be invited, invite others, and build online presences and apps with multiple business models. Now, because of Samuelsson, the platform has the means to support not-for-profit campaigns and contributions from large sponsors and individuals.
That work done, Sage is turning back to its launch. Now it will include not just travel experts but also authors, entertainers, and experts in other fields, verified by humans. I had wanted Samir to move past travel because the web needs to build mechanisms and institutions to discover and verify and support expertise: to pay for their work. That, as I said in my last post, is what I think the net needs next: platforms not just for speaking “but also for listening and finding that which is worth listening to, from experts and people with authority, intelligence, education, experience, erudition, good taste, and good sense.”
I will never say there is a silver lining to the dark and deadly cloud COVID has because of the venal negligence of the current American government. But I am impressed at the good people create in times of need: Samuelsson and Samir saw a need and built it.
This piece was solicited by Ireland’s The Journal, asking essentially what the hell is happening in America. They first published the views of people of color, then ran mine yesterday.
What we are witnessing now in America is the last stand of the old, white man.
Four years ago, when speaking to groups outside the United States, I would apologize for Donald Trump. It got a laugh, until it didn’t. As an American, I must still apologize for what Trump has done to my country and what my country has done to the world by electing him. As an old, white man, I must confess it is people like me who got us here.
America’s paradoxes have come home to roost. Ours is a nation of freedoms built on the slavery and undervalued labor and lives of black people. Ours is a nation of equal opportunity that exploits the inequality of people of color and immigrants, of the poor.
The nation’s systemic racism has always been there, of course, but it becomes sorely evident in times of crisis. The COVID pandemic has disproportionately harmed communities of color — killed them — because as a group they have worse health care. Many of them are the “essential workers” doing thankless jobs, exposed to the virus every day. Many are poor people who cannot afford to lock down at home; they must work to eat. Too many of them lost their jobs. In my city, New York, they disproportionately live in crowded housing and must take long rides on contaminated subways to work and when they get sick the hospitals in their communities are underfunded and overcrowded.
Once it became clear that people of color and old people were COVID’s primary victims, calls came to reopen the economy, as if to say: These people do not matter.
And in the midst of that crisis, once again, a black man, George Floyd, was murdered by police for the crime of being black. Any African-American can tell you that they and particularly their young men live in peril every day of a white person calling the police on them for shopping, eating, walking, even bird-watching while black — and that the arrival of police can, as in the case of George Floyd, be a death sentence.
This everyday danger became evident with social media and the hashtags #BlackLivesMatter and #LivingWhileBlack. It was not evident in mass media because those communities and their stories were sinfully underrepresented in newspapers and their newsrooms. And so, as an old, white journalist and editor myself, my confession continues.
I was raised in the sixties and I feel as if I am reliving them — with reruns of political turmoil, racial strife, riots, police abuses, even a rocket launch — and we have learned no lessons in between.
As a child of those sixties, I was raised to believe in a colorblind America, in the great melting pot. I did not learn until much later how wrong and racist that presumption was: that the nation would reach racial harmony once the others acted like us, like the white majority (although we would do everything not to let them).
Soon, by 2050, the white majority in America faces the reality that it will become the white minority and that scares them. The most frightened are the uneducated, old, white men who hold privilege and power and realize how tenuous that hold is because it is based on what they had in the past — who they are — rather than what they contribute to the future — what they can do. These are the people who formed the concrete core of Trump’s so-called base. They exploited an unrepresentative democracy designed to protect slave states — in the institutions of the American Electoral College and Senate — to get Trump elected, to get old and white men to rule the Senate, and to fill our courts for a generation to come with their judges. It will take generations to undo their damage and even if we do, we’re only back at square one: at an America still undergirded by systemic racism.
The author and Professor Ibram X. Kendi argues in his book, “How to be an Anti-Racist,” that the opposite of a racist is not someone who claims to be not a racist but instead someone who fights racism, who is anti-racist. We need to become anti-racist in every American institution, starting with the political.
In this election, I first supported Sen. Kamala Harris. I was ashamed to see how political media all but erased her candidacy, for she is African-American and a woman. Then I supported Sen. Cory Booker, who is black. Then I supported Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is a woman. Now I am supporting former Vice President Joe Biden, who is an old, white man. He’s a good man. I pray for his election.
The only way Biden will win is if African-American women and men, Latinas and Latinos, the disenfranchised and the educated of this country come out to vote and fight for this change. He cannot take these constituents for granted. As Princeton Professor Eddie Glaude, Jr., just said on TV, the scale of Biden’s response must meet the scale of the problem.
He must promise them a new America — not a return to any old America. He must offer a nation truly, finally built on freedom, opportunity, and equality with institutions — government, education, health care, employment — that right systemic wrongs. As an old, white man, I must learn how to share, to give up my power and privilege to those who have been deprived of them.
I pray for the president who follows Biden to lead this work, to finally end what we have now: the tyranny of the privileged, entitled, scared, angry, racist, fascist, old, white man, Donald Trump and those he represents.
Media are no longer the deliverers of information. The information has already been delivered. So the question now for journalists is how — and whether — we add value to that stream of information.
In this matter, as in our current crisis, we have much to learn from medicine.
In microcosm, the impact of the new, open information ecosystem is evident in the COVID-19 pandemic as scientists grapple with an avalanche of brand new research papers, which appear — prior to peer review and publication — on so-called preprintservers, followed by much expert discussion on social media. Note that the servers carry the important caveat that their contents “should not be reported in news media as established information.”
Almost to a scientist, the experts I’ve been following on my COVID Twitter list welcome this new availability of open information, for it gives them more data more quickly with more opportunity to discuss the quality and importance of researchers’ findings with their colleagues — and often to provide explanation and context for the public. So far, I’ve seen only one scientist suggest putting preprints behind a wall — and then I saw other scientists argue the point.
Clearly, low-quality information presents a problem. There is the case of the hydroxychloroquine paper with a tiny number of patients and no controls that got into the head and out of the mouth of Donald Trump. But many, many scientists objected to and pointed to the problems with that paper, as they should. The weakness in that chain, as in many, is Trump.
A better example of what’s occurring today is the reaction to a SARS-CoV2 antibody study in Santa Clara County, California — which matters because we still do not know how reliable our counts of infected patients is. I am not nearly qualified to understand it. But as soon as the paper was posted, I saw a string of thoughtful, informed threads from scientists in the field pointing out issues with the study: See Drs. Natalie Dean, Howard Forman, Trevor Bedford, John Cherian, and grateful reaction to all of them from a scientist all the others respect, Dr. Marc Lipsitch. All of them responded within one day. That is peer review at the speed of the internet.
The tone of their criticism is respectful and backed up with reasoning and citations. Because science. One example, about the paper’s conclusion regarding the infection fatality rate (IFR):
To make this open, rapid system of information functional, scientists are, with admirable dispatch, adapting new methods and models, which brings many requirements:
First: The information needs to be open, of course, and that is happening as SARS-CoV2 papers are being published by journals outside their high and pricey paywalls. Preprint servers are free. Note also that the EU just announced the establishment of a Europe-wide platform for open sharing of both papers and data on the pandemic. #OpenScience is a movement.
Second: There needs to be some means to sort and discover all this work. Seeing that need, up popped this index to preprints that clusters and maps them around topics; and the Covid Open Research Dataset, which tries to provide organization; and a writer who summarizes 87 pieces of original research published in a week. The volume is heaven-sent but crushing. As a delightfully wry medical blogger named Richard Lehman writes: “Five weeks ago, when I began writing these reviews, everyone was aghast at the challenge of covid-19 and thrilled how it was dynamizing all the usual slow processes of medical knowledge exchange. In the intervening century, we have become more weary and circumspect.”
Third: Of course, there need to be mechanisms to review and monitor quality of the papers. That’s happening almost instantaneously through medical social media, as illustrated above. And there are papers about the papers, cited by Dr. Gaetan Burgio in the thread above. One analyzes the 239 papers on COVID-19 released in the first 30 days of the crisis, separating research science, basic science, and clinical reports. “It is very much like everyone would like to have a go at #COVID19 & we end up with a massive ‘publication pollution,’” Burgio tweets. Some are good, he says, some atrocious; some come from relevant researchers, some not. That is why the swift and clear peer review and some level of vetting is important. And that leads to…
Fourth: There needs to be a means for experts to judge experts, for credentialing and review of those rendering judgment of the research. That, too, is happening in the public conversation. In the process of maintaining my own COVID Twitter list of epidemiologists, virologists, infectious-disease physicians, and researchers, it becomes clear by their citations and comments whom they respect. It also becomes clear whom many respect less. This is the question: Whom do you trust? On what basis? For which questions?
But when the question moves from science to personality, things can get uneasy. One case: Dr. Eric Feigl-Ding has been getting much Twitter traffic and TV airtime for his tweets. Some scientists made a point of telling me that he does not have credentials and experience as relevant as others’. Then followed a deftly critical Chronicle of Higher Education piece about him, which he in a DM to me called a hit piece. I’ll leave this to others, more qualified than I am, to judge.
True, there is an ever-present risk of credentialed disciplines endorsing only the members of their tribe. But that credentialing is an institution that has long been central to the academe and science, necessary to certify credibility in an educated and enlightened society. The granting of degrees and appointments is the best system we have for determining expertise. Especially in these anti-intellectual, science-denying, cognition-impaired times, it is vital that we maintain and support it.
I have been arguing to editors, producers, bookers, and reporters that they should be doing a better job asking the right questions of the most relevant and experienced experts — not, for example, asking a spine surgeon about virology, not giving op-ed space to armchair epidemiologists. This means that journalists — and internet platforms, too — need to make judgments about who to quote and promote and who not to. To quote my friend Siva Vaidhyanathan: “I wish journalists were more discriminating when assessing expertise worthy of informing the public. Knowing academic ranks, positions, journals would help. More scientific expertise in the newsroom would be best.” This gets us to:
Fifth: Both scientists and journalists must do a better job explaining science. I’m working with Connie Moon Sehat in our NewsQ project (funded — full disclosure — by Facebook) to formulate definitions of quality in news, starting with science news, so those definitions can be used by platforms to make better judgments in their promotion of content. This will end up with measurable standards — for example, whether reporting on a preprint includes views from multiple scientists who are not its authors and what the credentials of the quoted experts are.
I hear scientists worry about how well they communicate with the public. That’s why they are sent to take training in science communication (“scicomm”). But I tell them it’s not the scientists who should change, but the journalists, who must learn how to grapple with open information themselves.
Before I explore some of the lessons for journalism and media, let me make clear that — as ever — none of this is new. In science, says a paper by Mark Hooper, the accepted historical narrative has been that peer review began with the first science journals in 1665. Or when the Royal Society “published a collection of refereed medical articles for the first time” in 1731. Or when the Royal Society formalized the process of using independent referees in 1832. Or during the Cold War when peer review became “a requirement for scientific legitimacy.” The term “peer review” was not used until the 1960s and 1970s.
But Hooper contends that the practice of peer review — which he defines as “1) organized systems for facilitating review by peers; 2) in the context of publishing practices; 3) to improve academic works; 4) to provide quality control for academic works” — began much, much earlier. Cicero received editorial review from Atticus, his publisher and editor, in the first century B.C. (A lovely full circle, as Petrarch’s rediscovery of Cicero’s letters to Atticus is marked as a foundational moment of the Renaissance.) Scholia — “comments inscribed in the margins of ancient and medieval works” — were so valuable that scribes made margins larger to accommodate them. Pre-publication censorship in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries was also a form of academic review, Hooper says.
All of which is to say that every form of media is an adaptation of another. Peer review by experts has been a need long fulfilled by different, available means. As I wrote the other day, news was poetry, song, official decrees, cheap broadsides, single-subject pamphlets, and handwritten newsletters before it became newspapers.
So what does this open information ecosystem portend for news? Well, again, we don’t deliver news or information anymore. It is delivered already: via blogs, social media, direct connection from officialdom and companies to the public, scientific papers, open databases, and means yet unimagined in the vast public conversation opened up by the net. Nobody depends on us to bring them information. We are no longer the deliverer or the gatekeeper.
But this open information ecosystem does bring many demands — just as that in medicine — and therein lie many opportunities.
First: How do we help make information open, breaking the seals of governments and companies and other information sources to the public? How do we aid transparency? Maybe that’s one of our new jobs: transparency-as-a-service (more on that idea another day). And we must ask: Can we function in an open information ecosystem when our information is ever-more frequently closed behind paywalls?
Second: How do we make information more discoverable and organized? Google, of course, did that with search, but that’s only a beginning, as I’m sure Google itself would agree: a miraculous but still-crude layer of automated organization it is constantly improving. Who will master the challenge of sorting wheat?
Third: How do we create mechanisms to review the credibility and quality of information and disinformation? Note how Medium is, to its credit, grappling with making judgments on the credibility of COVID-19 content while other platforms all but throw up their hands at the impossibility of judgment at scale. Ultimately, this task will depend upon:
Fourth: How do we judge the expertise of those we call upon for judgment?
Fifth: How do we amplify their expertise, adding context, explanation, verification, and perspective in the public conversation?
Expertise is key. The problem here is that experts are much easier to find, certify, and judge in medicine than in other fields. Because science. Is there such a thing as an expert in politics? Half the world thinks it’s them. Another problem is that academically certified experts are becoming scarcer — and less heed is paid to them — in this era than elevates idiocy. One more problem is the methodology of journalism, which is built to regurgitate events and opinions around those already in power without accountability for outcomes. Imagine — as one of my former students, Elisabetta Tola, is— journalism in the scientific method, beginning with a hypothesis, seeking data to test it, calling on experts to challenge it, and recognizing — as scientists do and journalists do not — that knowledge does not come in the form of a final word but instead as a process, a conversation.
It is no longer our job to tell finished stories. In the economic aftermath of this crisis, that is a legacy luxury that will die along with the old business models that supported it. Get over it. Adapt. Survive by adding value to the free flow of information in the open ecosystem that is our new normal. Or die.
UPDATE: The day after writing this came an all-too-perfect example of what I’m trying to warn against in this post. The New York Times gave space to a controversial and contrarian preprint without getting differing views from scientists, without providing the context that this scientist’s views have been used by the it’s-just-flu, open-up-now COVID deniers. Shameful editing. In my thread, see also the last link to an example of good reporting from the San Jose Mercury News.
I want to thank Drs. Gregg Gonsalves, Krutika Kuppalli, Angela Rasmussen, and Emma Hodcroft for talking with me about their experience with their new information ecosystem — preprints and social media — when I interviewed them for their guidance on how journalism should over the crisis. You can watch those interviews here.
UPDATE: Here is a fourth episode of my series of interviews with the experts of COVID.
I spoke with the amazing Dr. Emma Hodcroft, a phylogeneticist (which she will explain) at the University of Basel, who co-developed the Nextstrain project, a herculean effort to track, so far, 5,000 strains of the SARS-CoV-2 virus as it travels across the world. We talked about lessons from that project; about good and bad journalism about the pandemic; about how journalists should responsibly report on debate and discussion in the medical community that occurs in preprint papers and Twitter; about about her own role in this extraordinary event. She is an excellent explainer on social media, and here:
EARLIER EPISODES: I have been interviewing experts in COVID-19 to give journalists advice about how to cover the crisis.
Dr. Gonsalves dissects what was wrong with a contrarian Times op-ed arguing that the cure might be worse than the disease — something we’ve heard since from Trump and company. The Times’ mistake was in giving space to a contrarian rather than an expert, succumbing to our professional weakness for false balance and controversy, even if manufactured. We discuss the challenges of journalists covering modeling and the politicization of research. Importantly, he gives journalists advice about what they should be covering: not only the medical scandal of the century in the Trump administration’s failures in this epidemic, but also what will come next. He says much of the work to come will fall on local journalists (at a time when local journalism is suffering and years past the departure of most local science reporters).
Episode 2: Infectious diseases expert and ebola veteran Dr. Krutika Kuppalli
Dr. Krutika Kuppalli is an expert in infectious diseases with experience in HIV and Ebola. She is vice chair of the Global Health Committee at the Infectious Diseases Society of America and a Biosecurity Fellow at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. She supervised treatment at an Ebola unit in Sierra Leone in the 2014 outbreak and has also worked in Ethiopia, India, Uganda, and Haiti.
I asked her advice on how to cover the transmission of the virus; what to look for and when to look for it in news about the development of therapeutics and vaccines; and — importantly — how bring attention to what I believe is the great uncovered story of this crisis: inequality and its impact on poor and vulnerable communities in the U.S. and worldwide. Dr. Kuppalli emphasized both her concern for the impact the pandemic will have on poor nations — and what we can learn from them, considering that nations like Sierra Leone faced Ebola without the money we in America can throw at problems. We also spoke about the psychological toll treating the disease has to be having on our health care workers. Finally, she urges reporters, editors, and bookers to check the credentials of the sources you call to make sure they are experts with experience, not people from other fields with opinions. Now more than ever, expertise matters. We must amplify it.
Episode 3: Columbia virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen
Now I interview a virologist, Dr. Angela Rasmussen of Columbia’s School of Public Health, to get her help for journalists covering the COVID-19 crisis. She and I talk about what media are doing right and wrong; about the need for journalists — reporters, editors, bookers — to find the appropriate, relevant, credentialed experts and to take advantage of the tremendous diversity among them; about how she works in this new age of open information and conversation among scientists and between scientists and the public; and, yes, masks. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation. I hope you — especially journalists — find it useful.