DING: Bruno Latour’s Concept Applied to NowPublic

This is not a news story in the strictest sense… though it is a story, and it relates to news.

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Bruno Latour at ZKM

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Bruno Latour at ZKM

A couple of months ago Glen Lowry asked me to consider presenting a lecture about NowPublic for a course at Emily Carr University in Vancouver based on sociologist Bruno Latour’s concept of DING. The particular concept of DING (or “thing”) is drawn from an exhibition organized by Latour and Peter Weibel at ZKM (the centre for art and media technologies) in Karlsruhe. The exhibition in question is titled, aptly enough, Making Things Public. In the accompanying introduction DING is defined as the earliest word for parliament, considered to have originally held the meaning simultaneously of thing and assembly (or gathering space).

This is the story of how I have begun to think about positioning these two territories (Latour’s concept of DING and NowPublic) in respect to each other in preparation for the presentation. I’m not planning on giving everything away here, and even if I could it may be misleading since the comments I receive below may change the specifics of the talk I will be giving. This means that what follows is (as they say around here) a bit “meta”: it is an outline of the topic. What I will try to do is set the ground for students who may be less aware of the current debate about user-generated content as it relates to news.

For clarity I should probably admit that I am neither a journalist (though I seem to have found myself working amidst writers and journalists) nor am I, strictly speaking, an academic (though I teach occasionally and have been referred to recently as an “egghead”). I am first and foremost a designer, and that is how I earn my living. I spend my days concerned with usability, deadlines, production requirements, specifications, and of course, many compromises. In any case, in the boardrooms of a start-up venture, there is little room for the open discussion of theory so I usually give in to my “egghead” tendencies in secret. When I read a theoretical text (which is often) my lens is a fairly pragmatic one; I use what I read to generate ideas, break wrote thinking patterns and to create working models that are able to handle complex informational structures and communication challenges.

The approach:
What I have decided to do is to take some concepts that are common to a participatory news network (NowPublic, specifically) and to the “Making Things Public” introduction  and pass them through what amounts to a Latour shaped sieve. Hopefully that will allow some of the more relevant concepts to become visible so that they can produce some lines of flight to explore.

By making that process of discovery available here on NowPublic I am also interested in exploring the inverse: re-purposing the tools we’ve developed to capture news events to initiate an academic discussion in a manner that displays the kind of agency and reflexivity embodied in the concept of DING – providing an assembly space and voice for things.

The good news is that Latour’s concepts seem to accommodate such messiness (which is further useful because whatever connections I’m able to present will be based by necessity on the first reading of a complex set of ideas, so they will be the product a certain amount of skimming and poetic license).

The topics:
Of the many terms that fall through my Latour-shaped filter I have selected five from which to begin exploring: Representation, Social Relations, Assembly, Mediation and Uncertainty. I will add to that a sixth term proper to NowPublic (one I use to explain internally some of the attributes of our network): the “news object” (things such as a photograph, video or a twitter “tweet” about a news event).

One of the things that Latour’s approach allows (in fact, requires) us to do is to flatten out (and essentially erase) the difference in scale of the topics we cover. I will try to explore whether some of the ideas that hold true at the scale of a “news object” in the ecosystem of a developing news story also hold true for NowPublic itself in a larger ecosystem, that of traditional media, and the debate that is ongoing about the relationship between user-generated content and traditional journalism.

Shifting ground:
Mainstream media, and the Press as we know it, is undergoing a quick and intense shift, which isn’t news to many of you, but may be to some. As Clay Shirky has pointed out, it’s not a small change:

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The change isn’t from one kind of news organisation to another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as a part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organisations, informal collectives and individuals.


Clay Shirky

NowPublic is by many accounts the world’s largest participatory news network, and because of that it can be seen to act, at least in a peripheral way, as a critique of the traditional understanding of Journalism. We are therefore pulled not only into discussions surrounding “social media” and “web 2.0” but also, and perhaps most controversially, “citizen journalism”. I have to say that “citizen journalism” is a misleading label for what happens on NowPublic. It has been suggested that it would be like labelling someone a  “citizen dentist” (a saying we can attribute to either Michael Tippet or Leonard Brody – who, along with Michael E. Meyers are the founders of NowPublic). What that also recognizes is the difference between “as it’s seen, as it’s spoken” news, the packaging of that news and the analysis that follows.

As the institution of journalism adjusts to shifting ground both user-generated content and the work of professional journalists will each have a role to play, though there is substantial contested ground as to what those roles might be. In any case “Citizen Journalism” has become the recognized label in the debate so we’ll stick with that at times, as it’s easier. For a good introduction to some of the pressure that user-generated news puts on the Press see Jay Rosen’s piece: Audience Atomization Overcome: Why the Internet Weakens the Authority of the Press. In that post Mr. Rosen outlines that:

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In the age of mass media, the press was able to define the sphere of legitimate debate with relative ease because the people on the receiving end were atomized– connected “up” to Big Media but not across to each other. And now that authority is eroding.

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And also:

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[…] today one of the biggest factors changing our world is the falling cost for like-minded people to locate each other, share information, trade impressions and realize their number. Among the first things they may do is establish that the “sphere of legitimate debate” as defined by journalists doesn’t match up with their own definition.

In the past there was nowhere for this kind of sentiment to go. […] But what’s really happening is that the authority of the press to assume consensus, define deviance and set the terms for legitimate debate is weaker when people can connect horizontally around and about the news.

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So the debate around Citizen Journalism is not only the matter of the technologies of news gathering but also the fundamental question about what is and is not news, and who decides what is in the realm of “legitimate debate”.  This leaves us to navigate between, in Latour’s terms, matters of fact (things proposed as singularly True) and matters of concern (things important enough for legitimate debate).

Back to Latour, Back to Things:
The shift described above, as Mr. Rosen points out, is a result of the increased ease with which anyone can publish the accounts of news events (you don’t need to buy airtime or own a printing press). The obvious result has been a greater number of subjects (authors, producers, readers) and objects (photos, videos etc…) at play in the dissemination of those accounts. Sites based on user-generated content, like NowPublic, potentially provide a stage upon which we can trace the work done by the news objects produced in relation to a given event (as well as the subjects involved in the process). We can examine how news objects are produced and by whom, how they are subsequently viewed, shared and linked to other objects and how the resulting actions result in an interconnected process of developing trust and value. We can explore how the uncertainty around faithful representation of news events – brought about by the volume of contradictory news objects and points of view – can actually bring subjects and objects together again, as Latour would say, “to reconstitute the social bond”.

AHIS 333: DING
In addition to this story I have set up a channel on NowPublic under the #DING tag. I have added more resource information there, including links to some good reading as well as the NowPublic Scan (real time twitter posts) tuned to some of the concepts above. You can contribute to the ideas here by commenting on this story or to the channel by posting to twitter with posts that include the words bruno latour or AHIS333.

The assignment:
Glen and Simon have asked me to put together a bit of an assignment to go along with this talk. In addition to reading the piece by Jay Rosen noted above I thought it might be interesting to have you share briefly (via comments on this story) what information you consider “newsworthy” and what sources you are most likely to trust. You may want to discuss whether the most reliable news is brought to you by your friends and family, by a favorite blog, a newspaper, or a network such as Fox News or PBS. In other words consider the “brand” of truth you are most likely to subscribe to and the apparatus through which you extend yourself into the news ecology. Consider how these sources attempt to present a faithful representation of news events, and how they assemble the available “news objects”.

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