Much is said about how the Internet has changed our communication habits, such as shifting communication to email and text messaging versus pen and paper letters through the post. And I enjoy debates over how email might be effecting our writing styles. But I am noticing a worrisome trend, which is admittedly only anecdotal – simply a relatively personal observation – but one that I fear is a plausible development. That is, people are not reading beyond the first few lines and seldom reading your entire message.
It is evidenced by such things as people responding to mail, but only to the first question or first point in a message. For example, you might ask someone two questions, and they only respond to the first. Similarly, if I make a sarcastic point, or make an attempt at joking, it is misunderstood – possibly not read carefully or in the context of the entire email.
I am convinced that people are so inundated with email that they are trying to find all sorts of shortcuts, such as quickly deleting near-spam email that makes its way through filters, and also only rapidly reading what they need in order to delete or respond to an email as quickly as possible. It is like: “Okay. Bill wants to know x” and quickly responding, but not realizing I also wanted to know y.
So it is not only that people don’t write letters anymore. Many people don’t genuinely read their email anymore. One reason social media like blogs, Twitter and Facebook are so valued is that there is no pressure to actually read or respond to anyone’s post. And so most people don’t do either, and can be quite selective. In contrast, comparatively speaking, email still creates a greater sense of obligation to respond, if only to confirm receipt. However, in today’s busy-busy world, we respond as efficiently as possible. In the process, we sometimes fail to genuinely read the full text.
So what can we do? Here is what I am doing more and more.
First, keep trying to write better, clearer, more succinct emails. I try to keep my emails as short as possible. Short and simple but not too short or simple to be ambiguous or misunderstood. Flame wars have been started by short misunderstood emails.
Secondly, telescope your point(s) in the introduction if not the subject of the email. Readers might then look for the announced points, even if they are trying to short-circuit reading the entire missive.
Third, I increasingly avoid making more than one point per email. So I’ll send two emails, each on a separate point, rather than combine multiple asks in one message. Also you might separate them by a day or two. Is this adding to our email glut? Maybe, but you also increase the likelihood of your message being read and meaningful. It also forces you to think harder about whether you need to ask every question that comes to mind.
Finally, when using humor, sarcasm, or telling a joke, you might well be wise to stoop to the point of adding an emoji to guard against the reader taking you too seriously or literally. 🙂
Ironically, if I am right, most of you will not get this far in my blog to read these strategies, particularly those who are overwhelmed. I can only suggest that you need to do your best to keep your readers by keeping the text interesting throughout, and try to avoid getting overwhelmed. Just say “no” and stay within your limits.
Lord Ashdown died on 22 December 2018 at 77 years of age, and was buried in Somerset this week on 10 January 2019. After serving as a Royal Marine, and serving years as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party and an MP, his life has been celebrated by many.
It may seem small, but I can’t help but remember Paddy Ashdown for helping me and my colleagues by taking the time to speak at the last international conference of the Programme on Information & Communication Technologies (PICT) in 1995. The conference was entitled ‘The Social and Economic Implications of Information and Communication Technologies’, and was held at The Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, Westminster, London, from 10-12 May 1995.
The Rt. Hon Paddy Ashdown agreed to do the keynote of the conference, and he was joined by other parliamentarians, including John Battle, Kenneth Baker, Richard Caborn, Chris Smith, Ian Taylor and Sir Kenneth Warren. The event, and Paddy Ashdown’s keynote, was a capstone to one of the first social science research programmes focused on information and communication technologies, such as the Internet. It was sustained by two phases of research grants from the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). I was national director of this programme during its last years, following earlier directors, Bill Melody and Nicky Gardner. It gave me the opportunity to work with such great colleagues as Martin Cave, Richard Collins, Rod Coombs, Jane (Yellowtrees) Douglas, David Edge, Wendy Faulkner, James Fleck, the late Chris Freeman, Nick Garnham, Andrew Gillespie, John Goddard, Leslie Haddon, Christine Hine, David Knights, Sonia Livingstone, Stuart Macdonald, Robin Mansell, Ian Miles, Geoff Mulgan, Hugh Willmott, Vince Porter, Paul Quintas, Kevin Robins, the late Roger Silverstone, Colin Sparks, John Taylor, Juliet Webster, Robin Williams, Steve Woolgar, and many many others.
PICT was a successful research programme that paved the way for a series of research programmes to follow on its heels and together make an incredible difference in the way people in the UK and worldwide think about the societal implications of the Internet and related information and communication technologies. I’m not sure if those who contribute their time and efforts to supporting academic research, as Paddy Ashdown did, realise how their contributions make a difference and are remembered. So thank you again, Lord Ashdown, for seeing the significance of what we were doing and supporting it with your presence – well before the significance of the new technologies were widely recognised.
I joined up with Brian Loader in 1998 as a co-founder to help launch a new journal, Information Communication and Society(iCS) with Taylor and Francis Routledge. In our first year, we began with four issues per year, and most of our then small number of readers were located in the UK. Since stepping down as an editor, while staying on the Board, I had the pleasure of meeting with members of the editorial team this week, and had an update that was heartening – even exciting – in every way.
Over the past 20 years of its existence, iCS has become a truly global journal, publishing 14 (yes, 14) issues per year. It is on- as well as off-line, with all articles published online as soon as they have gone through final proofing – months ahead of their publication in print form through a policy of online first. In 2018, there were 362K downloads of iCS articles, up 23 percent from the previous year. Its impact factor has risen to 3.084 and readership puts it top of all sociology journals in the UK, and 7th worldwide. It is 5th in communication worldwide. All upwardly slopping curves.
The journal was put together early in the rise of Internet and new media studies. Its mission was to draw ‘together the most current work upon the social, economic and cultural impact of the emerging properties of the new information and communications technologies’ in order to be ‘at the centre of contemporary debates about the information age’. So its success is due in large part to its central position in a burgeoning substantive area. It also has enjoyed a strong team, led by Brian Loader, and a supportive publisher in Routledge a member of Taylor and Francis.
In a recent online discussion about another more niche academic journal, several colleagues pronounced the end of print journals. My experience with iCS underscores the degree that print journals, like iCS, are routinely online as well as in print, and they are very much alive and well. They take time and hard work to build a dedicated community of scholars, but they remain one of the main channels of communication in academia, including the social and economic sciences, such as in cultural and Internet studies.
As a student of, and advocate for, digital citizens of the Fifth Estate, I have been seriously interested in journalism studies. So I welcomed the opportunity to attend a symposium organized by the School of Media and Communication at Leeds University by virtue of being a Visiting Professor at the School this year. It was entitled ‘Distinctive Roles for Public Service Journalism in Challenging Times’. The event brought practitioners, mainly from the BBC, together with academics, for a set of well-chosen topics, outlined below. The symposium adhered to the Chatham House Rule, so I can’t attribute quotes to individuals, but I will try to capture some of the ways in which the discussions stimulated my own thinking about ‘public service journalism’ in the Internet Age.
Held on 27 November, the one-day event was organized by Professor Stephen Coleman at Leeds, and Ric Bailey, from the BBC, who is a Visiting Professor at Leeds. I presume that Ric Bailey took a strong role with Stephen in bringing speakers from the BBC and Ric moderated the entire day of discussion. This academic-practitioner collaboration was key to the day’s success.
The symposium began with a presentation by Joanna Carr, Head of Current Affairs at the BBC, who covered key challenges facing public service broadcasters. This was followed immediately by a panel led by Joanna and John Corner, a Visiting Professor in the School of Media and Communication at the University of Leeds, formerly based at Liverpool University,on the challenges of reporting and explaining complex issues covered by the media, such as ‘austerity’, climate change, or Brexit. The presentation and panel drove home some key themes for me of the entire day – mainly around the thought and craft that professional journalists put into their strategies for putting audiences at the heart of their work.
I approached this panel with some level of skepticism about complexity as an issue. First, my own academic colleagues too often lament that their work is too complex to convey in a more accessible way. But they nevertheless come up with engaging titles for their books, and abstracts for their articles, so it is not impossible to simplify. Complexity is not an acceptable excuse for being unclear. Secondly, I can never forget an editor of a prestigious news magazine once telling me that she instructions to her writers was to ‘simplify and then exaggerate’. I’m simplifying, but nevertheless her phrase worried me. Simplification might be a central problem facing journalism.
However, this panel won me over to the challenges facing good journalists. It drove home the degree that leading journalists are truly focused on reaching their audiences with coverage that is both engaging and understandable. As one speaker reminded us: “You can’t force people to eat their greens”, or to listen to their news coverage.
So the ‘craft skills’ that journalists bring to the table in selecting, defining, and communicating stories is a huge contribution to the public, what one panelist referred to as ‘BBC simplification’ is not to simplify and exaggerate to gain readers or viewers, but simplify to deliver a public service. They seek to avoid ‘elite speech’, even though some well-regarded journalists believed in talking to elites rather than the mass public, and not simply report what the subjects of the news say freely, but to structure and sequence the flow of complex stories and determine what needs to be ‘dug out’ through good interviewing skills, often conducted in a highly politicized space. Their efforts are clearly around adding value to the news, not simply reporting it.
There was an interesting discussion of the differences in complexity across issues, such as Brexit versus climate change. Some complex issues are abstract and don’t have the ‘lighting flashes’ that that make some events, such as a crash, relatively easier to report. It also seemed to me that some issues are complicated but some well-known fundamentals, such as climate change, while others, like Brexit, are impossible to know precisely as they are unfolding and unpredictable futures – what the former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, famously called ‘known unknowns’.
The second panel focused on data journalism, kicked off by Professor Chris Anderson of Leeds, who spoke about some of the continuities and discontinuities that data journalism brings to traditional journalistic practices. John Walton, who leads the BBC data journalism team at the BBC, followed with an overview of their work. Chris focused more on the discontinuities, but I kept thinking of data journalism as a continuation and growing sophistication of a long tradition of journalists valuing data. Social scientists are often advised to provide some percentages in their press releases to increase the likelihood of a story being picked up. But today, the best news organizations are developing more sophisticated teams within their own organization, like the BBC journalism team, to locate and analyze data that can create news items, often in collaboration with others. Of course, the same trend towards more collaborative and team research is evident across the social sciences as data sciences in academia as well..
After lunch, Professor Jay Blumler gave a brief talk that identified some of the new challenges facing investigative journalism. He surveyed the changing context of journalism as well as the enduring value of journalistic roles, such as in exposing wrongs, before providing a litany of challenges facing investigative journalism, such as when the targets of investigative journalism are overwhelmed and find it difficult to reply in a timely and comprehensive manner. He also argued for journalists more explicitly considering the social implications of journalism, such as the degree to which investigative reporting might lead politicians and other public figures to consider themselves ‘sitting ducks’ for the media. What impact will this have on the willingness of individuals to step into the public arena? His talk was followed by responses and additional input from Gail Champion, Editor of the BBC programme, File on 4, and Phil Abrams, who gave impressive examples of stories that got things right, and a few where they ‘got things wrong’, but learn from them.
This panel was followed by one focused on the enduring challenge of moving journalism beyond its centre of gravity in the London/Westminster bubble, such as with the decision to locate the new Channel 4 headquarters in Leeds. Professor Katy Parry led off this panel, followed by Tim Smith, Regional Head of BBC for Yorkshire, and Andrew Sheldon, Creative Director of True North TV. I found it amazing that the politics of broadcasting in the UK remains so focused on the nations and regions, such as in respect to the distribution of production and original content. The BBC and other major broadcasters in the UK have such national prestige that the locations of new headquarters, such as Channel 4’s recent decision to build in Leeds, can be very significant to attracting talent outside the London bubble. But even more interesting to me was the degree that the Internet and social media as well as on-demand streaming video was not viewed as a threat to broadcasting in the UK, as it would be in the US. In fact, examples arose of Netflix investing in UK content and production skills.
The final summary panel featured the symposium’s academic organizer, Professor Stephen Coleman, who nicely captured and built on the key themes of the day. His remarks were followed by a panel-led discussion. Stephen emphasized the motives of what he called ‘public service journalism’ by comparing public service media organizations to public universities, such as Leeds, where there are legitimate demands for a commitment to justice, accountability, and a civic – citizen – orientation.
This was of course a friendly and receptive audience for journalists. Nevertheless, I was left more convinced than ever that public service broadcasting is alive and well in the UK through the BBC and other public service broadcast journalism, and that collaboration between practitioners and academics, as orchestrated on the day, adds real value to both.
I spent a full day at the OII for my first time since being back in Oxford. It was in part enjoying my new affiliation as an OII Senior Fellow and also participation in a meeting of the Advisory Board. But it also included attending the Awards Day ceremonies that featured a conversation with Professor Judy Wajcman, interviewed by OII’s Dr Victoria Nash (photos). Judy received a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. The day concluded with a dinner at Balliol, where all awards were formally presented to the recipients.
Having been away from Oxford for four years, only returning for short visits to the UK, I was struck by the phenomenal progress of the OII. Since I stepped down as Director in 2011, and retired in 2014, Professor Helen Margetts, and now, Professor Phil Howard have taken over direction of the Institute – a department in Oxford’s Social Science Division. The number of faculty (now around 50) and students have expanded significantly – dramatically, with new degrees and new directions and affiliations, such as with the Alan Turing Institute in London. The visibility and impact of the OII has also been growing dramatically, such as around Phil Howard’s work on computational propaganda and the role of bots in elections, which has been showcased repeatedly by The New York Times.
So the size and shape, but more importantly, the impact and reputation of an increasingly strong faculty has been progressed beyond what I could have expected – or even envisioned. One of the members of the Advisory Board put it best when he said that it is clear that the OII has reached escape velocity. No one is questioning the very idea of an Internet Institute at the University of Oxford – it has put the Internet on the agenda of the University and has continued to innovate and adapt with the rapid evolution and global impact of the Internet, Web, social media, and related information and communication technologies, such as AI and the Internet of Things.
I had the pleasure of speaking with a prospective MSc student before OII’s Open House on 23 November, and felt so pleased and confident in supporting her decision to study at the OII. She took little convincing – it was the only program she was considering.
I had the pleasure of attending Professor Chris Anderson’s Inaugural Lecture at Leeds University on 24 October 2018. I won’t attempt to summarise what was a wide-ranging, historically rich, and engaging lecture on journalism in our contemporary political context. However, I would like to provide a few points that most resonated with me. The title of his talk was “Who Cares About Journalism? Facts and the Anaesthetised Public in an Irrational Era.” I’ll look for any text from his talk and share on this blog.
If you do not know Chris, he describes himself as an ethnographer who studies the news. Professor Anderson was awarded his PhD from Columbia University in 2009, studying with two of the major figures in the communication field, Professor James W. Carey and Prof. Todd Gitlin. He worked as an Associate Professor from 2009-2018 in Media Culture at the City University of New York, when he left to join Leeds’ School of Media and Communication – a School for which I am presently a Visiting Professor.
From the introduction to his lecture, it seems Chris may have started a tradition for the School in presenting an inaugural lecture. Before joining Leeds, I was involved with Chris in a conference he organised with Pablo Boczkowski at Northwestern University that led to an excellent book, edited by Boczkowski and Anderson, entitled Remaking the News (MIT Press 2017). I am delighted to be associated with him again through my visiting position at Leeds.
But to the lecture: The most obvious point is that Chris cares deeply about journalism. He spoke of his first attraction to journalism through his exposure to community newspapers during his childhood, and then to the alternative activist media. He later became an observer of journalism and the media broadly, with a recent focus on data journalism in some of his work.
His talk touched on his own intellectual history of research on journalism, before moving to his current question about the role of journalists in our polarised world – presumably anaesthetised by the 24/7 rancorous coverage of contentious issues around the American presidency, Brexit, and more. Should journalists be focused on shinning a light on events – illuminating problems in all sectors of society, or in supporting democracy, or trying to reduce political cruelty. This latter theme he developed on the basis of work by Judith Shklar on the ‘Liberalism of Fear’ – that government needs to address cruelty of the powerful to the powerless, and this also be the role of journalists.
This would clearly be a role journalists might seek to play, but my sense is they don’t have the power to address these problems directly. That said, their traditional normative role in exposing wrongs wherever they might lie is an indirect route to addressing such problems. Holding a mirror up to our political system. However, the role of journalists is in some senses far more varied. I can’t help of thinking of the community newspapers and alternative media, and the degree that journalists at these local and alternative media are not so often addressing wrongs as they are simply trying to convey life and events in their communities.
That said, Chris has me thinking harder about not only about what the role of journalists should be in this age of tribalism, but also the role of academics. Looking forward to any text or related materials coming out of this talk.
As it happens, the occasion also allowed me to meet many faculty at Leeds and also to reconnect with two former OII colleagues: Professor Stephen Coleman, a former Visiting Professor of E-Democracy at the OII, and the recently hired as a Lecturer in Politics and Media at Leeds, Gillian Bolsover, who was a student and co-author of mine at the OII.
So this inaugural lecture was valuable to me on several fronts.
I’ve complained before about the growing demands online for us to complete forms to do just about anything – I called it trapped in a Web of forms. Well, my writing about it has not solved the problem. Just today I agreed to do a book review, only to then get a formal thank you, and note which basically said I must submit my review through the publisher’s central manuscript site. OK, I cannot just write the review and email it to the book review editor, as that would be too much trouble for the editor.
Predictably, I will now be required to log into this central manuscript site. I have almost certainly used it before, for some paper or journal submission, but who knows when and I can assure you I will not remember the passwords etc. So I will need to fill out the joining instructions once again, and probably have difficulty, with notes like, this email has been used before, etc. I will spend useless time getting set up, formatting my review in a manner that the site likes (not me), and submitting it. So all the fun of reading the book and writing a review is lost already – well before I’ve received the book.
Why do I say “yes” to such offers – let’s say requests? I need to set up a form for any request to me with something like the following questions: Name, other information I do not need, then “Will I need to fill out a form in order to satisfy your request?” If yes, then I might add the question: “Can you complete the form for me?” If no (inevitably it will be no, as these folks do not take their own medicine), then the tick box should not permit the person to tick “No”. The requester will become so frustrated that s/he will decide to stop wasting his/her time on this bloke, and go on to ask some other sucker.
Just today, I am sure I had to complete at least four forms, and most required me to fill out other forms to complete the present form. I understand why people want others to do their work for them as they have simply too many things going on to do the work themselves. This should scream to them that they are trying to do more than they can do, and stop or slow down. This template society we are creating is clearly the road to madness. … Must blog about this!