On blogging, and the speed of the internet

| October 29, 2011

I was reading “the news” on Facebook from “friends” of mine whose thoughts I “subscribe to” when I encountered an article about a woman who was fired from her job because a photo of her holding a protest sign on Occupy Wall Street got leaked on the internet.  We’ve all heard stories, some threatening, some practical, about managing one’s internet identity, usually reminding us that future employers (or non-future, as the case may be) will google your name before an interview, so you might consider the kinds of searchable items your name brings up.  But this story has a different angle to it, because it was her protest sign that cost her her job, not party photos, and because she was specifically fired for violating the journalistic standards where she worked (at The Takeaway, a radio news program on NPR).  In other words, through a media furor instigated by photographers and bloggers, she was seen as being part of the news her employer usually reports, and therefore a violation of ethical standards.  But this particular type of conflict-of-interest can only happen in an internet-news world, one where ordinary folks are readers and creators of the news simultaneously, the same world that enables a movement like Occupy Wall Street to gather steam in the first place.

Here’s the short history: writer Conor Friedersdorf wrote a piece for The Atlantic critiquing Occupy Wall Street. Caitlin Curran, a freelance web-producer for The Takeaway, found one particular sentence in the article particularly moving and used the sentence as a slogan in her protest sign. Actually, she took part of his sentence–the part she resonated with–and put it on her sign. “Mild-mannered law student” Ben Furnas took a photo and posted it to his Twitter feed, which then got picked up by other bloggers: for instance, this post on boing-boing calling it the sign of the day. Conor Friedersdorf caught wind of it and wrote a new piece about the sign, discussing how the protests are like the internet: fast, sprawling, decentralized, but inter-connected.  Curran asked her employer if they might do a segment on the speed of travel from the piece to the sign to the blogs, whereupon she was promptly fired for violating the show’s editorial standards by making herself part of the news story.  (She wrote a piece about being fired on Gawker, which is the main reason I know about it). As Curran points out, Friedersdorf was later interviewed by Marketplace about the sentence, the sign, and the weirdness of it all.  My interest in the story is less about sign and more about the speed of the internet, the cross pollination of news stories, the fact that reporters use twitter, and the fact that Facebook is now treating its users as though we are all personal publishers unto ourselves.  As Friedersdorf’s interviewer at The Marketplace Kai Ryssdal commented, “It’s very, very whoa.”

It reminds me of that (extremely old in internet time) story about the misquoted MLK jr line that floated the internet after Osama Bin Laden died (revealed as a misquote at The Atlantic). The short story there is that a non-famous woman named Jessica Dovey posted a thoughtful MLK Jr quote about loving one’s enemies, along with her own thoughts, on Facebook.  In the reposting that ensued, someone stripped the comment of it’s quotation marks so it looked like a sentence of her own was part of MLK Jr.’s quote.  Then Penn Jillette of Penn and Teller posted Dovey’s sentence as an MLK Jr quote, which it was not, to his 1.6 million followers, and the accidental quote went viral. (He later apologized for the accident.) Of course, this situation is different from the previous because in the misquote case there were way fewer layers of journalistic cross-pollinating than the protest sign; it’s more a story of how a journalist uncovered an error in a viral tweet.  But in both cases a “regular” individual’s statement made the internet rounds, both examples involve a changed quote (intentionally or not), and both are instances where journalists reported the story of a story being made… as a news story.  And so perhaps Facebook is right to treat us, as users of their software, as creators of news. We live in a new world where social media platforms, blogs, and journalism intersect, borrow from one another, and co-mingle. Are we all really co-creators of the news?  It seems like the answer is yes.  Should I subscribe to you? Should you subscribe to me?