This week, I am continuing to share from a pamphlet written by Bill Hammack, a professor of Chemical Engineering at UIUC but
more affectionately known to the general public as "The Engineer Guy".
video choice of his this week is "How a Microwave Works"
Bill's goal is to make new media and the motivation to communicate science and engineering to the general
public understandable to scientists, engineers and other academics,
His pamphlet is called "Why Engineers Need to Grow a Long Tail".
Over the course of the next few weeks, with Bill's
approval, I share his pamphlet with you in parts (you can read the entire thing HERE). I believe that his analysis and encouragement to communicators is very important and worth consideration.
Read Part 1 HERE.
The wording of his pamphlet is
unchanged but some formatting has been shuffled so it is be readable in blog format.
New Media Isn't Just Old Media Delivered in a Different Way
WHEN I talk of “new media” or “Web 2.0” I don't mean simply delivering “old”
media via the web. By “old media” I don't even mean a particular technology (movies, television, radio, newspapers,
magazines, etc.) but instead a particular process. I've worked extensively in “old” media, so to illustrate that
process let's look at the creation of one of my commentaries for public radio's popular Marketplace.
How old media works
Typically I pitch a piece to a sub-editor; we'll discuss the piece thoroughly,
look for any holes, logical leaps, discuss the news hook for it, and also make a “snapper” for the ending. Together,
then, we develop a script. That script goes to an editor or two above my sub-editor for approval. We then make changes, head
to the studio, and carefully lay down the audio tracks - re-taping any parts that didn't sound just right. Usually we do the
taping the day the piece airs, so a few hours after my studio visit the commentary appears on Marketplace and is then heard
by six million people. Later, of course, it appears in a downloadable audio file - an MP3 - so it
would seem this has a new media presence, yet it really doesn't.
What makes something “old”
media is that process I described of completely polishing a piece, filtering it through many gatekeepers (editors, sub-editors,
and the like), carefully editing the final piece, and then offering it to the public. The essential characteristic of old
media lies in this model: filter, then publish. The new media inverts this completely: one publishes and then filters. Think
of a place - a repository or a searchable, browsable web space - where engineers place their videos reflecting their own interests
and their take on engineering. Wouldn't this, just be a free for all -- a mishmash of video?
“publish, then filter” just a useless free-for-all?
One key to a successful “publish,
then filter” site lies in adding a social dimension. If you look carefully at a site like YouTube, the public is able
to rate and rank the videos. They do this astonishingly well: highly rated video are indeed interesting and sometimes
informative. Or, consider a site like Flickr, which is designed to share photos. Flickr features two billion photos! One of
the earliest Web 2.0 applications, it works as a photo repository fueled by social organization tools, which allow photos
to be tagged and browsed by “folksonomic”22 means.
For example, sixteen
users pooled 1,712 images of Steuben County in upstate New York, including wineries and lakes, hunting and fishing, dining
and shopping. No one person set out to organize such a thing, no media outlet assigned a team to it, yet it does have value.
Other members of Flickr sort and rate these photos, allowing a user to look only at the most interesting ones. On Flickr one
can find thousands of these groups - the 219 members who took 2,271 photos of the latest Minnesota State Fair, or the 191
people who shared 5,719 images of the “Cans” Festival in London. So, while it seems that Flickr, Wiki, and YouTube
have no quality control, in another sense they are completely quality controlled - many videos, wiki entries, or Flickr photos
are never viewed, as they are deemed completely unworthy.
For example, someone started a Flickr group for
the “British General Electric Company”, which has only two members, one of whom contributed twenty-one of the
thirty-three photos.23 Even worse was the “LLI Liberty & Summit Conferences”, which
had one member who posted fifteen photos.24 No one participated in these groups and they failed –
just two of surely tens of thousands of such failures. So, failure in the “publish, then filter” world is high,
but the cost of failure is low. What has changed in the last ten years - due to digital tools for video and sites for sharing
with the world - is this dropping cost of failure.
Yet, even this doesn't fully explain the power of “publish,
then filter.” The descriptions above imply that the procedure works only to find the “hits” that appeal
to a mass audience, and while this happens, it represents only half the power of new media.
Beyond mega-hits: the long tail
The web has blurred the line between a private communication
and a public broadcast. In the past one would never listen in on a phone call or open someone else's mail, and similarly one
knows that a commentary broadcast on public radio's Marketplace is designed for all; yet, the web is filled with things like
A flower vendor was just packing up and he had a very nice, good sized rosemary plant. I was planning
to cook a chicken tomorrow and missed the herb plants that I had at home, so I was glad to get a new one. On the way back
to the tram stop, I stopped into Wilkinson's where at last I found a wastebasket. [From a blog by Felicita written on September
What is this? Surely something like this about a visit to the mall cannot replace the “old”
media? It cannot, but implicit in this question is an error: Assuming those using new media are trying to find some common
denominator to reach a mass audience as old media does. Or, more simply, put, “They aren't talking to you!” And
we aren't really talking about audiences.
Social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook have millions
of accounts, yet the median number of friends on MySpace is two, whereas the average is 55 - although the distribution isn’t
bell-shaped, it skewed toward lower numbers. This means that social networking is largely done pairwise: One person communicating
with another. A blogger like Felicita is one of millions of pairwise (or perhaps tertiary or higher) interactions. So, from
an “old” mass media viewpoint, an audience of tens or hundreds is a failure of sorts - yet audience is the wrong
word to use. What Felicita has is a “community”, a community in which she, for whatever reason, resonates. It
is a secret of Web 2.0 (social networking) sites that one doesn't need professional quality in video, or narrative technique,
or performance to be successful. The success of a content-rich site would be much like a dinner party: it isn't important
what's on the plates, but instead what's on the seats. The social networking of Web 2.0 allows people to choose what appeals,
rather than sit and receive coarse marketing messages, with a global communication cost so low the lowest common denominator
in communication can be overcome. This means the tyranny of the most popular has been defeated by the long tail, a concept
outlined in a popular 2006 book by Chris Anderson:
The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy
is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits' (mainstream products and markets) at the
head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail. As the costs of production and distribution fall,
especially on-line, there is now less need to lump products and consumers into one-size-fits-all containers. In an era without
the constraints of physical shelf space and other bottlenecks of distribution, narrowly targeted goods and services can be
as economically attractive as mainstream fare.25
The long tail means that we can
now serve previously under- served audiences. Prior to the Web it would have been extremely expensive to reach small audiences,
but businesses like Amazon find that everything in their offerings is sampled once; perhaps not more than that, but at least
The same applies to the engineering profession and its content. One may well ask who would want to
hear an engineer talk about “plate efficiency” in a chemical engineering unit operation or listen to the details
of how fiber optics work. Yet like Amazon.com and their infinite bookshelf, each of these videos would likely get at least
one pairwise interaction because the topic resonates with someone. And that is precisely what engineering's long tail should
do: match up interests and entries. This moves the mass media component of engineering outreach from an emphasis
on big media hits - a television show or a New York Times article - to a world where, instead, 1,000 bloggers discuss in detail
some aspect of science or engineering.
are the details that make a social networking or wiki- style model work?
Within academia the Wikipedia model
gets little respect, yet for many subjects it works very well.26 I use the site frequently and am
often startled by the quality of information.27 As of August 2010 Wikipedia has a bit over three
million articles and is the third most popular site on the web behind Google and Facebook; the other top ten are all commercial.28 So, Wikipedia's utility for millions of users has been settled. The interesting questions are why it
works and how it can be used elsewhere.29
Four observations shed light on how the
wiki model works -- whether it be text-, still-photo-, audio- or video-based. These observations are key to making an engineering
new- media outreach project work.
• Process, not product. The key idea to keep in
mind is that something like Wikipedia is not a product. Although the -pedia suffix makes one compare it to an encyclopedia,
it is instead a process. A wiki doesn't work by collectivism but by continual and unending argumentation and emendation.
• Centered on a debatable question. A good wiki usually focuses on a question of the form
“How does this work?” about an activity that its users want to engage in. For example, Flickr has a lively forum
on HDR. Photographers make these High Dynamic Range images by combining three different exposures. This desire to do it oneself
drives the forum.
• Accommodate different levels of contribution. Unlike a corporation,
not all people who contribute to a project need to contribute equally. Some (many, in fact) do little, but a few do a lot.
Why does this work here, but not in corporations and businesses? A car company, for example, must a) make cars and b) be a
company. It takes a lot of work to be a company. Wikipedia, in contrast, doesn't need to be sure its employees show up. A
company needs to ensure all workers are interchangeable and do the same amount of work; but Wikipedia contributors come and
go. Return for a moment to the photos of Steuben County I mentioned earlier. As is typical of a sharing site like Flickr or
Wikipedia, the effort shows a skewed distribution: user pawtrait04 contributed 1,547 photos, kpmst7 70, danie.roman 29, Heron
Hill Winery 12, and grockwell61 contributed 9 photos.
• No experts. Designating experts
means no one writes an article. In a wiki, more people are likely to start a bad article than polish a good one. One must
truly trust the “publish, then filter” model and let the filtering remove the most atrocious ones.
the writers need guidance. Jimmy Wales, one of Wikipedia’s co-founders, notes:
"Any company that
thinks it’s going to build a site by outsourcing all the work to its users completely misunderstands what it should
be doing. Your job is to provide a structure for your users to collaborate, and that takes a lot of work.Not providing sufficient
structure is the reason an experiment that Wired magazine carried out in “crowdsourced” journalism ended in failure."30
a wonderful word! Here, from Wikipedia, is its definition: “Folksonomy (also known as collaborative tagging, social
classification, social indexing, and social tagging) is the practice and method of collaboratively creating and managing tags
to annotate and categorize content. Folksonomy describes the bottom-up classification systems that emerge from social tagging.
In contrast to traditional subject indexing, metadata is generated not only by experts but also by creators and consumers
of the content. Usually, freely chosen keywords are used instead of a controlled vocabulary. Folksonomy (from folk + taxonomy)
is a user generated taxonomy.”
23 For the curious: “This group
is about the people, places and products associated with the GEC from its beginnings in 1886 until
1999 when it became Marconi plc.”
24 Also for those with an inquiring
mind: LLI is “a group of entrepreneurs and students of personal development who are changing the financial and personal
courses of our lives. As part of that journey we attend conferences all over the world in places like Melbourne, Rome, the
Atlantis Resort (Bahamas) and Hawaii.”
25 Anderson, Chris, The Long Tail
(New York: Hyperion, 2006).
26 See The Chronicle of Higher Education's
discussion among academics about Wikipedia at http://chronicle.com/live/2006/10/halavais/
of course, occur, but that isn't unique to Wikipedia and new media. Recently I was reading John Hale's majestic The Civilization
of Europe in the Renaissance (1994) - a 20th century masterpiece of history and a sterling example of “filter, filter
more, then publish.” On page 86 it announced that Francis I took over from his father Louis XII as King of France. Alas,
Francis was a distant cousin. Unlike Wikipedia, this error will last for years and years.
http://toolbar.netcraft.com/stats/topsites for the most current statistics.
test whether Wikipedia truly works, in October 2008 I created a short entry for a person worthy of inclusion: Professor Frances
H. Arnold of the California Institute of Technology. I never edited the entry again, instead just letting it sit there. Others
found it, added her correct birth date, inserted details of her work, and listed references.
Zero was an experiment in “pro-am” (professional/amateur) journalism, in which journalism is run by the public
rather than the media. Assignment Zero was an attempt at journalism without strings — one might call it an audience-run
newsroom. In the Assignment Zero project, stories were thought up, then chosen and researched by “citizen journalists,”
rather than designated by editors. The aim of this experiment was to promote social democracy — rather than the anarchy
that one assumes would naturally result — and worked to employ a crowd model that allowed several contributors to shape
a story. It failed.