Answering Wikileaks, FarmVille's Hard Soil and Wasting Twitter on the Young

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

By Published on .

You might blame it on the loud absence of a Nick Denton-penned broadside or the chaos of a fast-developing Wikileaks story that absorbed the pack's attention like a roll of Bounty. But a leading indicator of the sad state of media writing this week is the fact that the reliable aggregator Mediagazer found Gawker's "10 Things I Love About Winter" worth linking to. Nevertheless, your faithful correspondent rolled up his sleeves and went elbow-deep into Flipbook, Feedlr, Google Reader and Percolate, among others and found a few gems.

Julian Assange
Julian Assange Credit: AP
Amid all the screaming about Wikileaks -- whose founder, Julian Assange, was both arrested on sexual-assault charts and rocketed up Time's Person of the Year vote -- there was a standout piece from media theorist Clay Shirky. Mr. Shirky voiced a considered intelligence ambivalence about Wikileaks, not pretending to have all the answers as he asked all the right questions:

And so we have a tension between two requirements for democratic statecraft, one that can't be resolved, but can be brought to an acceptable equilibrium. Indeed, like the virtues of equality vs. liberty, or popular will vs. fundamental rights, it has to be brought into such an equilibrium for democratic statecraft not to be wrecked either by too much secrecy or too much transparency.

Articles on Monocle founder and jetsetter extraordinaire Tyler Brule are about as easy to find as the dessert bearing his name in a Manhattan restaurant and usually just about as interesting. But New York's Amy Larocca came up with an elegant, entertaining and smirky piece on the place of a Mr. Brule, an unapologetic print apologist, in the age of the iPad.

Several months later and Brule is back at the Crosby. He's particularly jazzed this time because he's just been to Germany, where he visited the editorial board of the newsmagazine Der Spiegel. The meeting took place at its office in Hamburg. Recalling the experience, Brule's as fizzy as the bubbly water he's drinking once again: He'd once had Der Spiegel's Verner Patton dining room photographed for Wallpaper, and there he was in the very building, holding forth on his favorite topics. Paper stock! Fact-checkers! ("They have 80!") Foreign bureaus! There was scarcely a mention of that horribly little half-word: app. (Brule admits that Monocle will, eventually, launch an app of its own, but the benefit of being a tiny company is that he can first learn from the technological mistakes of others.)

FarmVille and other of Zynga's social games have millions of eager, even addicted fans. Tyler Brule probably isn't one, and Jonathan Blow, creator of hit game Braid and a big deal in the video game world, mos def isn't among them. Gamasutra's Simon Parkin did a long Q&A with Mr. Blow, who provided an interesting insight on the bleak psychological toll of the cheery FarmVille:

It's only about exploiting the players and yes, people report having fun with that kind of game. You know, certain kinds of hardcore game players don't find much interest in FarmVille, but a certain large segment of the population does. But then when you look at the design process in that game, it's not about designing a fun game. It's not about designing something that's going to be interesting or a positive experience in any way -- it's actually about designing something that's a negative experience.

It's about "How do we make something that looks cute and that projects positivity" -- but it actually makes people worry about it when they're away from the computer and drains attention from their everyday life and brings them back into the game. Which previous genres of game never did. And it's about, "How do we get players to exploit their friends in a mechanical way in order to progress?" And in that or exploiting their friends, they kind of turn them in to us and then we can monetize their relationships. And that's all those games are, basically.

There's an assumption that every shiny new media toy is embraced by the ultra-tech-savvy hordes of teenagers seen eternally tapping away on their mobile devices. That's not true, at least of Twitter, as 16-year-old Michael Moore-Jones described in a post on ReadWriteWeb. The teen did a nice job of laying out the mechanics of why teens don't, and won't, Tweet. A lot of it has to do with that big blue monster, Facebook:

Teenagers don't usually care about being updated in real time on current events, and those events that are big enough, or relevant to them, will be shared by their real friends. It's the simple fact that Twitter isn't solving a problem that teenagers have, so there is no need for it.

The medium that teenagers use to communicate to their friends is actually very important, as it says a lot about what type of communication is to come (whether it's a long conversation, or just a quick question). Twitter does not offer any alternate mediums of communication. Tweets themselves are usually impersonal, and @replies and Direct Messages do not serve as methods of communication that have any advantages to teenagers over methods offered by Facebook. Facebook already has almost everything a teen could want in terms of communication and social networking, and it's about to get even better with Facebook Messages (which will be a huge success amongst teenagers). Again, Twitter just offers no value to teenagers.

The Guardian's Timothy Garton Ash produced a first-rate meditation on foreign correspondents and the importance of "being there." Rather than moan about the depletion of professional news organizations' foreign bureaus and the rise of lower-cost community reporting projects, he looks at what's worth preserving about the troubled journalistic institution.

It seems to me that there are three features of the work of the foreign correspondent that we should want to preserve, and enhance, in new forms of news gathering and delivery. They are: independent, honest and, so far as possible, accurate and impartial witnessing of events, people and circumstances; deciphering and setting them in local context, explaining who's who, what's what, and a bit of why; and, last but not least, interpreting what is going on in this particular place, at this particular time, in a broader comparative and historical frame. Witnessing, deciphering, interpreting.

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