Best Media Writing of the Week

Facebook's Flaws, Identifying Anonymous and the Romenesko Kerfuffle

It's the Best Media Writing of the Week

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"Imagine the U.S. Census as conducted by direct marketers -- that 's the social graph."

Unless you're the kind of person who sees Facebook as nothing more than a place to accumulate 'likes' for major brands that pay your salary -- and, please, don't be that person -- it should be difficult to read this sentence and not feel the warm buzz of agreement.

It's over a month since the release of the Timeline, the new metaphor for expressing yourself on Facebook that was supposed to change everything, and it's pretty clear that nothing has really changed. The social graph, an even bigger metaphor that 's meant to structure the whole Zuckerberg project, remains as flawed as it's ever been on an experiential and intellectual level.

Remember how giving people the template for ordering their life chronologically, equipping them with the tools to self-publish their own human comedy, was supposed to bring sweep to the cataloging of interests and associations? Sure, marking your time with some ex-bf might cause problems with your current squeeze, but Facebook would become a living monument to your life as you're living it. Who doesn't want that ?

But it turns out that the Timeline, while a lovely redesign, doesn't make the graph any more real. How can we tell? The rollout has gone slowly, but I use it and I don't think it'll piss people off the way any significant change would. One's Timeline is only as robust as one's sharing philosophy is aggressive. Omission is still possible and nuance is still impossible. A true social graph would be so raw that a company that figured it out would guarantee its own demise.

The author of our epigraph is Maciej Ceglowski, the founder of Pinboard, a wonderful bookmarking site that I often use while putting together this column. It's one great line among many in a post on the startup's blog called "The Social Graph is Neither," a thorough, commonsense dissection of the ways in which Facebook doesn't really reflect our place in the world of humans. Here's a bit more

And then there's the question of how to describe the more complicated relationships that human beings have. Maybe my friend Bill is a little abrasive if he starts drinking, but wonderful with kids -- how do I mark that ? Dawn and I go out sometimes to kvetch over coffee, but I can't really tell if she and I would stay friends if we didn't work together. I'd like to be better friends with Pat. Alex is my AA sponsor. Just how many kinds of edges are in this thing?

And speaking of booze, how come there's a field for declaring I'm an alcoholic (opensocial.Enum.Drinker.HEAVILY) but no way to tell people I smoke pot? Why are the only genders male and female? Have the people who designed this protocol really never made the twenty mile drive to San Francisco? What happens to dead people in the social graph? Facebook keeps profiles around for a while in memoriam, so we probably shouldn't just purge dead contacts from the social graph immediately. But we certainly don't want them haunting us on LinkedIn -- maybe there should be a second, Elysian social graph where we can put those nodes to await us?

You can call this nitpicking, but this stuff matters! This is supposed to be a canonical representation of human relationships. But it only takes five minutes of reading the existing standards to see that they're completely inadequate.

Dean Starkman of the Columbia Journalism Review penned a long, evenhanded examination of what exactly "future of news" pundits like Jay Rosen and Clay Shirky are saying. Considering that his subjects are so polarizing, Mr. Starkman does a good job of giving credit where it's due, while identifying some of the weaker points made by journalism thinkers who often don't seem to have much regard for the trade or its product:

But we can see now that the news-as-cheap-commodity argument was all along an ideological one couched in economic terms. The idea that "information wants to be free" (a partial quote of Stewart Brand, who well understood information's value) was a catechism, a rallying cry, voiced by a certain segment of the digital vanguard. Subscription services, "walls," don't fit into a networked vision. It's worth pointing out that the commodity idea gained traction only because of the generalized collapse of news-business advertising models, a collapse that had nothing to do with editorial models. This isn't to say that the content was good or not good, only that the collapsing ad model had nothing to do with it.

The problem with conceiving of news as a commodity is that it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If that is what you think of it, that is surely what it will become. It may be okay for academics to sell this thesis, but shame on journalism executives for buying it.

Wired's Quinn Norton is in the midst of what promises to be excellent series on Anonymous, the hacker group that has wreaked so much havoc with the Church of Scientology, credit card companies and, more generally, the Internet. Acknowledging the tough-to-categorize nature of Anonymous, Ms. Norton settles for a definition culled from cultural theory, which seems as good as any:

The trickster isn't the good guy or the bad guy, it's the character that exposes contradictions, initiates change and moves the plot forward. One minute, the loving and heroic trickster is saving civilization. A few minutes later the same trickster is cruel, kicking your ass and eating babies as a snack.

The conversation about Anonymous points to this trickster nature, veering between praise and fear, with the media at a loss for even how to describe them.

In this week's New Yorker, the great profile writer John McPhee examines where his ideas come from. Relying on diagrams, Mr. McPhee sketches out an "X," signifying the profile subject, surrounded by "O"s, or the people interviewed to shed light on the subject. Simple, right? Maybe not:

Writers like Mark Singer and Brock Bower have said you know you've done enough peripheral interviewing when you meet yourself coming the other way. So, after those ten years and feeling squeezed in the form, I thought about doing a double profile. ... In the resonance between the two sides, added dimension might develop. Maybe I would twice meet myself coming the other way. Or four times. Who could tell what might happen? In any case, one plus one should add up to more than two.

Finally, there's this Jim Romenesko kerfuffle. The soon-to-retire, ur-media blogger wasn't properly attributing all his stuff, at least according to Julie Moos, director of Poynter Online, part of the journalism institute that 's owned his blog for the past dozen years. It was all rather strange since most of his blog's reason for being was pointing to others' work and, besides hurrying along Mr. Romenesko's retirement, Ms. Moos' revelation pissed off just about any journalist within tweeting range. David Carr of The New York Times just may have had the most interesting take. From it, we learned just how far Mr. Romenesko's independence from the world he aggregated extended:

A few years ago, I ended up with a few hours to spare in Evanston, Ill. -- where he haunts various coffee shops -- and suggested we meet, but he said he was busy. I think it probably had more to do with the fact that he had no interest in, or appetite for, affiliation. He liked being his own damn thing and no, having a cup of coffee with me or others like me probably did not meet any current needs he had.

Mr. Romenesko will be changing addresses, the blog he invented will be needing a new name along with something besides what he has been replaced with, but I'm pretty sure that cup of coffee is still out of the question.

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