communication flows

The Washington Post’s Outstanding Weather Blog

Lincoln Memorial Snow

DC is a beauty when it snows. (Photo credit: Gab!S on Flickr:

This morning Washington, DC has been hit by one of the strongest snowstorm in years, with an average of about a foot in most of the area.  The federal government has shuttered down, they made the call late last night to the delirous delight of thousands of adults in the capital city. Snow day!!! It never  loses it’s magic, does it? The way your inner child jumps up in joy when work closes has been seared into our psyche from our days of Middle School when we didn’t have to do our homework and would stay up late watching TV.

So how have I spent most of my morning? By reading a newspaper blog online which is……way more fun that it sounds, you will not believe me. Like the WEATHER section of the newspaper. The most fascinating and addictive blog on the internet might just be about the weather.  I am referring to the Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang’s Blog . The gang affectionately referred to as CWG is run by Washington Post staff who are actual meteorologists. 

As a student of social media, there are many areas that are interesting enough that they could be fertile research topics for an enterprising grad student.  For example:

Two Way Communication:  I have never seen a “serious” blog in which the bloggers interact with their commenters as much as they do here. By “serious” I mean a blog run by technical professionals employed on behalf of a large visible organization.  There is a lot of public interaction, the Post’s weather staff there drops contribute to the comments, answers questions, and they have gotten to know some of the more popular commenters well (more on this below).

Of course research on two-way communication is not new in the Communication and Public Relations fields, but many large organizations are still trying to figure this out. Blogs where the bloggers interact with their audience are much more engaging than those in which either (1) the blogger NEVER comments or acknowledges comments or (2) where the blogger is a high-profile public personality but the individual blogging or answering comments is clearly a random staffer, responding in obvious PR-speak.  The second situation might actually be worse, audiences can tell and it just seems insincere.  (Note: Ofcourse CEOs can’t be on their iphones answering comments but the way around this is to simply acknowledge up front that while the “name” is being used for the blog, staffers are handling the comments).

Tribes & community building:  To my knowledge there is not much scholarly research on the study of online communities and tribes–but see Norman (2012) for a rare example from hockey.This site would be good source material for an online ethnographic study of blog communities.  How do the social interactions between participants on the blog construct the blog as a social space?  At the rate that the Capital Weather Gang blog is developing, I’m guessing that it is possible that at some point it will move into IRL events such as happy hours or meetups. A rich subcommunity of ‘snowbros/gals’ , meteorologists, and yes, trolls, is developing. Commenters here have become fiercely protective of the bloggers and often go to great length to reprimand ‘drive-by’ commenters that drop in to sneer at “failed” weather forecasts. 

Gatekeeping: How central is gatekeeping to online communities? As the blog has developed “regulars” do they become the opinion leaders? Who starts being looked at as a defacto authority figure–is it a function of posting frequency, personality or technical knowledge?  Today some posters are even recognized by the Post’s meteorologists for the substantive contributions that they bring to the table. Nice cred! 

Technological Change: Nobody likes change, anyone that works in a large organization knows that when the IT folks introduce a new software platform everyone groans in dismay.  Sure enough, the Washington Post has recently introduced a new comment system and it’s been not been well received.  Discontent with this new commenting feature is currently playing out on the CWG blog oo.

But apart from all that academic stuff, the blog is really cutting edge–hell, bleeding edge. 

There’s NOTHING like it on the internet. This is a blog about WEATHER (and I’m saying that in a good way) yet it’s accessible,  impossibly fun but also educational–I never though I’d care or know what polar vertices, derechos, or domma storm patterns were.

I wish every city had one like this, these guys make meteorologists hip.  I would also say that technical bloggers in any practice could do well to study this blog and see how to talk to both a general audience, and a technical audience.

You can see a history of the CWG blog here .

Oh, dear, Pokemon?!?

You know, when I was admitted into the School of International Service, I did not imagine I’d be blogging about some of my favorite entertainment.  Did I blog about soccer yet? Oh, yes I did. Best. Class. Ever.  Now I just need to find a way to blog about hip-hop or dance music.  Seriously though, it is very informative to look at these things from a different perspective as a class in International Communication forces you to do. After all, as International Relations scholar Martha Finmore says, “in thesocial world, everything is related to everything else” which is true as I continue to be impressed by how far reaching communication as an academic area reaches, and that is also true of the topic of today’s post which is Japanese animation, known as anime.

Lead character from ‘Ghost in Shell’ anime I cringed in dismay in a class discussion today when in talking about anime, another student used Pokemon, and worse, Power Rangers, as examples.  Probably this sounds like something conceited to say, but I feel compelled to give a more complete picture of anime!   As soon as the word anime was mentioned in class, I knew I’d have to blog about this.  You see, anime is not just “cartoons” .  Even though it’s animated, many of the themes, tone, etc. , are for a mature audience.  Still, I wonder, isPokemon what pops up in peoples head when they think of anime?  It is certainly not representative of anime overall.  This makes me realize that probably the dominant imagery associated with other cultural labels such as for example ‘American culture’, ‘hip-hop’, ‘middle america’, ‘africans’, ‘bollywood’, etc might often be just flat out wrong, but I’ll leave exploring that for another day.
For me (in my opinion), anime is a deeply rewarding and complex form of entertainment because of the sheer diversity within it.  And  yes, I’ll concede openly out that much of the anime around, and much of the anime that I watch, is not particularly insightful, and is simplistic and just about a good time (but not likePokemon). There’s haunting animated films such as the Grave of the Fireflies that are as sad and powerful as Schindlers List.  Or the now classic 1995 epic, Ghost in the Shell, which is arguably one of the anime’s that Professor Hayden might have been referring to when he mentioned that elements of anime actually influenced The Matrix (by the way James Cameron , Director of Avatar and Titanic, describes Ghost in Shell as a “stunning piece of speculative fiction”).  I mean there’s lots of goodanimes with philosophical and psychological undertones that’d make one’s head spin. In terms of communications theory, the  discussion came up as an example of a subaltern/contra-flow.  In his article, Mapping Global Media Flow and Contra-Flow,Daya Thussu describes this as new  networks of media flows originating outside of the west.  He points out that, “Japanese animation, film, publishing and music business was worth $140 billion in 2003, with animation, including manga (comics), anime(animation), films, videos and merchandising products brining gin $26 billion.”  Thussu is actually impressed enough by the imprint of anime that he singles it out as the only non-Western genre with a global presence, going as far as elevating it above a contra-flow to the level of a dominant global flow.
Indeed $140 billion is quite a large amount for non-western media and it would be even more impressive if one added video games into the mix, which Thussu doesn’t mention.   Anime elements feature heavily in video-games, and some of the highest selling video game franchises in the world like Final Fantasy and Street Fighter have ‘animeish’ influences—actually video games is really another area in which the Japanese have imported culture so to speak. Lastly, as a student of communication, one cool aspect of anime is that there is A LOT of releases which covers information, information overload, artificial intelligence, and their use by conventional authority structures.   I’ll end this with a trailer of one such anime, a nice movie that I watched recently called ‘Summer Wars’.  I found it interesting because of it’s highlighting of the differences between Gesellchaft and Gemeinschaft, and also because I like their portrayal of a society dependent on culture.  Will facebook be like that in 20 years?
This post also appears at another student group blog that I’m a part of.

Xi = ?

This is not a post about statistics or physics.  It’s not a post about BMW cars either.

For the Xi = ? equation, lets label the variables like this:- i=information sources and x=quantity, so Xi is the total number of information sources.  What the right side of the equation is, is what I’ll explore, and it’s a little bit of everything today, some economics, some communication theory, and culture–this is my way of trying to make sense of some of the concepts in the class discussion yesterday, and also an elaboration on a blog comment I wrote a few days ago.

So what happens as X increases, in other words as the number of information sources increases?

:: Xi=Ignorant or Informed? ::

In a class discussion yesterday there was talk of the agenda-setting function, and I heard a statement, “the power of the media doesn’t tell us what to think, but what to think about”.   Well as I see it since there are now more sources of media, I suspect that while people might dip into more sources of information, the diversity of the content is actually reducing.  For example let’s say someone considers themselves a conservative in the USA.  There are only so many sources of information they can absorb, with a limited amount to do so.  Whereas in the past, they’d have the Washington Post and read all of it’s op-eds, and then watch the CBS news at 6:00 pm, now they are watching Fox News, listening to Rush Limbaugh, participating in ‘vigorous, challenging debates’ on ‘freetherpublic’ and reading Erik Eriksson atRedState–X is increasing.   Or whereas before one would read People magazine and be done with their gossip quota, now they’re reading People magazine, watching the Kardashians on E!, and following Kim on facebook (and Twitter too of course). As your increasing the sources of information you draw from within the same interest/area, you reduce the amount of time and energy you have to expose yourself to other types of information.

There’s the very real possibility that people are getting dumbed down rather than enlightened—and by dumbed down I mean virtually completely ignorant of any issues outside of their pet interest or two.   Yes there’s instant and plenty of information out there, but I suspect the “instant and plenty” of information that people are seeking is information that confirms their preexisting views.  In a sense information becomes not about ‘getting informed’ but about representing existing beliefs, communication becomes what the late Social Scientist James Carey would characterize as a ‘ritual view of communication’.

:: Xi=Unifying or Dividing? ::

I have some friends on Facebook who live in Washington DC, but 90% of their feeds are in foreign languages.  It’s all in Thai or it’s all in Swahili, etc.   What this indicates is that people are not really actively diversifying or expanding their social circles.  I see a lot of discussion of, talk of, and pride in their home countries (nothing wrong with that).  Is this caused perhaps by social media allowing diaspora to communicate more frequently with others about events ‘back home’? My anecdotal observation is that this can slow acculturation and that it can cause people to hide from the dominant culture in which they reside.  Seriously some of my friends, it would be impossible to know that they live in Dallas, as opposed to Dakar.  Some of my friends 90% of the music videos they watch and/or post on facebook are of artists from their home country.  Now surely it is not a revelation that people situated in foreign cultures will instinctively seek the familiar, after all when people immigrated to the USA, there used to be little Italies, little Chinas, etc.  However, shouldn’t availability of more information about different people, cultures, etc. have a unifying effect?  The temptation is to assume that it would obviously be so, but I think it also can just as likely have the opposite effect.

(This also shows,  as  Dayan Thussu argues, that information flows are rarely one-way only but that is another post on it’s own.)

:: Xi=Cheap or Expensive? ::

Over at Hayden’s HeroesJohn Jeff argues that information is almost virtually free.   In a comment to Jeff, I question whether information really is virtually free (though he is absolutely correct to say it is easily and readily available).  In a capitalistic society, yes competition and efficiency should bring prices down.  However, if there is also a trend towards deregulation, then there is the danger of monopolies, and other aggressive and relatively unchecked profit-seeking behavior (again this is not stated as a value judgement).  This is seen in the USA where in 1980, to get the world news, one paid a bill to the cable company.  In 2010, in the USA it is not atypical to find that someone is paying a cable bill, a data bill for your smartphone, a high-speed internet bill for your computer, and a data bill for your tablet. So while the number of sources is undoubtedly increasing, it is possible that the economic costs are increasing too.

So thats it!  There is no empirical research done here, this is just my general sense of where things stand.  Availability of more more more and yet more available information or communication methods is often assumed to result a smarter more unified population enjoying cheap information and communicating cheaply.  This is a form of technological  determinism, which is not very convincing.


This post is crossposted on a student blog at which I am a contributor.