The annual Highway Africa conference at Rhodes U in Grahamstown does not so much set the agenda as tap into the agenda of where new media is going. Case in point is the contribution of Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media and global thought leader in citizen journalism. Back in 2003, we both participated in a panel discussion on whether blogging was a viable medium for journalists. With Gillmor, that’s like asking George Bush whether warfare is a viable alternative to leadership. All the panelists urged journalists to get blogging. One of them, Rudy Nadler-Nir, introduced the audience to anthroblogs – a concept that has since been refined, yet is no less obscure today, but indicating how deep the understanding went already back then.
Returning to Highway Africa this year, Dan was ready to talk about the next chapter in the evolving story of citizen journalism, social media, user-generated content and conversational media (take your pick; the phrases all mean similar and different things, but none quite capture it all).
Our brief Q&A went like this:
AG: How has blogging and social media changed in the five years since you were last at Highway Africa?
DG: Apart from volume, the difference is that blogging five years ago was the predominant form of conversational media on the Web. Now it’s one of many and evolving with other media. But blogs are more varied and people are continuing to expand the platform and its possibilities.
AG: Do you see a pecking order of social media, and where would you see blogging fitting in?
DG: I don’t know if there is a hierarchy, because one isn’t above the other. Certainly social networks like MySpace and FaceBook and others are quite powerful in their own right and there is as much variety in them as in blogging. But blogging is more a form of expression, while social networking is more a form of connection, but of course they bleed into each other and both are valuable.
AG: Does blogging become more powerful when functioning in tandem with other platforms?
DG: There are certainly services and sites that blend what we take as blogging in the traditional sense with video and other forms. But the blogging format which grew up in text is still experimental. People still experiment with how to use video best in it, but others say video is video and use it in ways that work best in video.
AG: What about your own initiatives?
DG: I’m an investor in something called Seesmic, which is fundamentally about video as conversation. Video is still a resource issue and the costs associated with video as opposed to text and images are entirely different. It’s still pretty early days in all these things. What I’m intrigued by is the idea that video can be much more conversational than it has been and it can be a lot easier to create something that is conversational. If you have a webcam on your computer, you can – boom – create a video and – boom – reply to other videos and thread the conversation.
AG: Like video for the Twitter generation?
DG: Twitter is more like headlines, quick and easy, and limited to 140 characters. Text is still the easiest thing to do. It’s still harder to do video but it’s getting better. I’m not of a generation that thinks of video as something snappy and easy – but the generation that will be adults in five to ten years time will regard it as, ‘So-what, of course you can create it easily and post it easily’.
AG: And that should be taught?
DG: People teaching journalism today are well advised to learn from their students. Freshmen arriving at university today are far ahead of senior students when it comes to understanding the techniques, although not the art, of creating media. That means a lot of skills to teach to students, but also a lot for the teachers to learn from their students. A course I am teaching in the USA is designed to help students invent their own jobs, which is not only a good idea, but probably an essential skill for journalists …
That wasn’t the end of the conversation. In fact, it wasn’t even the beginning of the conversation, but rather one that is ongoing. More next decade.
If you’re in Cape Town, you can catch Dan Gillmor giving a free talk at UCT Graduate School of Business this Friday, September 12 from 1.30pm to 3pm on “We the Media”. Seats limited. Details here