Tuesday, May 5, 2009...4:28 pm

Web identity and old media thinking

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I posted earlier about my run-in with the Centre for Journalism at the University of Kent. 
I had commented on a blog post by professor Tim Luckhurst on the need for journalists (particularly students) always to use the phone and nothing but the phone when sourcing stories.
In the comments to his blog, I argued his underlying argument was somewhat flawed – he disagreed robustly. He’s also paid me a visit here, to say much the same thing
Aside from the specific argument though, the whole storm in a teacup has raised some interesting questions about how old media and academia see the web. 
The Centre for Journalism web site is, on the face of it, a high-tech marvel. It’s been created in Drupal – which readers of this blog will know is something I’m quite interested in. And while it’s aimed primarily at journalism students at the university, its content is open to a wider audience. You have to go through a registration process in order to comment on existing posts, but once you’ve done so you are allowed to upload your own blog posts. Great stuff.
The problem came when I had registered. About 20 minutes later the author posted a reply that criticised me for not using my real name:

“we blog by name at the Centre for Journalism, so please drop the cover of anonymity and argue your case in person”

Oh. OK. Well, I did poke around and discover that rule a bit later, but actually the site doesn’t mention that in the sign-up procedure. Which is kind of dumb. (As soon as I pointed this out, it was rectified, mind, which is good going for a university web site.)
But seriously – what does that mean?  I could easily have registered with my real name (Simon Clarke – it’s no great secret), but no one is actually aware of it online. My web identity – which is my real identity in the blogging world – is Freelance Unbound, obviously. And while I don’t have a massive readership, it has a certain traction on the web that my ‘real’ name doesn’t. It is, in effect, my brand. 
As for the whole accusation of anonymity – well. It’s simple enough for readers of the comment to click through to this blog and find out all about me – even emailing me with whatever comments or questions they like. And they’d get an email back from my ‘real’, ie personal, email address.  
Only at the Centre for Journalism, of course, it doesn’t work like that. 
Its blog comments don’t allow readers to post a link to their own site, or even their email address – which means that anyone wanting to find out a bit more about commentators are stuck. It’s a policy that undermines the entire premise of the web – its interactivity – and instead treats its visitors like passive consumers. Yes, you can comment, but you can’t build up a relationship with other readers. 
Or you can – but it has to be all conducted at the university’s web site. It’s a bit like they’re saying the internet’s a great party, but you can only enjoy it here. If someone else wants to host the party, we won’t let anyone we know have an invitation. (Though tellingly, his comment on this blog gets him a nice link to his web site. Which doubtless many readers will want to click through to.)
The tenor of the post and its response to comments also underline the fact that this isn’t the web as we know it. Sure, Luckhurst can defend his position robustly – it’s his blog. But his argument is that he was addressing a particular issue to do with students, and that I (or anyone else) shouldn’t have broadened the debate in that way.
But this is an open blog post, making sweeping statements about how journalism should and should not be conducted. It even invites comments. But if the only comments that are acceptable are ones that agree with the post, it kind of makes the whole idea of online debate redundant. 
My take is that if you want to communicate a point of teaching to students and make sure they only get that message, try a group email. Or, for heaven’s sake, turn off the comments to the post. It’s easy enough to do. 
The great thing about the web is that it’s a great leveller. Anyone can be a content producer and a publisher. And the web’s inbuilt interconnectivity make it easier than it’s ever been to develop an audience and, more importantly, to create a network of readers and contributors. 
Old media and, it seems, academia, still just don’t get that…

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