Posts Tagged writing

The algorithms of progress

After 200 posts, I still have a love/hate relationship with the Internet.

I mean that in the most literal sense: I love the opportunities the Internet has made possible, but I hate most of what comes with using it and interacting with people through it.

Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have a job right now. I certainly wouldn’t be able to cover the car industry from a house in Connecticut.

However, the Internet has also de-valued skills.

For many jobs, remote working has opened up a pool of applicants that literally spans the nation. People with job-specific skills are much more interchangeable than they ever have been.

That’s great if, like me, you want to write about cars without moving to Detroit, but it also means that being good at something just doesn’t cut it anymore.

People are expected to bring much more than relevant skills to a job; they’re expected to bring specific training, connections, and name recognition.

Some call this the entrepreneurial spirit; I call it blurring the line between work and life.

Because when people expect less from organizations, organizations expect more from people. So much for punching out at 5:00 p.m.

Those aren’t the only terms the Internet dictates.

We work for it: we design content for it, adapt messages to suit it, alter our language so that both humans and Google will comprehend it.

Then someone invents a new “breakthrough in communications” that must be satiated on its own terms.

Earlier this year I got a Twitter account, because everyone else has one.

As far as I can tell, Twitter is just a forum for anyone who has ever been involved with Star Trek, and a gruesomely effective way to relay information during a disaster.

Every time a celebrity does something, it explodes like a healthcare exchange website on October 1, 2013. I can’t see how this leads to productive discourse.

We shouldn’t feel obligated to make room for new social media in our lives, but we do. That’s what frustrates me the most about living in the shadow of the Internet.

After several generations of continuous technological progress, people seem resigned to the Digital Age being just another part of an inexorable historical movement. Nothing stays the same forever.

When I was in first grade I learned to type on beige Macs and play with floppy disks. The teachers said computers would one day be an important part of my life. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Even if we use a piece of technology, we should still be allowed to evaluate its effect on us, and tailor it to our lives–not the other way around.

The Internet has certainly changed the way people live, but whether “different ” really means “better” — and doesn’t mean “worse” is a determination we need to make. It’s easy to assume we have no agency in the face of progress, but we need to take account of how we use technology.

Advertisements

, , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Twittering away

I finally got a Twitter account and I’m not really sure why. You should definitely follow me (@SAEdelstein) while I figure that out. I promise it will be entertaining.

I’ve never been an early adopter of social media; I usually start by asking “What the hell is this for?” before caving when a critical mass of friends and potential employers start using it. Maybe that’s the source of my confusion.

In school, parents, teachers, and Nickelodeon characters were always saying not to do something just because it’s popular, to think independently.

That’s hard to do when it comes to joining a social network, because the network isn’t just an activity, it’s a space where social interactions (however artificial) happen. Things were less complicated when work and school were people’s only avenues for socialization.

“Because everyone else is doing it” is the primary reason most people join social networks, because they have to go where other people are. If a site is popular enough, it doesn’t matter whether the medium is 140-character messages or protein exchanges. It develops a gravitational pull of sorts that attracts more users.

Of course, it’s important not to put too much emphasis on Twitter or any other social media site. Users can post as much or as little as they want, but there is a difference between using a site and getting something out of it.

Being a late adopter is like walking through a conquered land. The hordes of discordant posts given the barest sense of order by warlord-like influencers with their thousands of followers hint at the possibilities, but remind you that, because someone has already figured out how to work the system, they’re limited.

Social media really isn’t a new frontier for human consciousness, it’s just the same routine as ever, digitized and compressed. The medium itself is where the innovation is: people are and will continue to use it to create new ways of expressing ideas.

Is that the same as fundamentally changing the way people socialize, though? if not, do we still have a choice to opt out, or will we be obligated to join the next new network, and the one after that?

, , , , , , , ,

2 Comments

The infinitely deep gap between writing about something and nothing

In college, I had a writing teacher who said that, if you have a column or blog, you can write about having nothing to write about. But you can only do it once. For this blog, I’m saving that free pass for rainy day. However, I thought it would be interesting to discuss where ideas come from and how original they need to be.

I’ve always thought that the best way to come up with ideas for news and feature stories is to draw on experience. Talking to sources, finding out what’s actually happening, or learning about an important trend are the essence of journalism. That’s why it’s called reporting, after all.

What happens when you can’t be near the source, though? Or if you don’t have a monopoly on it? The Internet has dramatically changed how news is reported, especially when it’s related to industry, politics, or other subjects that don’t have a geographic base.

Here’s an example: If Ford wants to show off a new car, it will probably unveil it at a major auto show in front of the world’s press, but it will simultaneously post all of the vital information on the car on its website.

That means every media outlet, even ones that didn’t send reporters to show, has access to the same information (assuming the bigwigs don’t take questions). Since everyone is online, people don’t need to rely on their local newspaper or magazine to learn about it.

That’s why angles are so important. A writer can explain how a story applies to their specific audience, or add analysis that others might not have thought to include. Other outlets distinguish themselves with style, taking on a more informal or humorous tone to differentiate themselves from “traditional” coverage.

This means readers are essentially getting several different takes on the same event, which can be informative, or confusing if they don’t agree.

It also shows that many stories are worth covering, even if someone else is doing it. The flip side of that is that it’s easy to piggyback off someone else’s work without contributing anything.

This clip from Portlandia illustrates the problem pretty well:

Anyone who thinks print media is dead should take a careful look at the sources of some of the digital articles they’re reading. Someone has to actually do the reporting, but that doesn’t mean the discussion stops there.

The “all access” scenario described above applies to original news too. Sometimes a story is important enough that it deserves coverage of its own, but that makes it every easy to just repeat the findings without adding anything.

Avoiding this requires a similar approach to the omnipresent car unveiling. Work the angles. Tailor the story to a specific audience. Add relevant analysis and insight. Also, don’t plagiarize.

Obviously this could be easier said than done, but hopefully this shows that you can come up with some meaningful stuff without direct access to sources. That doesn’t mean these types of articles can replace original reporting, so keep trying to get out there too.

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

Super journalists

The QuestionOne of my favorite things about comic books is the way they glorify my chosen profession. Many superheroes pick up a camera or notebook after they put away their capes, taking to the fictional streets of America as journalists. Superheroes and journalism really go hand-in-hand, and it’s no accident. In fact, it’s all about realism.

A news reporter or photographer is the perfect secret identity for someone is always making news. If Clark Kent showed up every time Superman made an appearance, and din’t carry a press pass, people would get suspicious. As a reporter for the Daily Planet, Kent is expected to follow Superman around, so no one would ever suspect that he and the Man of Steel are the same person. The same goes for Peter Parker of the Daily Bugle. Of course he’s always around when Spider-Man swings into action! How else would he get those amazing photos?

Journalism also provides heroes with the resources they need to fight crime. Working for newspapers gives Clark Kent and Peter Parker access to information; they learn about crises first, so they can respond quickly. The Internet has made that less true (the “Miracle on the Hudson” was first reported via Twitter), but working for a major news organization is still important. Would Spider-Man be as effective if he had to read thousands of tweets by himself before getting some actionable intelligence?

One superhero, the Question, goes so far as to make journalism part of his modus operandi. As T.V. news reporter Vic Sage, he investigates criminal acts, exposing the corruption of Hub City in nightly broadcasts. Then, he takes to the streets as the faceless, trenchcoat-and-fedora-wearing Question to dispense justice.

Superhero journalists aren’t just reporters, either. The Green Hornet owns a newspaper, the Daily Sentinel and, like the question, uses journalism as a tool in his war on crime. Britt Reid publishes stories depicting his masked alter ego as a powerful mobster, spooking his enemies while concealing his true identity and intentions.

Journalism’s role as the “fourth estate” is wholeheartedly embraced by the creators of superheroes. The heroes are, after all, supposed to be real people with extraordinary abilities. They need day jobs that won’t conflict with their crime-fighting missions and, maybe, on a good day, Clark Kent’s reporting can do as much good as Superman’s crime-fighting.

, , , , , , , ,

Leave a comment

What I’ve Learned

For this blog’s 50th post, I decided to write about writing. Since finishing grad school last May, I’ve been trying to get a job as a newspaper journalist; here’s what i’ve learned so far about finding employment as a writer. I have not been terribly successful, so far, so don’t take this as a “How to Be a Writer” guide.

1: Newspapers want clips

My quest to become a journalist began when I started college. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do in life, but I did know that I liked to write and argue about politics. In an attempt to be social, I went to a meeting of the school newspaper, The Scarlet, and they assigned me an op-ed piece on gas prices. The rest, as they say, is history.

During senior year, I took a journalism class that included visits from local journalists. The first question they always asked was “Who works for the school paper?” That’s also how I got my first writing job (blogging for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette’s WorcesterU site): the editor saw that I worked for The Scarlet, and thought I knew what I was doing.

Published writing is a prerequisite for any newspaper or writing job. Editors want to see that a person can write; just telling them that you can without proof is not going to work. If you’re in high school or college, don’t put off writing for your school paper or any other publications.

2: They want more than clips

Good writing skills are the bare minimum for employment, employers won’t even consider someone who misspells things in their cover letter, but landing a job requires more skills. Newspapers want their reporters to have local knowledge, to know everything about the area they cover so said reporter can cultivate sources and stories.

Consequently, the best place to start looking for a job might be the place you’ve lived the longest. Having a working knowledge of the major issues of your hometown shows employers that you already know what to write about.

3: Expand your definition of “writer” and “employed”

If you can’t find steady employment, why not freelance? If you have an idea for a story, pitch it to your local newspaper. If you have a hobby, remember that the majority of content in enthusiast magazines is bought from freelancers. The New York Times also accepts op-ed submissions every week.

The problem with freelancing is that it’s hard to live off the approval of editors. So, like any good superhero, it’s a good idea to get a day job while freelancing. If you get the right job, it can contribute to your ultimate goal. I work at a not-for-profit agency, where I am making a newsletter, and writing press releases and articles for publication in local papers. In other words, I’m writing. It may not be a staff job at the Times, but it’s better than flipping burgers.

4: Work for free

This can feel exploitative and fulfilling at the same time. On the one hand, news organizations from CNN to Patch are broadcasting user-generated content. Aside from not getting paid, accepting a free blogging gig gives you some perks: the public (and potential employers) are viewing your work and your name is attached to a reputable organization. Thanks to the Internet, writing is one of the only professions where people are expected to work for free. Until payment systems catch on, we’ll just have to deal with that.

On the other hand, this could be an opportunity to do some important work. Volunteer organizations are always looking for people to write grant applications or press releases, or edit newsletters and websites. You still don’t get paid, but you do get to show off your skills for a good cause.

5: Keep Writing

No matter what you do, the important thing is to keep writing. It is, after all, a skill that can only be maintained and improved with practice. You may not have a job, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop observing the world and putting words together in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Even if you can’t think of something that’s fit for public consumption, keep a notebook. Write a blog, even if you don’t think anyone will read it. After all, if you really want to be a writer, how could you stop?

, , , , ,

Leave a comment