april 8, 2017
It's been six months since my last post. My bad.
For some context, I started a new job about three weeks after the presentation I mentioned back then. I was in no way prepared for how difficult my first few months wound up being; initially, I thought about shying away from that on here, in my public presentation of myself, but I think we all need to embrace vulnerability and uncertainty a whole heck of a lot more than we tend to. These "muddy middles" are often where we learn the most, where we are putting our best foot forward because it's the only way we know how to stay afloat. I'd like to delve further into the twisty little passages I've been fighting my way through since November, but I'm here to talk about something else tonight.
Right now, the Theorizing the Web Conference is going on in NYC; I'm not there for various reasons, but as has been my custom for the past few years, I'm tuning in from afar. TtW is a small two-day shindig that describes itself as "bring[ing] together scholars, journalists, artists, activists, and technology practitioners to think conceptually and critically about the interrelationships between the Web and society." One of the keynote panels this year, "Where Truth Lies," brought together journalists and theorists (and whatever you call the folks in middle of that Venn diagram) to discuss "[what it means] to produce and consume news information when the very shape of the world is contested, and any fact feels impossible."
In libraryland, the notion of a "post-truth" world has very much been on our minds. Here in the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Library System has hosted a listening tour about fake news for librarians across the state; the keynote speech on Tuesday at the 2017 Digital Commonwealth Conference centered around the topic as well. In the past few years, there's been an increasing blur in mission and goals between journalists and librarians, and we're finding a lot of common ground and common funding - consider the Knight News Challenge on Libraries, which has awarded several dozen grants to innovative projects in the field ranging from the tireless privacy advocacy of the Library Freedom Project to MOOC study groups and experimental residencies.
Jay Rosen, panelist and NYU professor, described journalism as a profession that's most consistently focused on deadlines over codes of ethics or any other highfalutin ideals. Put another way, the demands of the job and the ways in which workers are evaluated ceneter around getting pieces written and published and read; any desire to eliminate bias, fact-check, or verify sources plays second fiddle to the production of content. This is probably more true now than ever before, given the expectation to spew forth so much output for online publications.
Though it's not exactly the same, this got me thinking about how librarians also have a professional code of ethics. On a certain level, maybe at the sort of organizational culture mythmaking level, I think many of us like to believe we all adhere to it. In some ways, this is not dissimilar from how we like to tell ourselves that we're neutral. This sort of magical, self-protective thinking makes it all too easy for us to say "How can we possibly be a problem when our institutions, idealistically and symbolically, seem so pure and righteous and great?" and therefore never challenge ourselves to do better, to be more inclusive or progressive, to force ourselves to look in the mirror and course-correct when we do mess up. It's dangerous to ease in and settle with that kind of inertia. With our crunch for time and resources, combined with the demands and expectations of our customers, it's not hard to forget about our code of ethics especially when we start taking it for granted that we're all just auto-following it. The day-to-day reality of our work can erode at our knowledge and adherence to those ethics, just like those of journalists; like journalists, we also like to champion the unassailable purity of our professional pursuits.
Every profession needs to be aware of its sacred cows, to know when to pivot around or forget about them - or even to set fire to them entirely when the time is right. Maybe part of the issue confronting librarians and journalists both is that there is such a professional mythos rooted and melded to the very core of what we do. In theory, this is all well and good, but in practice it seems to give us an out when it comes to rethinking or challenging our values and practices.
At the very end of the session, an audience member asked about whether or not we need to completely jettison the concept of news and rebuild it from the ground up, regarding the construction site from the vantage point of 2017. Rosen responded with an example of a Dutch news company with a website that is entirely member-funded, relying on subscribers rather than advertisers (and eyeballs) to monetize; its production model is completely different, not dependent on or influenced by clicks and reposts and virality or other ways of "gaming the system." It could be the "post-truth" society, where journalists are under constant fire while fake news stories sprout up like morel mushrooms in the aftermath of the blaze, is in part the result of trying to screw the square peg of traditional ad-subsidized media into the round hole of the attention economy, where, as Rosen's fellow panelist Aaron Cantú points out, every thought and statement we utter is commoditized through our platforms of communication.
I regularly say libraries should think about what they'd look and function like, both in terms of their physical layout and the services they offer, if they were built now rather than 50-150 years ago. Librarians and patrons can have an awfully hard time with this; library has very much become symbol in their mind, and sadly that symbol is an unwelcoming, inaccessible Carnegie or silent stacks of books or gray buns piled atop bespectacled heads. But this ideal jeopardizes our continued relevance in the "age of Google," just as ad revenue models jeopardize both the profitability and reliability of The News writ large. I'm not saying something like member-driven profits are a silver bullet for anybody, but librarians and journalists both need to get out from the shadow of "the way things have always been done." It is fine to aspire to an ideal, but ideals make it easy to self-congratulate and stay courses that no longer make sense.