Do Process: Notes from the Beyond Broadcast conference

Broadcast | Language/Structure
I caught a few bits & bytes of the Berkman Center Beyond Broadcast conference, for a handful of reasons. Beyond the Civilities work, my employer underwrites WBUR 90.9 and I’ve also been a regular community contributor to Radio Open Source on WGBH 89.7. Lastly, I’ve just had a habit of crashing Berkman conferences.


Unlike the previous conferences, there appeared to be less of the derivative tirades against the mainstream media. Perhaps these conferences are maturing, or it was the fact that many of the assembled folks were media professionals who have a more collegial relationship with big media.

Or maybe I missed that. The bits I caught were online via webcam on Friday, and then I stopped by for the bytes of the Demos & Drinks exhibition/cocktail hour.

Saturday morning I sat in on a workshop on “iterative media”– a concept very similar to my own work on constructive media. In fact, Ryan Shaw and Kenyatta Cheese presented the idea as “a way to make documents more like software.” This is how I had originally thought of constructive media, inspired also by the Social Life of Documents essay. I’ve since added to the model that there is a spectrum between narrative (blog-style, write once and forget it) and the normative (wiki-style, continuously improve)– and rather than forcing content to be “blog” or “wiki,” one ought to figure out where on the spectrum it ought to lie.

It remains to be seen whether the definitions will converge or stay distinct. Ryan had stressed the “continuous beta” aspect of iterative media, which reflects a popular newly-named paradigm of software development. More people are using free Internet service software from Google, Yahoo, MSN– with no contract, and no need to support software in the field, companies can release the software before it is fully tested, and then fix it as they go along.

The key difference, I noted in the workshop, owed itself to Lessig’s Code Is Law formulation. A document that is imperfect can be negotiated, or interpreted freely, by its audience, even in a court of law, if necessary. Software code cannot be: a bug is a bug, and it ought to be fixed ASAP. A producer of a media artifact can afford to relax after a version is released. The document on iterative media, by contrast, is begging for the next iteration. But, overall, the general process is the same, and the pace should not be relevant to the definition.

On the point of processes, the afternoon continuation of the workshop (which I had to missed due to a prior engagement) invited participants to sketch out their process workflows. Most of them were particular to audio and video production. The person who’s thought most of how to do it in an an open-source fashion has been Kent Bye for his collaborative filmmaking Echochamber Project, an investigative documentary on pre-war media coverage. My own recent contribution is enterprise policy management. I had in fact advised the iterative media group that determining structures, workflows, and metadata are highly desirable business skills that aren’t quite taught in schools.

One reason I’m sticking with constructive media is that iit reflects media structures — which make communications more robust. For example, IRC (Internet Relay Chat) represents a very weak structure for communications. The weaker the structure, the more the participant has to pay attention in order to follow it (similar, but not exactly like, McLuhan’s hot/cold dichotomy). That is, anyone who’s listened to a conference panel with an IRC going on in the background (a staple of Berkman conferences) would realize that it’s highly difficult to do both. So if one puts their mind to it, they can develop a structure for aiding a particular process, like asking questions of the panelists. Which is what I had done 17 months ago, in sketching out Backchannel Conferencing and implementing it in Drupal.

As it happened, the Beyond Broadcast conference had hacked together a facility for this called the question tool and deployed it to great effect (here is a different question tool which does the same thing). I was able to ask questions of the panelists– and more effectively than I have on Radio Open Source. Even though it was somebody else’s code, it was a nice touch to see an idea put into practice that I had conceived of at my first Berkman conference.

There was another personal connection to the earlier conference. That one was in December 2004, right after the election. I had lunched withone of Kerry’s Internet campaign strategists, Zack Exley, before he presented on his panel. In his talk he only skimmed the surface of the operations (which invited a juvenile outburst from someone who wasn’t even present). Still today, the people on the inside and outside debate what happened. Sanford Dickert often remarked to me that the real story of the Kerry campaign had not been told, and now here’s his take (part 1 of 3).

This time I had lunch with Amanda Michel, who also worked on the Kerry campaign with Zach and Sanford and others. She’s with the Berkman Center. Amanda confirmed for me what Zack told me over the summer of 2004: the mass emails from the party were extremely lucrative in how much money they raised, vs. the social network fundraising. No one has as of yet provided me the numbers, and I don’t think anyone will, and the back-and-forth about online campaign strategies will still remain an art to most and a science to few. As above, this is an iterative story wherein each person will tell their perspective. And the audience has to do the work to figure it all out.