We Censor Here, Too

In China, Google can block the searching of your name if you’re considered to be a revolutionary. That was the case of pro-democracy professor Guo Kwan, who raised his voice against that discrimination in 2008. When using Google in China, other words are selectively excluded as well: “Its search engine in China had been configured to filter out words that are effectively banned in China, such as Tibet independence, Dalai Lama and democracy,” Jane McCartney of the Times reports. This is a clear example of censorship by a huge corporation which is violating free speech as well as access to information. But Google says it’s just following the rules: “Google and other foreign internet service providers defend their actions, saying that they are acting in accordance with Chinese law and the conditions of doing business in China.”

The First Amendment defenders of the U.S. would be up in arms if words were censored; we have every right to search for any information we might want or need. But censorship by major companies isn’t unique to faraway Communist regimes. Just last week, Rupi Kaur, a college senior, posted art from a school project on Instagram. Below is the photo in question:

"we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing." -rupi & prabh kaur
“we menstruate and they see it as dirty. attention seeking. sick. a burden. as if this process is less natural than breathing.” -rupi & prabh kaur

It’s one in a series of photos about periods. Kaur said she posted it online to share her work; she didn’t expect for her photo to be taken down– not once, but twice.

“Instagram’s terms of service do limit what kind of content you can share on the platform, but its restricti ons only prohibit images that are ”violent, nude, partially nude, discriminatory, unlawful, infringing, hateful, pornographic or sexually suggestive,’” explained Motherboard. “There’s no mention of menstrual blood.”

Once Kaur’s photo was removed online, she used Facebook to ask people to recognize Instagram’s wrongs. They apologized, claiming that it was flagged by users as inappropriate.

This is 2015. This photo is art. Yet it is reminiscent of content censored by the Comstock laws more than a century ago. PBS explains: “On March 3, 1873, Congress passed the new law, later known as the Comstock Act. The statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines.” Not only was mailing birth control devices illegal, but so was disseminating any information considered “lewd.” This led to the jailing and destitution of brilliant journalists from Margaret Sanger to Ezra Heywood.

It’s terrifying to realize that a man like Anthony Comstock rose through our government and passed this legislation without the American people even noticing. But that’s the government. We expect to have to call out our government in publications. But today those publications are online, available through Google searches and Facebook pages. Available, that is, through giant, government-separated, extremely wealthy companies that can censor media sharers like Rupi Kaur however they want to. Although she went to Facebook to call out Instagram, well, Facebook owns Instagram. The power to raise our voices is very much centralized. We can check-and-balance our government, we can check-and-balance our mainstream media, but how are we going to do either when the very platforms provided to us are censored?

another from the series
another from the series

The Importance of Online Coverage of Hyperlocal News

In 2008, journalist Mark Bunster started a debate by claiming that he, a blogger, could sit in on executive sessions. “As the author of political blog Loaded Orygun, Bunster insisted at a Lake Oswego City Council meeting that he was a member of the news media and therefore, under Oregon statute, allowed to sit in on executive session meetings,” wrote Oregon Live. This led politicians and readers across the country to wonder what constituted a member of the news media. Blogs were up and running in 2008, but still pretty new; The Huffington Post, for example, only started in May 2005. The article closes with a quote from University of Oregon professor Kyo Ho Youm: “Sometimes, bloggers are now able to provide some wonderful sources of information in addition to what the public may find in the traditional news media. I think the information gatherers should not be limited to the traditional media.”

Seven years later, with the persistent growth of online news media, I wondered about another type of outlet that blurs the lines between blogs and “traditional” papers: online-only news publications. Mark Bunster wasn’t the only one who could have covered that executive session, but in many small towns like my own, no one else would cover local government except an online-only reporter.

I’ve written about my one hometown publication, The North Salem Daily Voice, before. “The Daily Voice, a local online news outlet covering towns throughout Fairfield County in Connecticut and Westchester County in New York.” My town, with a population of less than 5,000, was seldom covered in the mainstream news media (where I’m from, that would be The Journal News, which covers far more populous parts of the Hudson Valley) before The Daily Voice began in 2010 as a collection of local news sites.

Bea Kruchkow is the vice president of the Friends of the Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, one of the most active community organizations in North Salem. The Friends often reach out to The Daily Voice when advertising their events. Kruchnow depends on it for news as welll. “Both my husband and I read the Daily daily and as often as they post updates during the day when we can,” Kruchkow said. “We think that getting local and not so local news this way is a very valid form of journalism.”

For other news, however, she depends on the Internet: “I do find that not so local news shows up much more quickly on [Facebook] though,” she said; that is, there are alternative outlets when she wants to learn what’s going on beyond her community. She said that she follows local news on TV on channel 12 as well.

In tiny towns like North Salem, if the few North Salem Daily Voice reporters aren’t covering what’s going on, no one else is. The Journal News might be covering our school’s sports or yearly musical, but who would cover our gas prices? Our Easter egg hunt? Our school board elections? The (now dismal) saga of our missing wallaby? (This wallaby is something I’ll definitely write more about in the future.)

The Ruth Keeler Memorial Library, North Salem’s public library.

All in all, when considering who’s in the “real” news media, think about the places, people and issues she’s covering. If no one else is in that space, that person has every right to go there and inform the public.

*Disclaimer: I have been both an employee of the library and the student liaison to the Friends of the Libary.


College Insurrection: Lessons from a Veteran Blogger

Today William Jacobson, creator of the acclaimed conservative blog Legal Insurrection, visited my Independent Media class and provided us with a wealth of information. Although he and I have different commentary on most political and social issues, we both value the blogosphere itself. He was generous in answering our questions and open about how he got to where he is today. Here are just three lessons that I learned from his presentation.

1. You don’t need to be Internet-savvy to be a blogger. 

In 2008, a friendsuggested to Jacobson that he should write a blog. At the time, Jacobson had never even heard of a blog. But he, like many others with something to say, set up a Google blogspot site and began posting daily content. Personally,I’m less attuned to technology than the average millennial, so sometimes I worry about journalism’s reliance on online media. With this story, Jacobson reminded me that it’s what you have to say that counts, and that the Internet is the perfect space for self-teaching if you don’t know how to do something online.
2.  It pays to pay for what you want. 

This certainly isn’t a tip I can always actualize, but I think it’s important to consider. Clearly, Jacobson’s blogspot became insufficient, and after a few years he decided that self-hosting his blog through a company would allow for more privacy and freedom. Throughout the years, he has had different expensive site features designed, including the soon-debuting mobile version of the site.
Screen Shot 2015-03-24 at 11.59.27 PM
3. Make connections with other bloggers. 
Jacobson said that readers love his Post of the Day, Blog of the Day and Video of the Day (in image above) sidebar on his site, which links them to other blogs, often ones with which Jacobson already has a relationship. In turn, those blogs will often link back to Jacobson’s content. There’s a symbiotic relationship that arises when two outlets of similar ideology commend each other; it creates a culture of support. Jacobson recommended going to blog conferences in the “real world,” something that he was initially averse to but has since begun to value. As he said, no matter how smart you are, no one will be reading unless you promote with your peers. And until people start reading, well, “you’re just shouting in the darkness.” Networking is a practical way to crawl out of that darkness and set yourself apart from the thousands of others in the blogosphere.

Way More Than 1,000 True Fans: The Vlogbrothers Story

When reading Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” piece, one pair of creators immediately  came to mind: John and Hank Green. Kelly discusses how, with the power of the Internet, creators only need 1,000 “true fans” to sustain themselves. If 1,000 true fans spend $100 per year on merchandise, then a creator would be able to earn a comfortable living. Almost by accident, John Green was able to do this and far more; by way of his Internet celebrity matched with his traditional book publishing, he reached mainstream appeal.

John Green is a young adult author who published his first book, “Looking for Alaska,” ten years ago in March 2005. It didn’t go unnoticed; it won the Michael L. Printz award in 2006, one of the highest awards in YA publication. Yet Green was simultaneously beginning another endeavor: Brotherhood 2.0, a daily video blog correspondence with his younger brother, Hank, that they started in 2007. They took turns, each day one of them producing a short vlog for the other. Although they were intended to be a simple correspondence between two faraway brothers (at the time, John was in New York City and Hank was in Montana), thousands of people watched, most of whom found the site through the author blurb on John’s books. (Hank was working in independent media for an environmental blog he started in college, EcoGeek, still going strong today.)
But Brotherhood 2.0 soon developed a culture. By 2009, it evolved into the YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, and the brothers’ fans got a name: Nerdfighters, fighting for nerds, not against them. Nerdfighters began to form Facebook groups and have informal meet-ups.
The brothers were slightly different from the creators that Kelly spoke of in that they already had separate fan bases and had monetized their work. However, they used the power of the Internet to escalate this to a whole new level.
They kept their audiences engaged with Q&As and challenges. They went on tour. Hank sang on camera for the first time in a Vlogbrothers video, and in 2008 co-founded an independent record label for YouTube artists like himself, DFTBA Records: “DFTBA produces and distributes for creative, independent personalities,” its description reads. (DFTBA is an initialism for the central philosophy of Nerdighters, “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome.”) This was paired with DFTBA’s merchandise store in 2010, which works with many of the most popular YouTube bloggers, including Hannah Hart and Rhett & Link. “We felt like people wanted merchandise from YouTube creators, but we were unsatisfied with the quality of products and support other companies were offering,” their site explains. “We wanted to help creators create full time, and we wanted to make sure that fans and communities could get high quality, cool stuff without any hassle or confusion.” At the same time as their culture was expanding, taking up more and more of their time, they were maintaining their old work, and growing as people as well. The audience felt emotional ties, for example, as they were “there” for the birth of both of John’s children. And the brothers are always quick to defend what Vlogbrothers is actually about: a way for two brothers to keep in touch. 
These brothers have done so much with Internet culture that it’s a struggle to sum it all up concisely. (Hank links to it all on his website, if you want a full list.) Hank has interviewed President Obama with some of his YouTube colleagues. John wrote “The Fault in our Stars,” released as a major motion picture last year. The movie grossed $48 million its opening weekend. But the night before the film’s release, theaters around the country hosted a premium-filled event (complete with a poster and bracelet for every attendee) where, after the film, there would be a live cast of interviews with Green and the movie’s stars, including questions from their studio audience and tweeted from audiences around the country. I attended one of these screenings with my friends from high school, and although some people in the theater were confused by Green’s presence, moat audience members remembered when he signed the entire first printing of the book for his fans— and livecast the experience of the signing for hours on end on the Vlogbrothers channel. We were there with him not only as he wrote the book, but also as he signed each with his hand. (Because if we were at The Night Before our Stars, we probably pre-order a first-printing signed copy as well.) The movie led people to read the book and the book brought a lot of people back around to Nerdfighteria; for others, being a part of the Nerdfighter community was what led them to read John’s book in the first place. 
Like myself, librarian Mita Williams also connected John’s work to the 1,000 fans effect in a 2014 library conference presentation. She states: “I bring attention to their work because I can find no better example of artists who understand how to use the internet as platform for engagement for their fans to connect to each other. They have seem to have taken the lessons of the long tail to heart.”
The strength of John and Hank Green isn’t just that they’ve taken the long-tail model to heart; the brothers are all heart, all the time. And for them, that “heart” includes remaining fiercely independent in their Nerdfighting endeavor. They’ve spawned a whole group of channels, and have been offered many a TV deal, but continue to reject them for the freedom and integrity of their work.
Creators of all kinds have much to learn from these men about the value of staying independent. When you see the bright shining Nerdfighter community, it’s hard to refute.
(Disclaimer: I’ve been a self-proclaimed Nerdfighter since 2010.)
PS: If you’re now intrigued by Nerdfighter culture, check out the Nerdfighter FAQ video!

Indy For-Profits– A New Structure for Activist Media?

Independent media is associated with a nonprofit structure. Democracy Now! is just one of many that uses its nonprofit nature as a selling point, stating on their website: “Democracy Now! is a tax-exempt, non-profit organization funded entirely through individual donations and grants from foundations. We receive no corporate underwriting or government support.” The donation structure engages audiences, allowing them to tangibly contribute to outlet they support. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s one of the first guards against bias from advertisers, an issue that has been plaguing journalism since its inception.

But could the nonprofit/indy media pairing be overrated? In his 2008 lecture at Ithaca College, Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall explained that the nonprofit structure can also “limit independence” by leaving outlets desperately asking for funding from readers and foundations. Marshall closed his speech with a rather controversial statement for an independent media icon: “I actually think that for the independent media sector to be independent and vital in a deep way, it needs to be not only rooted in the nonprofit sector, but again, in for-profit terms.”
In one regard, independent media is designed for activist work, for saying what those in power don’t want said. But it makes sense that Marshall is questioning its history of nonprofit structure; recently, many activists in other fields have been doing the same. The Economist covered for-profit activist company Virgance in 2009, which was structured as a platform for distributing social justice campaigns. (The company closed in January 2014.) Steve Newcomb, Virgance’s co-founder, told The Economist that a for-profit activist sector is important because “being a for-profit company enables [Virgance] to grow faster and achieve more social impact than a non-profit, because it can afford to pay its employees competitive salaries and can raise capital from investors, rather than relying on donations.”
Having qualified employees and being financially independent from potentially bias-inducing investors are extremely valuable assets for any organization devoted to exposing and dismantling those in power, and that includes independent media. Marshall’s point might become less controversial over time as more activists realize the benefits of being an independent for-profit.