Monday, September 3, 2018

Boundary Maintenance on Twitter

Last Saturday was cut-down day in the NFL, when rosters are shaved from 90 players down to 53. For the first time, I decided to follow the action for my team by spending time (too much time, really - the kids were monopolizing the TV with video games) watching a Twitter list solely dedicated to reporters and commentators discussing my team.

I've never used Twitter this way, but from an academic point of view I'm glad I did, because I witnessed first-hand the full microcosm of Twitter journalism. First, there were the reporters, who were all jockeying to be the first to report someone was cut (and confirm it with "sources."). Then, there were the aggregators, sites with a lot of writers devoted to team analysis and discussion, but who on this day were simply tracking all of cuts/trades/etc. Ironically, the aggregators were better sources of info than the reporters' own sites, because the reporters didn't publish a full list until later in the day, along with an article that they were too busy to write because they were gathering facts.

Then there were the professional commentators - journalists and semi-professional social media types who have been doing this a long time or have some experience in the sport, but who were not gathering facts. They mostly commented on transactions. Both the reporters and commentators answered fan questions. And then...there were the fans, commenting on the transactions, commenting on the reporters, commenting on the commentators, etc. This is where it got interesting.

Apparently experienced commentators don't like it when fans tell them they're wrong. They like to make clear that either a) they have been doing this a long time, or b) they have a lot of experience in the league, and therefore their opinion should not be questioned. Indeed, in one case a commentator's statement seemed so ridiculous that the "new reporter" in town made fun of it, and all the other reporters circled the wagons to say that the new guy shouldn't be questioning the other men and women on the beat, all of whom had once held his job but left for better jobs. Youch! It turns out the statement was, in fact, both wrong and ridiculous (and proven so the next morning).

This type of boundary maintenance is not new, but it is the first time I've seen it so clearly, explicitly, and unrelentingly (there is some in legal academia, which I'll discuss below). This is a blog about scholarly works, so I point you to an interesting article called The Tension between Professional Control and Open Participation:Journalism and its Boundaries, by Seth Lewis, now a professor in the communications department at the University of Oregon. The article is published in Information, Communication & Society. It is behind a paywall, so a prepublication draft is here. Here is the abstract:
Amid growing difficulties for professionals generally, media workers in particular are negotiating the increasingly contested boundary space between producers and users in the digital environment. This article, based on a review of the academic literature, explores that larger tension transforming the creative industries by extrapolating from the case of journalism – namely, the ongoing tension between professional control and open participation in the news process. Firstly, the sociology of professions, with its emphasis on boundary maintenance, is used to examine journalism as boundary work, profession, and ideology – each contributing to the formation of journalism's professional logic of control over content. Secondly, by considering the affordances and cultures of digital technologies, the article articulates open participation and its ideology. Thirdly, and against this backdrop of ideological incompatibility, a review of empirical literature finds that journalists have struggled to reconcile this key tension, caught in the professional impulse toward one-way publishing control even as media become a multi-way network. Yet, emerging research also suggests the possibility of a hybrid logic of adaptability and openness – an ethic of participation – emerging to resolve this tension going forward. The article concludes by pointing to innovations in analytical frameworks and research methods that may shed new light on the producer–user tension in journalism.
The article includes a fascinating literature review on the sociology of journalism, and focuses on what it means to be a journalist in a world when your readers participate with you.

Bringing it back to IP for a moment (and legal academia more generally), I certainly see some of this among bloggers and tweeters. I see very little of it as a producer of content, presumably because I am always right. 😀 But I know that as a consumer I bleed into the boundaries of others, both in legal academia and elsewhere. I can't help myself - my law school classmates surely remember me as a gunner.

Many of my producer colleagues (mostly women, surprise surprise) see it much worse. Practicing lawyers tell them they don't know what they are talking about. Some may be making valid points, some not. Some are nice about it, while others are not. I'm speaking mostly of good faith boundary issues here, not trolling or harassment, which is a different animal in my mind.

I guess the real question is what to do about it. If you are in an "open" area, boundaries will get pushed. Some people welcome this, and some despise it. Some are challenged more fairly than others. I suspect that people have different ways of managing their boundaries, and it depends heavily on who and how folks are commenting. Some may ignore it, some may swat back about relative expertise, some engage with everyone, some disengage selectively or entirely, going so far as block and mute. I suspect it's a mix.

In any event, I don't have any policy prescriptions here. I know so little about it that I have no clue what the right answer is. I just thought I would make explicit what is usually implicit, point out an interesting article about it, and suggest that readers be mindful of boundaries and Diff'rent Strokes - what might be right for you, may not be right for some.

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