What's Wrong with Adding Partitions to Everything

Polarized conversation on the Internet. Doodle by Keiko

In the age of information explosion, where network multiplies rapidly and online media continue to curates viral videos rushing around inflammatory comments by passerby, it’s almost as if every user owns the power to take part in making change within the network.

Yet, how much of these constant changes in the ever-lasting nowness gives effect to real life?

The stories around “change” have been rapidly changing in the last few years. You might be getting fewer stories because of digital silos, or getting too much of “10 Most Important Thing You Should Know Today” right after “A Woman Wants To Tell You The 5 Most Surprising Things “ or the likes of linkbait headlines. But for those who wish to seize the big picture of public opinions online, are we measuring the right thing?

There's a similar problem I've been facing in the last few years as a Japanese Language Editor at Global Voices, where I stick to the motto and try to be "impartial", however what appears, in other words, is  I push myself to find the "both sides" while missing the middle ground. So I insert an excuse -- "it's not that opinions are divided into two. Majority of people have neutral, more nuanced opinions but they choose to stay silent" --but in often cases I'm not eloquent enough to convince my editor how problematic it is to omit the middle ground -- those less loud or mostly silent majority. I can understand, I mean hey, how can it be a news story if there's no clear contrast and highlights, right?

But it makes me feel uncomfortable sometimes..
To my eyes, telling stories equals to taking a picture of a particular landscape. These stories are meant to give deeper understanding of Japan to the readers. Because my position was limited to reporting on whatever stories to be associated with a particular nation state, mostly because of the nature of the Japanese language being spoken by people in Japan unlike Spanish or French, and not because it's been intentionally set up, it makes me extra cautious about the narrative I have to make, to be associated with the people in the nation. In order to do so, I avoid three things: generalization, sensationalism, and exaggeration.

Screenshot of Photoshop editor with histogram. I made the picture to be extremely bright and high in contrast 

In four days of workshop at Center for Internet Society I attended in June at Bangalore, India, I thought about how to better evaluate voices in a way that would not fall in sensationalism. What are the measurement appropriate for tons of conversations taking place online? When I say "sensationalism", you may be reminded of yellow journalism like the press picking up on trivial incidents of celebrities over more significant other issues like no-so-sexy politics, like the case of massive coverage of Anna Nicole Smith or Clinton's intern Monica Lewinsky. However, it doesn't take a celebrity for a news reporting organization to fall for sensationalism. If I am to pick up under-reported stories by mainstream media (this means that the scale and impact of the original comment is inherently small compared to the mainstream discourse), what voices would be exactly appropriate? I do believe that I have a taste in picking up diverse stories from various sources on the Internet, but how can I franchise the idea with a shared measurement in numerical form so that everybody will feel just when doing so? How can I be sure I'm doing the right thing when I'm quoting this person and not that person?

My sincere need for measurement came after publishing a story on anti-Korean protest and anti-anti-Korean protest in Shin-Okubo, Tokyo. The story sparked other well-known international media outlets like Al Jazeera and BBC, to write what they think was an increased rivalry between Korea and Japan. Another case I felt was when I wrote the story on whaling in Japan.

It's easier to view any phenomenon by partitioning in binary-- like the left vs the right, the good vs the bad, the conservatives vs the progressives, or Hamas vs Israel --. If somebody presents you a complex story, you might say "okay, so who's the bad guy?" In the world where everything seem to be polarized--from the PEW research report showing political polarization to the sectarian rivalries in Iraq, sections, adding partitions to certain opinions and categorize massive amount of comments into a box of ideology make you feel like it helps seizing the landscape of chaotic conversations online. But in reality, you are missing so much more.

If you want a black and white, simple story, the case about anti-Korean protest can be told as follows:

There's a growing group of extreme racists in Japan. They loudly speak against residents of Korean ethnic origin and they make hate speech graffiti around the residential area as shown in this Google Map. But another group of good Japanese who care about their neighbors, stood up and organized the counter action, the anti-anti-Korean protest.

It's easy not to see any problems in this narrative if your source of information is English media , especially without acknowledging historical background about Japan-Korea history, the mechanism of nationalists, right wing activists and leftists in Japan. I'm not going into that, for it's way too complex to tell, but if the above were to be the narrative, (instead of the one I wrote at GV) it relies heavily on either sides of the fringe, that it completely ignores the middle. Same can be told about almost all the narratives on whaling or any fair and impartial stories about Japan (or, apparently, stories about any nation state or whatever that means).

This is not a complain about particular platform, its my problem too. The only thing I've been doing in an effort not to ignore the middle, is to have a paragraph of an excuse, saying things like "this is not the whole picture, there's the middle where most people sit" in a more news-writing-tone. But it seems this is not working well. In often cases, these excuses are tapered into a tiny bit in editing.

Dualism is a product deep rooted in the history of philosophy. The Ying and Yang in China, and the God and Creation in Christianity to name a few. I'm not a linguist -- I hope some linguists out there can debunk the way people tell stories in various languages -- but I also like to note that what you would have to imagine, contrary to Yes and No in English, Japanese language isn't made up of simple colloquially binary answers to all questions.

There's more. My take on the recent increase in polarization has to do with the computation and program -- a system made up of 0 and 1 -- and events are triggered based on the value you enter. It's a situation IFTTT. You are programmed to think like binaries.

I wonder where we are heading when obscurity is lost. My next endeavor is to come up with an idea for measurements in storytelling. Something poly-dimensional, a more complex version of a rubic cube. The way we see stories now is only a perspective on few dimensions of cubes aligned in two colors.

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