Philippa Thomas Online

Occasional thoughts about life, books and news.


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Is this the end of the world as we know it?

My take on “GOOGLED: the end of the world as we know it” (2009) by Ken Auletta.

Media analyst Ken Auletta (http://www.kenauletta.com/) talks about the way Google has “swept swiftly across the media horizon”. And where Google has gone,  Auletta has followed, telling the story of the shaping of Google and how it has fundamentally reshaped our world. Newspapers and advertising, radio and television,  magazines and books: each of these industries have been hit – and been hurt – by the Google “search” revolution.

So what is that revolution?  One of the best quotes in the book comes from Google co-founder Larry Page. In 2002, he told a class in Stanford, “if we solve search, that means you can answer any question. Which means you can basically do anything.”

Auletta gives us a breathless biography of the rise and rise of Google.
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I feel like I’m five again

I’m sitting in class at the Nieman Foundation learning from Josh Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab how to write in HTML, the basics of websites, blogging and so on. I’ve been blogging for family and friends for years but how have I managed so long as a journalist in such ignorance?! I think I’ve always assumed there’s a separate tribe which “knows” about these things, and I am too old/witless to be part of it. Time to change huh?


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I didn’t expect her to say THAT

So the Kennedy School has a lovely and civilised habit of inviting speakers, inviting the rest of us to hear them, and (today at least) providing coffee and croissants. Oh how TOUGH it is going to be to return to the Real World!

Anyhow. Today. Breakfast for around forty of us with Arianna Huffington, as she talked about new media, how she got HuffPost up and running, what it’s doing now and next. (and promoted her new book “Third World America”.) Continue reading


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Arianna v the Tea Party

Listening to Arianna Huffington on NPR –  going to see her at a breakfast time debate tomorrow.

She’s taking calls from angry and anguished Americans who believe her claim that we’re in  “Third World America”.  I haven’t read it yet, but I was struck just now when a listener called John exclaimed,  “I don’t understand why poor people vote for Republicans!” 

It took me back to a great book by Thomas Frank, “What’s the Matter with Kansas?”  http://us.macmillan.com/whatsthematterwithkansas

Who gets the respect of middle class Americans today worried about their status … their incomes …their economic survival? Arianna or the Tea Party?


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Here Comes Everybody

Yes, I totally agree with the thrust of Clay Shirky’s argument in “Here Comes Everybody: the power of organising without organizations”. Here it is (my caps) : “WHEN WE CHANGE THE WAY WE COMMUNICATE, WE CHANGE SOCIETY“.

Perhaps it doesn’t need a book this length to communicate that message but it’s a powerful read.  The flow of advantages from today’s social media tools is tremendous: as Shirky puts it, “ridiculously easy group forming”, the creation of new groups whose members never had the means to coalesce before, the freeing of political expression from Belarus to Egypt (and Iran.. and Thailand…the list is growing fast). I like this quote too, that “social tools create what economists call a positive supply side shock to the amount of freedom in the world.”  Not to be too starry eyed, that can of course mean freedom to do the wrong thing too (cf John Robb reference to “open source guerillas” putting social tools to terrorist ends.)

Shirky’s book is also provocative, an implicit jab at those of us who haven’t been paying enough attention. He illustrates the new power of the people to co-ordinate their actions, by reminding us what happened in Spain, after the horrific Al Qaeda inspired bomb attacks on Madrid’s transit system. The conservative PP, with just three days to go to the election, wrongly blamed the attacks on the Basque separatist group ETA.  Thousands and thousands of Madrid voters took to the streets to mourn nearly two hundred dead, and to voice their anger that the increasingly obvious Al Qaeda connection was being officially denied. I was there in the main square that night, broadcasting live on BBC World TV. I assumed the word was being spread, as I was hearing it, on TV, on radio, and simply in the streets. Shirky points to the mass forwarding of cellphone text messages simply reading “Who did it?”  I’d have liked to ask the right questions, to get that strand of the story, and realise the power of social media under my nose back then in 2004.

Which brings me to the alarm bells.  Rung loudly, throughout the book, for those of us who work in conventional hierarchical organisations – ESPECIALLY in the traditional media. Sure,  we’ve been aware for some years of that sound in our ears.  As Shirky puts it, “the mass amateurization” of news is a given. Power to Everybody. So, we’ve got competition. Which means as folks seek to filter – to work out what’s new, what’s credible, what quality means today – journalists in companies like the BBC just can’t rest on a sense of historic reputation.

Adapt or die? Chilling? Or Challenging? Lots more on that theme to come.


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So here we are….

I’ve broadcast for twenty years, blogged for three, tweeted for less than one. (@BBCPhilippaT since you ask).   I’m pretty nervous about starting an “official” blog, but it’s about time. 

This is prompted by the Harvard Kennedy School, more specifically Nicco Mele’s course on Digital Media, Power and Politics. Assignment One, build a blog, and START WRITING!

So much of this will revolve around the conversations I’m having as a (lucky, lucky) Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard this year.  From  July 2011 I’ll continue as a working broadcaster for BBC News. Hopefully with a lot more thinking done, having indulged in a lot more talk about what it means to be a journalist today.

Feel free to comment. Feel free to criticize. No abuse please. It’s a myth that journos have thick skins.

Cheers! P