Who Are You Watching and Who’s Watching You?

On the Rising Popularity of Mobile Devices

[posted by Alice]

During the three years that I’ve been following electronic publishing trends and the effects of new media on readers and writers, nothing has surprised me more than the spectacular increase in adoption of mobile devices. Smartphones and tablet computers are soon likely to outsell both laptops and e-readers. (See “Tablets set to outsell laptops by 2014”  and “The E-Reader Revolution: Over Just as It Has Begun?” )

Such a rapid change has forced online publishers to take notice because people use mobile devices differently than laptops. (See “Study: Mobile news ‘snacking’ is up sharply, but tablets are the killer news devices” and “Mobile Mindset”) And these new habits, combined with the physical reality of smaller screens and higher resolutions, are reshaping the internet, forcing sites to become responsive to the needs of tablet and smartphone users. Remarkably, 21% of all adult cell owners now do most of their online browsing using their mobile phone. (See “Pew Internet report: Cell Internet Use 2013.“)

Personal observation bears out the statistical claims in these reports and studies. Here in the United States the people I know who have mobile devices refer to them almost constantly. Last summer I traveled to Prague for the first time since 2011, and I noticed a tremendous increase in the numbers of tourists checking email on their phones in Starbucks and taking selfies on Charles Bridge with their iPads. And as I watched tourists from all over the world turn away from the city and their companions to focus on small screens, I wanted to ask two questions: Who are you watching and who’s watching you? Here are a couple of answers:

In a September 9 article in Der Spiegel called “How the NSA Accesses Smartphone Data,” a team of writers (Marcel Rosenbach, Laura Poitras and Holger Stark) reported on leaked NSA documents, including an internal presentation called “Does your target have a smartphone?”  According to this article, “For an agency like the NSA, the data storage units [i.e., smartphones] are a goldmine, combining in a single device almost all the information that would interest an intelligence agency: social contacts, details about the user’s behavior and location, interests (through search terms, for example), photos and sometimes credit card numbers and passwords.” So the NSA set up task forces to figure out how to spy on various phone systems, which they now know how to do. And to add insult to injury for iPhone users, it turns out that the NSA sees Steve Jobs as the Big Brother who leads them zombielike to a data-sharing dystopia. (Watch “The Dark Side of the iPhone Lines.”)

In the September 12 New York Times, you can find an article called “No Child Left Untableted,” about 18 middle schools in South Carolina in which every teacher and student has received a tablet computer and will be expected to use it as a “transformative educational tool.” The upshot of this development is that kids and teachers will be looking at screens instead of at each other. Author Carlo Rotello tries to be even-handed in his presentation but ultimately says little to dissuade us from the ominous implications of this sentence: “The tablets, paid for in part by a $30 million grant from the federal Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, were created and sold by a company called Amplify, a New York-based division of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, and they struck me as exemplifying several dubious American habits now ascendant: the overvaluing of technology and the undervaluing of people; the displacement of face-to-face interaction by virtual connection; the recasting of citizenship and inner life as a commodified data profile; the tendency to turn to the market to address social problems.” (Watch Louis C.K.’s Explanation of Why He Hates Smartphones Is Sad, Brilliant.)


More on Those “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing”

[posted by Alice]

When I get tired of working at home, I take my computer to a library or coffeehouse, like other freelancers do. On Saturday morning I went to Starbucks. Usually, when I sign on to the wi-fi, I ignore the Digital Network page that comes up after I accept their terms of service, but yesterday one of the offerings caught my eye. It was a mediabistro article called “7 Things They Don’t Tell You About Freelancing: Here’s what we wish they taught us in J-school.”

It’s not hard to understand why the Starbucks Network would feature an article about freelancers (lots of us “work” there). But the reason I actually clicked on that link was because just last week I attended the Delegate Assembly of the National Writers Union, the only labor union that represents freelance writers, and I was more focused on freelancers’ issues than usual. Even after I learned that the article was originally posted on August 8, 2011, I continued reading because blogger Alisha Tillery gives a soberingly accurate description of the life of a freelance writer. She says that freelancing is a full-time job, yet you might also need to have a “real” job to sustain yourself; you still have a boss (your editor) but you may have to chase checks in order to get paid; and so on. Tillery also gives information about using the Writer’s Market, suggests sites where freelancers can find job postings, and says that the Freelancers Union might be able to help with late payment issues and other problems.

As a newly energized NWU member, I asked myself why she didn’t also include the National Writers Union in her list of connections and resources. There are advantages to the fact that the NWU represents only writers and is an authentic trade union, part of the AFL-CIO, with the attention to workers rights this implies. (Freelancers Union, by comparison, is an unaffiliated organization that deals with freelancers in arts, design and entertainment; media and advertising; financial services; nonprofit;  technology; domestic child care; skilled computer use; and traditional or alternative health care.) And though it’s true that if you live in New York City, membership in the Freelancers Union can get you health insurance, the same is true of the NWU.  And the NWU has been around longer than the Freelancers Union. (The National Writers Union was formed as a local of the United Autoworkers Union in 1981, and the Freelancers Union was founded by the nonprofit Working Today in 2001.)

So why didn’t the NWU get a nod when Ms. Tillery talked about resources for freelance writers?  Whatever the reason, it’s a good thing that she talked about any sort of unionizing efforts at all. Because it’s true that writers tend to resist any attempt to organize them, and some are too individualistic to imagine that they could be comfortable in any sort of union, especially if they are already doing well. Yet as newspapers close and new technology creates as many challenges as opportunities, it is obvious to me that unions for writers have a crucial role to play. Ursula Le Guin, the legendary science fiction writer and NWU member, said it very well in her solidarity message to our Delegate Assembly:

Dear Sisters and Brothers:  We know that the mega-corporations think they own and control publishing.  And we know that organizing writers is like herding cats. So — let’s imagine a huge herd of lean, hungry, highly organized cats coming at those fat-cat corporations, and clawing the stuffing out of them. I can’t wait.

Whenever I sit alone writing, I’m aware that we freelancers need solitary time to do our work – at home or in coffeehouses – but we can benefit from the solidarity and collective spirit of a union, as well as the collective power it can give us to deal with all those problems they didn’t tell you about at J-School.

Huffington Post Boycott

[posted by Alice]

The National Writers Union has withdrawn from its Huffington Post boycott, which was launched in March of this year in cooperation with the Newspaper Guild.

This boycott was part of a campaign to gain compensation for bloggers who didn’t receive any of the $315 million Arianna Huffington got when she sold HuffPost to AOL in February.

So now the boycott is over. Has Huffington Post done the right thing and paid the unpaid?

Unfortunately not. But according to a letter on the Newspaper Guild site, Huffington and her staff have met with the boycotters to “discuss the need for a model that compensates journalists for their efforts.” The letter continues:

“Now that we’ve opened a dialog with HuffPost, it makes sense to us to set aside the boycott as we attempt to work together and move forward. There is no single, clear cut answer to what constitutes an acceptable unpaid op/ed piece, when casual commentary crosses the line into researched analysis, or when a discussion about ideas becomes an “assignment.” These issues will need to be monitored and reassessed continually, and we think that can best happen by building a constructive relationship with HuffPost. However you feel about the Huffington Post, they are clearly a major player in emerging models of online journalism.”

In a post on their website called “What’s Up With the Boycott of the Huffington Post?”, the National Writes Union indicates that they have also dropped the boycott but are continuing and intensifying their Pay the Writer campaign. Demands include:

–Freelance journalists working for for-profit, multi-million dollar online publications should get paid.
–If you cover the news for anybody, you should get paid.
–If you take on assignments, with an editor, you should get paid.
–Occasional contributions by writers, educators or activists who are promoting a book or a cause could be unpaid and that fact should be acknowledged at the end of the article.
–Frequent and regular contributors should be paid.