Mike Ananny Talks Networked Journalism, Technology and Toy Design

By TAP Staff Blogger

Posted on July 10, 2013


A passion for communication and technology led Mike Ananny to become an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. TAP recently spoke with Professor Ananny about his academic expertise in networked journalism. He discussed how technology intertwines with journalism, his work creating technological toys for language acquisition, and the topic of his next book.

TAP: How did you become an assistant professor at USC's Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism?

MIKE ANANNY: My academic training has always been at the intersection of fields involving interdisciplinary coursework, research projects and collaborations related to digital media. I completed a master’s at the MIT Media Lab (focusing on tangible media, toy design, and children’s language acquisition). I then continued this work becoming a founding member of the research staff at Media Lab Europe (where I did participatory design with communities to create city-scale interactive displays), and then went to the Department of Communication at Stanford University (where my PhD focused on the study of organizational sociology, normative models of the press, and networked journalism practices). After completing my PhD, I pursued my postdoctoral research at Microsoft Research New England and was a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society – both highly interdisciplinary, collaborative places that gave me a chance to develop new partnerships and better hone a research program about the intersection of critical journalism, public infrastructures, and normative press sociology. USC’s Annenberg is an absolutely fantastic place to pursue this type of program because there’s such a clear and supportive embrace of interdisciplinary work that combines critical studies, design research and networked journalism. I couldn’t have landed in a better place for doing this kind of work.

TAP: How did growing up on air force bases influence your interest in design or technology?

ANANNY: Since our family moved so much, I recall trying to keep up with friends and family all over Canada. I wrote a lot of letters (long-distance phone calls were less common since they were still pretty expensive) and can clearly remember the thrill of receiving mail from around the world. I wrote letters slowly and carefully, received editing help from my parents and loved thinking about what it meant to write a “good” letter. At the same time, since we moved around so much, my brother and I were built-in best friends wherever we went – and he taught me how to program computers, think about technology and have fun while doing so. If I had to connect these dots, I’d say that growing up involved figuring how to communicate across distances (a kind of design in its own right) and exploring the capabilities of technology – two things I still love.

TAP: What are the copyright implications on new media and networked journalism?

ANANNY: This is a huge area, and one I’m not a deep expert in. However, with Professor Daniel Kreiss (UNC-Chapel Hill), I wrote a few papers on the idea of providing public subsidies for journalistic content produced for the public domain. Essentially, we argue for reversing the idea of copyright and challenging overly-broad notions of intellectual property by funding producers of information to create quality content that freely circulates in democratic public spheres. Copyright has its merits, but, especially in the context of fast-moving networked information systems, it seems crazy to lock up content behind restrictive intellectual property regimes that prevent good ideas from influencing public discussion. The trick is to figure out how to pay for this free circulation, something Professor Kreiss and I explored in terms of public subsidies for giving up copyright claims. (Note: those two papers Ananny authored with Kreiss are: A new contract for the press: Copyright, public domain journalism, and self-governance in a digital age and Responsibilities of the state: Rethinking the case and possibilities for public support of journalism.)

TAP: In your 2011 paper, “The Revolutions Were Tweeted: Information Flows during the 2011 Tunisian and Egyptian Revolutions,” you discuss the roles of writers on Twitter. How do you think those roles have evolved over the last two years?

ANANNY: This is a huge question with no easy answer. I think what we continually see on Twitter are context-specific dynamics. That means each event, set of issues and participants bring its values and interpretations to Twitter, and I think we’re only beginning to understand how these dynamics develop and travel across contexts. We do frequently see that Twitter networks consist of both central characters (nodes with the power to amplify tweets quickly among a large number of followers) and more peripheral users with fewer opportunities to influence audiences. To me, the important (and intertwined) questions to ask in relation to online social network dynamics are: what people and ideas are missing in networks? How representative are they of the kind of public conversations that need to happen, beyond the interests of self-selected social media users swimming in power dynamics beyond their control?

TAP: Tell us a little about your work creating technological toys for children’s language acquisition.

ANANNY: As a master’s student at the MIT Media Lab, I was interested in how very young children (ages 2-5 years old) might make connections between oral and written literacy skills. Specifically, could I make a toy that would be fun to play with and that could help children create oral stories in ways they might create stories in the future? For example, I created a toy that looked like a caterpillar, with six linear body pieces: kids recorded 20 seconds of digital audio into each body part, connected the body parts, and heard how their audio pieces fit together. The children would then re-record the audio, re-arrange body pieces, and create new configurations of their stories – working with audio in ways that were similar to how they might edit and shape text in the future. I found that the discrete chunks of audio embedded within the caterpillar body parts helped kids record stories that had fewer disfluencies (such as: like, um, uh, hmm) and more conjunctive phrases (such as: and, if, or, but, so) – both components that are evidence of advanced language skill. It was a fun way to create design prototypes and think about how features of technology can support communication.

TAP: Ten years from now, how do you see technology shaping online journalism?

ANANNY: That’s another big topic and making strong predictions are foolish in a domain that’s moving so quickly and under so many different kinds of pressure. I also don’t think that technology shapes journalism – that’s a unidirectional, deterministic way of thinking that gives technology too much power over people. In reality, technology development, social practices and normative values are always intertwined and mutually constituting. We’re seeing this mix create a new kind of news work: the original reporting and journalism we’re accustomed to, now published online – but also the participation of non-journalists, and the influence of information algorithms and social network sites that make some news more or less visible to audiences. We’re only beginning to understand how this mix of human editorial work and computational design produces news. Some high-level themes that will continue to appear in the design and study of online journalism: intersections between popular participation and professional expertise; pressures on how to fund quality news work; and how journalistic conceptions of privacy and witnessing (such as when news outlets think it’s okay to surveil audiences and sources and the responsibilities that accompany such observations) appear within the design and use of networked technology.

TAP: You are working on a book this summer – can you give us a teaser about the topic?

ANANNY: The new book connects ideas of press freedom, a public right to hear, and technology design. I argue that one way to understand the contemporary press’s autonomy is to examine what I call “newsware” – the networked technologies, infrastructures, and practices that shape and reflect journalism.

TAP: We know from your bio that you’re always on the verge of getting a dog, but the question is: what kind?

ANANNY: Haha, I have no idea. He or she will definitely be a mutt and a shelter rescue – such things can’t be planned. :-)