What I learned from an Internship

This was an autonomous experience, with little guidance and a loose set of rules I attempted to do what some people say I do best, write. Early meetings and emails arranged a work plan and set a weekly schedule. The final project resembled the original work plan but came about in a off-the-cuff method. Upon acceptance into the internship program I was given an email address to the blog owner and I sent an email to introduce myself. We met at Coffea where I got my initial marching orders. I was to post blog entries on Tuesday and Thursday, with another short entry over the weekend. Posts could be as simple as a paragraph with an embedded YouTube video, there were no minimum word counts. Write something solid once a week, and add some video content to the site. In addition I was required to read three selected books, pertinent to my internship.  Taking On The System, Crashing The Gate, and The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.  I was expected to spend 35-40 hours a week on the blog, which at first I thought was an excessive amount of time.  Looking back however, I realize it took at least that many hours to create something the world might read and not embarrass myself.  There was an additional assignment a few weeks into the semester that would involve going to campaign debates and blogging on location. I was looking forward to live blogging the McConnell, Lunsford debate at Centre College’s Norton Center, but McConnell canceled. He used the government bailout hearings to his advantage and didn’t come to Kentucky to campaign very often. I was also hoping to meet and interview Kathy Stein at a UK Democrat’s meeting, she was also a no-show. Ms. Stein was scheduled to address the young Dems at the University of Kentucky, but this was two weeks before her election and she was unable to appear.

I signed up for a Bluegrassroots.org account and was given some administrator functions to edit and delete malicious content, there was none, but the potential power was still there.  I started writing short pieces for the blog before the semester actually started.  The Soapblox software was different from the WordPress blog I had used before.  Contributing to the blog was enjoyable, I got some positive comments and feedback on my stories, which became motivation to write something better.  My favorite early piece was the blog Talk Radio Gets Sirius.  The story was initially a complaint about Sirius Patriot channel, and transformed into a Jimmy Carter joke.  To this day the story of the attack on the President by a killer swamp rabbit is still circulating.  Later stories shifted to my support of Barack Obama, who was my neighbor for a few years in DC.  When Sarah Palin came onto the national scene it was hard to write about anything else, and our blog site fell victim to round the clock Palin watch.  Other topics I enjoyed writing about were different aspects of Kentucky and what I remember from my childhood growing up in the boondocks.  A anti-smoking story I wrote was read by the editor from Lexington’s AceWeekly, and they reprinted it in their publication.  The publishing of something I had written was the pinnacle of the experience, it might be a free magazine, but people have told me they read it and wanted to know if there were going to be anything new coming out.

Technical problems on the blog arose after the first week of November. YouTube changed the parameters of their embed code (the code that allows someone to re-post videos) the Soapblox architecture would not allow users to embed anything with “always” inside the codex. Red error messages prevent the entire article from posting to the site if it has video attached. This became very frustrating and Soapblox help wikis are useless. One member posted an announcement to insert “never” instead of “always” inside the embed code and the video link would work. This was buggy at best, but wasn’t always consistent. Weekly error messages still occurred when I had something important to share and wanted to attach a video but the blog architecture would not allow it. The code fix I was using inevitably quit working shortly thereafter. Video additions to blog posts became virtually impossible, if you wanted to insert any media, it had to be pictures only. Emails to the one of the site’s bloggers who can still successfully upload videos have gone unanswered. The only comparison blog format I have used is WordPress. Even though its free and is seen by some writers as “small time” technical errors are few and far between. Video uploading is slow, but consistent. The technical problems with Soapblox occur with all types of video, YouTube, Google Video, and others. I am not the only user affected by the video blackout; regular submissions from other writers don’t have the video content they once had either. Lately, video submissions on the site are an endangered species. Soapblox needs to fix their coding and script errors, and keep up with changing technologies and provide some type of tech support.  This example of video embedding error is only the tip of an iceberg of problems that bloggers face. If the architecture of the medium is frustrating or not working properly, it hinders the discourse we are trying to achieve.

Our membership has grown by a few more authors but few are submitting video. I was told by the site owner that Soapblox did not change their software to accommodate YouTube’s new look. Videos embedded from YouTube now have a slide show attached, and this might be part of the reason embedding problems started. Something noteworthy is that bloggers depend on YouTube to help provide content for their posts, If YouTube or other popular video sites change their architecture that impedes a blogger’s ability to do his job and both suffer. This “electronic dependency theory” is not limited to the proliferation of web content, but the actual publication of the content itself. As a blogger I link to various websites that add emphasis to the article I’m writing. These sites receive hits from the incoming links that I publish, if they were to prohibit me from linking to them, or embedding their content, the result would be a decline in readership for both. Bloggers depend on other websites for background information, research, and outgoing links. It’s not uncommon to see a single blog story with ten or more external links. Bloggers depend on the content from other websites and fellow bloggers alike. Many websites depend on this user generated content to flourish and develop.

During my fieldwork in Washington DC, I faced the constant constraint of connectivity outside the home office. Even though Washington is one of the most wired cities in the world, always having to be at a wifi hot spot was a restrictive annoyance. Hardly any of the wifi spots are free, coffee shops have a drink minimum, and setting up and logging on with an older pc is a cumbersome task. Starbucks is known for its connectivity but to be one of those “cool” people sitting in the window on a Macbook, you have to create an account and buy a giftcard with cash to gain access to their wifi.  On average it took 10-15 minutes to find a seat, plug in, power up, and buy something to allow my use of a store’s internet. Using a cellular based wifi card is expensive to purchase and pay for monthly service but it would be mandatory if one aspires to be out in the field and live blogging frequently. When conducting field interviews I would talk to people for an hour or so, then rush to a wifi hotspot to update my blog. As connected as a person can be with a smart phone or pda, the only effective way to blog is from a computer.

The first real problems I faced as an E-journalist were the mechanical constraints unique to the job. I have an older laptop that needs wall-power to function, and wifi. I am curently poor, so a Sprint connect card is out of the question.  The only backup connection to the system of tubes is my outdated Blackberry which is worthless to get a blog post up. I did manage to use a friend’s spanking new Blackberry to edit blogs but no practical way to enter new text. To be a part of the celebration or even close by would have required a squatted out a spot to try and hold my ground. There was no real practical way to blog, party, and keep from getting hugged.

Selection from my Election Day coverage live blogging.

A Blackberry might be good for Facebook, Twitter, and text messages but it is hopeless to even attempt to edit a blog post. The many frames of Soapblox and WordPress are not even friendly to Iphones. When the software become available for users to effectively edit and create blog posts from a handheld device, we will see the second wave of live blogging and real-time journalism.  Being tethered to a computer and the associated costs incurred while live blogging in the field would be eliminated, and the new found freedom among writers would give the world a first person view from normally inaccessible places. At present time, the closest thing we have to this would be the micro- blogger application, Twitter. A Twitter user can post up to 160 letters at a time, good for short attention spans, and getting people to link to your main blog site. In an era where emphasis is placed on timeliness if an independent blogger could produce breaking news before the networks could air the story it would shift power to bloggers. Readers like me are addicted to the latest breaking news, and blog site feeding real-time independent news would be attractive to me and advertisers alike.

This internship experience has transformed my skepticism about the power of independent bloggers into enthusiasm to continue blogging. Any individual with access to the web can break news with near the same power of a network media company if it’s done correctly. A single voice can become the voice of the masses, and a good idea can go viral in an afternoon. Real news comes from people, who witness it firsthand. The blog is one of the most effective ways to get a unique, commercial-free point of view, where the viewer can make their own decisions, without a mouthy pundit pushing hot air around.  Most bloggers and E-journalists work at a frantic pace of “hurry up and wait”, where a small technical difficulty can bring any story to a screeching halt. Net access, server overloads, and slow connections will be your problem to deal with and are out of your control. A hardware issue might be your fault if you spilled coffee into your keyboard, but if your blog site does not respond for hours there is nothing you can do about it. Besides facing technical obstacles, most bloggers are still seen by traditional journalists as weekend warriors. As newspaper companies are filing for bankruptcy, they must realize a change in their business model is needed to keep up with the amount of news distributed by independent writers on the web.

Inside the system of tubes we are all equal. If a writer can attract more readers through RSS feeds and search engine hits, it’s only a matter of time before readership increases. One good story with a cleaver set of tags can get a hundred Google hits in a single day. Other bloggers who find your stories will link to you and create a network within a network, where readers browse everyone’s content. A network of critical thinkers who share a common interest can even get a black president elected. Grassroots politics meeting netroots bloggers is the future of national politics. More information about this can be found in the book Crashing The Gate by Jerome Armstrong and Markos Moulitsas. I have posted a review about Crashing The Gate and when I created the blog tag “netroots” my readership doubled. These are the creators of the popular blog Daily Kos, and their grassroots movement paved the campaign trail for President Obama. The Obama campaign utilized ideas the authors presented to take a landslide victory in November. Markos Moulitsas has a new book which is even more enjoyable titled: Taking On The System an updated handbook for progressives to arm themselves in the war of ideologies. Taking On The System was printed during the Democratic primaries and gives an enthusiastic opinion of what Democrats should keep doing to keep the ball in their court. See my latest book review for a complete opinion of Taking On The System and how the author’s ideas could better the media world as we know it.

My guess is, there are thousands-hundreds of thousands, in fact-out there just like me. Tired of accepting a backseat. Tired of feeling powerless and voiceless. Tired of the squalid state of our public affairs. And at heart, more than ready, willing, and able to take on the system.

Markos Moulitsas

Taking On The System pg. 272

Celebra Press

The one thing all three books have in common with my work during my internship is the grassroots/webroots movement.  We have seen a tremendous shift of power in the past five years, the Howard Dean campaign should take full responsibility for their pioneering innovations.  I doubt there are any skeptics about the effectiveness of using the internet and the weight it bears on the political system.  Never before have we had such a close model of representative democracy.  Its not a direct democracy but it creates a voice that elected officials must listen to and heed if they care about keeping their seats.  The recent election of President Obama is an example of a man who probobly read all three of these books and used the advice to construct a new age campaign, one where voters feel like they have a voice.  As technology improves and candidates and voters can hear one another through this new medium there will enivitably be some type of backlash.  Most any movement is followed by some type of backlash.  I’m not one to predict but it will probobly become a generic avatar election system.  Both parties will adopt emerging technologies and we will end up voting for someone who looks like a Nintendo Wii character, but if you click on their name you can friend them.

This paragraph from the book sums up the netroots movement. This is what we are trying to achieve. We have the platform to be heard. If you yell loud enough somebody will hear you.  I have enjoyed my opportunity this internship has given me.  I have met some new people, gained readers, and got a story published.  It has been more fun than work, the deadlines get ever closer, but posting something for everyone to see takes effort, unless you want to embarrass yourself.  I want to thank Dr. Rice for giving me an opportunity to complain about things in the world, and get school credit for it.  And I would also like to thank Ben Carter and all the contributors to Bluegrassroots.org, thanks for letting me write on your forum.  I will continue to post articles on BGR, and am planning a complete follow-up live blog coverage from Washington on Inauguration day.  If there was a way to make money blogging, I would gladly do this for a living.      

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