Category Archives: Essays

Occasional essays in the interstices between science, design, art, communication, and journalism.

What is a magazine?

Summary: An exploration of the essence of magazines reveals that their defining characteristics have more to do with how they represent and enable communities rather than any physical or publishing characteristic.

Why define magazines?

While I work toward establishing a new magazine, I am contemplating an existential question:What is a magazine? It’s a question that seems to have an obvious answer to many people, but is definitely contentious, and there is no real consensus on an answer. Although finding a concrete answer might also seem like a philosophical pursuit of no real importance, I think it is essential to be properly aware of what I am about to do. To be honest, I should probably already know the answer to this as editor-in-chief of another magazine that I started up, but the changing publishing landscape prompts me to re-examine the topic. Knowing what makes a magazine also gives us a chance to emphasize what is characteristic and essential and gives us hints as where we could focus our efforts.

There are really two questions to disentangle in this discussion: “what have magazines traditionally been?” and “what is a magazine in essence?” It is the latter I am most interested in.

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What does twitter mean for breaking news stories? The ISS near-collision case study

On Thursday morning (US Pacific Time), March 12, 2009, a piece of debris came close enough the International Space Station to require the astronauts to take refuge in the Soyez module, just in case there was a collision. In the end, the debris passed by without incident.

I experienced this event almost entirely through twitter. This essay is to share my experience about how this is an example of ways in which somebody can follow news in a format completely different from conventional news reporting. This experience is, obviously, peculiar to me, in that only I follow my set of twitter users, and this is my personal reaction to it. However, I believe that this kind of process is starting to occur for many more people and it changes the way those people will use conventional news reporting.

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Blurts: The value of short, rapid, open communication to collective creativity

How can information, passed on 140 characters at a time, contribute to any kind of meaningful exchange? I think it is quite reasonable to write twitter off as a new faddish technology that many people are using just because it seems cool. However, behind the surface level appearance of twitter, and other similar forms of communication, something extremely useful seems to be developing.

This essay is not only about twitter but the more general concept of short, rapid, open communication, which I’ll call “blurts”. In essence, what I will argue is that blurts might not have much meaning in themselves, but a web of blurts among many people can be valuable to many of the participants. A collection of blurts is akin to a form of brainstorming, but in which some minimal structure appears, allowing the most valuable ideas to persist and be developed. Importantly, that structure comes from the interests of the participants, not from some kind of moderator.

There are four example formats for blurts that I want to consider here, although there are many others floating about that I could have discussed. They are: 1) facebook status updates, 2) twitter’s tweets, 3) moves in signtific’s forecasting games, and 4) comments in Tim Gowers’ mathematical blog. Each has a different character but each shows how the properties of length, rapidity, and openness can play into a successful conversation.

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