RiotACT: It’s like Gillnetting for Gossip

Skidbladnir 26 September 2008 12

With a Stateline piece going to air tonight comparing what they see as the forums for opinion in Canberra, and nothing yet running on the Riot as a counterpoint to it.
I’m not saying it is this the only thing RiotACT is, and that Stateline will be wrong, just that it could be seen as this.

Those who do not observe and learn from history will be forever doomed to repeat it.

So we need to start with a few basic history lessons (the more exciting bits come down below, but I’m just getting this out of the way).

The Ascendancy of Printed Words (in Europe, at least)

Prior to 1439AD, creation of new texts was incredibly labour intensive. Dozens of scribes working together, reproducing partial sections of earlier works, could copy an entire manuscript in a period of several months, assuming there was nothing major to stop their work (such as parchment or ink shortages, local wars, etc).
Due to the prevailing culture in Europe at the time, the most commonly reproduced text was the Bible. The bible was a major source of knowledge, and discussion and commentary on of the bible was a major academic project for all centres of learning.

Many centres of learning were run by religious organisations, and knowledge of and interpretation of the divine was a useful tool for keeping both the academic and urban populations under control.

This work was done primarily by monks, who chose to live quiet and isolated lives, using the act of scribing as a form of meditation.

As a result of these factors, literacy and production of literature was associated with religious authority.

As the price of creating a bible was incredibly high due to labour costs, bibles were usually only commissioned by religious authorities as required, or by rich merchants.

Many of these commissioned texts were simply recopying of old works, because they would decayed over time.
Literacy remained at low levels, and relatively stable at the “next to nobody can read” end of the scale.

Knowledge was still beyond the reach and means of the everyman.

In 1439, the printing press was created, this allowed for bulk reproduction of pages text, but reduced the price of manuscripts only slightly.

The evolution is only slight, because every page had to be either carved or crafted directly, and could not be modified further once created.

Each page would take several days to craft, and could be printed only one at a time, so the average price of a bible was still roughly ten years of clerical wages.

Literacy began to spread amongst the richest of the nobility.

In 1450, after more than a decade of people thinking Johannes Gutenberg was crazy for creating thousands of tiny backwards letters cast in metal, moveable type is first used to create the Gutenberg Bible.

Moveable type allows for a single page to be created in half a day, and pages are printed six at a time to reduce labour costs. Pictures can be created in metal forms, and also printed directly onto the page.

Twelve pages can be produced in a day.

A single bible cost only three years of clerical wages to produce.

A cheap picture, combined with cheap text was seen as useful for getting your message across to a wider audience at low cost.

Nailing printed pages to church doors became a common method used by the clergy and town governors to get a message across to citizens in their care.

This was still a one-way method of communication (the rich people’s message is transmitted to the poor people), though.

In 1492, a little known Abbott called Johannes of Sponheim commissions a work called “In Praise of the Scribes”.
He says how noble the monks are, and how wonderfully cultural the act of taking weeks to do create a single page is, and how it should be preserved.

He gives it to a printmaker, who runs out a few hundred copies over the week, and he sent them by courier around to a few key bishops around Sponheim.

Considering the subject matter, his choice of media to promote the message is just weird.

In around 1500, books became cheap enough that willing priests can provide training to the great unwashed in how to read the bible.

This encourages unwashed vagabonds to ask questions from priests, in order to learn more about the bible.

In 1517, after several decades of continuous improvements to the printing press, books are not quite within the reach of the everyman, because the everyman is still ridiculously poor.

Printed pages can be produced in vast numbers within the day.

A minor priest and theologian who previously nobody gave much thought to, decides to nail a copy of his book full of questions, “The 95 Theses”, to a church door.

Self-publishing was coming of age, and shortly afterward there was some major copyright infringement.

One of those Theses was number 86: “Why does the Pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest, build the basilica of St. Peter with the money his poor believers rather than with his own money?”

After sixty years of one-way communication, nailing messages to church doors becomes a game that two sides can play (massive numbers of poor people have a complaint => poor people find themselves a literate spokesman => rich people get scared).

This question was reprinted, and copycats nailed further copies to churches inside Germany within two weeks, and the rest of Europe within two months.

Catholic Europe was plunged into chaos.

The Protestant Reformation was born, and Western Civilisation was changed forever.

1519: The pope finally declared Martin Luther a heretic.

Communication was still notoriously slow over long distances, and could only travel as quickly as the fastest horse.

Even so, the powers that be still took a ridiculously long time to wake up to what is happening outside their window.


Protestants and Catholics engaged in wars, battles, minor skirmishes, and when not a lot else was happening during peacetime, occasionally blew up a building and people belonging to the other guy. Occasionally they remember that someone passed laws guaranteeing freedom of religion, and experienced moments of peace.

Highlights in the Protestant vs Catholic story included: Guy Fawkes trying to blow up Parliament, the Spanish Inquisition spreading throughout Europe, the Spanish Armada sailing onto the rocks off the coast of England, William of Orange invading England in a Revolution, and more recently, the IRA in Ireland…

All of this happened because someone thought to combine the printed word with a labour saving device, and then sixty years later a lonely priest nailed a book to a door, trying to get some respect.

The Birth of Newspapers in England

On May 23, 1623, Nathaniel Butter produced “monthly news periodickals” called “Knews from Most Parts of Christendom”, followed by the “Paper of Certain News of the Present Week”. The latter is a success, and soon changes its name to the “Paper of Weekly News”.

It is prevented by the King of the day from reporting on any news within England’s borders, on penalty of indefinite imprisonment.

Roughly 1632: single sheets of gossip and nasty pictures were starting to show up in London, telling stories of questionable merit about persons in power.

They were named “dissenting and seditious libels”, and libel in its various forms is denounced as illegal by the Star Chamber.

Dissent against the Government was forcibly quashed, and bears a punishment of High Treason.

Social pressures for change still build, even though now there is no outlet for dissent.

In 1641 a law gets passed declaring the Star Chamber itself illegal.

Soon after, now that dissent is again legal, a flood of dissent occurs to such degrees the Government was entirely unprepared for.

So begins the English Civil War.

In 1688, riding a wave of popular support due to various kings occasionally outlawing dissent, William of Orange is invited by several key Englishmen to invade England.

When he arrives, the forces arrayed against him start to dissolve, because his own agents start handing out the libels explaining that William will give them rights they haven’t had before.

This is the first major and effective use of a new form communication medium to decisively change the course of a war.

Another major one will happen in just 250 years.

September 25, 1690: The first daily newspaper in America is published, entitled “Public Occurences Both Forreign and Domestick”. It is four pages long, and printed on only one side of the page.

September 26, 1690: The newspaper is shut down by the American Government of Boston, as it contained “Reflections and Conversations of a high nature such as Politicks, without License first obtained by the Government”.

The early-1700s see the start of a new phenomenon, calling itself “Letters to the Editor”.

Editors start receiving mail from the public, complaining that the editor’s opinion might be wrong, or that things were not altogether pleasant in their end of the country.

This turns the newspaper from being a one => many method of communication (where the editor gets final say over what the readers consume) into a two-way many many form of communication.

But still, it suffered from a delay in bringing a story to market, where readers had to wait until the next edition, and in order to find out what someone was replying to in the Letter to the Editor, you had to find the a copy of the original.

In 1734, an anonymous Letter to the Editor gets then-editor of the New York Weekly Journal, John Peter Zenger arrested for publishing a letter criticising the Governor of New York.

He is held for almost a year in prison before eventually facing trial for defamation.

At a short trial, the United States law which allowed for him to be imprisoned is overturned, as it is pointed out that John was not the person who wrote the dissenting letter, he just gave it a wider audience.

1814: “The Times of London” owns a press capable of creating 1,100 newspaper impressions per minute.
Technology let bigger and faster presses get built, but the basic methods of running a newspaper remained roughly the same until the present day.

The Spectacular Rise of Radio Communications

In 1831 Michael Faraday discovers electromagnetic induction. This proposes that electrical devices can interfere other electrical devices not directly connected to them with wires. Not a lot happens with this research, because Michael got carried away investigating what happens when things are connected by wires.

In 1873, James Maxwell describes how these devices are being affected by ‘electromagnetic waves’.

1875: Thomas Edison shows that you can harness this effect, and transmit a single byte of information through electrical signals, rather than just cause problems for other people’s electrical devices.

1885: A predecessor to morse code is born, allowing for appropriately trained captains on ships to communicate with land stations at vast distances, and for text messages to be sent along wires.

1895: Text messages are transmitted without wires for the first time

April, 1912: Titanic sinks, thousands of people die, because even though the telegraph device was unattended, nobody thought that recording messages which had been received by the radio telegraph machine was particularly important.

May, 1912: Machines capable of recording received Morse transmissions (perfect for if the Morse operator has to sleep or make a toilet break, just wants to go away from his radio for a while) are deployed.

1919: Commercial radio broadcasts of human voice occur for the first time, but nobody gives a thought to the influence of man-portable systems and the eventual effect this communication will have on tactics and strategy.

World War II:
Blitzkreig occurs.
Apart from a few minor successes in World War I stalemates, nobody had given it a huge degree of thought, but the cumulative effect of coordinating flexible troops, fast manuvering armour, and combining them with new methods of communication, spread over an exposed area.

The greatest illustration of this was in 1940 France, where despite facing the better armoured and higher-calibre tanks of the Allies Army, German tanks were able to prevail in a bizarrely short time.

A major factor in this was the uniform introduction of radio by the Germans at the individual tank level.

Whereas the Allied forces where better armed, the adoption of radio communications was not widespread, giving the German tank force a clear communications advantage.

Allies were forced to either relay messages or use line-of-sight, but German taks could operate over a wider area, communicate any relevant details either to another tank, or to their entire group all at once.

This fast and two directional, many many communication encouraged a feedback loop which already had a clear advantage, and amplified that advantage further.

Groups of individual tanks were suddenly and decisively able to act as a single unit and cohesive force, due to new uses of existing technology.

The defending force was hard pressed to organize any sort of counter-attack. The French were ordered to form new lines along the rivers, often arriving to find the better-communicating German forces had already passed them.

France crumbled in eight weeks.

So what am I getting at?

RiotACT comes out ahead of the pack, by combining elements of oldschool newspaper publishing, radio commentary, and the ability to nail your published message to something that will hang around for longer the first daily newspaper in Boston.

What conceivable advantage is there to reading the RiotACT over listening to talkback radio?

Its faster, and you don’t need to wait for your call to finish before the next person can have a comment. And unlike radio, there’s a transcript available as soon as something gets transmitted (so nobody misses the Titanic hitting the iceberg).

What advantage is there over the Canberra Times?

Its better than the Canberra Time’s Letters to the Editor, because you don’t need to pay $1.20 to read what is being said, and all related comments get grouped together, giving a conversation a degree of depth the Letters to the Editor can’t easily replicate. It also allows for much faster cross-referencing, and the cross referencing that can be done is easier.

What other advantages are there?

Once you look at the threads, as a single combined argument instead of as a series of individual comments, they form a cohesive but more balanced whole than any of the basic comments.

Letting users generate their own content, as well as allowing for communication with a faster rate of exchange, and the previous two points compound to create a fairly large many many feedback loop.

And that advantage compounds over time.

I’m off to the pub.

What's Your Opinion?

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12 Responses to RiotACT: It’s like Gillnetting for Gossip
Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 12:55 am 28 Sep 08

I look forward to a comment about the strengths of the CT “Letters to the Editor” from the Editor of the CT, on Stateline.

Abbot of Sponheim, anyone?

Oh, and many people pay more than $1.20/day for their intertubes 😉

Apples, oranges.

Your price for internet access is closer to a comparison with the price of having a letterbox\doorstep\newsagent to receive your CT via, rather than a price you pay to actually receive the newspaper.

Anyone paying $428 a year to only read the RiotACT with their internet access when there’s a wealth of other stuff out there has some serious obsession problems.

Granny Granny 2:39 pm 27 Sep 08

I found this post fascinating to read. Some of it was completely new to me, and other bits I had never placed in relation to each other.

Tesla, also absolutely fascinating. Pity the pigeon died, or perhaps just as well ….

For me RiotACT does give me a voice that the traditional media only bestow on a whim and in the midst of extreme competition, and also provides a sense of community which is quite odd in a way. On the one hand, these people are complete strangers. On the other hand I feel I know them quite well.

I also find it a bit frightening how easy it is to forget that I may be actually talking to one out of every six Canberrans when I feel like I’m talking to a group of say fifty or so.

So I don’t think that society has necessarily come to grips with the RiotACT sort of phenomenon as yet, but I think it is empowering for the individual and does help to grow a community. It is certainly an idea whose time has come.

heinous heinous 1:46 pm 27 Sep 08

Next time perhaps a Wikipedia link before your comment would suffice.

caf caf 9:02 pm 26 Sep 08

A couple of points.

You talk about a “United States law” being overturned in 1734 – but the American Revolution was still 40 years in the future.

You mention that shyster Edison, but the first to demonstrate the idea of wireless communication was Nikola Tesla (of Tesla Coil fame). Also of interest is Chandra Bose, who ignited gunpowder at a distance using radio in 1894.

Oh, and many people pay more than $1.20/day for their intertubes 😉

Definitely a good read, though.

Woody Mann-Caruso Woody Mann-Caruso 7:24 pm 26 Sep 08

Good to see that there are several history buffs on the RA.

Yeah, but do they have PhDs?

peterh peterh 5:19 pm 26 Sep 08

jenny green said :


Fridays on RiotACT…

friday afternoons full stop.

i can hear phillip emptying now….

whoops! and the pedestrian crossing last minute braking as well. that WAS close!

jenny green jenny green 5:05 pm 26 Sep 08

Hmmmm… Fridays on RiotACT…

peterh peterh 5:03 pm 26 Sep 08


what a lot of cool info. Good to see that there are several history buffs on the RA.

in an effort to see what else was out there in electronic communication land, I actually tried joining a couple of yahoo chat rooms, just to see if they had changed, but they hadn’t. interesting that the chat rooms are made up of desperate large men and teenage girls. (and neither realises that this is the case)

RA is by far a better way to communicate with a greater audience, even if sometimes it is like playing chess by snail mail.

(sometimes the answer is pretty quick, other times it takes a while)

johnboy johnboy 5:02 pm 26 Sep 08

Extra whitespacing was me trying to spare the eyes of the readers.

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 4:56 pm 26 Sep 08

And RiotATC automatically gets rid of the symbol when formatting, which I should have expected but forgot about.

(forty words here, ten words there, throughot a day adds up, and then you just forget simple things like “You’re writing for something the reads text as HTML”)

Skidbladnir Skidbladnir 4:44 pm 26 Sep 08

Good heavens, you cut and paste from Notepad and it formats for the blind.
It wasn’t all doublespaced when I last saw it.

Ari Ari 4:42 pm 26 Sep 08

Jeez, Skid. Did you drink that six-pack all at once?

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