The Ninja Gap

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David Weinberger somehow manages to find time to write books, write thoughtful blog posts, AND produce a periodic newsletter - Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization - thata€™s one of he best reads on the a€net. Ia€™m deeply flattered that the current issue features Davida€™s thoughts on some of the topics Ia€™m obsessed with: media attention, caring, international understanding. More generously, he gives me the chance to react to his essay within the essaya€¦

Davida€™s generosity isna€™t the main reason Ia€™m linking to his piece - ita€™s that hea€™s broken some important theoretical ground with his important new concept in media criticism: The Ninja Gap. It takes a moment or two to explain - bear with me.

Almost anyone whoa€™s heard me give a public talk has heard me observe that Japan and Nigeria have roughly the same populations, but vastly different media representation: youa€™re roughly 8-12 times more likely to find an article focused on Japan in an American newspaper than an article on Nigeria. There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, from racism to comparative economic power. David offers a new one: Japana€™s got ninjas, and Nigeria doesna€™t.

Ita€™s a brilliant observation because ita€™s funny, true and highly relevant to conversations about media attention. Johan Galtung, in his seminal a€oeThe Structure of Foreign Newsa€oe, draws a persuasive metaphor between a radio receivera€™s ability to tune in one of many radio stations, and a listenera€™s likelihood to a€oereceivea€A a piece of news:

F4: The more meaningful the signal, the more probable that it will be recorded as worth listening to.

F5: The more consonant the signal is with the mental image of what one expects to find, the more probable that it will be recorded as worth listening to.

F7: The more a signal has been tuned in to the more likely it will continue to be tuned in to as worth listening to.

Context matters, Galtung argues. If wea€™ve got a mental image of Africa as a backwards and technically retrograde place, wea€™re likely to miss stories about innovation in mobile commerce (see the lead story in issue 407a€¦) or success in venture capital. Galtunga€™s fifth maxim is closely linked to the idea of cognitive dissonance - ita€™s uncomfortable to attempt to resolve new information that conflicts with existing perceptions, beliefs and behaviors.

Context doesna€™t just come from hard news - we all consume far more entertainment and advertising content than we consume of hard news. This information helps shape our views of these countries, and likely helps us unconsciously decide what sort of information to accept or reject. These perceptions construct something over time that might be thought of as a a€oenation branda€A - as the man who coined that term,marketer Simon Anholt, observed, a€oeEthiopia is well branded to receive aid, but poorly branded as a tourism destination.a€A

In this context, Japan is a place branded in many of our minds as a place thata€™s innovative, high-tech, and more than a little strange. Whether or not wea€™ve been to Japan, wea€™ve encountered anime, monster movies, martial arts flicks, SONY tva€™s and Toyota trucks. Whether or not our ideas about Japan are well-founded, reflect the reality on the ground, are rich in stereotypes, etc., wea€™ve got preconceptions about Japan. On some level, the fact that we know that a€oeJapan = Ninjasa€A means that wea€™ve got receptivity for a story about Japan that we might not have for Nigeria.

And so, Nigeria needs ninja. Or as David explains:

One reason we care about Japan more than Nigeria (generally) is that Japan has a cool culture. Wea€™ve heard about that culture because some Westerners wrote bestselling books about ninjas, and then Hollywood made ninja movies. Love them ninjas! Nigeria undoubtedly has something as cool as ninjas. Ok, something almost as cool as ninjas. If we had some blockblusters about the Nigerian equivalent of ninjas, wea€™d start to be interested Nigeria.

In other words, wea€™re more inclined to pay attention to Japan because wea€™ve got some context - a weird, non-representative context, for sure - while we have almost no context for stories about Nigeria. The context we do have for Nigeria - 419 scams - tends to be pretty corrosive, and may make us likelier to pick up only the stories that portray Nigeria as wildly corrupt and criminal.

Davida€™s observation leads him to some concrete advice for those of us trying to inspire xenophilia: write better: a€oeGood writing can make anything interesting. We will read the story about the Nigerian peddler and his neighborhood if there is a writer able to tell that story in a compelling way.a€A

Thata€™s harder than it sounds. But ita€™s also one of the best pieces of constructive advice Ia€™ve seen on cultivating xenophilia: tell good stories in a compelling way. And it wouldna€™t hurt to throw a ninja or two in there while youa€™re at it.

This post originally ran on Ethan’s excellent personal blog, My Heart’s in Accra.

via worldchanging

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  1. A very interesting piece.

    Jill The Shill

    12 Jun 08 at 9:53 am

     


 

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