The New Media Rags (bit of a rant)

“Social Media” news sites are swiftly becoming the tabloids of the 21st century, exemplified by dumb posts like this, as well as the latest example of linkbaiting from Techcrunch. For example, I feel that there’s a big, gaping hole in the world of tech news and information. I find myself turning more and more to Google Tech Talks (and now FLOSS Weekly thanks to Conor) for straight up nerd material, rather than this frenetic depthlessness encapsulated by the plethora of ADD-fuelled “new media” information streams like Mashable, TechCrunch, Tweetmeme, etc. Several of these are ostensibly technology news sites, but have a barrage of worthless VC cruft or net-celeb drivel. Where have the tech journals gone? I had a casual Twitter conversation on the subject with Michele Neylon, a well known technophile in Irish tech circles, who agreed there was little on offer in the way of particularly good tech news and information sites.

Posts like those above are read by tens of thousands, horrifyingly maybe even millions of people, all of whom are getting this same blasé, unresearched, sweepingly generalised rubbish. A rare incident of journalism from Techcrunch UK reflects a conversation going on amongst media types that perhaps this “crowdsource news” stuff is a really bad idea (what a revelation). On his show, This Week in Tech, Leo Laporte has frequently speculated that the increasing demand for bleeding-edge news is a dangerous trend towards increased viral misinformation. News, sufficiently interesting, will get passed along, unchecked, within a social trust sphere. Also, Internet information, sufficiently believable, will be quoted as fact by mainstream media.

It must be dismaying to reliable media outlets to see their hard work cheapened in favour of superficial, tabloidian “articles”, the facts of which are usually cherry-picked from traditional media anyway, or worse, simply made up.

What’s really changing is the speed that rumours disseminate at. In that regard, this is simply a mirror of what happens “around the water cooler”, at parties or anywhere else that people talk. What’s new is the audience around that water cooler; instead of five people it’s five million. A made-up story doesn’t change just the hearts and minds of a few, it can change stock market values. As a news and information site with a critical mass you have a duty of care to ensure your system is not misused., despite not claiming to be a news site of any sort, walks that line between allowing expression and curtailing malice every day. This is only possible because of the overwhelming good will of most of the userbase, and the tireless efforts of the (volunteer) moderators.

The increasing inter connectivity of Internet citizens is bringing plenty of new challenges, not least of which is the pursuit of truth. Information disseminates so quickly now that it doesn’t even matter if it’s true or not, as long as it’s fast and interesting (read: controversial). In the frenzy to be first, harmful lies can spread like wildfire through the modern media jungle, wreaking havoc before anyone even really knows what happened. It sounds terribly dramatic, but we may be on the cusp of a global mob mentality, a superculture activated and defined by extremes. People are starting to wonder aloud why we need news companies when we tend to get the information from each other before they do.

It’s getting to the point where journalism as an institution is being questioned. While it may be that the concept of the huge corporate newsroom is (perhaps) seeing the end of it’s days, journalism as an institution is still utterly vital, perhaps more now than ever. Social media sites that rely on a thin line of advertising revenue and clickthrough are going to be concerned with quantity and speed, eschewing quality. In-depth, well researched news would become a thing of the past if genuine, honest-to-god journalism died out; or at least become the realm of the philantropist-backed or hobbyist outlet.

Realistically, I don’t think that day will ever come. How can it? Anonymous or citizen journalism is unreliable by the very nature of anonymity. Additionally, a normal “citizen” aka Joe Soap has nothing to lose from being the source of inaccurate news. Virtually anonymous review sites offer little in the way of credible information. There needs to be “worth” of some sort attached to a source for it to be reliable and trustable. I think that modern news and information companies need to be careful not to hop on the bandwagon too eagerly and in the process devalue their brand. Yes, there is a place for anonymity, the rumourmill, the backchannel, but this needs to be seen for what it is, an evolution of these – literally ancient – channels of communication. News/information channels and data channels should not become any more intermingled than they already are. There is an important distinction between data and information, one which was impressed upon me by one of my former lecturers, Dr. Markus Helfert, and one which I believe can be applied to this scenario.

I doubt there’s any disclosure required here, but I will point out a bias beforehand since I do happen to work for :) . I feel that the move spearheaded by the community managers Darragh Doyle and Dav Waldron to facilitate companies who wish to interact directly with the populace is a powerful step in the right direction for online interaction. In Ireland, a account becomes a bit of an Internet passport under the right circumstances (ie, with enough personal investment of time, content and relationships). For a company, it’s nearly a trial by fire to be one of the select few who have the open-minded progressiveness to last as an “official” voice there. There is a transparency of operation and agendaless, perhaps slightly revolutionary vibe from the founders of the site. There is a fierce mistrust of salespeople and “shills” which is endemic to the user culture. As far as I’m concerned, any company who understands this enough to attempt to build a bridge there is very well clued in.

I think we’ve been moving towards this for a long time now with the likes of Google, Flickr, Amazon, and other powerful new Internet brands, but trust and worth are going to become more and more of an issue as the number of people on the Internet increases, far beyond the scope of financial transactions. As the value of widespread misinformation increases, so too will the value of reliable information.

Update: Excellent related article written by Clay Shirky that I just came across via @eamonnfallon.

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  1. Posted July 22, 2009 at 11:40 am | Permalink

    Trust’s long been the problem with mainstream media as well though – ask anyone in what they thought of Prime Time’s reporting, or heck, ask anyone to compare Bill O’Reilly to Walter Cronkite and you’ll see what I mean.

    The problem isn’t really down to anonymity – Deep Throat remained anonymous to all bar three people for decades and Nixon was still forced from office. The problems are verification and overwhelming commercial pressures. The former is obvious; the latter is why Jerry Springer and Bill O’Reilly and the 24-hour news networks stay on the air. There’s always a chunk of society’s lowest common denominator looking to watch crap rather than read a book, and there’s always a news magnate waiting to feed them that crap for a fee; and the system is darwinian evolution on a short timescale, with fitness being determined by total net worth. Any news channel that tries to produce quality work, to concern themselves with a social agenda like educating and informing the populace, gets gutted in the market by Jerry Springer “interviewing” N people with .

    There are solutions, but they’re politically unsavory. In telecoms, Telecom Eireann (and later Eircom) had a social mandate as a semi-state; if you were in the rear end of nowhere and wanted a phone, you got it for the same price as a guy across the road from an exchange. Installation price differences were eaten by the company (and the state if needed). End result was Europe’s most advanced telecoms network in the mid-90s. Now that’s a social directive with an easily measurable metric; giving something similar to RTE would be difficult because it’s hard to measure how well-informed RTE are keeping a population which may not even watch it. It’s harder still because outside of theory, measuring the quality of information is not an objective process. And it’s stillborn because those who’d have to put in place such a directive would have to act against their own personal interests to do so; and it’s further choked by the actual wording of the constitution on the right to freedom of speech.

    Social media has the advantage here. It doesn’t require large capital investments, it has infrastructural costs which are zero by comparison to mainstream media, and it’s got a far wider audience from the start.

    The problem is, we don’t yet have an editing&verification layer in place. Things like the Huffington Post, peer rating systems like slashdot’s, volunteer moderation like and other systems are only preliminary sketches. The “real” layer hasn’t been invented yet. And if mainstream media is anything to go by, may never be. And it’s not just a problem for websites or news channels, it’s a social problem the entire species could do with solving…

  2. Posted July 24, 2009 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for mentioning my show, FLOSS Weekly.

    I appreciate your comments, and generally agree. I also wonder what will happen when we completely de-monetize all the “traditional media”, what will be left to comment on? It’s not like citizens on the ground would have uncovered Watergate, or accurately portrayed the horrors of Vietnam or Iraq. Paid journalists are still an essential component to inject new material into the echo chamber, and we’ll have to figure out how that gets paid in the long run.

    For FLOSS Weekly, I’m also careful to interview the newsmakers themselves, not people reporting on the news, even though I’ve received frequent requests to interview other bloggers or journalists. It doesn’t make sense for me to give my audience second-hand news, especially when so many project leaders have already offered their time to jump into my pulpit for a hour or so.

  3. Posted July 24, 2009 at 8:28 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your contributions Mark, Randal.

    I think we are, to paraphrase Clay Shirky, in the middle of a revolution not dissimilar to the one surrounding the invention of the printing press.

    Whatever the outcome for newspapers, real journalists will be required.

  4. Posted July 24, 2009 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    IMHO the production of what we think of as “news” will ultimately split into a few streams serviced in very different ways:

    1) Breaking News
    2) Daily News
    3) Editorial/Analysis

    The “breaking news” portion will be dominated by Twitter and its descendants. People will slowly adjust to the idea that the price they pay for immediacy is a lack of fact checking. Nobody will be paid to write content (except the shills of course!) so ads and other non-compulsory payment should make this possible. The 24×7 news channels are going to be hit hard once they realise that they’re essentially paying someone to read a Twitter feed on camera. This might take a while since there are still plenty of people who want to consume their breaking news via TV and radio but ultimately it’s doomed.

    The “daily news” portion will also be online but more similar to traditional media in that it will be edited, superficially fact-checked and written by people who can write well. The writers may not be experts in the field that they’re writing about, but they’ll know enough to provide sharp summaries of the news items. It will be online, ad-supported but free to view. Of all the portions, I think this middle one is going to have the hardest time. The content produced is not valuable enough to encourage people to pay money for it but the cost of production is not cheap.

    The “op-ed/analysis” portion will be available on several media and will start at the 30mins of audio or video or magazine article size. Some of it will be free to view, with the option to donate, but a lot of it will be paid-for. This portion will be the slowest but the most trustworthy.

    The traditional media outlets will need to decide where they want to gravitate to. If I were them, I’d go exclusively into the analysis end of things since they have the advantage of having a load of the writing & production talent and having a sales & marketing organisation to sell the content. They can’t beat the net on speed and they’re better suited to competing on quality grounds rather than price so they’d have a very tough time producing breaking or daily news for the budget they’d have to do it in.

    I see these categories of news fairly clearly in my own life. I use Twitter, IM and for “breaking news”. I listen to the Guardian Daily podcast every morning on my way to work for my daily summary. For the analysis end of things I’m back to, listening to podcasts like FLOSS Weekly (I’m recruiting listeners as fast as I can Randal! :)) and reading the Sunday Times. I only pay, or am willing to pay, for the third portion. It’s not that expensive either. At $5/month donation, FLOSS weekly works out at less than a euro per episode. The Sunday Times is more expensive, but not grossly so.

    The only thing I’m missing is an Irish-focused (but not the parochial stuff that too often dominates RTE News) version of what Guardian Daily provides me. If it had a small tech slant I’d be delighted. Any ideas?