Archive for the 'aggregation' Category

Speculation on Links, Traffic, and Authority

We can say this: traffic flows along links that we click. For a few years—before google—we could even say this: a link is not a link until we click it.

But now that is wrong because google made links really something else—meaningful signals, not just infrastructure. Links have a deeply important role in pagerank, the backbone of google’s mighty search engine.

Thus the giver of a link tells google that the recipient of a link is notable or significant or worth your time and attention and consideration or engagement. This is authority—on average, at the very least.

Links are signals for authority. That authority is distributed throughout the network, and given Igon values, google built a magnificent business detecting, computing, and centralizing that authority.

* * *

We are not entitled to our own understanding of facts, which take root in the universe. Thus we call facts objective. But we are entitled to our own appreciations of authority. Indeed, appreciation for authority can only take root in ourselves as individuals and groups of individuals. Thus we call authority subjective.

There are very many facts that I will never need to learn or remember. I will rely on google to detect those answers. Like just-in-time inventory, I will have answers only when I need them, when I borrow them, avoiding the mental costs of carrying them in my jammed-up memory.

Likewise, there are very many authorities that I will never need to appreciate. I will rely on google to detect those signals. But unlike facts as stored in someone else’s inventory, something changes about authority when I don’t carry it with me. Something’s lost when I borrow authority—just in time.

Google delivers facts. And facts are facts. But google doesn’t really deliver authorities. It co-opts them.

Maybe this is why Clay Shirky calls it “algorithmic authority.”

So if I were settling a bar bet, I might well say, “Yes, you can trust me. I found that claim by clicking on the top google search return.” The page on which I found the claim doesn’t enter my justification. “Dude, I googled it” might not work for very many justifications today, but Shirky’s quite right that there’s “spectrum” and that “current forces seem set to push [algorithmic authority] further up the spectrum to an increasing number and variety of groups that regard these kinds of sources as authoritative.”

The authority belongs to the algorithm that found the source, not the source itself. Traffic flows along links out to the edges of the network, but authority pulls inward to the center.

* * *

And this is why it seems unfair for folks like Jeff Jarvis to make claims like, “The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring.”

News sites should certainly be trying to establish engagement and trust and authority with users who come from google. But insisting that this task is an imperative of the link economy seems to under-appreciate that algorithmic authority centralizes authority. Google pushes the traffic but keeps the trust—or much of it, anyhow.

Maybe the best answer to “What Would Google Do?” goes something like this: build an algorithm that detects and hordes an elusive and highly diffuse resource distributed across a network.

* * *

So Danny Sullivan can jump up and down and yell about WSJ and google and bing: “Do something. Anything. Please. Survive. But there’s one thing you shouldn’t do. Blame others for sending you visitors and not figuring out how to make money off of them.”

Sullivan can exhort newspapers to see google referrals as an opportunity. And they are. Moreover, I have little doubt that many newspapers should be optimizing their pages depending on the referrer, whether that’s google or facebook or twitter or stumbleupon or whatever. But let’s also remember that google changed links. A different kind of traffic now flows along them. And that traffic is fickler—and, yes, less valuable—than we might first imagine.

Picture this! The news graphed.

slate news dotsSlate added a curious addition to its site last week. Its heart is in the right place, and this is a good experiment, not a silly one.

I believe there’s extraordinary value to be unlocked by mapping a world of articles onto the social graph that they describe textually. I’ve written about graphing the news when I awkwardly described a scheme here and geeked out over a pretty picture here. Yes, there is a funny thing about social networks: they often describe the real world as well as sometimes exist as their own worlds. Done right, Slate’s graph could be an eye-opening mechanism for aggregating, sorting, discovering, following, sharing, and discussing the news.

But I don’t think Slate has quite done it right. In short, there’s too much information in the nodes, or the “dots,” as Slate calls them, and there’s too little information in the edges, or the links that connect up those dots. So permit me a little rambling.

We don’t really care all that much about the differences between a person, a group, and company—not at this top level of navigation, anyhow. There are too many dots, and it’s too hard to keep them all the colors straight. Of course, it’s not that hard, but if Slate’s project is fueled by bold ambition rather than fleeting plaudits, it’s just not easy enough. They’re actors. They’re newsmakers. They are entities that can be said to have a unified will or agency. And that’s enough. Make up a fancy blanket term, or just call them “people” and let smart, interested users figure out the details as they dive in.

Moreover, assistant editor Chris Wilson confuses his own term “topic.” At first, he writes, “News Dots visualizes the most recent topics in the news as a giant social network.” Also, “Like a human social network, the news tends to cluster around popular topics.” In this sense, a “topic” is an emergent property of Slate’s visualization. It’s the thing that becomes apparent to the pattern-seeking, sense-making eyes of users. So “one clump of dots might relate to a flavor-of-the-week tabloid story” or “might center on Afghanistan, Iraq, and the military.”

But then Wilson makes a subtle but ultimately very confusing shift. Explaining how to use the visualization, he writes, “click on a circle to see which stories mention that topic and which other topics it connects to in the network.” Problem is, these “topics” are what he has just called “subjects.” As emergent things, or “clumps,” his original “topics” can’t be clicked on. On the contrary, “subjects—represented by the circles below—are connected to one another,” and they’re what’s clickable.

To make matters worse, Wilson then, below the visualization, introduces more confusing terms, as he describes the role played by Open Calais (which is awesome). It “automatically ‘tags’ content with all the important keywords: people, places, companies, topics, and so forth.” The folks at Thomson Reuters didn’t invent the term “tag,” of course; it’s a long-standing if slippery term that I’m not even going to try to explain (because it really, really is just one of cases in which “the meaning of the word presupposes our ability to use it”). At any rate, Wilson seems like he’s using it because Open Calais uses it. That’s fine, but a bit more clarity would be nice, given the soup of terms already around. And there’s really little excuse for dropping in the term “keywords” because, with his technical hat on, it’s just wrong.

I’m terribly sorry to drag you, dear reader, through that intensely boring mud puddle of terminology. But it’s for good reason, I think. Graphing the news is supposed to be intuitive. The human mind just gets it. A picture is worth a thousand words. Taken seriously, that notion is powerful. At a very optimistic level, it encourages us to let visualizations speak for themselves, stripped of language all too ready to mediate them. But at a basic level, it warns us writers not to trample all over information expressed graphically with thousand textual words that add up to very little—or, worse, confusion.

But, yes, okay, about those prenominate the edges, or the links that connect up those dots! I wrote about this long ago, and my intuition tells me that it doesn’t make sense to leave edges without their own substance. They need to express more than similarity; they can do more than connect like things. If they were to express ideas or events or locations while the nodes expressed topics, it seems to me that the picture would be much more powerful. Those ideas, events, or locations wouldn’t sit in light blue “Other” nodes, as Slate has them; instead they would directly link up the people and organizations. The social network would be more richly expressed. And topics, in Wilson’s original sense, wouldn’t be emergent “clumps” but actually obvious connections.

All in all, the visualization is “depressingly static,” as a friend of mine remarked. There may be two levels of zoom, but there’s no diving. There’s no surfing, no seeing a list of stories that relate to both topic x AND topic y. There’s no navigation, no browsing. There’s no search—and especially none involving interaction between the human and computer. There’s no news judgment beyond what newspaper editors originally add. And the corpus is small—tiny, really, representing only 500 articles each day, which isn’t so far from being a human-scale challenge. Visualizations hold the most promise for helping us grapple with truly internet-scale data sets—not 500 news articles a day but 500,000 news articles and blog posts.

It seems unfair to hold Slate to such a high standard, though. It’s very clear that they were shooting for something much more modest. All the same, maybe modesty isn’t what’s called for.

Not by Links Alone

At this unthinkably late hour, many of even the most recalcitrant journalists and newsy curmudgeons have given themselves over, painfully, to the fundamentally important fact that the economics of abundance now govern their world.

For many, of course, stemming that tide is still paramount. Their goal, as David Carr writes, is to squelch the “new competition for ads and minds.” Thus Walter Isaacson’s “E-ZPass digital wallet” and Alan Mutter’s “Original Sin.” Thus Michael Moran’s obnoxious “NOPEC.” Thus Journalism Online. And, of course, thus we have David Simon’s recent call for Congress to “consider relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions” or this call in the Washington Post to rework fair use. I wish them all good luck, but mostly good night.

There are others, though, who think it’s great that the Internet and Google are opening up the news to competition. In fact, “Google is good” strikes me as nearly orthodox among the basically Internet-savvy set of news talkers. Marissa Mayer crows about how Google delivers newspapers’ Web sites one billion clicks a month, and Arianna Huffington insists that the future of news is to be found in a “linked economy” and “search engines” like Google.

In this narrative, Google’s the great leveler, ushering the world of journalism out of the dark, dank ages of monopoly and into the light, bright days of competition, where all news articles and blog posts stand on their own pagerank before the multitude of users who judge with their links and their clicks. Its ablest defender is probably Jeff Jarvis, author of What Would Google Do? Jarvis was relatively early in pointing out that “Google commodifies the world’s content by making it all available on a level playing field in its search.” In that and other posts at Buzz Machine, his widely read blog, Jarvis allows that Google “can make life difficult” but insists, “that’s not Google’s fault.” The reverence for Google is thick: “The smart guys are hiring search-engine optimization experts and trying to figure out how to get more people to their stuff thanks to Google.”

But defenders of Google’s influence on the broader market for news and newspapers themselves make a striking error in believing that the market for content is competitive. That belief is wrong—not just a little bit or on the margin, but fundamentally, and importantly, wrong.

Which is not to say that news publishers aren’t competing for readers’ eyeballs and attention. Publishers compete with one another all day long, every day—with some local exceptions, the news has always been competitive like a race, and is now more competitive like a market than ever before. But the market for that news—the place where consumers decide what to read, paying with their attention—is not competitive. Google may well be the great leveler, but down to how low a field?

To be very clear, this is far from a neo-classical purist’s critique that picks nits by abusing uselessly theoretical definitions. I am not a purist, an economist, or a jerk. This is reality, as best as I know it. Nevertheless, to say that the market for content is competitive is just to misunderstand what a competitive market actually entails. The market for news content as it currently stands, with Google in the middle, is a profoundly blurry, deeply uncompetitive space.

*    *    *

“The difficulty of distinguishing good quality from bad is inherent in the business world,” Nobel laureate George Akerlof wrote in the kicker of his most famous paper, published in 1970. “This may indeed explain many economic institutions and may in fact be one of the more important aspects of uncertainty.”

Akerlof fired an early shot in a scholarly marathon to study the effects of asymmetric information in markets. What do parties to a potential transaction do when they know different sets of facts? Maybe that seems like an obvious question, but economists in the middle of the twentieth century had been pretty busy worrying about perfecting complicated models despite their grossly simplistic assumptions.

So Akerlof set about to write about how markets can fail when some of those assumptions turn out to be bunk. The assumption he tested first, in “The Market for ‘Lemons,'” was certainty, and he showed that when sellers know more about the goods being sold than the buyers do, sellers abuse their privileged position and buyers leave the market.

Writing in the same year, the economist Phillip Nelson studied the differences between what he called “search goods” and “experience goods.” Search goods and experience goods express a certain kind of asymmetry. For search goods, consumers can overcome the asymmetry before the point of purchase by doing their homework, while for experience goods, consumers must take their time and invest.

A pair of pants, for instance, is a search good—you can try before you buy, and shop around for the pants that fit you best. An apple, on the other hand, is an experience good—you don’t know whether you’ll like one until you consume it, and you can’t really try before you buy.

News articles are experience goods. Just as with an apple, you need to consume the story, reading the article or watching the video or so on, in order to judge its quality. “Stories can vary in length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus,” writes economist James Hamilton in All the News That’s Fit to Sell. “For a given day’s events, widely divergent news products are offered to answer the questions of who, what, where, when, and why.” We can’t know which one’s best till we’ve read them all, and who’s got time for that?

Moreover, a multitude of subjective editorial decisions produce the news. Each reporter’s practices and habits influence what’s news and what’s not. Their learned methods, their assigned beats, and even their inverted pyramids shape what we read and how. Reporters’ and editors’ tastes, their histories, or their cultures matter, as do their professional ethics. Each article of news is a nuanced human document—situated aesthetically, historically, culturally, and ethically.

Ultimately, the news is afflicted with the problem of being an experience good more than even apples are. At least Granny Smiths don’t vary wildly from farmer to farmer or from produce bin to produce bin. Sure, some may be organic, while others are conventional. One may be tarter or crispier than another, but tremendous differences from the mean are very unlikely. With the news, though, it’s hard even to think of what the mean might be. It may seem obvious, but articles, essays, and reports are complex products of complex writerly psychologies.

For a long time, however, as readers, we were unaware of these nuances of production. That was, in some sense, the upshot: our experience of this journalism was relatively uncomplicated. This profound lack of context mattered much less.

Call it the myth of objectivity maybe, but what NYU professor Jay Rosen has labeled the “mask of professional distance” meant that we didn’t have much of a chance to bother with a whole world complexities. Because everyone usually wore a mask, and because everyone’s masked looked about the same, we ignored—indeed, we were largely necessarily ignorant of—all the unique faces.

For a long time, therefore, the orthodox goal of American newspapers virtually everywhere was news that really wasn’t an experience good. When news existed only on paper, it hardly mattered what news was, because we had so few seemingly monochrome choices about what to read. We returned to the same newspapers and reporters behind the same masks over and over again, and through that repetition, we came subtly to understand the meaning and implications of their limited degrees of “length, accuracy, style of presentation, and focus.”

As a result, we often grew to love our newspaper—or to love to hate it. But even if we didn’t like our newspaper, it was ours, and we accepted it, surrendering our affection either way, even begrudgingly. The world of news was just much simpler, a more homogeneous, predictable place—there were fewer thorny questions, fewer observable choices. There was less risk by design. Our news was simpler, or it seemed to be, and we had little choice but to become familiar with it anyhow. One benefit of the View from Nowhere, after all, is that basically everyone adopted it—that it basically became a standard, reducing risk.

But a funny thing happened in this cloistered world. Because it seemed only natural, we didn’t realize the accidental nature of the understanding and affection between readers and their newspapers. If, as the economists would have it, the cost of a thing is what we’ve sacrificed in order to achieve it, then our understanding and affection were free. We gave nothing up for them—for there was scarcely another alternative. As a result, both readers and publishers took those things for granted. This point is important because publishers are still taking those things for granted, assuming that all people of good faith still appreciate and love all the good things that a newspaper puts on offer.

*    *    *

But when our informational options explode, we can plainly, and sometimes painfully, see that our newspapers aren’t everything. Different newspapers are better at answering different questions, and some answers—some as simple as what we should talk about at work tomorrow—don’t come from newspapers at all. So we go hunting on the Internet. So we gather. So we Google.

We have now spent about a decade Googling. We have spent years indulging in information, and they have been wonderful years. We are overawed by our ability to answer questions online. Wikipedia has helped immensely in our efforts to answer those questions, but pagerank elevated even it. Newspapers compose just one kind of Web site to have plunged into the scrum of search engine optimization. Everyone’s hungry for links and clicks.

And Google represents the Internet at large for two reasons. For one, the engine largely structures our experience of the overall vehicle. More importantly, though, Google’s organization of the Internet changes the Internet itself. The Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization estimates, in this PDF report, that North American spending on organic SEO in 2008 was about $1.5 billion. But that number is surely just the tip of the iceberg. Google wields massive power over the shape and structure of the Internet’s general landscape of Web pages, Web applications, and the links among them. Virtually no one builds even a semi-serious Web site without considering whether it will be indexed optimally. For journalism, most of the time, the effects are either irrelevant or benign.

But think about Marissa Mayer’s Senate testimony about the “living story.” Newspaper Web sites, she said, “frequently publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with identical or closely related content.” Because those similar pages share links from around the Web, neither one has the pagerank that a single one would have. Mayer would have news Web sites structure their content more like Wikipedia: “Consider how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity.”

Setting aside for the moment whatever merits Mayer’s idea might have, imagine the broader implications. She’s encouraging newspapers to change not just their marketing or distribution strategies but their journalism because Google doesn’t have an algorithm smart enough to determine that they should share the “authoritativeness.”

At Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall’s style of following a story over a string of blog posts, poking and prodding an issue from multiple angles, publishing those posts in a stream, and letting the story grow incrementally, cumulatively might be disadvantaged because those posts are, naturally, found at different URLs. His posts would compete for pagerank.

And maybe it would be better for journalism if bloggers adopted the “living story” model of reporting. Maybe journalism schools should start teaching it. Or maybe not—maybe there is something important about what the structure of content means for context. The point here isn’t to offer substantive answer to this question, but rather to point out that Mayer seems unaware of the question in the first place. It’s natural that Mayer would think that what’s good for Google is good for Internet users at large. For most domestic Internet users, after all, Google, which serves about two-thirds of all searches, essentially is their homepage for news.

But most news articles, of course, simply aren’t like entries in an encyclopedia. An article of news—in both senses of the term—is substantially deeper than the facts it contains. An article of news, a human document, means substantially more to us than its literal words—or the pageranked bag of words that Google more or less regards it as.

Google can shine no small amount of light on whether we want to read an article of news. And, importantly, Google’s great at telling you when others have found an article of news to be valuable. But the tastes of anonymous crowds—of everyone—are not terribly good at determining whether we want to read some particular article of news, particularly situated, among all the very many alternatives, each particularly situated unto itself.

Maybe it all comes down to a battle between whether Google encourages “hit-and-run” visits or “qualified leads.” I don’t doubt that searchers from Google often stick around after they alight on a page. But I doubt they stick around sufficiently often. In that sense, I think Daniel Tunkelang is precisely correct: “Google’s approach to content aggregation and search encourages people to see news…through a very narrow lens in which it’s hard to tell things apart. The result is ultimately self-fulfilling: it becomes more important to publications to invest in search engine optimization than to create more valuable content.”

*    *    *

The future-of-news doomsayers are so often wrong. A lot of what they said at Kerry’s hearing was wrong. It’s woefully wrongheaded to call Google parasitic simply because it the Internet without it would be a distinctly worse place. There would be, I suspect, seriously fewer net pageviews for news. And so it’s easy to think that they’re wrong about everything—because it seems that they fundamentally misunderstand the Internet.

But they don’t hold a monopoly on misunderstanding. “When Google News lists one of ours stories in a prominent position,” writes Henry Blodget, “we don’t wail and moan about those sleazy thieves at Google. We shout, ‘Yeah, baby,’ and start high-fiving all around.” To Blodget, “Google is advertising our stories for free.”

But life is about alternatives. There’s what is, and there’s what could be. And sometimes what could be is better than what is—sometimes realistically so. So however misguided some news executives may have been or may still be about their paywalls and buyouts, they also sense that Google’s approach to the Web can’t reproduce the important connection the news once had with readers. Google just doesn’t fit layered, subtle, multi-dimensional products—experience goods—like articles of serious journalism. Because news is an experience good, we need really good recommendations about whether we’re going to enjoy it. And the Google-centered link economy just won’t do. It doesn’t add quite enough value. We need to know more about the news before we sink our time into reading it than pagerank can tell us. We need the news organized not by links alone.

What we need is a search experience that let’s us discover the news in ways that fit why we actually care about it. We need a search experience built around concretely identifiable sources and writers. We need a search experience built around our friends and, lest we dwell too snugly in our own comfort zones, other expert readers we trust. These are all people—and their reputations or degrees of authority matter to us in much the same ways.

We need a search experience built around beats and topics that are concrete—not hierarchical, but miscellaneous and semantically well defined. We need a search experience built around dates, events, and locations. We need a search experience that’s multi-faceted and persistent, a stream of news. Ultimately, we need a powerful, flexible search experience that merges automatization and human judgment—that is sensitive to the very particular and personal reasons we care about news in the first place.

The people at Senator Kerry’s hearing last week seemed either to want to dam the river and let nothing through or to whip its flow up into a tidal wave. But the real problem is that they’re both talking about the wrong river. News has changed its course, to be sure, so in most cases, dams are moot at best. At the same time, though, chasing links and clicks, with everyone pouring scarce resources into an arms race of pagerank while aggregators direct traffic and skim a few page views, isn’t sufficiently imaginative either.

UPDATE: This post originally slipped out the door before it was fully dressed. Embarrassing, yes. My apologies to those who read the original draft of this thing and were frustrated by the unfinished sentences and goofy notes to self, and my thanks to those who read it all it the same.

Thinking the Unthinkable Parable of the Future of News

Most of us humans profoundly exaggerate the powers of our imagination. Indeed, I submit that we’re out-and-out horrible at imagining possible worlds even modestly different from our own.

Ask yourself, “Seriously, what would the world be like had John McCain been elected president of the United States?” If you’re American, your answer is not at all easy to come by. You’ve got a whole host of possibilities and their possible ramifications to think about.

In some ways, the country would be a very different place. For one, many of those who were thrilled at Obama’s election would be depressed, while many of the rest would be elated. All kinds of conversations between friends and colleagues would be dramatically different—and not only those about politics. Of course, all manner of domestic policy would be different, as would international politics.

But in other ways, the country would be nearly identical. We’d still have an credit crisis generally. We’d still drive on the right-hand side of the road. We’d very likely still have fifty states. We would still be Christians, Jews, Quakers, Muslims, and atheists in roughly the same number.

We’d still have a mostly temperate climate, with cities, towns, and rural communities scattered throughout. We’d still have a basically functional economy, with poor, middling, wealthy, and super-wealthy folks for whom it works unevenly. Our taxes might be somewhat higher or lower, but we’d still have a populace that generally believes in paying its taxes. I’m risking a good flaming, but I submit that, in our hypothetical John McCain America, the rule of law would basically still prevail.

Up would still be up, and down would still be down. We’d still have hipsters. Red would still be a different color from blue. Time would still march forward, not backward. It would still make no sense to hear your pal assert, “It is the case that A and not-A.” And so on. Some things never change. Or they seem not to, anyway.

*    *    *

It’s kind of like DNA. We humans are radically different from one another. We’re tall and short, weak and strong, bright and dull. We’re creative and analytic, fast and slow. I’m quite I certain I can do little justice to the bewildering diversity among us.

And yet we share some overwhelming percentage of DNA. We all, generally, have brains, lungs, and bones. We eat and sleep. Even the dullards among us laugh from time to time, privately. We all, generally, recoil at morbidity and fear pain. Exceptions tend to prove the rule here, to the extent that we consider someone who never laughs alien and someone who doesn’t flinch at the prospect of death superhuman.

Now consider yourself: you. Changing around your DNA within the tiny fraction that makes you unique—i.e., that you don’t share with other humans—is akin to America electing John McCain. You’d pretty much be a different country—maybe better, maybe worse, depending on your views and whether they’re wrong—but at least you’re still here on earth. At least you’d still have a circulatory system and a central nervous system. You’ve got a home. You have friends, if you’re nice, though they’re probably different friends. You still have or had parents. If you were born here, you speak some dialect of English, though you may say “pop” instead of “soda.” You might not be as attractive or witty, but you know what beauty is and you have some grasp on the levity of brevity. If you’re the right age and able-bodied, you’ve got a job. In short, your hypothetical life is very different, but it’s still roughly normal. Because these changes are relatively modest, they’re said to the stuff of close possible worlds.

Mucking around with the rest of the DNA that you do share with others is like imagining the Soviets won the Cold War or like imagining cold fusion were perfected years ago. It might be good or bad—utopian, dystopian, something odd in between, or something wildly outlandish—but, most importantly, it’s very likely simply radically different. It’s tough to imagine possible worlds like this. Not only would you pretty much be a different country, as above, but it’s not even clear that you would still be on earth—or on an earth in a form anything like what actually prevails today.

Your whole biological nature could be different—no blood, bones, no brain. You might not be carbon-based. You might be part of hive-mind. All manner of good and bad science fictional possibilities abound. Because these changes are severe, they’re said to the stuff of distant possible worlds.

* * *

Since it’s very hard to imagine such far-out possible worlds, good storytellers have developed rhetorical devices to help us broaden our view. They put us in the mood, push us toward an open mind, offer us the widest frame.

We need the widest frame in order to think about the future of news. Recently, @cshirky and @jayrosen_nyu have offered us just that.

Shirky asks us, more than mildly paradoxically, to consider an unthinkable scenario. At first, he puts his scenario on offer as a hypothetical possible world, someone else’s nightmare, suggesting just that we peer into its void as they do, vicariously.

“As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. … In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.”

Oh, and what might that nightmare look like to them? What possibilities do they see? Well—still in the mind’s eye of newspaper executives—it “unfolded something like this….”

Then Shirky warns us about being closed-minded. “Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception,” he writes. When Soviets win the Cold War or when you wake up in the Matrix, the world is sharply different, and concocting explanations about how it’s actually the same doesn’t work. “When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry.”

Only then, after hundreds of words of set-up, do we get the punch: “One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.” Your world is going away.

Shirky takes a stroll through some history, pointing out a previous occasion when the future broke from the past, and comes back with devastation. “When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. … They are demanding to be lied to.”

Then, ultimately, we get the distinction here. These newspaper folks know something’s got to give, but they’re still only willing to imagine close possible worlds. They can handle John McCain. They can handle being taller or shorter, leaner or fatter.

From the perspective of industrial newspapering—in which “the core problem publishing solves” is “the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public”—the internet might as well be Jupiter. It is a distant possible world.

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. “

* * *

Imagine a world, if you feel sufficiently creative, without newspapers. And imagine a world without newspaper companies—or with companies whose DNA used to be newspapers but is now seriously different. Still, though, imagine that world needs journalism nevertheless.

In other words, imagine a world that is distant but not so very, very distant that we don’t need journalism. That makes our creative job easier. In fact, Jay Rosen reminds us that not all is lost. He intends to give us a head start in imagining exactly this possible world—in which newspapers are out but journalism is still very, very in.

Whereas Shirky jerks and drags our imaginations to think the unthinkable, Rosen encourages us to look inward, contemplatively, offering simple parable of a fishing village. He does it with @davewiner in a podcast the two have come lately to recording on Sunday, and it’s worth taking in as a whole:

I like to try to understand things at their origins. When I think about news and the collection of news, I try to go back and imagine the conditions in human affairs and human settlements that cause people to need news that is collected by somebody, as an occupation.

If you think about a small fishing village, with several hundred people, around a harbor, there’s news every day. But it is communicated naturally, as it were. That is, people going about their day will find out when a new ship is in, and at the end of the day, they’ll know what’s happened in that town. There doesn’t have to be an articulated social function of news gatherer because people do it themselves.

If you imagine that town expanding in its social scale so that it’s not just a fishing village anymore, but a big metropolis, you realize that, at a certain point, the only way you can have news about your own environment—not a distant land, but your own environment—is if somebody actually collects it. The need for news is intimately related to the scale on which we live. As we live on a bigger and bigger scale—not just metropolitan but a national and global scale—our needs for news grow because we are not self-informing.

But, if tools of awareness grow, like we had when we were a fishing village, then the idea of the self-informing public, which was operable at a certain scale, is perhaps operable again. And so if you understand news not as an industrial product or the handiwork of a profession, but as intimately related to human settlement and the social scale people live on, we’ll be able to navigate better in the future of news.

When they gave birth to the United States, a huge experiment in scale, they imagined that part of the reason that you could have a voted-in government over a territory stretching from New England to Georgia was the press, which gave us ways of connecting. So when we try to reboot news, don’t think about rebooting the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Go back to the origins of why people need news in the first place and your own experience with news hunger.

Yes, go back to your own personal news hunger. Skirky admirably yanks our imaginations out of their slumber. That’s the real merit of his piece. Now, however, think not of the more or less terrifying abyss Shirky points at, yelling, “Wake up!” Instead, for now, consider yourself and your community. Consider that we are just groups of people, overlapping social circles composing different human settlements, conducting our own affairs. Consider that we always live on some scale. Sometimes it’s big, as now. Other times it’s small, as it was long ago, and as it is in Rosen’s parable.

And remember that the scale on which we live matters relative to our everyday “tools of awareness.” Better tools mean a self-informing public at larger scale.

* * *

Consider that sources, authors, and readers are all people. Consider that the internet gives us tools so that one person might be all three. When Winer says, “Sources go direct,” he’s pointing out that one person can be both the source and the author of a story. But we’re readers and authors simultaneously too.

Consider that people are busy, that our time is scarce. We make decisions about allocating our attention on the margin. In a fishing village, we’d love it if all our friends could find a central place to gather in order to swap stories at the same time, efficiently. All our friends, yes, but probably not all our fellow villagers, some of whom we don’t like or don’t trust. In other words, we like to aggregate our news, but mostly among our friends and trusted experts.

Consider that people like hearing the news from their friends or from experts whose judgment they trust on particular matters. We like to trust the news and want to be engaged with their storyteller to cultivate that trust. To the extent that we can only get a piece of news from a fellow villager we dislike, we appreciate it when a trusted friend verifies the facts or shores up the analysis. So, too, do our friends appreciate it when we return the favor.

Consider that social relationships are sometimes one-way. We often have less time for others than they have for us. This is especially the case for widely trusted experts on particular matters. This is the general asymmetrical social stuff of celebrity, which is surely an archaic notion, inherent in even the simplest of villages. As society scales, moreover, consider the natural—or, potentially, the morally optimal—distribution of those asymmetries of attention.

Consider that people like the news new. We want to hear what’s happening now, not what happened last week or yesterday or an hour ago. But we also want our facts to be true and our analysis to be sound, so we’re willing to wait for real verification and for wise interpretation. We’re imperfect, though, so sometimes excess haste or caution will blind us to better priorities.

Consider that we mostly don’t really care whether we get our news as a written note or as a verbalized recounting. We care about the topics and events the story discusses. We care about the people, businesses, and other organizations it mentions&mdas;the “newsmakers,” as it were. Politics exists even in modest fishing villages, and we care about the political persuasions of our storytellers. That knowledge helps us bring the appropriate level of trust to our use of their story.

Consider that people are social. We like to gossip about trite matters, and we like to debate serious affairs. We like to consume the news, sure, but we also like to spread it around and add our own perspective. We also like to use the news as a medium for our wills—as a kind of substratum for own meaning. We like to be heard, respected, admired, and loved. We also like to be paid.

Consider all of this and more. Consider how distant the relevant possible worlds may be, and then consider all of them in that sphere. Consider the Cluetrain too. Consider that people, governments, and corporations will always be able to profit from secrecy. Even if we come to demand, and even very naturally expect, transparency as a broad ethical matter, powerful operators will have an incentive to fake it. That seems true even of modest fishing villages, in which a tribal or quasi-political elder may benefit from offering false reasons for important decisions. Consider that people spreading the news about powerful operators make friends with them in so doing. There’s potentially less baked-in profit motive.

Consider that information is an experience good. Consider that it’s a public good. Consider (again) that news is non-durable. Consider that one person’s report of a story has very close substitutes in others’ reports on the same story or nearly equally interesting stories.

Some things change. And some things stay the same the more everything else changes around them. So, most of all, consider dropping the fabulist notion that the future will look very much like the past. The time has gone when we can offer arguments aimed at the future but grounded in the present and the part. Aside from what we share with distant worlds—including my considerations above—the tastes, habits, patterns of readers, journalists, and newspaper companies are moot. Your world is departing, and a fishing village is arriving.

Insanely Great Startup Idea

If Digg distributed its comment threads to the blog posts themselves, that would be awesome. But if Digg also distributed the ability to do the digging to the posts themselves, that would be killer.

Digg is awesome. Disqus and other commenting services are awesome. Digg and Disqus would be awesome as one.

Those two feature sets are a match made in blogging heaven.

Want to race to see who makes this happen first, me or you?

A Modest News Aggregator for the Win

To the extent that sites or services that present professional and amateur content together emerge and become successful, they will do so only after they figure out a way to give users simple, intuitive, and powerful filters that are themselves the channels that carry our conversation and shape our communities.

We will tolerate only the writing we love. Discovering what we love is a job to distribute across very large groups of users with weak ties and small groups of users with strong ties, all empowered by tools far more subtle than those that characterize current state of search. We will act mostly self-interestedly, choosing by facets, sifting, sorting, sharing, appropriating, connected to one another asymmetrically, mostly pulling not pushing, trusting when trustful. We will participate in a gift economy. Reputation will count. Attention is scarce. Something like tunkrank will help, I’m sure.

The nodes are people because people and other actors are central to what it means to be human regardless of whether we’re reading the news, writing the news, starring in it, or all of the above. The edges are the ideas that capture our common interest over time, location, and predilection. It is beautiful, Doc.

In the news, is context possible?

As I’ve claimed before, a sure-fire way to think about the future of news is to think about the fundamentals. I discussed at some length how a more trusting relationship between creators and users can unlock serious value. (Thanks for the promotion, @jayrosen_nyu!)

Matt Thompson writes brilliantly about news and understanding. (See here too.) When we read the news, are we looking for understanding broader than the set of facts and overlaid analysis contained in a traditional article?

My sense is that the answer is something like, “Of course we are!”

“A focus on delivering context means that the news is never the endpoint,” he writes. “The trail of a story doesn’t end with the passage of a bill or the resignation of an official. It doesn’t end at all. It merely connects with more and more dots that form an ever-clearer picture of a better society.”

To some extent, this kind of context can be naively delivered through topic pages, which seem to me to be little more than a cluster of dots only faintly connected when what we’re looking for is a colorful picture.

One alternative is a kind of broad summary of the issue, place, person, company, etc. I’m still not certain whether newspapers are the best economic, social, and cultural structures in which to locate that job. Of course, the obvious point of comparison or target is the Great, Awesome, and Meritorious wikipedia. No sitting duck, that.

For one, there may be severe duplication of effort for any topic that’s not local. There’s only one wikipedia.

For two, it’s not clear that paying writers (per unit of time or per unit of understanding, as knol would do) will generate better results than not paying—for worries around gaming, spam, and other potentially perverse incentives we can’t even predict. That’s one catch about “understanding” as an end: it’s potentially so high-minded (in a good way) that the market, even buttressed by genuinely high-minded journalistic ideas, may not provide a great solution. That’s not to say that we humans are only competitive, adversarial, and conniving when the coin of the realm is in fact money. We also strive for status and influence, but they don’t seem to conflict with veritas as blatantly.

A virtue of one-off articles is that they’re relatively easy to verify. You can check the facts, for instance. And, as an editor or reader, your worry that the author is being appropriately focused or wide-rangingly ambitious is easier to allay because it’s easier to compare versus a necessarily narrower slice of reality. Likewise for your worry that the author is bring appropriately stingy with or indulgent of sources in pursuit of balance.

I’m not pretending to offer any solutions here. I just want to point out that there’s a reason journalism’s basic unit of information started as the article. Time-discrete units of information usually created by single authors are radically simpler things than infinitely relevant units of understanding created by teams.

News Is A Medium. It Carries Our Conversation

Too true, via Clay Shirky:

We’re not just readers anymore, or listeners or viewers. We’re not customers and we’re certainly not consumers. We’re users. We don’t consume content, we use it, and mostly what we use it for is to support our conversations with one another, because we’re media outlets now too.

News outfits need to redesign their information architecture so that it carries our conversation. I’m very much in like with that image—of “carrying conversation.”

What carries our conversation is not the article. In fact, the article is about the worst unit of information for carrying a conversation. What we really want to talk about are attributes of the article. This has always been so. After we read an article about football game, for instance, we talk about the players, coaches, and teams first of all. We talk about the people. We also talk about particular plays and drives or the game as a whole. Or we talk about controversies. The proposition may seem dull, boring, and utterly obvious, but we rarely talk about the article itself. Instead, we talk about the newsmakers in the articles, the topics that characterize them, the locations and events they discuss, the political ideologies they convey, the storylines that contain them, or the authors that write them.

This is, I believe, why stand-alone newspaper sites won’t work unless there’s some underlying universally integrated and federated architecture that can carry the conversation. Individual news outlets will not be able contain the conversation to their independent websites. That explains part of twitter’s runaway success: its asymmetric architecture of following carries the conversation well. Absent that federated architecture—parts of which OpenSocial, Facebook Connect, Disqus, and others are attempting—the future of news will come to be housed under the roof of a some small number of big aggregators. And their architecture—it “elegant architecture“—will fit the conversation, the re-use and re-purposing of authors’ ideas for our own public and private reasons.

News Is an Experiential Good; Or, Why it’s not like buying a pair of pants

When you buy a pair of pants, you try them on first. You want to make sure they fit. So clothing stores give up scarce retail space to enclose little spaces that are no good for displaying their trendy threads. They’re called dressing rooms, of course. If there were a store that rejected the idea that we should be able to try on our pants before we buy them, we’d reject the store. We’d protest that we’re worried about wasting our money on pants that we don’t like, and we’d threaten to go elsewhere. “Sizes and cuts and feels are too hard to predict,” we’d complain. “I really like your Sevens, but I’m not sure I’ll love them. What if I my hips are too big?”

One really seriously unfortunate fact about the news is you can’t very well try on an article before you read it. Sure, you can read the teaser, the first paragraph, or the pull quotes. Maybe there’s a cute sidebar or attractive graphics with catchy captions. But you don’t really know whether you and the article will make a great match till after you’ve already read the thing.

This is an age-old case study in brands. That’s why every issue of the New Yorker or the Economist or Cosmo or Men’s Health or Maximall seem vaguely, surreally the same, issue after issue, cover after cover, or cartoon after cartoon. High brow or low—the economics are the same. It’s their way of informing their reader that reading the last issue is a little bit like trying the new issue on for size. If you liked our work before, you’ll like it again. It’s different, but it’s really the same.

That’s one reason why Steve Brill’s “secret plan to save the New York Times and journalism itself” is flawed. I don’t have the resources to offer a top-to-bottom critique, so I’ll focus on one point. One the one hand, “All online articles will cost 10 cents each to read in full, with simple, one-step purchases powered by an I-Tunes-like Journalism infrastructure.” And on the other, “There would be a five cent charge to forward an article to someone else. Paying customers would get a license to do that” when they set up their accounts.

If the pants analogy suggests that it’s hard to charge for content before the consumer experiences it, what does it say about paying for it after? That’s essentially what this recommendation feature would be, after all. And I think it’s far from obviously crazy.

Maybe many people would be willing to pay five cents to forward the full text of an article to a pal. But it’s important to remember that what you’re doing when you recommend an article to a buddy. You’re trying it on, testing it out. You’re decreasing your pal’s risk that he’ll read the article and conclude he wasted his time. In short, you’re adding value, helping both the publisher and presumably your pal too.

This is of course ultimately why people are so hot to trot about linking, curating, aggregating, filtering, etc. It’s the economics of attention in a world of blooming, buzzing, atomized media. (UPDATE: It’s “superdistribution.”) So it would be awesome if a newspaper could get people to pay in order to add value to their content. But to the extent that charging for the ability to make recommendations will actually disincentivize them from adding that value, there’s an important bit of cost-benefit analysis to do.

Of course, people could still recommend the article without paying the five-cent fee, leaving their pals to sign up and pay ten cents if they’re not already customers, but I wonder whether that wouldn’t turn out to seem just rude in light of the fact that you and your pal probably have basically the same purchasing power with respect to five- or ten-cent articles.

Finally, I’ll repeat that this is why I’m so bullish on the proposition that journalists need to find in-demand scarce goods and services whose value is relatively easily quantified before the point of purchase. This is what I was thinking about in my recent post “Freemium News,” which was itself a reaction to Mitch Ratcliffe’s excellent thoughts on “the economics of great journalism.” My sense is that forwarding articles for free might be the kind of discrete, non-experiential feature for which someone might be willing to pay a flat upfront fee.

Getting in metadata game: Oh, money, that’s why!

Who’s mentioned in your article? What organizations does it talk about? Or what zip codes?

Answering these simple questions—in ways notoriously inflexible computers understand—can be like putting handles on your articles. It means aggregators and filterers like EveryBlock can grab on and give readers one more way to find what you have to say.

That’s what the New York Times is doing—in two stages, it appears. First its librarians encode the elected officials mentioned in its articles; mentioning them in the regular text of the article doesn’t cut it. Then its newly built web service, called Represent, figures out the geographic locations those officials represent. Meanwhile, Represent is also taking a computerized look at Congressional votes. When a politician votes, Represent says something like, “Oh, a person just voted in geographic area Y, and that person’s name is X.”

EveryBlock isn’t built for understanding much about people or names, but it is built for understanding locations and geographic areas. So Represent’s job is to translate from X to Y—from names to places.

Which brings us at long last to the metadata game. The historical problem is the way you have to answer these questions has been interminably dull and technical. So the historical result has been one big shoulder shrug: “Why bother?”

Well, people like Adrian Holovaty are starting to envision on answer “We have a number of ideas for sustaining our project,” he writes, “like building a local advertising engine.” That kind of engine might share ad revenue with the newspapers whose articles it incorporates. In order to claim a share, each newspaper must diligently prepare its articles for EveryBlock: there much be location handles that EveryBlock can grab. It’s highly unclear how much money EveryBlock’s hyperlocal ad targeting could generate, but if it’s enough, it will provide the kind of incentive publishers need to make boring metadata worth their while. EveryBlock might just unlock the ‘R’ in ROI. That could very well be a great reason to bother.

Epilogue    It’s notable that grant monies have helped solve this chicken-and-egg problem. I may have personal issues with the Knight News Challenge—I didn’t win and didn’t receive feedback promised on multiple occasions—but EveryBlock is quite justifiably the darling of the news innovation set.


Josh Young's Facebook profile

What I’m thinking

Error: Twitter did not respond. Please wait a few minutes and refresh this page.

What I'm saving.

RSS What I’m reading.

  • An error has occurred; the feed is probably down. Try again later.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.