Archive for the 'Clay Shirky' 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.

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.

When the Future Is Unlike the Past

First, pick an arbitrary point in time. Pick a year, any year A.D. up till your birthday or when you were twelve—this is your year. If you can, conjure up some idealized image of your year in your mind’s eye—nothing terribly analytic for now, just something holistic.

via kottke.org

via kottke.org

Second, pick a year in time a few years back from your year, and pick a year a few years forward from your year. And, if you would, conjure up the same kind of images for these two years. Again, these need not be exacting—think of them as blurry, semi-liminal collection of facts and themes and truths and so on. You don’t need to memorize all the details of the goat, in other words—just some vague but substantive handle on it.

Third, get ready to perform some mildly unusual comparisons—not impossible, just a little strange, a little odd, but highly interesting, I promise. Try to imagine the difference between your year and the year a few years back. And while you’re at it, try to imagine the difference between your year and the year a few years forward too.

It’s a funny thing to try to imagine differences in the world over time. But that’s why we’re starting with this pretty easy exercise. It’s pretty easy to imagine the differences between things that are pretty similar—whether those things are different kinds of four-legged mammalian farm animals or different states of the world a few years apart.

Still, it may not be obvious to you what the differences are (1) between the world in your year and the world a few years before that or (2) between the world in your year and the world a few years after that. Given that you only care about the holistic view, you might be tempted to conclude that there are no substantive differences looking forward or backward. That’s fine—maybe there aren’t any.

But if there are differences within (1) or within (2), you should then be able to compare those differences themselves. Think of it this way. I grew up in Madison, Wis., which is about two hours from Chicago, Ill. Thus one difference between Madison and Chicago is location, and we can measure that difference in distance quantified by how long the drive is. Madison is about five hours from Minneapolis, Minn. Put this way, it’s natural to compare the differences between Madison-Chicago (two hours) and Madison-Minneapolis (five hours). That difference—that difference between differences—is three hours.

We can do roughly the same thing for your year looking back and your year looking forward. So you might say the difference between your year and the one a few years before is “small.” And you might say the difference between your year and the one a few years after is “small.” If so, the difference between the differences is zero. If the differences are “small” and “medium,” though, difference between the differences might be, e.g., “modest” or also “small.” And so on.

Whew. So the reason all this is important is that the differences between looking back a bit and looking forward bit are usually zero or small. Usually, change is constant. Our intuitions are largely built on this premise. In fact, we get terribly confused and distraught and sometimes incoherent when the difference looking forward is much greater than the difference looking back.

Consider the notion of precedent as legal philosophy. Scholars argue that precedents as reasons make the law more predictable—litigants can better predict the outcomes of law suits if they have some handle on the kind of reasoning judges will bring to bear. But why should law suits be predictable in the first place? That assumption reflects a deeper belief that similarities between previous cases and present or future cases are relevant at all. It reflects a belief that lawyers and judges can emphasize the relevant similar facts and ignore the relevant distinguishing facts. But how should lawyers and judges be able to make value judgments about which similar and distinguishing facts matter across different cases? It can only make sense to conform to precedent inasmuch as it makes sense—on average, I suppose, though even that is tricky given fat-tail risk—to take history as a competent guide to the future. Mere differences in time mean nothing.

But what if something so essential to our ability to reason did mean something? What if mere differences in time mattered legally? Or what if something seemingly arbitrary variable about the world mattered? What if, for example, we thought that events that obtained under a full moon were different from events that obtained under a new moon? We’d have at least two entirely different sets of legal precedents—one for full moons, one for new moons, and maybe one for other times. The legal world would be turned upside-down, inside-out. It would be nearly indistinguishable from what we actually have. The arguments that work under a full moon in our actual world almost certainly wouldn’t work in this crazy possible world. Not only would they almost certainly fail to persuade, but they would almost certainly seem deluded or insane—probably as insane as arguments highly sensitive to the lunar calendar would seem in the actual world.

The good news is that upside-down, inside-out changes are rare. The bad news is that their rarity doesn’t equip us well for when they inevitably crop up. We forget that there are any such changes, especially when they’re not attended by frighteningly salient facts, like nuclear weapons. It is easier, in other words, to wrap our minds around how thoroughgoing theories like mutually assured destruction change our reasoning, forcing us to question very basic assumptions, if we can at the same time point to devastating bombs and mushroom clouds.

But there is nothing so salient as for the news. Layoffs and newspaper closings amid a wider economic downturn just don’t cut the mustard. Sometimes the differences looking forward a decade dwarf the differences looking back a decade.

When that happens, when the near history no longer contains implicit clues about the near future, we are unmoored, and we look to look to the differences between differences as a partial guide—but just come to terms with our own imaginations, just to maintain some footing amid upheaval. In order to grasp some sense of how sweeping the next decade of changes in the news business will be, we’ve got keep inching back through time and technology till we arrive at the gut feeling that the differences are equal. When the differences looking forward and the differences looking backward are equal—idealized, vaguely but substantively—we can look to see what is common between the past world and the future one. And those common facts or truths are the only facts and truths we can carry forward as precedent, more or less unquestioned.

As with many businesses facing disruption from the internet, it is far from clear that there is anything common between what the news business will see a decade forward and what it saw even a century back. This is a muddled exercise in which we accomplish little more than calibrating our intuitions about what to discard and what to keep. But there is so much to discard that our intuitions are critical.

My gut tells me this, nuclear holocaust notwithstanding: It is no longer reasonable to carry facts true about the history of the news business into the future without detouring through first principles about journalism and why it’s important. Nothing true of journalism in a decade’s time will turn out also to have been true of journalism at any time in the past except those facts that will always be true.

All else is gone—that is what Shirky means when he writes, “There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.” All else is gone, but first principles remain. And grasping first principles is why it’s imperative that “we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society.’” But don’t take “unthinkable” too literally; the future is thinkable. Shirky’s is a terribly useful figure of speech, but it is false. We cannot know or predict what the world will look like, but we can and should conduct experiments thoughtfully, not wildly. If we clear our minds of accumulated implicit assumptions about the newspaper business cloaked as timeless verities of journalism, we can arrive at a clean slate of first principles and begin to rebuild.

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.

Why I dislike micropayments, don’t mind charity, but really have a better idea

A sure-fire way to think up a great idea for the future of the news is think about the fundamentals. “What’s news?” That’s a good place to start. Dave Winer gets at the fundamentals really well.

Let’s ignore most of the fundamental components of the news and focus on a couple: users and creators. Very roughly, those map to readers and writers. But “users” and “creators” emphasize that readers are active and don’t simply passively consume the news. Users want to re-purpose the news, get more out of it. We also don’t want to forget that creators aren’t just writers; they’re also photographers and editors.

inverted_jennyOne pretty important fact is that users and creators are all people. And people can trust one another. Obvious? One would think so, but there’s been a big corporate wall between them for decades now. The publication has overshadowed the writer. We viewed newspapers as the creators. Writers and photographers were faceless bylines most people ignored.

For example, we once trusted the New York Times to give us all the news that’s fit to print. It’s an awesome slogan, containing a slant rhyme and some serious alliteration, sure, but it now works much less well as a promise. I doubt its author ever intended it to be strictly accurate, but now it’s no where near artfully true anymore. Only the internet can make that promise now. It is the great disintermediator.

And so creators of news are re-emerging as real people to their users, who are also real people. That relationship, however attenuated, is a better place to locate trust. Let me put it another way: there’s greater potential trust in user-creator relationships than in reader-newspaper relationships. Humans are built to trust other humans, personally.

Now, we certainly also have relationships with groups. I’m no anthropologist, but it would certainly seem that, as humans, the concept of group identity runs deep. We can trust a person because he’s part of a club or a tribe. It’s a good thing, then, that appreciating user-creator bonds doesn’t demand that we deny the existence of reader-newspaper bonds. The internet may erode—but it doesn’t destroy—the concept of a traditional brand, anchored in a group of people who share a common purpose. The internet supplements, or unlocks, the concept of a personal brand.

Why all the fuss about brands and user-creator relationships and, ultimately, trust? Simply put, trust is an economic good. It’s worth something. It makes markets work more efficiently. As a trader might say, trust is positively accretive to value. This is not just about peace, love, and harmony. Trust creates value. Value gets monetized. Money pays journalists. Journalists save the world.

So if there’s trust to be created, there’s money to be earned. Trust is the foundation for a value proposition. All else equal, it stands to reason that users will pay more for the news in which they have more trust. If so, then it follows that users will pay more for the news they use based on a relationship with creators, in whom they can place more trust than they can in newspapers as brands.

Whew, so all that was wildly theoretical, blurry stuff. Before moving on to something more concrete, let’s sum it up. Shifting the news relationship from reader-newspaper to user-creator increases potential trust, an economic good, and unlocks value, which people may pay for. But even the strongest value proposition does not a business model equal.

So let’s move to the concrete: the business model. How do we monetize this theoretical value tucked away in user-creator relationships?

You do it with an idea I’ve been flogging the past couple weeks. You do it with Mitch Ratcliffe’s idea, in which users pay creators for “added convenience or increased interaction.” Note the elegant fit: increased interaction between one person and another is what fosters relationships and trust. Giving paying users otherwise exclusive twitter access to the creator could work. SMS updates could work, as could a permission only room on friendfeed. Even something as simple as a gold star on paying users’ comments—a symbol that they support the creator financially—would provide incentive for the creator to reply. Tiers of stars—bronze, silver, gold—are possible too.

There’s a social network lurking not too far below the surface. Because we’re in the business of fostering trust, transparency is paramount. So this social network would do best to require real identities. Users would have to be clear about whom they support, and creators would have to be clear about who supports them. Both users and creators would have personal pages of their own, identifying whom they support and who supports them and what dollar levels are being exchanged for what levels of interaction. This way, creators would have the ability to avoid potentially conflicted supporters. (Of course, a person could be both a user of some news and a creator of other news, paying for some and receiving too.)

Paying users of different authors would eventually form their own communities, if creators nurtured them well in the context of a supportive information architecture within the social network. Done right, membership in a community, which could suggest and debate tips for the creator, would represent its own value proposition for which users would be willing to pay up. Creators could have multiple communities, populated by groups of users characterized by different interests, areas or expertise, or even locations.

Creators would set their own prices, reaching their own equilibria between cost and numbers of paying users. Users would tend to pay less to a creator who offered less-value-added interaction by ignoring more questions and comments. But there would tend to be more users willing to pay a smaller amount than a larger amount. Users and creators would have to think about their elasticities of supply and demand. Over time, individual users and creators will find a balance that strikes her fancy. On the one hand, some creators might prefer a smaller set of users who pay more money and enjoy more interaction. Other creators, concerned about possible undue influence, might prefer a larger set of users who pay less money for a thinner relationship. And on the other hand, some users might prefer to be among a small community with better access or thicker relationships to the creator, while other users might prefer spreading themselves around and having thinner relationships with more creators. I don’t see any obvious reasons why a basically unfettered market wouldn’t work in this case.

Note that this represents an end-run around the problem that news is an experience good—you don’t know the value of an article till you read it. (New is not like buying a pair of pants.) This solves the problem that news itself is often nearly worthless the day after its published—yesterday’s news is today’s fishwrap. (It’s not like buying a song from iTunes. Also, ed. note: please, please, please follow that link to Doc Searls. The VRM parallels are clear and profound.) Finally, this also solves the problem that any given news article has myriad relevant substitutes—articles about the very same topic, event, or person and articles about equally interesting topics, events, or persons. (News is not like the Inverted Jenny. Yay philately!)

As with Kachingle, recently blogged by Steve Outing, this kind of freemium news doesn’t have to be the entire solution. It’s certainly compatible with advertising, though another feature might be a lack of it, just as it’s compatible with charity.

The point is that this idea and the business model on top of it are inspired by deeply human phenomona. Personal interaction and trust are constitutive of what it means to be human. They’re a large part of what makes the world go around generally, and we should look to them to save the news too. The right tools and insights can help right this airship called journalism.

Reduced, but not that much!

I’m cross-posting my comment left on Nick Carr’s lengthy and good thoughts on the paywall for news:

While I agree that the supply of news is greater than it will be when more than a few smaller papers go dark, I’m not at all sure that the long-term supply of news will be radically reduced. That’s a big reduction!

You write that amateurs and part-timers “can’t do all of the work, and they certainly can’t do all of the most valuable work. The news business will remain a fundamentally commercial operation.” I agree, but I don’t think it has all the purchase you’d like.

The current explosion of content is not just “an illusion born of the current supply-demand imbalance.” It’s not enough that “the labor costs remain high” despite the fact that “the capital requirements for an online news operation are certainly lower than for a print one.”

A more or less intelligent armchair blogger’s take on some news event may be worth only a fraction of a pro’s account. It may me more prone to error. It may be published later. It may hide more bias. But it also may be free and therefore good enough. We now have the option of satisficing our news, and that will likely never go away. (Of course, let’s not deny that an amateur expert’s take on the news might also be more valuable.)

So, fine, “it ain’t going to a purely social production model,” but I’m afraid that might not be enough to protect pure paid content. Even if we settle back to a world in which we have only one-tenth of what we have now, that world will still have hundreds of times more news and opinion than we had when buying a subscription to the newspaper was de rigeur.

Fow what it’s worth, however, I too believe there’s a model according to which we will pay those who create our news. But I see us buying not the content itself but value-added interaction with the content and with the writers and editors.

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.

Obstreperous Minnesota

Every once in a while—and maybe more often than I’d like to admit—I re-read Clay Shirky. Today, I re-read “Ontology Is Overrated.”

And today, I’m ready to disagree with it around the margins.

On fortune telling. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will sometimes mis-predict the future, as when we infer that some text about Dresden is also about East Germany and will be forever. But, no, that doesn’t have to be a very strong reason for us not to have some lightweight ontology that then inferred something about a city and its country. We can just change the ontology when the Berlin Wall falls. It’s much easier than re-shelving books, after all; it’s just rewriting a little OWL.

On mind reading. Yes, Shirky’s correct that we will lose some signal—or increase entropy—when we mistake the degree to which users agree and mistakenly collapse categories. And, yes, it might be generally true about the world that we tend to “underestimate the loss from erasing difference of expression” and “overestimate loss from the lack of a thesaurus.” But it doesn’t have to be that way, and for two reasons.

First, why can’t we just get our estimations tuned? I’d think that the presumption would be that we could at least give a go and, otherwise, that the burden of demonstrating that we just cannot for some really deep reason falls on Shirky.

Second, we don’t actually need to collapse categories; we just need to build web services that recognize synonymy—and don’t shove them down our users’ throats. I take it to be a fact about the world that there are a non-trivial number of people in the world for whom ‘film’ and ‘movies’ and ‘cinema’ are just about perfect synonyms. At the risk of revealing some pretty embarrassing philistinism, I offer that I’m one of them, and I want my web service to let me know that I might care about this thing called ‘cinema’ when I show an interest in ‘film’ or ‘movies.’ I agree with Shirky that we can do this based solely on the fact that “tag overlap is in the system” while “the tag semantics are in the users” only. But why not also make put the semantics in the machine? Ultimately, both are amenable to probabilistic logic.

Google showed it is the very best at serving us information when we know we care about something fuzzy and obscure—like “obstreperous minnesota.” I don’t think Shirky would dispute this, but it’s important to bear in mind that we also want our web services to serve us really well when we don’t know we care about something (see especially Daniel Tunkelang on HCIR (@dtunkelang)). That something might be fuzzy or specific, obscure or popular, subject to disagreement or perfectly unambiguous.

People and organizations tend to be unambiguous. No one says this fine fellow Clay Shirky (@cshirky) is actually Jay Rosen (@jayrosen_nyu). That would be such a strange statement that many people wouldn’t even understand it in order to declare it false. No one says the National Basketball Association means the National Football League them. Or if someone were to say that J.P. Morgan is the same company as Morgan Stanley, we could correct him and explain how they’re similar but not identical.

Some facts about people and organization can be unambiguous some of the time, too. Someone could argue that President Obama’s profession is sports, but we could correct her and explain how it’s actually politics, which maybe sometimes works metaphorically like sports. That doesn’t mean that Obama doesn’t like basketball or that no one will ever talk about him in the context of basketball. There may be more than a few contexts in which many people think it makes little sense to think of him as a politician, like when he’s playing a game of pick-up ball. But I think we can infer pretty well ex ante that it makes lots of sense to think of Obama as a politician when he’s giving a big televised speech, signing legislation, or meeting with foreign leaders. After all, what’s the likelihood that Silvio Berlusconi or Hu Jintao would let himself get schooled on the court? Context isn’t always that dependent.

Whoops! CJR lost (ignored?) my comment on “Music Lessons”

So I’ll post it here, pointing to the piece by Alissa Quart, who asks, “Could one ailing media industry—music—teach another ailing media industry—journalism—a thing or two about survival?” Check it out.

My comment?

Readers now care deeply about the biographies of the people who produce their news, writing or talking or what-have-you. But why? And how to convice journalists who want so badly to get it?

I think the answer lies in trust. I think trust is the general concept and can explain why the “Unbiased Media ideal” worked in the departing era and why the “premodern storytelling mode” will work the arriving one.

It is largely the story of Too Much Information, which is itself a chapter of the digital democratization of the printing press and a chapter of essentially free access to the internet. It is now orders of magnitude easier to produce and to consume the news, in other words. Interaction is cheap, even nearly free, between perfect strangers continents apart, and fast. More and more, trust just happens differently.

This explanation is nothing new. Prominent writers have been talking about these inside-out, upside-down profound shifts in media since many students at the j-school were in the fifth grade.

So what does “cheap interaction” promise? Instead of rewriting what others have already said (because links are free and clicks are convenient), let me point the way to Umair Haque on the erosion of brands.

Extra credit to the brave journalist who groks the flipping of attention from relatively abundant to relatively scarce (see the ppt).

This isn’t a tweak to the old system. This doesn’t call for a Friday meeting to develop a new strategy. This isn’t a call for a pretty new website or flashy widget. This simply a new business, a new industry, a new world; this is a return to first principles of old.

So what is the news? It’s producers, who write or share the news, and consumers, who read the news. They are be largely the same people; they must trust one another. The news requires sources. The news is stories about people and organizations, about topics or beats, and about events. The news is opinion, and the news is fact. The news is new—sometimes so new nowadays that it can happen in real- or near-real time and can thus morph into a conversation.

So, yes, write about journalists ripping a page from musicians’ script, if you like. But mightn’t it be more worthwhile to write our own, pieced together from basic facts and laws like these?

I bet it would be fun.


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