Truly Freeing our Sources of News #jcarn

This month’s Carnival of Journalism asks “considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources?”

Although I formed the question, I’m going to play a little devil’s advocate and potentially get derailed. I thought about writing on  Spot.Us but that just seems like the obvious thing for me to do. So instead – I want to look into an assumption of this question and potentially get lost along the way.

There is an assumption in the question that increasing the number of news sources is positive. That’s a statement I more or less stand behind and has been a driving force in my career. With Spot.Us, for example, we have helped people that might not otherwise commit acts of journalism to get the confidence and support to do so.

There is a tension between being a source of news and the means of producing/sharing the news. At a recent J-lab event somebody referred to Facebook as a “Gutenberg type invention.” I couldn’t disagree more vehemently. Whereas Gutenberg distributed power I see Facebook as leveraging the disruption from an invention and creating a new bottleneck of power.

Let’s do a quick overview of three stops in history through the lens of “information is power.”

  • Pre-Gutenberg: To have information/power you needed to be literate and have access to books. A high barrier. Thus, power is very concentrated mostly among clergy, monarchs, etc.
  • Post-Gutenberg: Access to books became cheaper. Literacy was still a highish barrier for a good chunk of the population. More important in terms of information power is the saying: “The power of the press belongs to those who own one.” Power became slightly decentralized, but the invention of the printing press didn’t drastically change the power structure of who could disseminate information. There was still a high barrier to publish. You had to have access to capital ie: bourgeoisie. If you weren’t – the most you could achieve was being able to read and access books. A powerful movement forward, but not truly empowering.
  • Post-World Wide Web: Tim Berners Lee is far closer to a Gutenberg than Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. In modern times literacy rates are relatively high (we can always do better) and the ability to find information has dropped to near zero since we don’t need hard-bound books. Unlike the printing press the average persons’ ability to publish ideas has also dropped to near $0. Yea for the Internet revolution!!!

And yet, there is still a barrier for the average person to realize the true power of the Internet and most don’t even fully recognize that. We are appeased by using platforms created for us – and that concentrates power. Just as the true power of Gutenberg’s revolution belonged to those who owned the press, the power of Tim Berners’ Revolution belongs to those who create the framework from which we publish. In other words the power of the Internet belongs to those who can code in its language. There is a different type of literacy (programming) that provides a new sense of power. As a result, a drastically small percentage of the population has actual power on the web. Again, the majority of us don’t care and that’s understandable, we are living our lives offline. But the fact remains that Twitter, Facebook and other platforms have terms of use and policies that govern a significant portion of the world’s population.

This is why Facebook’s privacy policies aren’t trivial. For many people it feels as if there is no other choice. Wanted to read something pre-Internet, better hope there was a book publisher that agreed with you. Want to express yourself online, better hope it doesn’t bump up against a terms of use policy. I have nothing against platforms creating a terms of use policy or even profiting off people using their site. What I’m suggesting, however, is that there is still a barrier, a relatively high one, to truly harness the power that the web possesses. We can sit and cheer all the accomplishments – and we should, it is a huge step forward, but more can be done.

I’m going to invoke Matt Thomspon who imagined the “speakularity” as a time in the future when automatic speech transcription will become fast, free, and decent. What I imagine is a time in the future when the manipulation of database structures are drag and drop. I don’t just mean Drupal out of the box. I mean so simple my mother could do it (to put this in perspective I had to do video tutorials for her on how to use Gmail).

I know there are ways to create drag and drop mock-ups. There are also tools that let you do drag and drop surveys (Google Form). I want to see these combined and on steroids. So powerful that all I have to do is buy a domain and on my personal computer use this software to create a dynamic site connected to a real database of my choosing. Afterwards, the Internet will make me breakfast. I like my eggs over-easy.

I realize it’s a sci-fi scenario (even before the breakfast part) but it seems like the next logical step to further spread the power of information. Now you can do more than use other people’s platforms to publish. You can create your own platform from scratch. Thing Ning – but not sucking and more open.

So the question started out: “considering your unique circumstances what steps can be taken to increase the number of news sources.”

In the end I gave my own sci-fi answer. While it doesn’t take into consideration my “unique circumstances” or skills, it is a scenario I’d like to see before I die. It’s a scenario that I believe would increase, even further, the number of news sources we have.