Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Improving the Quality of Information

I just read a fantastic book called, the Cult of the Amateur, by Andrew Keen.  Keen's core message is something I've believed since I watched my first cat video go viral on Youtube; that if we're not careful, user-generated content will destroy the most sacred institutions in our society, and perhaps the notion of "truth" itself.  Think this is an extreme statement? I don't.

Consider what most people do these days to settle a fact-based argument.  You probably first go to Google.  Then that leads you to Wikipedia and you settle it there.  But how credible is Wikipedia?  Who are the contributors and editors?  Are they experts in the topics, or just regular people?  What is the value of an encyclopedia entry edited by someone who is not an expert on the subject matter?  Not to mention a more cynical observation: Certainly getting a favorable write-up in one of the world's most popular websites is a valuable piece of marketing.  Could Wikipedia editors be bought off ?

Wikipedia prides itself on being an encyclopedia that anyone can edit.  For that reason it is an encyclopedia that nobody should fully trust.  Keen mentions an anecdote of a world renowned climate scientist who fought to get an entry on global warming changed, only to be rebuked by Wikipedia's arbitration committee.  Shouldn't Dr. William Connelly, a Cambridge educated climate modeler, be the one responsible for editing an entry on global warming?  Keen questions why Wikipedia would favor another source over Connelly, and he is right to wonder this.  Shouldn't a supposed "open source" encyclopedia be more transparent about who their authors/editors are?  If not, what credibility does it have?

Journalism is another case in point.  My beloved profession got kicked in the gonads by Craig's List, and now we're out hunting for new business models.  In the early naughts there was much hype that "citizen journalism," was the holy grail.  After one too many shaky zoom-ins and sloppily written blog posts, news organizations and society at large are coming to their senses on the subject.  This is a positive development.  Professional journalism is as difficult as it is crucial.  We need to trust it to the people who do it well, understand when they're being manipulated, and don't have any other hidden agendas besides delivering the facts.  While I do see some very cool and useful applications for citizen journalism, it should always be complimentary and contextualized by the real thing.  Sure, there will always be rogue professional journalists, but if we outsource journalism to the masses, poor judgement and quality will become the rule rather than the exception.

The latest trend in journalism is the movement towards "branded content."  I don't blame unemployed journalists for taking these jobs.  Journalists need to eat, after all, and companies need to sell products.  But the idea of calling their work product "journalism" just makes me sick to my stomach.  You can not work for a company whose mission is to sell detergent, condoms, or cars and still call yourself a journalist.  It just doesn't work that way.

I wonder if Keen would prefer a cult of amateurs or a cult of corporate pseudo-journalists in his dystopian newsroom of the future.  Either way, the writer and techcrunch TV presenter, who describes himself on his Twitter handle as the "Anti-christ of Silicon Valley," deserves a lot of credit  for taking on the establishment.  He passionately and persuasively argues against the false prophet that was Web 2.0's.  User-generated content didn't usher in the great democratization for which we are longing, but, generally speaking, led to an orgy of self-indulgent mediocrity.  Don't get me wrong: It is a beautiful thing that anyone can create a blog and publish something online.  Sometimes the blogger or amateur musician or citizen journalist will be that one-in-a-million star that was empowered because of Web 2.0 tools.  But chances are they won't be. 

And for you cynics out there: No, I do not know Keen personally and am not getting paid by him, his publisher, or anyone else to write this.  But it's good if you're asking these questions!  While I am a journalist by trade, I am writing this on a free publishing platform called "Blogger" and will not make a penny off of this blog post. 

So where are we headed? I am cautiously optimistic about Web 3.0. (Is that what we're calling it?)  In the previous decade, investors, in their frenzy towards products and services that engage the masses, were concerned far more with their bottom line than any other consideration.  This will not change.   But imagine what Youtube would have been worth in 2006 if they had a higher ratio of quality content?  Think about the problems they are having getting high CPM's (price per thousand views) right now from advertisers precisely because most of their content is worthless.  I think investors are slowly coming to terms with the fact that quality content is the most valuable asset money can buy, and will back startups who are working towards that end.

But Keen raises more of an ethical question than an economic one.  What is the net result of watching too many viral cat videos? Do we in fact risk the great institutions that nurture talented writers, artists, journalists, encyclopedias, and scientists in our society?  It's a compelling question, and one that I'm glad is being asked.

I do believe that with every action we make on the internet or in the real world, we cast a vote.  On the web it's called engagement.  In the real world it's called attention.  You may not think its that important, but it is.  Companies that can get engaged audiences make money, and companies that don't go under.  In this game for our attention, we're all known as users.  But, like democracy, as users we do have some power.  If we stop watching cat videos or engaging in questionable content, we can drastically affect corporate decision-making.  So be a good user and use your attention wisely.

The great reggae icon Bob Marley wrote, "Don't forget your history or your destiny."  These words are extremely poignant today.  This quote, and life itself, is all about balance.  Let's not rush to an uncertain future devoid of all the things that make our culture rich and strong.  Let's take it slow and do it right.  We should embrace the democratic virtues of participation, but not at the expense of high quality information.  We must strike the balance between empowering people and preserving that which is most sacred.