It’s been a tumultuous several weeks for Twitter, Reddit and the social web, during which we’ve seen both its great potential and confounding dark side. There was the recent AP account hacking – which instantly (but temporarily) drained some $200 billion from the stock market – the mass confusion of the Boston Bombings (and tragic repurcussions), and, well, insert-specious-news-rumor-of-the-day here. It calls to mind a famous arachnid-movie quote (by way of Voltaire): “With great power comes great responsibility.”
It’s important to note that Twitter is a platform, not a news service, and also that regardless, no one outlet can control the internet anyway: That’s the beauty and curse of the beast. So when news breaks it’s about two things: accuracy and distribution. Right now we’re stuck with a drunk leaf blower in a flour factory. I’ll be the first to champion these tools as platforms for change, opportunity and knowledge sharing, but it has become clear we – and especially the reeling news media – are in need of a system that helps Twitter et al sort through the haze of breaking news and get the facts straight, faster. The current model and tools are not clearing things up – they are adding to the mess.
A centralized, collaborative evidence table
Sifting through the mountains of analysis on the bombings alone, I couldn’t help but think of the customized Twitter Nascar hashtag page that was put together in 2011, and how it tied in nicely with the New Yorker digital “evidence table” it describes for Reddit users. So one first step I propose is a one-stop place or system in times of important news or mass emergency. Literally just a single agreed upon place to gather the facts, or a system of checks and balances free from speculation. Like a central hub for help to be channeled and extra information provided – a bit like an active Storify stream.
This feels like a simple fix to a complicated problem at the source. Clearly there are huge questions about who administers it, but one thing is clear: It must be solitary and held to a strict code that is pre-agreed upon, possibly among a cross-collaboration of the major newspapers. For instance, each might host the same page so traffic stays where the trust is with the user. There is no speculation: Simple fact dissemination and information being released – only after it is verified – so that the news-consuming public has a go-to source that is consistent.
The ability to deal with errors
Imagine if Twitter or Facebook could lower the relevancy of an incorrect tweet or post in real-time so that bad information was less likely to be seen. Reddit and pals is a more difficult kettle of fish because of their very nature. We will need to help them help themselves by providing clear information in order for them to do what they do best – engage with it.
The Atlantic wrote recently about the need to undo things on Twitter because it is currently a one-way system that, while capable of self-correcting over time, is pretty flawed when it comes to doing so in the moment. And so we need a system that enables users to revoke or modify what has been said so that it is instantly identifiable. Internet fundamentalists find this idea uncomfortable but many I suspect would cherish the ability to be alerted to incorrect information so the continued dissemination of knowingly false info can be minimized. A technical nightmare sure, but something to work towards.
A need for innovation and cooperation
Right now big data is not being used or harnessed by news organization beyond visualization or longer-form pieces but I imagine a time (and not too far in the future either) when we see news outlets using Twitter and company in a much smarter fashion than simply looking at volume spikes and “first-grabs.” So for instance, outlets might soon use data to predict, locate and activate “sleeper-unit” journalists (and trained citizen journalists) who are armed with Facetime technology – or simply volunteer individuals streaming through a phone that a news outlet is able to instantly locate via GPS. It’s interesting to note that Twitter has just appointed its first Data Editor who is charged with “explain[ing] how this phenomenon works.”
We have two options when it comes to “fixing” truly crucial news and real-time mass events: 1) Assume that what we’re doing now works but will need a few tweaks, or; 2) Realize that our current system is no longer tenable and so needs a complete overhaul. Any honest appraisal will quickly come to the brutal truth that the current system is failing, and so needs to be rebuilt from the ground up. In the short term, we will need to move toward something like a system of “Flash tweets:” site-wide notifications, that simultaneously tweet, post, alert, offer a donation system, etc to news sites when major events transpire. I’d like to see a system like this fleshed out by the social juggernauts as they further flex their news muscles.
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Photo courtesy Edward Meyer.