Welcome back! It’s hard to believe we’re already at week 6 of my 8 part series on the peer-to-peer revolution. Mainly, it’s hard for me to believe I’ve stayed on one topic for 6 weeks straight. I’m a bit of a scatter brain as is relevant by the 2,000+ word articles I’ve been writing. To recap, we’ve already covered how peer-to-peer systems are impacting our use of transportation, housing, energy, finance, and entertainment. As promised, this week I’ll be writing about what may be the most obvious peer-to-peer movement so far: the media. Then we’ll have just two topics to go: education and mental health.
I have to start the article off with a clarification. Six weeks ago I began this series and laid out the 8 peer-to-peer changes that I’d cover and chose the topic of “media” for this week. Now the term “media” seems too broad. After all, we covered entertainment last week, which is a type of media. My real intent for this week was to write specifically about news (which is a type of media). So let me emphasize that this article’s goal is to highlight how peer-to-peer systems are impacting the way we get our news.
That being said, let me take a moment here to mention peer-to-peer media, in general, or what we call social media. And of course social media makes us think of social networking, the terms are often used interchangeably.
It’s easy to confuse social media with social networking. To clarify, social media is for sharing content, which could be video, photos, memes, stories, infographics, news, etc. Social networking is for chatting, messaging, and having discussions with people. There is frequently a crossover between these two. For example, Facebook is both a social networking platform and a social media tool: you can share content and also engage with people through messaging, chat, and commenting. LinkedIn is more of a social networking tool, used for connecting and engaging with people, but also has a social media aspect. For example, I usually post a copy of my blog articles on LinkedIn. I could also simply share a link to my flantascience.com blog on the site. Honestly, I’m still not sure why I copy/paste the whole article there… I guess it seems like a good way to my voice out there and its easy to do.
Obviously, I’m not the best person to write about social media. I can’t claim to be an expert at all, I don’t have much of a following on twitter (@OpenSourceHigh and @flimjannery) and my Google Analytics show that not too many people actually read my blog.
But my goal in this article isn’t to teach you how to be a social media expert. My goal is to continue my brain drain about the peer-to-peer revolution and how it applies to the modern news media. I’ll focus on who the winners are, who the losers are, what the legal implications are, and what the long term consequences may look like.
I enjoying studying the news media, because learning about “news” is how we craft our perception of reality. All we can be certain of is what we see, smell, feel, hear, and taste in front of us. Even the senses can be deceiving. Everything beyond our sensory perception is delivered to us through some external medium, maybe it is word of mouth from a friend or reading something online. What would we think of our world if we had no way of learning about the turmoil in the Middle East? Hell, I just read yesterday that we “discovered” that Mars used to be a warm planet with flowing rivers and an atmosphere, much like Earth. Somehow, through the power of technology I received information from NASA who received information from Mars!
Keep in mind, however, that it’s not just interesting that someone out there was able to learn this information about Mars, but also the fact that somehow this information was relayed from the source and eventually got to me. Having a human being somewhere in the world possess information and it being disseminated effectively to the world are two different aspects of news media.
Once upon a time we got our information from word of mouth between neighboring villages. Then from hand written letters. Then newspapers. Then telegraph. Then radio. Then television. And now the internet. Some of these techniques involve communicating one-to-one and some involved communicating one-to-many. A letter is a one-to-one communication. The newspaper is one to many. Over time, we have evolved new technologies and tools for these two types of communication. Throughout history, the one-to-one method has always been more limiting, personal, and cheap when compared to the one-to-many option. One thing has remained consistent: over time, the speed of these communications has increased. And the potential reach of one-to-many communication has expanded.
One-to-many communication used to be a power reserved only for the rich and powerful. With the advent of the internet, it is now accessible to anyone. Not only can you instantly share photos of your cat with your facebook newsfeed (which could potentially spread throughout the internet), but you can even buy a domain name and set up your own news website. Your possibilities are endless. You could write your own news articles that you make up from your own imagination. You could share links to other peoples’ news articles which you decide are reliable and important. You can even automate the process and have a programmed bot pull in news articles from around the web and post them on your site as if you had curated them yourself. In all three cases, an untrained visitor to your site may not be able to tell the difference between them. And their perception carves their reality.
In many ways, the playing field in the news media landscape is leveled. Anyone with a computer can write a news article and share it. You don’t even need to write a whole article. With twitter, you can share news 140 characters of news at a time. This is quite common nowadays, where live events are broadcast by the tweeting of the people at the event. Small bits of news, but news nonetheless. And combined together in a twitter newsfeed they craft a perception of the reality of the event. Sometimes there are even photos. If a photo is worth a thousand words, then a photo is probably worth five thousand characters. And since the viewer is making up those thousand words, a photo can create a perception that does not properly reflect reality.
But this is news to us, this is what we see, what we believe the world around us looks like. I remember seeing twitter feeds during the revolution in Egypt a few years ago. People in the outside world were able to learn what was happening in Cairo from the people first-hand through twitter, not just the information the government was releasing through the mainstream media. This gave the people a voice. And they were heard around the globe.
It is very interesting – the idea that everyone on the internet has a voice. Anyone can tweet some news. Hell, anyone can build a web site. Anyone can build and create content. Anyone can write an entire novel and publish it on the web. Make a documentary. All this information can be broadcast on the web, duplicated infinitely many times, and spread across the world like a virus. Hence the term “viral.” But it doesn’t really happen that easy, right? Everyone wants to be famous on YouTube, but not everyone makes it big. I’m still hoping for someone to stumble upon my physics sketch comedy show, What the FisX (wtfisx.com), and pay me to make more episodes. And every writer wants their news articles to show up on the cover of the New York Times (digital or written), but it doesn’t happen that easily.
And therein lies a challenge. We live in a world where everyone has a voice and everyone can share and information flows like a river, but how do you get your message to the people you want to hear it? And as a consumer, how do you make sure you are receiving information that is relevant (and accurate)?
Facebook has a tendency to give you news about things within your social circle. You find photos of family members on vacation, friends getting married, having children… my newsfeed is a bit weird because I’ve got a lot of stand-up comics in my newsfeed flooding with jokes and twisted shit that you normally wouldn’t find on there. And then you see people’s public diaries in your newsfeed, long-winded monologues about the tragedies of their world. All in your facebook. Twitter offers a different set of information, more likely from people you intended to follow for information that is outside your social circle.
This is different than going to traditional media websites like CNN or Fox or the Guardian, where people hired by these companies have curated the “most important” news in the world onto one website. We trust these sources to be accurate, but maybe accuracy isn’t the only thing that matters. More importantly, who decides what is worth putting on the cover page? Who decides what’s important news? Most people check their facebook everyday but don’t check CNN/Fox/Guardian – so clearly their choice of what’s important is different than mainstream media. On facebook it is their friends creating the news and their friends choosing what’s important. On twitter it’s people you choose bringing you what they think is important. All of this filtering going on… what news exists and then what news is actually reaching you. It’s a crowded world.
If there is one company I could consider the “game-changer” in the peer-to-peer news revolution, I would choose reddit. Just as we have Airbnb for housing, Uber for transportation, Kickstarter for finance, I look at reddit for peer-to-peer news. Not because they have a staff of journalists that write all the articles, but because of their curation method for what is relevant to read about.
Reddit calls itself “The Frontpage of the Internet.” It considers itself to be a “social news site.” It has a monstrous community that shares links to everything from NASA reporting about discoveries on Mars to people posting their cat photos. I have to mention the cat photos, because that’s pretty much what every mainstream media site mentions when they refer to reddit. But reddit is so much more than cat photos. It is the best attempt at a democratic news media that I’ve ever seen. Anyone can create an account, and post links to content, and people upvote and downvote as they like it. And the relevant stories rise to the top. You can also choose a “subreddit” to look at stores that are particularly relevant to your tastes, such as a subreddit for World News, or Education, or Comedy. Since the news comes from all over the internet, you have, essentially, an infinite source of news stories from everyone, and a filter for relevance that is dictated by the public, in this case the reddit community.
So anyone can create news stories, and now there is a means to filter what is relevant. Really remarkable when compared to the old days when “the powers that be” decided what was news and what wasn’t.
Who are the winners in this movement? It looks like the consumers of content are winning: we are getting news that is relevant to us. Another winner are people who are getting a voice, creating content, and having it reach people. As the voice spreads amongst people, those that used to be at the top have to share their power with others, losing a little bit. But the real people who are losing are those that used to be the control-knobs on the newsmedia. Not the content creators, but the gatekeepers of relevancy: the major news media companies. Not only is the newspaper dying, but it appears major news sites are dying as they become less useful.
Please don’t take this to mean that journalists are a dying breed. They are not. They are as important as ever. The writers, the content creators, are still valuable. But the actual need for a big name distributor and decider-of-what’s-relevant… maybe there’s not so much a need for them.
The long term picture is an interesting one. It would seem that we are moving to a world where we are overloaded with information. We’re probably already there. As much as the relevancy filters are being used, we are still bombarded with information. News has become entertainment. Something else I’ve been learning about is the fact that the social news media can be manipulated by computer programmers. It is possible to write computer programs which can ensure that your content is spread faster than your average person. While there was a time when the rich and powerful could manipulate what stories make it to the public, it is also possible for programmers to do the same. These programmers can be employed by companies to do the dirty work, which happens, but some also work on their own terms to fight for the betterment of the world. It is something to consider because it is happening behind the scenes without us really knowing. Stories that go viral appear to do so almost by accident, because the hands of the programmers are not seen. There are few accidents.
What are the legal implications of peer-to-peer news media? At first there’s not much to consider. We’re just talking about people sharing news stories. But then there are the exceptional cases, such as the actions by people like Edward Snowden and Aaron Swartz. Just publishing an article online with their names included definitely puts me on a government list somewhere. But that’s alright, I’m pretty certain I’ve been on a list for a long time.
Let’s do Edward Snowden since he’s most recent. There is an example of someone taking some content that was hidden from the mainstream, and blasting it out into the world. He took information about the United States National Security Agency’s surveillance programs and released it to the public. This information basically proved the U.S. government was spying on its own people and foreigners as well. Snowden released information which many people did not want released and was easily capable of sharing it with the world and making it become news. You could think of him similarly to the Egyptians tweeting about their revolution. In a way, he broke the filter the United States government had setup for their information.
Yet – he also used a filter to release his news. Snowden went to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian and had him filter through the massive database of government documents professionally to digest them and piece the information together for public consumption. The digital age makes it easy to walk out of a room with a flash drive with a gigabyte of data on it. This would not have been as easy in the days before computers and the internet. It reminds me of the stories I’ve heard of foreigners coming to America during the Industrial Revolution and taking photos of everything (like good tourists!) and then going home and rebuilding all the cool stuff they saw.
Snowden is revered as a hero or a traitor, depending on your perspective. But he is an example of the power of an individuals’ voice in the world. There is a time when people would have ignored him or labelled him crazy. Though from what I can tell… he still gets ignored. There’s a pretty awesome interview he did with John Oliver which made this point. Main take home from Edward Snowden: an individual can take information (“news”) and spread it like wildfire even without the permission or power of a major corporation to do so. While he went to a journalist for help in crafting the story, it was now the journalist who gave him the ability to spread the information. Individuals have power.
Aaron Swartz is an even lesser known name, sadly. Aaron was one of the founders of Reddit. He was an entrepreneur, programmer, and activist. Some would call him a ‘hacktivist.’ He fought for the right to freedom on the internet. He was a voice and a powerful force. He wanted everyone to have a voice, and to have tools to help people find the right information, hence his being involved in creating a site like reddit. He believed information should be free to the world. He started off as a young whiz kid, self-schooled programmer who kicked ass in the late 90’s internet when he was in his early teens. And then went on to do great things. And then an unfortunate incident led to his untimely death. I couldn’t do Aarons story justice by making it just a couple paragraphs of a blog article.
Aaron died as a direct result of the power of peer-to-peer news. For similar reasons to Snowden, he was punished for making information free to people against the will of the “owners” of said information.
It would appear that there are some other losers in the game of peer-to-peer news: the government and many large institutions like Universities.
People have told me that my efforts to push a peer-to-peer revolution in the education system may result in the need to “burn down city hall.” Personally, I think the revolution has already started, will continue, and no buildings need to get burnt down. In fact, I think the buildings are quite useful (more on this next week)! But the peer-to-peer revolution has had causalities… blood has been shed… and Aaron was a victim of it. We lost a good guy. We don’t need to lose any more.
I’ll close by mentioning that this weekend there is an Aaron Swartz Hackathon taking place in San Francisco. They will be working on a program called SecureDrop, which is an anonymous whistleblower document submission platform originally built by Aaron. It exists in newsrooms all around the world – a safe tool to allow people to anonymously release information that they believe is sensitive, dangerous, and powerful, without fear of being hurt by it. A peer-to-peer platform for spreading the most powerful news at the click of a button. The revolution continues.