It’s a joy to be back in Athens, where I’m doing a keynote talk, panel and workshop at a journalism conference created by Open University of Cyprus. CNN Greece, which is digital-only (CNN’s first experiment of this kind), came by my hotel yesterday to chat about the future of media (and asked about the presidential race). This photo is from the roof cafe. Quite the set…
Diamond “Lavish” Reynolds changed our perception of media last week with her shocking and heartbreaking real-time web video of the last minutes of Philando Castile’s life. The couple, with her daughter riding in the back seat of their sedan, had been pulled over by local police in a Minneapolis suburb, and Reynolds had the astonishing presence of mind to send the aftermath of Castile’s shooting by a police officer — which included her arrest by cops who didn’t even try to save his life — to the world via Facebook’s “Live” video platform.
Countless articles, analyses, commentaries, and other posts have chronicled a media shift in those moments. The implications are real, and important. We are only beginning to confront the issues they raise. Among them:
- Is this a revolutionary, or evolutionary, change in media creation, distribution, and access?
- Does it represent a turning point for citizen journalism?
- What responsibilities do you and I have in situations where we can witness important events and behavior, and where might that lead?
- What can we trust, and what should we share?
- Facebook seems to have been caught almost unaware of the likely consequences of offering a real-time video platform. Do Facebook and other centralized distribution platforms have editorial duties to perform?
- More broadly, who will control what we can create and see in coming years? Facebook? Government? Or you and me?
Reynolds’ video prompted me to revisit something I wrote more than a decade ago, in my book, We the Media, which discussed the then-nascent idea of radically democratized media and one of its important offshoots, citizen journalism. I asked my readers to recall the media environment on Sept. 11, 2001, and then peer into an easily predictable future.
Our memories of that awful day stem largely from television: videos of airplanes slamming into the World Trade Center, the fireballs that erupted, people falling and jumping from the towers, the crumbling to earth of the structures. Individuals with video cameras captured parts of this story, and their work ended up on network TV as well. The big networks stopped showing most graphic videos fairly quickly. But those pictures are still on the Net for anyone who wants to see them.
We also learned, second-hand, that people in the airplanes and Trade Center towers phoned loved ones and colleagues that awful day. What would we remember if the people on the airplanes and in those buildings all had camera-phones? What if they’d been sending images and audio from the epicenter of the terrorists’ airborne arsenal, and from inside the towers that became coffins for so many? I don’t mean to be ghoulish, but I do suggest that our memories would be considerably different had images and sounds of that kind ricocheted around the globe.
Since then, a number of technologies (and uses of those tools) have become much more common. One of them is live-streaming, now so routine that we take it for granted as an offshoot of traditional broadcasting. Live-streaming from mobile phones has been around for some years, too.
In that context, Reynolds’ live video was anything but revolutionary. It was a logical extension of what came before. But the velocity of change is accelerating, and what she did had big implications.
Her video was a three-faceted act: witnessing, activism, and journalism*. Even though few people saw it in real time, she was saving it to the data cloud in real time, creating and — one hopes — preserving a record of what may or may not be judged eventually to have been a crime by a police officer. What Reynolds did was brave, and important for all kinds of reasons.
She also taught the rest of us something vital: We all have an obligation to witness and record some things even if we are not directly part of what’s happening. That’s what two people did as they captured videos of the killing of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, last week. They understood their duty when it comes to holding accountable the people we rely on to protect the public in honorable ways. (I still believe that the vast majority of police officers are honorable and trying to do their jobs right. But there’s also no question in my mind that the majority of officers at least tolerate the bad cops who are doing such harm to the reputation of law enforcement, and helping poison public trust.)
At this point I’m convinced, as Ethan Zuckerman says, that we have an obligation to use our cameras in these situations, among many others. These are times when a video record of what happened may not provide absolute clarity, but at least it can provide data.. It may also deter the worst kinds of behavior by public officials in the line of duty — especially as governments that adopted body cameras for police then pass laws designed to prevent the videos from reaching the public.
I also worry, as I did in my book (and long before) about Big and Little Brother becoming the default. So we’re going to have to draw lines, individually and (hopefully) as societal norms: Some things we see, we get the video and post it. At other times, we may get the video, but we’ll just delete it. And we have to make it second nature to realize that some — most — things shouldn’t be captured at all. Pervasive surveillance by law enforcement and/or the rest of us chills free speech and assembly, ultimately deadens us.
We’ll also have to learn, individually and collectively, what we can trust. This takes practice, because the online world is awash with deceit and lies along with honor and truth. It takes practice by news organizations not to be faked out, but even more so by the rest of us, because we, not journalists, have to learn to be the final arbiters — and we have to do this collectively, because like it or not, our news organizations are demonstrating in general that they’re not up to the job. I hate saying that, but there it is.
This is why I spend so much time lately teaching “media literacy,” which asks the former audience — still consumers but also creators — to be active users of media, not passive readers/watchers/etc. This is, in the “consuming media” process, about being skeptical and using judgment; understanding our own biases and working to challenge them; listening to others who may disagree with us; asking questions; waiting before trusting what we see; and so much more. It’s also about recognizing our role as media creators. As we wield our cameras we are obliged, if we want to be trusted, to be honorable.
One element of danger for the citizen video maker — being challenged or arrested or worse by people in authority who don’t want you capturing what they do — is lessening. In fact, the “war on photography” by police and others in power could soon be moot, for several reasons. In the United States, at least, courts are increasingly recognizing a First Amendment right to capture videos of police in their public role. This won’t stop cops from breaking the law, as officers sometimes do by confiscating phones and deleting photos and videos they find objectionable. (Police departments and the politicians they report to don’t mind paying taxpayers’ money to plaintiffs who sue after abuses.)
Meanwhile, technology is reaching a point where police soon won’t realize they are being recorded. It’s been possible for years to buy cameras that become part of our clothing. Google Glass made people realize how trivial it will be to embed cameras in eyewear. Soon enough, we’ll be able to capture videos simply by looking at something; Google, Samsung and Sony (and certainly others) are working on camera/recording devices embedded in contact lenses.
Again, this technology will be used for bad purposes we can easily imagine. And that will inevitably lead to moves aimed at preventing those uses, which in turn leads to free speech and other essential liberties.
Surely the authorities are delighted to hear of Apple’s new patent that lets police (and presumably others, such as big-time musical acts and movie theater owners) block iPhone recording “in areas where picture or video capture is prohibited.” From a company as control-freakish as Apple, it’s no surprise to learn of such a thing. From the context of free expression, it’s potentially catastrophic — and your fears should grow in a world where huge, centralized companies, often working closely with governments, become the venues for expression.
We need to ask now, not tomorrow, who controls the media we create and consume. Increasingly, it’s not us.
Perhaps smart people will find ways around phone makers’ constraints. (I assume they will, actually.) But what will we have gained when we take videos of newsworthy events if the videos are then disappeared by Facebook or Google or Comcast other giant platforms and telecom carriers?
Facebook is the most immediate threat, because it has become the default venue for conversation, and for news. It is also visibly unprepared for this role. Facebook hasn’t given a plausible explanation for its initial removal of Reynolds’ video soon after she posted it. Perhaps, as some smart observers suggest, the video was flagged by other Facebook users, prompting an automatic takedown while the company decided what to do about it (it went back up). Or perhaps the police who confiscated Reynolds’ phone took it down. Or perhaps Facebook itself decided initially to remove it. Or none of the above. The point is that the video remains visible because Facebook allows it to be visible. (Of course, in this highly visible case the video surely has been saved elsewhere and would be immediately reposted online if Facebook decided to remove it.)
The company’s policies on what videos — Live or not — and other material can stay online are incoherent. So, for that matter, are the policies at Twitter, Google’s YouTube and other user-created platforms. This is understandable, though obviously not good. At some level Facebook has no alternative but to make make on-the-fly and contradictory, even hypocritical, decisions. But as Margaret Sullivan of the Washington Post has observed, Facebook has to recognize that it is “in the news business.” It’s making editorial decisions. So are the other platforms. I’ve called them “the new editors of the Internet,” and and much as I wish that wasn’t true, it is.
But Facebook is the behemoth, and the one making the key decisions at this point. This is wrong in so many ways. It’s enormously dangerous that an enormously powerful enterprise can decide what free speech will be. I don’t want a few people’s whims in Menlo Park overruling the First Amendment and other free speech “guarantees” (in quotes because those assurances are worthless in many other countries). So I don’t use Facebook for my speech. I’m posting this, among other places, here on my own website.
But I’m just one person, and approximately 1.6 billion other people have made a different choice. I hope they’ll reconsider someday, but I’m not counting on it.
At the very least, as Facebook becomes what amounts to a “common carrier,” we’ll need to treat it like one under the law. The government can’t stop people from saying anything they choose on the phone. This has to apply to companies like Facebook, or they will have far, far too much power over freedom of speech and assembly. Yet asking the government to intervene brings its own risks, which are visible in many other parts of the world where governments routinely order social media companies to disallow certain speech.
The answer, or part of it, is what World Wide Web creator Tim Berners-Lee has called re-decentralization. A few weeks ago I spent several days with technology pioneers and young activists who want to save the Web and, by extension, the wider Internet from being controlled by a few centralized entities.
While they’re working on this, we should be experimenting ourselves with tools that don’t require us to rely on Facebook et al. For example, the capabilities of Facebook Live have been available via a project called “Rhinobird”, which uses open Web standards including WebRTC. And as projects like the “Interplanetary File System” take root, we’ll be able to use URLs as names of web content, not addresses.
These projects, and many others, are inspiring. I’m going to do whatever I can to help them succeed, because the stakes are so high — for free speech and so much more.
*The Reynolds video broke somewhat new ground in citizen journalism, which came to notice a decade ago. Citizen journalism got trashed, early on, by just about everyone in the traditional media world, and the flaws in the concept were certainly clear enough after a number of small and large “false news” debacles. But it was always important for its potential, and the countless cases where it was an essential part of the news flow more than made up for the downside. If nothing else, the act of witnessing — directly and not through intermediaries who may miss the context or the meaning — grew into its own media form. The more we saw videos of police misconduct, for example, the more white Americans had to understand whey black Americans feel they’ve been living in a different country.
(I’ll be updating this regularly during the day. New stuff will be at the bottom of the post, not the top, on the principle that most people reading this will read it only once or twice. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the method in my madness. For great to-the-moment info, follow Kevin Marks on Twitter.)
After an amazing Builders Day–a gathering of technologists who talked deep code about the potential to re-decentralize the Web and the larger Internet–it’s the official start of the Decentralized Web Summit. Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, convened the event and the archive is hosting it. (My blogging from yesterday is here.)
Note: You can watch a live stream of the event.
Mitchell Baker, executive chair of the Mozilla Foundation and Corp., is launching the day. She has three guiding principles:
- Immediate. Safe instant access to content accessible via a universal address without the need for install.
- Open. anyone can publish content without permission or barrier and provide access as they see fit.
- Agency: user agent can choose how to interpret content provided by a service offering.
It’s not about a particular technology, she says. It’s about much more than that.
Vint Cerf, one of the genuine originators of the Internet, is calling himself the “chief Internet evangelist” in the room. Fair enough. (More below…)
(I’ll be updating this regularly.)
Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, has pulled together an amazing group of people for what he’s calling–with only a tiny amount of hyperbole–the “Decentralized Web Summit.” Some of the “original architects” of this system–including Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee–are here, or will be, along with the younger and deeply committed architects of what we all agree we want in a general way. I’m one of the participants, but I’m in awe of the people around me.
Why is this necessary? Because our technology and communications are being recentralized, and controlled, by governments and big companies. They often mean well. And we, the users, often choose the convenience (or supposed safety) that come with letting others control our communications.
Today is “Builders Day,” in which we try to figure out what we want and what’s already available. Tomorrow is a more conference-type program, and Thursday is a meetup.
Brewster started the day by asking three key questions:
- How can we build a reliable web?
- How can we make it more private?
- And how do we keep it fun and evolving.
Mitchell Baker, who runs Mozilla, suggests three basic design principles:
- Immediate. Safe instant access to content accessible via a universal address without the need for install.
- Open. anyone can publish content without permission or barrier and provide access as they see fit.
- Agency: user agent can choose how to interpret content provided by a service offering.
For some great live-tweeting, check out Kevin Marks’ feed at Twitter.
The Builders are identifying themselves and what they want out of the day. Some have macro goals. I described mine this way: We need tech and communications that lets anyone speak, read, assemble and innovate without permission, and I want to help get that done. Others have more micro goals, such as fixing specific roadblocks to the decentralized net.
One of the best: “I want to see all the ones and zeros liberated forever,” says John Light of Bitseed.
You can see the participants here. This is why I say I’m in awe.
We broke into groups, looking for areas of agreement and disagreement, plus ideas on how we can build or push forward decentralization. Then we merged groups (twice) and boiled it all down again, in order to have specific items to work on this afternoon.
What’s crucial to realize is that this is not an easy problem. Even the definitions are nuanced and complex. For example, what do we mean exactly by decentralization in the first place. There have to be some kinds of control points in some contexts.
We started with groups of six. My group(s) talked about such things as identity, encryption, and censorship. Then we compared notes (literally post-it notes) with another group and settled on some essentials to pursue later. Five other groups did likewise, and a spokesperson from each reported out to the rest of the participants.
I made an incredibly amateurish mobile phone video of the recommendations and posted it to the Archive (not, ahem, YouTube), using the new and wonderful mobile app called OpenArchive, which runs on Android. (Here’s a link to the page where the video is hosted.)
Google’s Van Jacobson talked, in part, about the inherent problems with IP (Internet Protocol in this context, not “intellectual property). It was a miraculous achievement. But it isn’t scaling as well as we need to a global (and someday interplanetary) scale.
Jacobson is working on the NDN–Named Data Networking”–project that aims to solve some of the growth issues. One key piece of this is where trust resides in the system. Today we get much of that trust from where the data originates, but perhaps we can get it from the data itself.
He chides us for our one-time “technological determinism”–a belief that we could solve any problem with tech. If some of us thought the law, or at least judges, would come to see it our way, we were naive. We aren’t anymore.
People share resources for many reasons. One is money, and he says money creates stability in a key way. He likes “commercial structures” and open-source (“almost like science”) in different ways.
Tamas Kocsis is here from Hungary to talk about ZeroNet, a radically decentralized system that uses blockchain technology and BitTorrent to create “Open, free and uncensorable websites.” He shows a demo of ZeroBlog, one of the applications that he’s created from his platform, with seamless editing and publishing on a network that lives on multiple, loosely connected machines, because it’s operating entirely peer-to-peer. He’s enabled chat, bulletin aboard and more. The service can be connected to Tor for enhanced privacy.
A question from the audience from someone who was “super-impressed” when he first looked at it. Is there away of importing from existing applications (such as this WordPress blog)? He’s aware of the problem, but since there’s no back-end this is difficult. (In other words, no.)
Still, super-impressive, an understatement.
Much more TK…
For an online course I’m teaching, here’s an example of my media use. Note to students: I don’t expect your blog posts to be this long.
As a “consumer”:
My daily media consumption is enormous, because I do this for a living. Here’s what happened one recent day:
When I wake up I briefly check email and Twitter. If something seems super-urgent I may open an email or click through to a link. Usually I don’t.
At breakfast, using a tablet, I go to the homepages of the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and Financial Times. All of those outlets have a world view, and I want to see what their editors–some of the best in journalism–believe is important. I also check my RSS newsreader, which collects stories and links from a variet of sources I’ve pre-selected.
At my home-office desk:
— I run Twitter and Google+ in separate browser tabs but don’t try to keep up with it all the time (though I confess I check them more often than I should.) Whether an important story or some ridiculous meme is bubbling up, I’ll be likely to notice it among the people I follow. I also check 5 Twitter lists I follow on these topics: journalism, the media business, technology, entrepreneurship and media literacy.
— Besides regular email, I subscribe to several mail lists on those topics, as well as a great daily list of five items from This.cm, a site that creates serendipity for me. I sort those separately in my email inbox, and read them one after the other. Many of the links have already shown up in Twitter, and many point to the traditional and other media sites I routinely scan.
During the day I’m constantly bouncing around to various media including videos (typically posted on YouTube and Vimeo), audio (NPR and others), and other websites.
After dinner I sometimes watch videos on our television, but almost never live TV. We subscribe to Netflix, Amazon Prime and satellite (Dish). I record some TV series (e.g. “Justified”) and watch when I have time, skipping through the commercials.
On my bedside table I have a hardcover book or two (one from the library and one I’ve bought, the latter almost always written by someone I know), and a Kindle Voyager e-reader. I read for a half hour or so before going to sleep.
Takeaways (similar to what I found when I did this several years ago):
I listen to or watch very little broadcast media apart from NPR (or super-important breaking news, very very rarely).
My main sources of trusted information resemble some of the ones from several decades ago, such as the New York Times (which, like all other media, I do not trust fully, since they do get things wrong from time to time). I get to them in some different ways, however.
In particular, several Twitter lists and Google+ circles (roughly the same thing; collections of people I follow about specific topics) have become filters of great value. I can generally depend on them to send me to information I need to know about. However, I know I’m missing some important things if I rely only on other people to flag things.
For me, media consumption is an evolving collection of people, sites, conversations, and entertainment. Much of it overlaps. It takes more effort on my part, but I believe I’m vastly better informed — and entertained.
As a creator:
I create a lot of media, too, though not nearly as much as I “consume” (I hate that word; as I’ve told students in digital media literacy, we should use media, not consume it).
On a given day, here’s roughly how I created media. I’m guessing it’s different from what students do these days. Most of what I create is text. Not all, but most.
In the morning, I answered a batch of email. I do this regularly during the day, because I get a lot and I try to keep up with it. I’ll never get to the fabled “inbox zero” but I’ll try. Occasionally I get and send several text messages, most often with my wife.
I post frequently on Twitter, and more occasionally on Google+. (I rarely use Facebook, for reasons I described in my book Mediactive.)
Lately, I’ve been posting (too infrequently!) to This.cm, a wonderful new service that tries to collect–from a bunch of interesting users–just a few items per day that we all believe everyone should see. The site is in beta so I can’t invite all of you to join it, yet.
My blog doesn’t get enough love, though I do post there from time to time. On the day in question I wasted a lot of time responding to someone who was trying to convince me (actually, his own fans) that I’m wrong about net neutrality.
As a longtime photographer I take lots of pictures. I don’t post most of them, but when I do it’s usually to Flickr or Google+ or my blog. I need to do this more. I don’t have an Instagram account but probably should get one.
There’s a way I semi-create media that most of don’t appreciate: individualized media via online services. Example: I wanted driving directions the other day, and used Google Maps. It produced a page of directions and a map. This is media, too–but just for me.
My other media creation, on a regular basis, doesn’t get seen by anyone but me for some period of time: writing I’m doing for my columns and essays at Slate and Medium, as well as a new book. In a way, those are the most traditional forms of media I’ve been making.
There’s more, but you get the idea!
The “FBI-versus-Apple” story of recent weeks has brought a vital issue to the front burner: whether we will have secure technology in the future or not–or at least the chance to have secure technology.
In reality, this isn’t only about Apple or the FBI. It’s about the considerable weight of government in its zeal to have access to everything we say and do in the digital realm–which is to say, increasingly, almost everything we say and do.
The Obama administration, and governments around the world, believe they have an innate right to whatever information they want, whenever they want it. This is a law-enforcement-first mentality, and in many ways an understandable one in a sometimes dangerous environment. But governments also want something they assuredly cannot have: a way to crack open our devices and communications, willy-nilly, when we’re using encryption tools that make it difficult if not impossible to do so without users turning over the keys to their digital locks.
They call this a “privacy versus security” debate. It is, in fact, a “security versus security” issue: If they get backdoors into our devices, software and networks, they will–according to just about every reputable non-government security and encryption expert–guarantee that we will all be less secure in the end, because malicious hackers and criminals (some of whom work for government) will ultimately get access, too. Governments want magic math, and they can’t have it. It’s also a free speech issue, a huge one, because the government is telling Apple it has to write new code and sign it with a digital signature.
Sorry, this is binary. We have to choose. One choice is to acknowledge that bad guys have a way to have some secure conversations using encryption, thereby forcing law enforcement and spies to come up with other ways to find out what the bad guys are doing. The other choice is to reduce everyone’s security, on the principle that we simply can’t afford to let bad people use these tools.
Sadly, the journalism about this has been reprehensibly bad, at least until recently, outside of the tech press. Traditional Big Media basically parrot government people, including most recently President Obama himself, even though they’re finally starting to wake up to what’s happening. John Oliver’s HBO program last Sunday was a sterling example of how media can treat this complex topic in a way that a) tells the truth; and b) explains things with great clarity.
Mike Masnick and his site, TechDirt, have been leaders in covering the way various liberties and technology intersect. Now they’re crowdfunding to add more coverage of encryption and its ramifications. I’m supporting this initiative and hope you’ll give it some thought as well. We need more such coverage, and we can depend on Mike and team to provide it.
In Barcelona this week for the Mobile World Congress, where the sun is out along with teeming crowds for mobile technology’s biggest annual event–and I’m trying not to let jet lag slow me down too much.
I’ve been here (to Barcelona, though not MWC, a number of times, and never tire of the city. (A transit worker slowdown this week will leave a lot of people tired of walking and fighting for taxis, no doubt.) It’s accessible, not daunting, and friendly.
The MWC, I’m told, has been evolving rapidly–from a totally carrier dominated event to something much more open, the way CES turned from a gadget show to an everything-digital show. In fact, based on the list of exhibitors, there’s clearly a lot of overlap now.
One of the digital arenas I’m looking forward to exploring is ubiquitous computing and its cousin, the so-called “Internet of Things.” There’s almost unlimited potential to add intelligence to everything we touch, and then connect it all–and use the knowledge we gain to make our lives better, individually and in our communities. There’s equally unlimited potential for that to turn into the ultimate surveillance system, and in the several years that I’ve paid close attention to the IoT I’ve seen almost no evidence that the industry is even slightly interested in protecting our privacy beyond making a few pleasant noises in that direction.
One of the companies moving fastest in the global technology scene Huawei, which covered my travel expenses here, joining a group of tech analysts. It’s an absolutely huge Chinese tech operation, based in Shenzen, home to vast amounts of that country’s digital-gear manufacturing. The Huawei events here include the launch of some new consumer devices (I just saw the new “MateBook” 2-in-one Windows tablet/notebook with a detachable keyboard has a clean design, and is getting solid early reviews), I’ll be learning more about the company and its raft of global competitors, and plan to ask questions about how it will build security into its products. In fact, I’m planning to ask these questions of all the companies I visit when I make the rounds of the exhibition floor later this week.
Huawei, which has been mostly a business-to-business company, has big ambitions for end-user technology. One recent “design win,” as tech folks call it, was its contract with Google to make Nexus 6P phablet. I reviewed it last fall for Medium Backchannel, and was so impressed that I bought one.
More to come…
In my latest column at Slate, I ask why tech reviews typically don’t address–in any deep way, if they do at all–the rampantly bad security and privacy we endure in our digital lives. I also argue we need Consumer Reports, or something like it, to help us in this arena, since other publications seem so unwilling.
(Cross-posted at Medium)
Is there anyone reading this who does not use Wikipedia routinely? Be honest.
The online encyclopedia (and more) is just 15 years old this week. Consider that for a second. When I do, I tend to think this global collaboration is close to miraculous.
Needless to say, Wikipedia and other projects of the site’s not-for-profit parent, the Wikimedia Foundation, are far from perfect. Moreover, foundation and community are facing some internal struggles over key issues and decisions. Dig deep and you see an adolescent organization at a number of turning points.
But we should recognize, and celebrate, the achievements of the Wikimedia community. And we should all ask ourselves what we can do to help ensure that this unprecedented project not only survives but thrives in decades to come. In a word: Participate.
Before I go on, a disclosure: Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia and chairman of the foundation’s board of directors, is a friend, and I’m a small shareholder in his separate, privately held consumer-wiki service, Wikia.
I was amazed by Wikipedia from the minute I saw it. But I had no real idea how big, or important, it would be come. When I first wrote about it in my Silicon Valley newspaper column in 2004, I focused more on the wiki phenomenon — sites that anyone could edit? really? — and marveled that such a thing could possibly work. At the time, Wikipedia was nearing the then-stupendous number of 200,000 articles in English. Now it’s up to some 35 million articles in scores of languages, and still growing. English remains the top language, for all kinds of reasons.
Even if you rarely go to the Wikipedia site, you’re probably seeing its content, especially if you do a significant amount of searching on Google or other search engines. The results pages often include excerpts from Wikipedia, and those snippets can be enough to get a good sense of the topic at hand.
And if you’re like me, you go often to the site itself. It has become, for me, a first stop for all kinds of quick lookups. But as I tell students, with Jimmy Wales endorsement, while Wikipedia is often the best place to start, it is almost always the worst place to stop. At the bottom of any solid Wikipedia article is a long list of original sources from which site editors have drawn the information that appears in the article. Don’t quote Wikipedia, I tell students; quote from the source material.
The site’s most obvious drawback is, of course, its best feature: the ability of almost anyone to edit almost any article. Trolls, PR people and sock puppets abound. You can never, ever absolutely rely on the accuracy or neutrality — a core principle — of an article at any given moment. Inaccuracies, some deliberate, are usually fixed quickly. Sometimes they aren’t, however, and several high-profile cases of sustained inaccuracy have pointed to what looks to many (including me) like an nearly unsolvable problem: even if I, as the subject of an article, know that something is wrong, I can’t fix it without some kind of outside documentation (such as a news article) “proving” that what I know is right. The site’s rules, aimed at reinforcing a “neutral point of view,” make perfect sense in principle, but can lead to real problems for individuals.
The Wikimedia Foundation operates other ventures, including the Wikimedia Commons, a collection of (as of this week) more than 30 million media files that anyone can use. Probably the most important new initiative is Wikidata, an astoundingly useful linked database from a host of different sources of publicly available data. This is worth a separate column in its own right; watch this space.
For all their amazing qualities, Wikipedia and the foundation have more than a few problems. The finances appear to be in relatively good shape, but the foundation has been shaken by internal changes and dissension, and the legions of volunteers who make Wikipedia what is is are in what looks like a constant state of angst. Little of this has reached the wider public, but arecent blog post on “The Wikipedian,” a site that obsessively keeps track of what’s happening inside the project and the foundation, suggests the latest turmoil — with major leadership changes — is more than the usual stuff in any organization of this kind.
Andrew Lih, a professor at American University in Washington and author of what I consider the best book on Wikipedia (disclosure: he’s also a friend), tells me he hasn’t “seen this kind of (internal) tension in a long time.” “The overall health of Wikipedia is still strong,” he says, but the project and its parent are at what he calls a “pivotal point” in their evolution.
Among the pivots Wikipedia has to navigate is the shift from desktop to mobile computing. Wikipedia has a great mobile web version, for looking things up and browsing. But the mobile site’s editing mode is crude and the opposite of user-friendly, which strikes me as a major drawback since community editing is part of the point. The rise of video has also left Wikipedians somewhat uncertain; thanks largely to Hollywood’s insistence on locking down everything it can, open video formats remain somewhat stalled.
One of the longstanding issues, meanwhile, has been a lack of diversity in the community, especially among editors. The foundation has made this a priority, as it should.
For all the problems, the promise — and achievements — remain awesome. I find it difficult today to imagine a web without Wikipedia. The criticism, often justified, has led to improvements in the service and to competition from traditional and new entrants in the research arenas. But many places, Andrew Lih notes, Wikipedia is the only encyclopedia in a local language. On a recent trip to Armenia, for example, I discovered a vibrant Wikimedia community, which is working hard, with an explicit endorsement from senior public officials, to expand the localized Wikipedia.
But those of us who just use Wikipedia should do more than donate money. By a key measure, participation on the site has flattened. The community is in what Andrew Lih calls a “steady state,” but that’s not enough.
More people should become editors, and encourage others to do the same. I require students in a media-literacy course I teach to edit an article and participate in the online conversation (every article has a Talk page) about it. I ask that they pick a topic they know a lot about already — when they’re at a loss for what that might be, I usually suggest they add or fix something in the article about their home town — and that they understand the rules before they start editing. The exercise is illuminating, for them and for me.
About a decade ago, I was giving a talk about journalism at a midwestern university, and mentioned Wikipedia. This was still in the relatively early days of the project, remember. A professor jumped to his feet and, almost shouting, denounced Wikipedia as a pox on scholarship, and went on a sustained rant about a specific article that had, he said, a glaring error.
I asked him, “Did you fix it?”
A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.
The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.
Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources do its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us. So why should we be surprised when they apparently did it again, in a story that ran last Sunday. I say “apparently” because, as usual, we have to trust the Times is telling the truth about the latest internal scandal where anonymous sources played a key role.
Let’s assume the top editors told the truth about this situation to Margaret Sullivan, the organization’s public editor. Her scathing critique of the latest Times scandal, which she headlined, “Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article,” catalogued series of errors and failings.
The errors went far beyond allowing anonymous sources to poison the public well in the ongoing investigation of the recent killings in San Bernardino. Sullivan’s examination showed astonishingly lax newsroom practices. She quoted the paper’s top editors as saying they intend to create new procedures to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes again.
That would be great, but don’t hold your breath — especially when it comes to the granting of anonymity to people who repeatedly demonstrate they don’t deserve it.
Over the years, Times public editors have complained bitterly about the practice. Newsroom bosses have nodded wisely and said they take the problem very seriously and will change their ways. They never do. As former newspaper editor Howard Weaver posted on Twitter, “Like a hungover drunk who swears ‘Never again,’ the Times promises vigilance on anonymous sources whenever it gets burned, but drinks again.”
If the Times is serious about this, at long last, it could try to demonstrate its commitment to re-earning readers’ trust.
It could just stop — say “No,” and mean it, to everyone who demands anonymity. Say so publicly, and tell readers it won’t cite other news organizations’ stories that are based on anonymous sources unless and until there’s documentary evidence or confirmation from people who stand behind their words.
Try that for six months. See what happens. Yes, the Times would miss some stories, or get them later (and maybe get them right). Some readers, like me, would have more trust in what we were reading, too.
This doesn’t solve the problem of being lied to by on-the-record sources, of course. But at least then you have some accountability.
I’d make an exception to this rule, for the very, very, very rare cases — such as revealing the government’s illegal surveillance on the American people, or telling the world about human-rights abuses — where the use of anonymity is unavoidable. If someone’s life or freedom is at stake, and the story is important enough, readers will understand. They’ll still have a good reason to be skeptical of the story, however, as they always should when they encounter anonymous sourcing.
Another approach would be to disallow the use of unnamed sources in the publication without specific approval from three top editors — including the executive editor — who are biased toward saying “No,” and any one of whom could veto their use. Given the recent history at the Times, this probably wouldn’t change much of what emerges in print, but it would create a speed bump or two.
Finally, I’d urge the Times, and all who use unnamed sources, to do something else that would go a long way toward creating accountability under the current crappy system. Put a condition on granting anonymity: If the source for anything that the newspaper ultimately published turned out to have been lying, or even misinformed, he or she would be outed. Period.
Yes, this means that a source who’s been lied to would also be outed. Too bad. Maybe sources would be more careful in what they pass along in that case.
I’m not suggesting that any journalists violate any promises they’ve made in the past. A deal is a deal, even if we’ve been suckered. I am hoping some journalists will change the traditional terms in the future — for their own protection as well as the public’s.
What would happen if a policy like this were widely adopted? Journalists wedded to the current system will insist that we’ll have much poorer understanding of what’s going on. We can’t know for sure.
But I do know this. A policy like the one I’m proposing would a) dramatically reduce the amount of anonymous sourcing; and b) greatly improve the believability of the ones do show up in publications or broadcasts.
The Times is still America’s finest and most important journalism organization. I still pay for it, because I don’t want to see it disappear.
But until the Times and other news organizations clean up their acts, it’s up to you and me — that is, the audience— to solve this for ourselves. So I recommend you take my approach. I automatically disbelieve what anonymous sources say. Lately, it saves time.
(Cross-posted at Medium)