(I’m on a panel at the International Journalism Festival later today, entitled “The capture of traditional media by Facebook.” I’m planning to say some of what you see below. What follows is an early draft of a section of a book chapter, and I’ll be revising it a lot.)

On the cover of this week’s Economist is a photo mashup of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg as an emperor. It is a fitting image, given his company’s growing domination of online conversation.Zuckerberg as emperor

It is also a sign, one of many in recent months, that people in journalism have awoken to a potentially existential threat to the craft, among many other consequences of Facebook’s reach and clout in the information world. At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, where a Facebook representative stonewalled questions a year ago, more than one panel has been devoted to the issue of how journalism will work if big “platform” companies—especially Facebook—control distribution.

How should we respond? From my perspective, two primary schools of thought have emerged. One is to embrace that dominance, albeit with some unease, and fully participate in Facebook’s ecosystem. Another is to persuade Facebook to take seriously its growing responsibility to help get quality journalism in front of as many people as possible.

Both of those approaches assume that Facebook is too big, too powerful to resist—that we have no alternative but to capitulate to its dominance. But if that is true, the consequences will be disastrous. We will be living in the ecosystem of a company that has repeatedly demonstrated its untrustworthiness, an enterprise that would become the primary newsstand for journalism and would be free to pick the winners via special deals with media people and tweaks of its opaque algorithms. If this is the future, we are truly screwed.

I say: no. Let’s not give up so easily. Instead, let’s resist—and find a way out of this trap.

Before I explain how, let’s offer some due praise. You don’t have to trust Facebook, or approve of its “surveillance capitalism” approach to business, to recognize its staggering brilliance in other respects. The company is loaded with talent, and has become an entrepreneurial icon. It is innovative technically and quick to adapt to changing conditions. And I have no doubt that the vast majority of its employees, and some of its investors, want to do the right thing when it comes to free speech.

But Facebook is also becoming a monopoly, moving closer and closer to what Zuckerberg himself has called his goal—that Facebook should be “like electricity” in the sense of effectively being a public utility that we cannot do without.

And that’s where I’d start in helping journalists, and others, escape from its web. Here’s an early, and therefore rough, draft of the approach I’d suggest:

First, journalists should remember the proverbial first rule of getting out of a hole: stop digging. Sadly, with the advent of Facebook’s Instant Articles, a publishing platform with great allure in some ways, news organizations have abandoned their shovels and brought in heavy earth-moving machinery to dig themselves in even deeper. I’m not saying drop all connections to Facebook right now, but the dig-faster “strategy” is beyond short-sighted. It’s outright suicidal.

Second, journalism organizations should explain to the communities they serve how Facebook operates. Such as:

  • Invasion of privacy. The occasional articles we see about Facebook’s latest privacy intrusions barely begin to describe the massive way this company (and other online advertising operations) are creating unprecedentedly detailed dossiers on everyone, and then using this information in ways we can barely imagine. The ubiquitous “Like” button, found all over the Internet, is part of Facebook’s surveillance system.
  • Control of speech. Facebook decides what its users will see by manipulating their news feeds. It removes posts based on its puritan approach to sex, and reserves the right to determine what speech is acceptable, period. In America, Facebook’s terms of service overrule the First Amendment.
  • Becoming an alternate Internet. Facebook would be delighted if you never leave its embrace. In some countries, where it makes special deals with governments and (often government-controlled) telecom companies, it effectively is the Internet on mobile devices.
  • Evolving ethics. Facebook constantly pushes the boundaries of acceptable behavior, especially in the way it collects and handles data on its users. It changes its terms of service and privacy policy, often in ways that should alarm people.

Third, journalists should do what they have done many times before when they encountered threats to freedom of expression: ask people with political power to intervene. As Facebook takes on more and more of the trappings of monopoly and utility, we need antitrust officials and others in government to pay attention. Of course, Facebook isn’t the only threat in this regard. The telecom carriers are potentially just as dangerous to speech, given their wish to control how our information moves in the vital part of the networks they control. There’s long list of other threats including pervasive surveillance by government, and for the most part journalists have ignored these attacks on freedom of expression. I said in Perugia last year that journalists need to be activists on these fundamental issues of liberty, and renew that plea here.

Fourth, once journalists have explained all this, they should help the communities they serve take action themselves. This should include technical countermeasures—how to block, to the extent possible, all that surveillance by corporations and government, by using encryption; browser plugins that block the online trackers; and more. Journalists should also tell people how they can campaign for change, such as contacting their elected representatives and regulators at the local, state and federal levels; support organizations that help preserve liberties; etc.

Fifth, journalists should join and support the nascent efforts to counteract the centralization of technology and communications. It’s not practical to ask media people to create a decentralized, federated web that includes social connections as well as standard publishing. This is beyond their expertise. But they should be leaders in the push to get there, and give financial and other help to projects that further the goal. Moreover, they should lobby a key constituency that has taken only timid steps toward saving the open Web: philanthropists and NGOs. Foundations, in particular, need to put their considerable resources behind decentralized platform development, and news organizations can help convince them to do so.

Plainly, some of these strategies will be easier to pull off than others. But we have to try. The alternative looks grim.

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 check out a number of websites including Reddit, BoingBoing, Ars Technica, National Review, TechDirt, Jon Oliver (when HBO posts his regular commentary), among others.

— 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!

crypto

https://www.flickr.com/photos/yusamoilov/

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.

tedhdirt logoMike 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.

Google’s “Accelerated Mobile Pages” project launched for real this week, and it’s pretty amazing. I still worry about giant, centralized companies and their power–and it shouldn’t be needed in the first place. For more, check out my deep dive into AMP at Medium Backchannel. Key quote:

Before getting into details about what’s happening here, let’s be clear on something. AMP wouldn’t be necessary — assuming it is in the first place — if the news industry hadn’t so thoroughly poisoned its own nest.

Looking for money in a business that grows more financially troubled by the month, media companies have infested articles with garbage code, much of it on behalf of advertising/surveillance companies, to the extent that readers have quite reasonably rebelled. We don’t like slow-responding sites, period. On our mobile devices, which are taking over as the way we “consume” information, we despise having to download megabytes of crapware just to read something, because the carriers charge us for the privilege. That’s one reason why we use ad blockers. (The other, at least for me, is that we despise being spied on so relentlessly.) The news business could have solved this problem without racing into the arms of giant, centralized tech companies. But it didn’t, and here we are.

 

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…

(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?”

I took a lot of pictures in Japan last month, but my camera stayed in my pocket when we visited the atomic bomb sites and museums in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These monuments to the use of nuclear weapons against human beings–so far the only such use, may it remain so–are firmly in my memory, and will always be there as long as my mind is working.

UPDATED

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)