Jon Steward did a funny bit last night, referencing how the major news networks were forced to rely on the “hearsay” of Twitter and Facebook postings to understand the events unfolding in Iran.
But with the State Department requesting that the good folks at Twitter delay their scheduled site maintenance to keep Tweets flowinng from Iran, you know we have turned a corner.
So in all seriousness, in the era of twittering and crowdsourced journalism, are journalists themselves still relevant? Obviously I am not the first person to ask this – or to piss people off by asking it again. But it needs to addressed squarely and honestly. And it has nothing to do with the importance of the profession and the need for quality reporting and information. Rather, it has to do with the benefits of collective reporting. Going back to James Surowieki’s supposition in the Wisdom of Crowds, the decisions made by, by a diverse group of people is better than the the decisions made by the smartest “experts” in that group. Applying that to journalism it means that journalists, as the smartest or most informed of the investigating group, will provide less accurate and useful information than an aggregation of the input of spectators and citizen journalists. It’s the same principle behind statistical analysis and surveying – the bigger the sample the more accurate the results.
Obviously journalists are already using Twitter and a plethora of other social media tools to gather information and accumulate a larger sampling of insights and information. But why couldn’t we simply develop a smarter aggregation and filtering tool to replace journalists altogether? Wouldn’t that ultimately remove the biases and limited experience that reporters have on a particular subject? One could even argue that journalists are perhaps the least qualified to report on an issue because of a lack of relevant expertise or direct experience. So why not let the crowd, including far more knowledgable experts, chime in to get us the best possible information?
Let’s use an example. On a college campus the rumor mill churns out a constant “feed” of stories about who did what, who is sleeping with whom, etc. Those spreading the rumors without having had first hand knowledge, much like uninformed journalists, are getting it wrong. But by tapping into the collective intelligence of many students, some with relevant information and some without, a richer and more accurate story can emerge. Facebook and other social networking and information aggregation tools (i.e., Truemors) are a very rough move in this direction.
As the next generation “smart” or semantic Web comes online, with much of our individual and collective information made publicly available, one would assume that the need for human aggregators and interpreters becomes less and less useful. And in fact crowdsourced information becomes much more reliable than any one individual perspective, be it from interviewing a handful of experts or bystanders, or not.
Is there still a need for vetting and fact checking of stories. Absolutely. But isn’t that something a machine, building off our collective intelligence, could be trained to do far better than any one human or editorial staff? Of course this ignores the fact that machines aren’t good at storytelling or understanding the nuances of human emotions and interactions – that which makes for good reporting and journalism. But maybe that’s something the machine could be taught as well? Maybe even doing it better than the tired old formulas used in most mainstream reporting?
In the meantime, and although I hate to say it, it is likely that journalists will see their jobs flittering, or rather Twittering, away.
If Craigslist killed the classifieds, its not unlikely that Twitter and its ilk could just as easily put another nail in the coffin of professional journalism.
P.S. Feel free to Twitter any responses to plamb.