Caring for Your Republic

What is a republic? It is a state with the power resting in elected representatives.

Ah, but how many representatives, elected by whom? Would a single dictatorial position elected for life constitute a republic? Would every single vote for whomever you choose counting to elect them as representatives constitute a republic?

What do you do when the representatives choose to represent nothing like your interests? What do you do when the so-called fourth estate (journalism) does the same?

It seems plausible, if you assume that they have both done so, and for the same reasons, that the solution is the same for both cases.

It seems that the reason the representatives fail to represent stems from their reliance upon corporate donations and fund-raising to win reelection, and the reason that the journalists fail to deliver sufficient information to the electorate stems again from their reliance upon corporate support for operations.

The most straightforward manner to remedy this would appear to be to replace the payer. We would expect media that relies mostly on individual subscribers for support, rather than advertisements or corporate subscriptions, would provide the best information. We would expect those districts where the least corporate funding of representatives occurs to align most closely with the constituent interests.

But it gets more complicated. Districts aren’t drawn by formula, but by state representatives. So once again there’s the opportunity to inject high pressure corporate dollars into… there’s the chance for money to spoil representation.

Likewise with journalism, the best journalists in the world cannot really prosper without enough readership/circulation. And so they must go to the large markets, and the large markets attract more advertising…

Large markets are historically where the math works out for reader-supported journalism. But the Internet looks poised to support it, too. It may take some time, and it will take trust-giving by the journalists, convincing people they will get their money’s worth.

We can’t just up and decide to fund a new representative to congress, though. Diverse interests, historically underrepresented, can choose to fund and support particular candidates.

As yet we have not seen a major political upheaval via the Internet in the United States. But that owes itself more to the fashion/culture of American politics than any sort of contentment with the status quo. Barack Obama raised a large amount of funds through the Internet, but he was a mainstream candidate for a major office.

The change that’s being watched for is a swath of congressional elections or state elections to be upset by third party candidates funded via the Internet. And the question is how long after will they be controlled by corporate donations once more.

If the cultural/political change that’s needed is direct support of journalism and candidates, we need a definite understanding of that to convince the majority to begin direct support.


Comment on Comments

I’ve been following the Knight-Mozilla Challenges (Drumbeat: Knight Mozilla News Technology Partnership), and the second challenge is about improving online commenting and discussion.

Comments are Normal

In thinking about that challenge, the first thing that occurs to me is that the quality of any given comment will follow a normal distribution.  Most comments will be of an average quality.  Some will suck.  Some will rock.

Many of the solutions that exist today focus on changing the output.  They basically seek to filter the whole set of comments so that the shape of the curve for the visible comments changes.

I question if that’s the best approach.  Can and should sites seek to improve the quality of the average post instead?  That is, if they could constrain the input in some ways, to elicit better comments, would that be better?  If so, what would that look like?

It might take the form of a series of explicit prompts for comments.  Instead of having (only) a general discussion, you would have some particular aspects that you could comment on and discuss.  The idea would be to frame particular discussions around more specific aspects, to avoid the drift that occurs in more general discussions.

You might give users a choice to create a directed discussion topic or participate in an existing one.  You would give only a small group of users the opportunity to create directed discussions to avoid an overabundance of them and have them simply become roots of threads.

Non-comment Participation

If you seek to participate online, that is almost entirely restricted to a two basic tasks.  One is commenting directly.  Another is curating comments of others (via either direct voting, rating, moderation, or linking).

It seems like that misses some opportunities.  My hunch is that there are other participatory means that would enhance commenting, but also some opportunities aside from commenting that could be added.  One possible idea in that vein is paraphrasing.

In visiting a story, I read and comprehend it, and any comment on it will reflect my own interpretation.  One opportunity that is separate to comments but related is paraphrasing or summarizing the original content.  That would give users alternative interpretations to read before commenting.  It might better-inform the discussion, provided the summaries were strictly non-commentary.

As above, the idea would be to only have a small fraction of the users to provide summaries.

Commonality in These Ideas

Both of the ideas above express a common theme of moving away from general discussion threads.  They focus on subtly shifting the discussion toward less self-directed content.  This isn’t to say that people can’t self-direct their comments, but it’s an extraneous step in many cases.

By moving a small number of users out of the comment pool and into a different layer of the discussion/participation system, you provide an opportunity for different behaviors to emerge.  That harkens back to the initial point I made: shifting the quality of the comments rather than filtering the whole pool.  There are too many users stuck in the same behaviors of commenting, and the web offers an opportunity to focus on diversity of activity.

I’m encouraged that the Knight Foundation and Mozilla are working on enhancing the role of journalism on the web, and I am definitely looking forward to finding out what sort of innovations come from it.


The Economics of News Stories

When a big story breaks, like the killing of a major figurehead of a terror corporation, it follows the typical market model.  More stories (firms) enter the market (news stream) given the demand and resources, until the market is saturated (people get tired of it) or a more viable alternative (new story) comes along.

Just as a new product generates a lot of interest (a fad) for awhile, a new meme spreads rapidly until it reaches a point where it hits dead walls (places it either can’t spread due to lack of saliency or where it has already spread) or runs out of steam (the spreaders give up on it).

All systems are informational systems.  The fact that information spread is vital to every aspect of human life still has not quite been recognized by most policy makers.  Secrecy is the equivalent of clogged arteries to an economy; we get heart attacks, where lack of fluidity in the market causes various sectors (organs) to seize and cell death begins to occur (firm closures, downsizing, layoffs).

Worse than simple secrecy is the one-way mirror.  Asymmetric informational flows are poisonous because of the ability for only some firms to recognize trends.  When a piece of information is only available to limited numbers, it can never reach its full potential.  That is why Open Source works: spread the information of how a piece of software is programmed and the result is better software because more eyes swept over it and had the opportunity to refine it.

All of our current problems, from health care to warfare to budget to terror scares, are the result of poor informational flow.  Many of these problems are caused by man-made dams in the information flows, where a single company or an industry seeks competitive advantage or to simply perpetuate their cash flows through the ignorance of others.

It’s vital we recognize the harm from informational blockage, lest we repeatedly find ourselves victimized by poor information.


Citations Needed

I read news from many sources, and the mainstream media stands out in a reluctance to cite sources.  I’m not talking about their anonymous source for a leak, but common public information like polls and laws and press releases.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter—you can dig it up anyway.  Other times, though, the amount of digging to uncover it (if you ever can) is beyond reasonable.

It’s so easy to cite on the internet, but one supposes the mainstream journalists are from a time when space was too precious to include such important details as bill names or bill numbers or poll sources.  Indeed, sometimes they report on a proposed bill before the legislator in question has even published it or registered it with their house.  But even then, the courtesy of a followup with the concrete details, when available, is not beyond reasonable.

Of the many reasons I dislike and distrust the mainstream media, this is minor, but it is indicative of the unprofessional manner they tend to follow.