Monday, 26 October 2009

In a post on his blog, Cody Brown, a New York University undergraduate, addresses in some detail the current debates raging (sometimes blisteringly) around the problem of monetisation of news. Cody has a good grasp of history, which makes him equal to many of the decent opinion writers we already trust in newspapers.

But Cody's 'About' page also says he's looking for a Ruby developer. Ruby-on-Rails is a recently-introduced software programming language that is used to make web applications. In 2010, Cody wants to launch, which is a website for user-generated news (I guess) that Jay Rosen has mentioned in a retweet. Rosen is an academic at NYU and commands a large number of Twitter followers (as does Cody, for that matter).

Cody's post asks us to put aside doomesday predications for democracy predicate on the demise of mainstream media (MSM). The predicted demise is something that seems to be more likely in the US than in Australia, although news producers here continue to lay staff off, as they do over there.

He interestingly derides the appellation 'citizen journalist', but asks what model is going to be useful when it comes to compelling, say, a politician, to answer questions if MSM disappears. 'Citizen journalism' is a term, he says, designed to deride something that is actually hurting MSM. But what can replace the trustee model pioneered by The New York Times 100 years ago?

At the moment, we are bootstrapping. Whenever big news breaks on Twitter and thousands start commenting and adding details/screed/spam to a story we get a sense of both how exciting it is to collaborate directly in news online and how challenging it is to design a platform that handles it properly.

It certainly is interesting to watch the Twitter feed when a big story breaks. But the main problem for browsers is separating the wheat from the chaff. Spam is a problem in all online activities. But in Twitter it's particularly important if we rely on the medium for accurate news. When the recent Iranian protests broke there, not only did you get the more egregious type of spam, such as tweeps advertising something in the hashtag stream merely due to the fact that it was trending (popular).

You also got tweeps who may or may not have been authentic. There are ways to verify authenticity on Twitter. How many tweets has the person made? Does the tweep seem as thought they were created merely to profit from the popularity of the trending hashtag? Do they have an ideological barrow to push?

Verification is a particular issue for news agencies using Twitter in any way. The Guardian bravely kept up its commentary during the Iranian protests, but the speed of its work in no way equalled that of the hashtag. This is because The Guardian editors were trying to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Just because someone stated that thousands of protesters were walking down the street doesn't mean it's true. Video footage posted in YouTube may, or may not, be reliable. News of basiji militia, who are known to accost and assault protesters, being restrained by regular army, must be verified before it can reliably be reported.

We face the same problems all the time if we're ethical Twitter users.

I get a new follower and I immediately look at their profile page to ascertain whether or not I want them following me. There are several 'types' of new follower.

The best type are those I've been trying to get to follow me for some time. When one of these follows me, I feel elated. But this is a rare occurrence. Much more common is the 'social media expert' who is trying to get you to follow them. There are porn tweeps that you immediately block. There are borderline-authentic tweeps it may take a few more seconds to gauge, before you block them.

There are professional hopefuls. These are tweeps who run a business and they want you to follow them so that you remember them when it comes time to select a service provider. Often I let these guys follow me. Sometimes - if I am interested in what sort of things they'll tweet - I'll also follow them.

There are many types of tweep, just as journalists who use Twitter know there are many types of tweet. Authentication seems to be a primary need, so why don't news companies work out a grading system for tweeps and write a simple app that readers can use to gauge the authenticity of tweeps in the twitterverse?

In this way, news providers would continue to function as a trustee. But, here, they would not be authenticating the massive volume of information a trending hashtag can generate. Rather, they would be helping to authenticate individuals. Some sort of triangulation method could be developed. There could also be an appeals board where those incorrectly (in their minds) classified, could seek redress.

Twitter already uses Lists, although these are currently available only (I'm told) to about five percent of users. A media company that developed an advanced Twitter interface (it's really a service, anyway, rather than an app) that included an authentication system, might find that people began to use their app instead of popular alternatives such as TweetDeck or HootSuite.

The newspaper could then leverage those eyeballs and that stickiness to further its monetisation effort. Users get a better app; news companies get attention and cash.

It seems like a win-win situation.


Jonah Bossewitch said...


Have you heard of the swiftapp project:

It grew out of a merger of the Twitter Vote Report ( and the Ushahidi african development effort.

This blog post sums up their aims of "crowdsourcing the filter"

I think this is quite similar to what you are envisioning.

Matt da Silva said...

Great stuff. Looks like your experiences have spurred some interesting software development. I'm intrigued.

If you can supply some more narrative about how the engine decides - with scenarios - that would be nice.

But I still think there needs to be a curatorial element, so that the feed is as reliable and as pure and useful as possible. A news reporter can be a good guide for your average reader, bringing valuable expertise to play. They also have access to other resources that most of us lack, such as on-the-ground correspondents or regional offices.