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Taking a Wikileak

In my obligatory post about Wikileaks as the story du jour, I point to the great set of questions Dan Gillmor has posted in his column at Salon. These are especially lucid. I like especially Dan’s point about the character of the communications that were leaked, that many of the messages are gossip. Journalists are dutifully reporting “facts” gleaned from the leaked material without necessarily digging deeper, verifying and analyzing. Of course, they don’t have time – the information environment moves too quickly, he who hesitates is lost, accuracy be damned.

Then again, journalism is so often about facts, not truth.  Facts are always suspect, personal interpretations are often incorrect, memories are often wildly inaccurate. History is, no doubt, filled with wrong facts and bad interpretations that, regardless, are accepted as somehow “true.”

The high-minded interpretation of this and other leaks, that people need to know what is being said and done by their representatives in government, especially in a “democratic society,” is worth examining. We’re not really a democracy; government by rule or consensus of a majority of the people doesn’t scale, and it would be difficult for the average citizen to commit the time required to be conversant in depth with all the issues that a complex government must consider.

Do we benefit by sharing more facts with more people? (Dan notes that 3 million or so in government have the clearance to read most of the documents leaked – this seems like a lot of people to be keeping secrets… is the “secret” designation really all that meaningful, in this case?) But to my question – I think there’s a benefit in knowing more about government operations, but I’m less clear that this sort of leak increases knowledge vs. noise.

I’m certain about one thing: we shouldn’t assume that the leaked documents alone reveal secrets that are accurate and true. They’re just more pieces of a very complex puzzle.

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Data, Markets, and Power

There’s an election Tuesday, and you’re probably going to vote – whether your vote is meaningful or not. Some call voting a “ritual,” which is not at all to say that it’s not meaningful – rituals do have meaning. But the word is that it’s a symbolic rather than functional, practical event. The actual eddies and currents of power feel little or no impact from your single vote.

Where can you have a real impact? Doc Searls and colleagues working through Project VRM and the Internet Identity Workshop are catalyzing a redefinition of the computer-mediated vendor/consumer relationship, with the potential to transform power relationships in markets rather than in the political sphere. However market experiences dominate so much of our daily commitment of attention and thinking, a redefinition of marketplace relationships could be a redefinition of relationship and power more broadly. If we assume symmetry in vendor/consumer relationshiops, we will also assume that the relationship of an elected official to her constituents will be more symmetrical.

I’m reading Doc Searls’ “The Data Bubble II,” which includes a lot of homework – links to other articles and posts I might read to get deeper into the subjects of online identity and relationship as they pertain to marketing and the redefinition of vendor/consumer relationships. Doc quotes John Battelle, who discusses how emerging conversational media inspired an economic model he calls conversational marketing, “simply the tip of a very large iceberg, representative of a sea change in how all businesses converse with their constituents – be they customers, partners, or employees.” Battelle calls it “The Conversation Economy,” for which Doc says “we’re going to need individuals who are independent and self-empowered.”

Back to voting: the vote is symbolic of your share as a citizen within a power structure that is supposedly of, for, and by the people, though it’s increasingly obvious that votes and voters are manipulable and nodes within power structures are corruptible. In arguing for a more participatory or democratic set of structures, it’s important to know that supposed majorities are also corruptible and can be crazy as hell. We need structures that empower and that also include checks and balances on those empowered. We want to build sanity into the architecture of power, and ease dependence on the ethics and logic of mere mortals. If we build such structures for markets, they will have an impact on governance as well.

(Also interesting: Doc refers to David Siegel on “The Social Networking Bubble.” Siegel says “We’ve overstated and overemphasized the utility of social networking and are now in a marketer’s ‘greater fool’ territory.”)

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Video as a condiment

A citizen activist asked my opinion of adopting an online televsion platform for activist work. Example: CitizenSolutions.tv, “communicating what works for America.”

My response: if you’re asking me if I think a citizen’s group should adopt a web version of one-to-many broadcast technology and support efforts to turn the web into television, I have to say no.

I had a conversation not long ago about a diet with meat vs no meat, and the nutritionist I was talking to said that meat should be used as a condiment, not a main dish. That’s probably how you should approach video.

There’s a lot of interest in adding video to web sites, and we’ve worked on projects where it makes good sense to do that. I’ve also worked on activist projects where we used video effectively. You might use video to show irregularities at the polls (something we did in 2004 and others have done since – Video the Vote is a good example. You might also use video to show what mainstream media chooses to ignore – as Indymedia, for instance, has done.

There will inherently be more and more video and rich media online, but we have to think about the context we’re creating. I know there are ways to be interactive in and around video, but I’m still concerned that more video = more passive watching, less interaction. The web promised more: I’m remembering the tag line Paco Nathan came up with for our media company, FringeWare: “Because your television doesn’t love you anymore.”

(Disclosure: I actually do watch televsion, probably far more than I should.)

What do you think?

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$9 billion citizen journalism hit

At CNN’s iReport.com, a “citizen journalist” calling himself “Johntw” posted a report that Steve Jobs had been rushed to the ER following a heart attack. Word spread to and beyond Digg, across Twitter. Apple stock dropped quickly, a $9 billion loss based on the rumor. Though iReport posts aren’t vetted, the CNN association probably lent credibility to the report. [Link]

The Jobs incident was the second time in a week that mainstream media organizations have been embarrassed by their online citizen journalism arms – sparking debate about the accuracy of reports from these Web sites and showing how it takes only a few minutes for a scurrilous rumor, placed on a site without sufficient editorial checks, to inflict damage.

So what’s the cure? A dozen years ago Bob Anderson and I were talking about the emerging new media ecology and the question of information authority in that context. We figured media literacy should be taught alongside reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Support critical thinking, not censorship or authoritarian structures for distributing information.

Education isn’t always enough, sometimes you really do need moderators, hopefully with a light touch. The SFGate story linked above says how sexually explicit photos were posted at CBS’mobile phone application site, after which CBS promised “to redouble its efforts to police content.” A moderator had quickly removed the photos. Some might argue that photos should be screened before they’re posted, and some sites would do it that way, but that’s a daunting task, especially where you may have thousands of posts, and it’s not in the spirit of the many-to-many mediasphere. CNN does have moderators for iReport, but they’re not checking facts… “mostly, it is the job of iReport users themselves to weed out erroneous or inappropriate material.” That’s the social media way – the “vetting” is crowdsourced, and the reader must read critically, never assuming that the “news source” is correct. I would argue that’s always been the case, even with the best journalists. I’ve never been close to a news story that wasn’t wrong in some of the particulars, at least from my perspective. And that’s part of the problem – perspectives and interpretations differ. That’s why I left journalism behind – when I was in journalism school, it seemed pretty clear that it would be hard to tell the truth. Only a few gonzo journalists, a la Hunter Thompson, realized they, and their biases, had to be transparent within the reporting…