I'm getting ready for the Future of News and Civic Media Conference, and as part of the preparation we have been putting together a research/development site as part of our work for our KDI project. We are still evaluating the different options that will make it into the initial versions of our platforms.
For this stage of the research, we chose to focus in on the events of the Iranian election -- first, I was woefully underinformed about the events of this election, and given the noise (or, some would say the lack of it) about the event, this seemed like a good opportunity to set up a tool that would provide an overview of the event, with a cross-section of primary source material (largely from YouTube and Twitter) and content from more polished sources (both blogs and traditional/mainstream media). In a few ways, this provides a real use case: if an organization doing grassroots organizing wants to find out about and publicize events occurring in several places on the same day, this type of aggregation from multiple sources allows real-time data collection from disparate sources. People can continue to use the tools they already use to discuss their work, and the main site can collect information from these sources and present/recontextualize it from a central location.
With minimal effort, we were able to put together a rough set of tools that allows people to get a perspective on the events going on in Iran. We built the site using tools freely available within the Drupal community. The bulk of the heavy lifting is done using FeedAPI and friends, and the folks over at Development Seed deserve huge kudos for unleashing these tools into the world. We also used the Views module to split out the content of the feeds. Obviously, the resulting site is a proof of concept, more of a pre-alpha prototype than anything else, but the site is useful as a research tool. We'll also continue developing on the site after publishing this post, so the site will undergo changes over the next few days as we modify things/tinker.
On our testing site, the Twitter traffic provides a pretty scattered overview, but taken in aggregate it allows one to scan raw data over time and get a sense of the ebb and flow of events on the ground. Initially, this feed was pretty free from spammers, but lately some opportunists have taken to using the #iranelection hashtag to get a broader audience for their content.
The YouTube videos provide another means of getting a sense of what is happening. As with any piece of media, the source of the content and bias of the author need to be taken into account. Also, our means of collecting these videos is certain to miss some content, as we are just aggregating the feed for the search term "Iran election protest".
The content coming from MSM outlets and blogs is admittedly arbitrary -- we tended to favor sources that had a clean tag for either Iran or the Middle East; the dearth of effective tagging on information coming from both traditional news outlets and some group blogs is discussed in more detail later in this post.
The important piece of this from our perspective: this tool can be easily built and focused on just about any topic. When it is set in motion, the site will gather and import information that can be used, analysed, recontextualized, or otherwise modified. This can be a tool used for any topic discussed on the web:
grassroots organizing/community media -- use various data streams to collect information in real time that can be analyzed/collected/synthesized over time
lesson creation -- aggregate writing about a specific topic, then choose the imported resources that align with your learning goals. Edit these assets as needed, or add in information that is missing
farmer's markets -- farmers/sellers/market organizers use a microblogging platform to describe what they will be selling, and where; this information can be aggregated and geotagged, allowing an accurate breakdown of what is for sale at local markets.
As we built this out, we encountered some surprises. A short list includes:
The Wall Street Journal uses feedburner as their for their RSS tracking. However, this is exposed in their feeds (or at least in their World News RSS feed), and the original URL of their article points to http://feedproxy.google.com, as opposed to a location within WSJ.com. Additionally, the only tag for all content coming out of this feed is "Free". At the risk of stating the obvious, tagging all posts in your outgoing RSS feed as "free" is worse than useless. I have a hard time believing that they don't have the resources to do this well, which makes me wonder why it is allowed to be so sloppy.
NOTE: The following paragraph was edited because, well, it is completely wrong. The Huffington Post nails syndication. The links on the syndication page point out to RSS feeds of several dozen tags. In short, it rocks.END NOTE
The Huffington Post, which makes extensive use of tags to categorize posts, only offers 4 RSS feeds (Full feed, Latest news, The Blog, Featured posts) of content. Even though you can browse posts by tag on their site, you can't actually aggregate by these same tags. Given how easy it is to expose the content of any tag via an RSS feed, I can only conclude that the choice to not support feeds based on tags is tied to their business strategy. Given how little of the Huffington Post homepage is actually original content, it's surprising to see them reducing the number of ways people can interact with their site.
As a final note on this, it's not uncommon to see other more popular group blogs/major news outlets doing similar things. Talking Points Memo eschews aggregation by tags, and none of the major papers do much beyond feeds that summarize articles appearing in their standard sections. Within their RSS feeds, most major papers do little in the way of tagging content. Additionally, most papers/blogs include little more than a brief teaser within their feed. Given that most of these sites devote a fair amount of screen real estate to advertising (and some, like the NY Times, even embed ads in their feeds), their desire to bring eyeballs back to their sites is understandable.
However, an advertising-driven paradigm seems unlikely to work, and it seems especially shortsighted given that excessive reliance on advertising money is frequently cited as a contributing factor in the decline of newspapers. The new media economy seems unlikely to be a link economy; micropayments, paywalls, and/or "better" targeted ads feel equally fruitless. A remix-with-attribution economy feels more likely, with the looming caveat that no one has really figured out how to make that work in a way that makes all the people in the supply chain happy. But the necessary first step is to move away from the notion that the finished work is the starting point or ending point for profiting from that work; that places too high a value on the role of content, and how people interact with information. Content -- the article -- is the middle point of the process, and on the web "content" can be understood as one point in an ongoing chain of synthesis/recontextualization.
Working with aggregation -- arguably the simplest means of republishing and recontextualizing content -- gives an incomplete yet suggestive view into two elements: how an organization understands the web, and how they view the role of content. From what I have seen, both mainstream news outlets and popular blogs do a poor job of making the most of their content. If I had to reduce this down to a single reason, I would say that there is a perceived need to control how people consume content, and that this is tied to the need to pass eyeballs over ads.
However, tethering the distribution mechanism of online content to a strategy designed to generate more pageviews (ie, News as SEO) seems destined to fail, as the gimmickry of SEO doesn't mix well with unbiased reporting.
And I would love to end this post with the next great idea on how to support working writers within this model, but hey, it's late and I need to pack. But I'm looking to forward to learning more about other approaches over the next few days. I'll write up any ideas as they come, and for those who want to follow along, dip into the feed.