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Curt Monash on the Information Ecosystem

March 29th, 2009 · 7 Comments · General

Curt Monash recently published a pair of sweeping posts about the future of the information ecosystems:

They’re nice posts, and Monash does a great job of playing by the rules of the link economy (the one time I agree with Jeff Jarvis) and bringing together thinking from around the blogosphere.

But I do have some differences. I posted a comment on Monash’s post about where the information ecosystem is headed, which I’ll reproduce here:

I think you may be underestimating the challenge of transitioning from an ecosystem dominated independent information providers to one dominated by vendors or analysts motivated by self-interest.

Yes, everyone has self-interest–I’m not trying to suggest otherwise. But, much as I’m sure anyone who reads my blog takes anything I say about enterprise search with a grain of salt, I’m sure anyone who reads your blog maintains a healthy skepticism towards you say about the vendors you do business with–or about their competitors. I think there will always be a market for information that comes without conflicts of interest.

The question of course, is how large that market will be, and where consumers’ willingness to pay will intersect the cost of production, especially if independent information providers are competing with vendors or analysts who provide information for free in order to market their products and services.

And, while I’m specifically thinking about technology news / analysis, the same goes for other arenas, like politics. Do we want all of the reporting to come from activist organizations? Some would argue that’s already the case, but it could be much, much worse.

7 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Josh Young // Mar 30, 2009 at 12:19 pm

    I don’t want to quarrel too much with the notion that modern-day newspapers have represented a fantastically effective business model for the provision and verification of important facts about our world. I more or less follow Paul Starr and Yochai Benkler:

    http://www.tnr.com/story_print.html?id=c84d2eda-0e95-42fe-99a2-5400e7dd8eab

    Modern journalism has always had its flaws–or “warts,” as Benkler writes. And we’re not at all sure whether non-market and quasi-market solutions will prove sufficiently reliable. But we needn’t despair quite yet–at least not before we go through a few more iterations of startups looking to organize the news and to subject it to intelligent filtering.

  • 2 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 30, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    I agree that despair, while trendy, is premature. As much trouble as the news industry is in, it’s not like there’s a credible replacement. Indeed, much of the industry’s trouble comes from free-riding.

    What is interesting in my debate with Monash–which you can see more of on his site–whether people publishing without the prospect of either subscription or advertising revenue is a viable alternative to the current models. I.e., the Wikipedia approach. I encourage you to chime in on the discussion on his site–I wish I could mirror it here.

  • 3 Josh Young // Mar 30, 2009 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks, Daniel. I appreciate your invitation to join the conversation on Monash’s blog, but because I’d actually like to have a different debate–an abstraction of the one you’re having with Monash–I’ll proceed here.

    Here’s what’s going on.

    (1) Someone points out that direct monetization of content by selling it and indirect monetization via advertising are in trouble.

    (2) Someone else points out that there are other methods of monetizing content. Maybe people will report facts or filter and verify them because they feel some duty to do so or because they delight in it or seek fame from it. Or maybe people will seek to burnish a monetizable reputation by demonstrating expertise on the subject. That seems to be the strategy of analysts like Monash. (Generally, see Benkler on “Ideal-Type Information Production Strategies.”)

    (3) Then someone says, whoa! Slow down there! Aren’t there all these confounding problems with alternative information production strategies? Can we trust someone who butters his bread this new way or that?

    What troubles me about these doubts is not that they exist at all. It’s that they often seem to be put on offer with an air of exasperation or fatalism. Further, they often seem to smuggle into the conversation what they take to be the most relevant alternatives, which are decidedly less rosy than we wish it were. Traditional advertising-driven journalism largely failed to maintain a sufficiently jaundiced eye toward high finance, for instance.

    My point is not that all information production strategies are equally reliable–or equally speedy or efficient. I would hate to be branded a naif or worse. My point is that all strategies entail trade-offs. What we lose by de-emphasizing one might well be more than outweighed by what we gain from another.

    Substantial critiques from the left–like Manufacturing Consent, by Herman and Chomsky–hold that central industrial strategies of information production systematically favor corporate profit at the expense of news quality. But my point is not venal capitalists will inevitably cause their own fall. Rather, it’s just that, if we accept that there are problems with industrial strategies of information production, we might be able to muster more courage and creativity as we face the problems with information-age strategies. If we devised largely workable solutions before, despite real challenges, then we should get to work devising solutions for the future.

    To reiterate, I don’t at all fault the questioning of relatively new strategies of information production. I just encourage that the questioning be done with an eye toward solutions, not just problems.

  • 4 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 30, 2009 at 8:31 pm

    I agree that all strategies entail trade-offs, and that it isn’t productive to simply find fault with every alternative, since no alternative will be perfect. My concern is actually to determine which alternatives are viable, at least in principle.

    For example, I think we’ve learned that paying for articles by the piece isn’t going to work, even if the payments are minuscule. I hope you agree it isn’t fatalism to learn from painful experience.

    Other models are more in the experimentation phase. For example, the Wikipedia approach is doing quite well (so far) for encyclopedic knowledge. Its record on current news is more mixed, and at least suggests caution in banking on its applicability to that domain.

    So, while I agree that we need to offer constructive suggestions and not just aspire to be contestants in “Dancing on the Grave of the Newspapers”“, I also think we need to inform our suggestions by learning from experience and reasoning through the economic incentives to the best of our ability to understand and anticipate them.

  • 5 Josh Young // Mar 31, 2009 at 12:15 am

    Well, my attempt at devil’s advocacy has–happily, I think–failed! In other words, I agree.

    Part of what we worry about is all this verification that might confront us! Sometimes it looks as though each of us is going to have to do it individually and for ourselves. Which is impossible, of course.

    In fact, I think the problem of verification is generally a good subject for Coase’s brand of economic analysis.

    One instantiation of the idea, prominent in tort law, is that we should allocate the costs of solving a problem to the party who can most cheaply solve the problem. In fact, that’s one great reason to have our purveyors of news be large–because it seems only natural that there are probably economies of scale in verification.

    We can’t have only one central body, because that power would be inevitably corrupting, but it also seems wasteful–and simply impractical–to have approximately as many verifiers are there are consumers of information. So concentrating the work of verifying facts to a relatively small number of producers of information seems ideal, actually. This is simply optimizing the trade-off between oligopoly and inefficiency.

    But who are going to be the verifiers in a world in which information producers are decreasingly likely to be traditional newspapers and increasingly likely to be freelance journalists, bloggers, analysts like Monash, and even advocacy organizations, which will come with varying degrees of blatant partisanship? My gut tells me that it will be them. Many of the people who sign up to be the new producers of information will have to participate in a networked process of vetting one another in order to build their own statuses as trustworthy.

    For instance, they’ll be commenting on blogs that are more popular than theirs, and we ordinary readers will find them that way, follow them back to their blogs, and take a look around. Meantime, writers with popular blogs should incentivize comments, especially thoughtful ones, because they signal to readers that the writer’s open to criticism. A writer who’s open to criticism is more likely to have verified his facts and thought out his claims first.

    What does this mean? Well, I think there’s a really important upshot. It’s great that verification is done by someone who’s not the author. We don’t have to trust only the popular blogger or analyst to get it right. We can trust the selfishly motivated upstarts and ankle-biters to give a good fisking where appropriate.

    Also, the fact that other bloggers or analysts get something out of the process of verification means that it’s cheap for them to do so. In fact, they would only do the commenting if they expected a net increase in utility. Now, I’m certain that there’s too little reader attention to spread around to blogs to incentivize this kind of watch-dog commenting on all blogs, but it might be sufficient for the popular ones–or the ones whose writers command disproportionately more esteem from their readers.

  • 6 Daniel Tunkelang // Mar 31, 2009 at 1:40 am

    So, I can see how, if enough individuals see reputation as a valued good, then a social network can provide a platform for collective self-policing. In fact, I’d really like to see such a platform applied to domains other than journalism.

    But such a system depends on people being incented to invest in their own reputation. That works if their reputation gets them something else–career advancement, consulting opportunities, sponsorship deals, etc. And it may only be economical for those at the top–for everyone else, investing in their reputation may be a lot of work for minimal gain. Will such a system work if most people don’t play–or at most play passively?

  • 7 Josh Young // Mar 31, 2009 at 9:36 am

    While there are quite a few editors and fact-checkers now, there aren’t so many of them that we can’t imagine replacing them by self-interested amateurs. It might well be the case that “those at the top,” with sufficient incentive to groom their reputations, are enough to police serious news.

    I have no illusions that it would take an order of magnitude, or maybe two, more person-hours of vetting to arrive at roughly the same level of accuracy in news. I also have very little idea about whether these vetters would actually emerge in sufficient number.

    I do know that better identity-management and reputation systems would probably be necessary.

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