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Stuart Dredge: Algorithms: Today’s trusted News provider?

Stuart Dredge Trends

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Who’s your trusted news gatekeeper? For centuries, this question has governed our media habits, from rabble-rousing pamphlets in the 1600s to the newspapers and broadcasters that held sway in the 20th century.

It’s been a long run for journalists as the pre-eminent media gatekeepers, then, filtering the world for their readers, listeners and viewers. But in the 21st century, there’s competition: the filters are becoming the filtered.

Our new media gatekeepers are the algorithms of Facebook, Google and YouTube; the real-time stream of Twitter; and the blend of humans and code powering a new wave of media aggregation apps.

As a journalist, it’s exciting and terrifying in equal measure. What’s happening is the disaggregation of media, which isn’t a new idea.

Here’s VC Fred Wilson (and LeWeb’14 speakerblogging about it back in 2006:

“The internet is forcing the entire media business into a disaggregated horizontal model where the creation of the content will happen in one place, the editorial function will happen in another, the production will happen somewhere else, and the distribution will happen in yet another manner.”

And here’s journalist John Einar Sandvand writing about it in 2009:

“My guess is that disaggregation will continue and more users will choose to package the news themselves according to their specific interests. Users will expect that all different sources are available to them at the same place.”

Eight and five years on respectively, both those views look like decent shouts. We don’t just have our pick of news sources in 2014; we have our pick of news aggregators too. Flipboard, Feedly, Circa, News360, new Digg, Yahoo News Digest, Inside.com… the list goes on.

These apps are undoubtedly inventive. Yahoo bought UK startup Summly to form the basis of its app, which summarises news stories as bitesize snack-reads for mobile reading habits. Inside.com serves up short news nuggets too, but these are curated by a team of humans. Circa, meanwhile, is trying to blend summaries with original reporting, and like its rivals, makes data on its audience’s habits the driver for its growth.

Circa app

“The team at Circa can predict its traffic by the number of people following their stories and which stories they’re going to update… because readers follow stories and not topics or people,” said co-founder (and LeWeb’14 speakerBen Huh in 2013.

“They also know what every individual knows from Circa. If I read a post that contained the location of Zanzibar, Circa now knows that I know where Zanzibar is. That’s an incredible amount of data that is going to fundamentally change the way journalists cover news stories.”

An important point, though: the average person on the street isn’t using any of these apps. In fact, many haven’t even heard of them. Yet.

News aggregation apps are a niche in the same way that music discovery apps – an endless source of hype within the music industry in recent years – remain a niche. For news as for music, it’s the bigger, more mainstream picture that matters more. In this case, Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. Well, Facebook and YouTube in particular, because the jury’s still out on just how mainstream Twitter will get as a media platform. The other two are already billion-user platforms, with more growth to come.

These are our new media gatekeepers, aggregating huge audiences and sending them to individual stories, as well as a mix of old and new storytellers. Levelled playing fields where The Guardian, CNN, the BBC and MailOnline meet BuzzFeed, Vice, Upworthy and other emerging providers.

The future of media is increasingly tied up in these platforms, especially for young people. Here’s Kelly McBride of journalism school The Poynter Institute, talking at the SXSW conference this year:

“If you look at the research on how people get their news now, you often hear this phrase: ‘If news is important, news will find me’ – particularly for millennials. But behind that statement is something really important: if news is going to find you, it’s going to find you because of an algorithm.”

And here’s Upworthy CEO Eli Pariser, talking in a different session at the same event:

We’re moving from this world in which everyone types in newspaper homepages. Increasingly people are logging onto Twitter and Facebook, and they’re expecting an algorithm to surface the most important stuff to them.”

Who’s your trusted gatekeeper now? Algorithms that you don’t understand, coded by engineers you’ve never heard of, whose intentions and influences remain unclear to you. And yet: “These little pieces of code are more powerful now than a lot of the most powerful editors in media,” as Pariser put it.

Lest this seem like defensive old-media whining from a journalist terrified by their weakening influence, a clarification: this power shift fascinates me.

The promise of truly personalised media; of new forms of journalism and new journalists addressing new audiences; of your friends and the people you follow as a news distribution network; and of apps capable of learning your habits not just to serve up what you know and like, but to challenge your beliefs and point your eyeballs at things you don’t know that you like yet… this is all very exciting.

But there are two criticisms that often rear up when journalists get to chatting about all this disruption, one of which has more legs than the other.

The lesser is the quality issue: the assumption in some quarters that in a media world ruled by social sharing, the lowest common denominator wins: cat GIFs, PewDiePie, fourth-hand Apple rumours, dumbed-down heartstring-tugging, headline linkbait, or quizzes about which surprising household item used for secret agent purposes in an episode of MacGyver you are.

(Duct tape, goddammit. *shares on Facebook*)

This argument, though, often rests on underestimating the new media providers, and overestimating the old ones.

The idea sharpened in my mind this week, when the Daily Mail newspaper ran a spread assessing eight women promoted in British Prime Minister David Cameron’s latest reshuffle by the clothes they wore that day (“The Downing Street Catwalk“), and BuzzFeed responded with a post outlining their actual professional qualifications. Who’s dumbing down there?

Buzzfeed

We’re bringing more hard news on a relative basis than a lot of the traditional television networks do now,” BuzzFeed president Jon Steinberg told TV conference MIPCOM in 2013 (although the kicker to that story is that he recently joined MailOnline, the online arm of the Daily Mail… so media disruption now works both ways!).

Upworthy‘s tone might be cloying to some, but when it surveyed readers on what stories they were most interested in, the three top topics were climate change and energy; income inequality and poverty; and human rights.

“We have this real challenge where the story about Afghanistan or new policing methods or whatever has to compete in the same pool with Kim Kardashian or Candy Crush or everything else that’s begging for attention from the algorithms,” said Pariser.

“Unless we figure out how to make the important stuff really engaging, I don’t know that it reaches a broad audience.”

Vice is reporting from countries and conflicts that many mainstream media outlets (not all) often shy away from. YouTube news network The Young Turks is reaching an audience of millions of young people regularly written off as uninterested in news. PewDiePie is a sharp, funny guy who understands his medium and his audience… of 28 million subscribers.

So the quality criticism is misleading, or at least much more of a double-edged sword in the comparison of old and new media. Especially when you see the smartest people in the old world relishing the challenges of the new.

This is a big opportunity,” said Al Jazeera‘s new media department manager Moeed Ahmad during the same MIPCOM panel as Buzzfeed’s Steinberg, where he announced plans for an online offshoot called AJ+. “Our idea is to respect that audience, and make content that is native for them, made in a way they are wanting to consume.”

The second concern about this new world, though, is our lack of understanding of how the new gatekeepers go about their gatekeeping. We know – because it told us – that Facebook could show the average user 1,500 stories a day, but its algorithm filters that down to 300.

We don’t know how that works, any more than we know how YouTube’s recommendation algorithm works, or Google’s search engine rankings. We can guess – there’s a lucrative business in that for SEO specialists and social agencies – but we don’t really know.

We don’t understand the algorithms of the big technology companies (as well as the many media aggregation startups) in the same way we understand the people who own and run those traditional media sources, and shape their views on the world.

“There is this idea that is falsely propagated that we’re in a superior market of ideas because the algorithms are neutral. They’re not neutral: they’re all based on these mathematical judgements that the engineers have made behind the algorithm,” said Kelly McBride at SXSW.

“These people are not badly intentioned… it’s not like they have no concern at all for democracy, the same as those editors who controlled the marketplace in the 20th century weren’t badly-intentioned people. But we know there were unintentional consequences from letting them control the marketplace of ideas.”

The future of media is about the many benefits to gain from disruption of the traditional gatekeepers, and the wave of inventive startups – technology and media providers alike – that will be spawned as a result.

But it’s also about working hard to grasp those “unintentional consequences” and their implications for how we produce, consume and share media of all kinds. The better we understand our media gatekeepers, whoever (or whatever) they are, the better it is for our society.

 

The Evolution of Media” is just one of the key technology trends to be explored at LeWeb’14 Paris, by speakers such as Cheezburger’s Ben Huh. More programme info here… and more about LeWeb Trends on our Scoop.it news curation page, here.

Stuart Dredge is a freelance journalist, covering apps and technology for The Guardian, and entertainment technology for Music Ally. He notably interviewed Nest’s Tony Fadell at LeWeb’13 Paris. Follow him on Twitter here.

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