Journalism in a world of open code and open self-education

by Doc Searls

Think about the differences between stories and facts. Between generating interest and pursuing knowledge. Between grabbing attention and building out what we know. Then think about the connections between the freedom to build code and the freedom to inform one's self and others. Because the former is a model for the latter.

We've been building free and open code for decades now. Most of the Net and the Web are built on public and open standards and practices that rely fundamentally on open code and open APIs. In turn these support a noösphere that is self-informing. In Homesteading the Noosphere, Eric Raymond drew connections between hacker practices and ideologies on one hand and a gift economy on the other. Today that gift economy also comprises much of both journalism and education — and challenges profoundly the established formalities of both.

The model of free and open code development was much on my mind yesterday at the Berkman Center, where I joined in deep, interesting discussions about journalism, and especially about how to measure the real progress of what is coming to be called participatory journalism — a more encompassing and accurate name for what we also call citizen journalism. Somewhere in the midst I began to think about the imperatives of traditional journalism — and how those only partially serve the needs of the self-informing public.

Two things stood out for me as markers of a difference. The first is the way we still write and read newspapers. The second is the way curious persons inform themselves about any subject of their choosing.

The basic job of newspaper reporters is to write stories. In simplest terms, stories are interesting arrangements of facts. What makes stories interesting are: 1) protagonists (persons, groups, teams, "issues" or causes); 2) a struggle, problem or conflict of some sort; and 3) movement forward (hopefully, by not necessarily, toward a conclusion). Whether or not you agree with that formulation, what cannot be denied is the imperative. Stories are made to be interesting. It is not just coincidental that this is a purpose they share with advertising.

Now think about how we inform ourselves without being pushed by journalism — or advertising, for that matter. Most of the time we simply "look it up". The Net makes this easier than ever, but not just because of its architecture and ubiquity. The Net is packed with useful information because people put it there. And most of them put it there not just to educate others, but to share in their own ongoing pursuit of knowledge. It is this heuristic imperative that fills Wikipedia, that drives the best blogs, that populates the most useful websites — and that calls forth the required code, and constant improvements to it.

When my 11-year old kid wants to know the height of Mount Everest, the differences between political parties, the arrangement of instruments in a string quartet or why the initial C in "Celtic" is pronounced differently in Boston and Ireland, he looks it all up on the Web, usually in Wikipedia. He also likes to read newspapers, and is more at home in libraries and book stores than in his own bedroom. But when it comes to feeding his curiosity about the facts that comprise the world, he goes to the Web, where countless others have troubled to help.

So, what does this mean for participatory journalism?

First, that we to recognize that not all participation on the Web takes the form of journalism. Even with dozens of millions of blogs, which are all journals in a literal sense, the bulk of informative writing on the Web comes in forms other than journals. Where do journals, and journalistic forms, fit in our new self-informing ecosystem? Not sure, but we need to break this down a bit. (Jonathan Zittrain's ideas about generativity might be useful here.)

Second, we need to recognize that journalism of the traditional sort has limiting imperatives. These are not just measurable in acres of print real estate, or in stretches of broadcast time; but in purpose. And here I think we need to visit the uncomfortable fact that, "Chinese wall" withstanding, journalism supported by advertising has a commercial purpose, and that this purpose cannot help but inform the writing of stories.

Third, we need to explore the nature of the story itself. How is it different from other ways of arranging facts, or their proxies? How does it differ in the ways it serves the need for individuals to inform themselves?

We can add to the list. But as we do we need to keep origins in mind. Code is Law, professor Lessig taught us. But code is more than that. It's what supports everything we do in our networked world. And that support increases by means of the same heuristic imperative that drives a kid to look up a fact — and for others to help him or her find it.

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