March 29, 2009

Where I think the information ecosystem is headed

The debate about the future of the information ecosystem rages on. As you might surmise from my choice of words, I’m on the side that says something new will rapidly evolve to fill niches vacated by the demise of a teetering economic model. To a first approximation, there are two major reasons to believe this:

  1. People have deep-seating cravings to opine, educate, and otherwise expostulate. Many will gladly do it for free. And labor represents the lion’s share of information-industry costs.
  2. What’s more, a significant fraction of news is something large organizations have a vested interest in releasing. To the extent that’s true — and there certainly are major exceptions in areas such as debunking and investigatory journalism — ordinary enterprises can be and indeed already are a major source of resources for the information ecosystem.

Here are some of the species I believe will thrive or at least survive in the part of the ecosystem focused on enterprise IT news:

Yes, the trade press has been eviscerated, and subscription analyst firms have their issues too. Even so, for somebody who sets out to read up on an IT subject and make an informed judgment about it, I can think of no time that the available resources were any better than they are now. And if they exist — and if you have enough understanding of how computers access data to be an IT professional — you can usually find them easily via Google. So I don’t think tech journalism is dying out in some dangerous way.

Similar stories could be told in other sectors as well, with somewhat varied details. In consumer technology, page views actually are numerous enough to matter. In sports, fan forums and talk radio play a bigger role.

And in politics, every blogger can weigh in, no matter what her ostensible specialty. Community political activists may need to carry the torch on some investigative reporting — so they will. Yes, it’s all a lot messier than a simple model of “Trust Walter Cronkite and your local morning paper.” But in the end, it will serve the readers/viewers/listeners at least as well.

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Comments

17 Responses to “Where I think the information ecosystem is headed”

  1. Daniel Tunkelang on March 29th, 2009 12:32 pm

    Nice piece–you seem to be on a roll with this grand summary pieces.

    But 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.

  2. Curt Monash on March 29th, 2009 3:21 pm

    Daniel,

    One key point is that many people have BS filters in place already. The style and focus of cynicism has changed, but recent young generations are no less skeptical than the famed early Baby Boomers of the 60s. In many ways they’re even more skeptical.

    Yes, many people are trapped in the Limbaugh/Faux News echo chamber. But if they do talk with anybody outside it, those acquaintances have tons of persuasive counter-resources to expose them to. And all it takes is a link — you don’t need to persuade them to change newspaper subscriptions, change preferred news channels, whatever.

    There are several paths whereby somebody might come to regard me as trustworthy. They might read my work, show how I present multiple sides of an issue, see my explicit disclosures, etc., etc. (But only if I write clearly enough that they think I know what I’m saying, and that I didn’t try to slip something past them.)

    Or they might generally take a note of my personal style, decide I’m honest, look at my credentials, decide I know what I’m talking about, etc.

    Or they might rely on reflected credibility from the press who quote me, the multiple competing vendors who point to me, the search engine results pages that summarize all that, etc.

    Or it could be any combination of the above.

    And oh by the way, they might decide I am highly trustworthy in some areas, but in over my head or simply mistaken in others.

    Taken together, that all seems to suffice.

    Am I confident that my own business model will hold up in its present form? Not at all. If the industry ever settles into a boring oligopoly the way it appeared to be doing a few years ago, my revenue from small vendors will plummet, and I’ll need to make some sort of change to replace that. (And hence my pro-active attempts to seed growth in user consulting even before I really need that.) But the financial and psychic incentives will always be there for SOMEBODY — and indeed enough “somebodies” — to step forward and fill in the gaps so that the community isn’t too underinformed or misled.

    CAM

  3. Daniel Tunkelang on March 29th, 2009 4:25 pm

    Fair points. And I suppose I similarly rely on my reputation to mitigate people’s concerns about my potential conflicts of interest, or I wouldn’t publish a blog that overlaps so much with my profession.

    Still, there’s a long way from the current ecosystem to one where everything is caveat lector. People may claim to be skeptical, but the reality is that they often do believe what they read, e.g. http://thenoisychannel.com/2008/09/15/information-accountability/

    And one of the best ways for me to trust an information provider is to know where his or her bread is buttered. When I pay for information products and services, I can reasonably expect that the provider is acting in my interests. When I don’t pay, I should reasonably wonder in whose interests the provider is acting, and how well those interests align with my own.

    I worry about a cultural shift towards a model where it’s much more expensive–and perhaps even impossible because of the diminished market–to pay for trusted information because there’s no economy of scale. Still, I can see how such an eventuality may be inevitable if the ease of digital reproduction makes everything either free or custom.

  4. Curt Monash on March 29th, 2009 6:07 pm

    Daniel,

    Good point that part of reputation is scale. If one has a lot to lose by selling out, then one may be correctly perceived as unlikely to do so.

    But what replaces that is a different scale — the scale of the internet. Lots of individually less convincing arguments for somebody’s credibility can, on a whole, add up.

    Example — I have detractors. I have people who have economic incentives to diminish my perceived credibility. But if you Google on my name or company name or blog names, you’ll find a little bit of nasty disagreement and zero substantiated claims of integrity problems. In such cases, absence of evidence is indeed evidence of absence — if I’d done things badly wrong, somebody would surely have gleefully pointed them out.

  5. Daniel Tunkelang on March 29th, 2009 11:46 pm

    Reputation may indeed by the key to making a self-interest-driven publication culture work, i.e., I make content available for free our of self-interest but maintain my integrity because I have so much to lose if I don’t.

    But there are a lot of issues.

    First, it’s far too easy to spoof people. For example, I could go around the blogosphere posting comments as you, and do real damage if I were subtle enough not to be detected as an obvious impostor. You might try to track all of the fake posts down, but frankly the blogosphere–and the web in general–is not set up to protect people from this sort of defamation attack. Indeed, much of what you read online has to be presumed anonymous.

    Second, people are lazy, and web search engines encourage them to stay that way. For example, many informational searches lead to Wikipedia pages, and the accuracy of Wikipedia pages depends heavily on their exposure. I recall a bogus Wikipedia entry on “active intelligence” that had been up for months before I noticed it and then recommended it for deletion (which then happened almost instantly). I helped (and got my blog readers to help) clean up a number of entries related to search, which had suffered similar rot.

    But of course this last story also supports your argument–my self-interest actually led me to contribute to collective good. And, if I’d crossed the line, others would have had (and still have) the opportunity to push back.

    Will the Wikipedia model of negotiated truth work for the information ecosystem as a whole? It’s a nice idea. But I think it only works on Wikipedia because, over time, problems get fixed. For an instant news cycle, such corrections would be too late to have much effect. In fact, we see already that bad reporting is almost impossible to undo, because first impressions are indelible.

  6. Daniel Tunkelang on March 30th, 2009 1:04 am

    Speaking of the challenges of online anonymity and reputation, I just saw this:

    When Famed Twitter Friend Proves Faux
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/03/27/AR2009032703509.html

    And there was this piece a month ago:

    Confessions of a Facebook Social Climber
    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123569857063289235.html

  7. Curt Monash on March 30th, 2009 3:02 am

    Daniel,

    I agree that the Internet is a bit of a Wild West right now when it comes to identity and impersonation. But if somebody really cares about being not-impersonated, they can easily set up a more visible authentic presence that overshadows the fake one.

    LeVar Burton (the actor who portrayed Geordi LaForge and Kunta Kinte) is a great example. He was impersonated on Twitter. So, spurred on by his former castmate Wil Wheaton, he went on Twitter himself and also started a blog. He easily proved it was him. And when somebody posted a comment under Levar’s name on a Network World blog recently, we knew it was really him — because he’d direct-messaged me about it from his authenticated Twitter account.

    The top eight or so hits on my name on Google are for sites I pretty much control. The same figure for you is about seven. At your or my level of celebrity and/or perceived authority, impersonation simply is not a problem.

    Admittedly, the challenge of fighting off impersonators is harder for people who have no other online presence, as per http://www.networkworld.com/community/node/29625. But that’s not really germane to the discussion about journalism, news organizations, and/or their replacements. Clear internet identities are established; they make and communicate judgments about each other’s credibility; and the whole system muddles through.

    Your point about people TEMPORARILY believing bogus “news” is harder to refute. However, what’s the harm, as long as the errors are quickly corrected? Oh, I can think of lots of theoretical harm if the situation keeps getting worse. But I think instead it will get better, as the Internet continues to mature.

    Thanks for the great commentary!

    CAM

  8. Bob Geller on March 30th, 2009 4:47 pm

    Great post, Curt, agreed it seems like you are have quite a few of these summary pieces in you and I also enjoyed your wrap on the state of newspapers and print media. As you pointed out there, perhaps we can find parallels between what is happening on the science and tech journalism sides. From the PR realm, my arena, it looks like what used to be separate fiefdoms – analysis, media, blogging, vendors, users, etc. are blending into something we call the rise of the online influencer as I detail in my post on Flack’s Revenge today.

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