Journalist Cory Doctorow misses an essential point in an otherwise excellent Guardian post on information overload*
He argues that we should stop worrying about trying to stay abreast of everything because “signal amplification” will ensure the most interesting things eventually get through. We should relax, “it’ll be around again shortly”.
I broadly agree, but it’s the ‘shortly’ part I take issue with since the timeliness and excitement of breaking news is often what compels people to read, listen and watch.
That doesn’t mean we all live our lives panting with anticipation for breaking news on any topic in a kind of News Channel hell.
But it does mean that for things we are passionate about, or likely to affect us in profound ways, we want to know about them sooner rather than later and not wait for the information to eventually come round.
Hearing about events in the moment, as they unfold, ticks all the boxes for our need to know for which, I’m sure, there are deep-rooted anthropological explanations.
There’s social capital in being first with a piece of information and the osmosis of news transmission has grown rapidly in recent years through posts and tweets, linking and sharing, and recommending.
Mobiles are the ultimate end-product in this chain. They’re with us all the time. But delivering updates on diverse stories is a tough nut to crack for news organisations when speed needs very from person to person.
What’s compelling and vital for one might be of scant interest to another depending on the relative importance of the topic to them and their view of the world.
Push notifications need to be refined and filtered and not used in the current fashion as blunt instruments for relentlessly battering people with breaking news.
Anyway, with finite resources it’s impossible to prioritise everything as “urgent”, but it doesn’t mean we can’t, and shouldn’t, be doing better.
Twitter has stolen a march on many news organisations in this area with a flow of raw information which sometimes includes rumour, repetition and half-truth as well as high value, genuine ground-breaking news.
It has many more people sharing bits of information than any news organisation can muster. But its scale is also its weakness; the signal to noise ratio can be high and adjusting who you follow doesn’t wholly solve the problem.
The chap who delivers great insight on mobile topics is equally prolific in other areas that are not of interest – do you cut him out or take the chaff with the wheat?
Hashtags go part of the way to solving this but they usually are only added around major events or set-piece topics, not the general tide, and they take time to become established.
There’s room for a better service from the BBC between what it does now and what Twitter provides, but it needs a change of approach.
Could the BBC ever open itself up to new ways of presenting news in flux – showing what we’re hearing and seeing and what we’re checking out as well as what we’ve verified and confirmed?
I wrote about this train of thought shortly after the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
There are those who will only ever want authenticated, double-sourced, fully cross-checked material; for them the consequence is that they get information behind the curve but that they know it is accurate.
For those wanting a quicker service it means information may be contradictory or possibly even incorrect for a brief time – but they understand and accept that trade-off.
What we don’t currently offer are the variations of output or the tools to allow the audience to make that choice.
There is, of course, potential for reputational damage from exposing our newsgathering processes and that needs to be carefully explained.
But there’s also reputational damage from maintaining the status quo, of not adapting to a changing news landscape, and of not letting people decide which type of news flow suits them best.
News doesn’t always have to be a choice between only the slow lane and only the fast lane; there are times when we want to switch from one to the other and back again. Ultimately, we have to let the people decide.
* Incidentally, I came upon Doctorow’s article not by scouring The Guardian or ploughing through my Twitter feed but via an app called Smartr which grabs Tweets with links, pulls in the stories and presents them in aggregated news reader style.
And for managing information overload, look no further than tech blogger Robert Scoble who tracks more than 30,000 people via his @scobleizer account and reaps the benefit both of scale and smart filtering to manage the tide.