News as Software

Lately there have been a couple ideas bouncing around in my mind about news. To commit them to memory I wanted to write them down here. What follows is a rough outline of how I would structure a news organization’s online presence. These are by no means polished ideas but are first passes at a conception of journalism’s future.

The driving point behind all of this is an idea that I’m calling News as Software. What this means in my head is that news organizations need to start adopting some of the approaches that have been so successful for software developers on the web.

Use not Consumption

News organizations need to begin promoting the use of their product instead of its consumption. The traditional print product fit very well as a unit of consumption. Readers could sit down and consume the information. After reading whatever percentage of articles interested them there was not much left to do with the news. At least in my house the old product simply becomes paper to start fires with in the winter.

News as software requires a fundamentally different mindset. Software provides a sense of utility to users. It does something for them. More importantly it does that function over and over. Granted, this would be difficult to do but the first step is to break down the idea that news arrives in an organized package.

Experimentation and Play

Closely connected to this idea of news as software that people use time and again is the ability for users and developers to experiment and play with content. For the technically inclined among us Twitter is far more useful because of its API than it ever would have been as a limited website.

The API of a web service is what transforms something ordinary in something magical. The fact that I can use any number of client applications, or even other web apps, to read and post to Twitter is a testament to the ingenuity behind it all. By providing a platform from which users and developers can customize an experience Twitter has given us a service that we can customize to our liking.

Contrast this with any major news site. The New York Times simply does not allow for its users to play with the news. Sure, they’ve made initial attempts at doing so with things like Times People and the Times Skimmer but ultimately the content is staying within the New York Times packaged site.

Help your users

Every successful web app and desktop program I can think of has a thriving online community of users who help on another. Generally this is everything from fixing bugs in the software to promoting some of their favorite tips and tricks. Why doesn’t this hold true for mainstream news organization sites?

The New York Times has a “Help” page. You find it by scrolling all the way to the bottom and finding the link in about 11 px type. Perhaps this works for finding help with subscription related information or other things but it fails at stimulating the type of community that’s present in many web apps.

If I were a user looking to restructure the manner in which I consumed information from any mainstream news organization where would I go to find out about how others do it? Where could I engage with other readers about ideas for using the news? If there is any place that allows for this kind of thing (no, not Twitter, I want it on the news organization’s site) then tell me but I highly doubt it.

What do we do?

The current design of mainstream news sites is what I see as the biggest stumbling block toward this conception of news as software. Take a look at the New York Times, Washington Post, or The Guardian websites. Every one of those sites presents content in an already organized format.

Loading for example brings up a static grid of content. Once a user finishes looking over that content there is no sign of when new content will become available. There are very few ways for the user to customize or play with the content as well.

Furthermore, there is no method of tracking what content readers have already seen. Thus, were you to visit 2 hours from now there would be no way to tell what you had already seen. Some of the same stories will be exactly where you left them, others will have simply shifted around the page. To inspire people to start using a news site we’ll have to completely reorient the design of sites.

Currently, everything is prepackaged. Perhaps this makes things easier but somehow the success of services like Twitter, Google News, and others tells me that people like to have control over what information they see, where they see it, and how detailed it gets. Without inspiring creativity there is little reason for users to become attached to a news site. They all offer the same thing: prepackaged content organized by an editor with little connection to the millions of users. That’s not software, it’s shovel-ware. That’s not what people enjoy using and it’s certainly not what they are going to pay for.

The changing nature of work

Two days ago Daniel posted a question on Twitter asking:

How does the nature of work change when the efficiencies of technology rule an increasing number of jobs obsolete?

It is not easy to answer that question in just 140 characters so instead I wanted to provide a more thoughtful response here.

For a long time now work in America has been rooted in the tradition of mid-20th century notions of work and employment. We are still given the impression that it is specific jobs and particular industries that matter. That is the heart of what must change as technology rules more jobs obsolete.

While the 20th century allowed for the career notion of a job the next century will be decidedly less so. We must reframe our discourse of work away from the notion of a job with a company and toward an idea centered around process and growth.

The career job that 20th century Americans lusted after is rooted in notions of static work. A person could be described by the position they held and the career path they followed. At the extreme of this they went into a physical office building every Monday through Friday from 9 to 5 and at the end of the day they came home to the house that they had lived in for the last 5, 10, 20 years. When technology, an inherently non-static force, begins to disrupt the work world with greater ferocity we will have to put down these notions.

Work in the 21st century is not attached to a specific job nor a particular company. Instead, it must be defined by idea-based notions of interest. Work must become tied to a life-long process of education and cognitive development.

This goes along with a thought I had after reading Dave Troy’s piece a couple days ago about how “we continue to build cogs for this machine as though nothing has changed.” The technological disruption of work, which we are just at the beginning of, will create a future in which adaptation is a more vital skill than current way we understand knowledge and abilities. To adapt we must continue learning and exploring new avenues of whatever area of human endeavors we pursue.

Ultimately work in the next century needs to be defined by how it changes. As technology rules more jobs obsolete the impetus is on us to adapt and change. We must stop thinking about what jobs we would like and start thinking about what ideas drive our passions.

In short – Alone With Our Triumphs

It is a temptation that we all must resist. It is re-assuring to be jaded about our possibilities, and critical of others for what they do. It is easy — all it requires is to point out everyone else’s faults, and we enlarge our self-worth through their faults. This is not motivated by a desire to improve the work of others, but because some are threatened by the productive creations of others. It threatens to dispel their most important belief: that there is nothing new to explore, nothing to make.

Instead, we should, as Michelangelo said, criticize by creating. Rather than tell others why they are wrong, do whatever they did how you think it should be done. Do precisely what you want to do, not what others think you should, and through your work, show others what you think is the best way. Do not chastise, but live. Create.

Live for yourself. By doing so — by creating things you would be proud of even if you were the only one who ever saw it, and living the same way — you can change the world. This what it means to be American.

I finally got through my Instapaper list enough to read this post from Kyle Baxter. In a long post that weaves it’s way through film, literature, and tradition Kyle echoes many of my main concerns concerning new technology. In short, it’s well worth the read and until I can put my thoughts together in a more developed manner I will let Kyle’s post stand on its own.