For me, Wired magazine’s recent must-read yarn about Facebook’s woes reinforces a certain nagging hunch:
The supply chain for news, if you think of it as a product to be brought to market like any other, urgently needs to be re-engineered from the ground up so that it’s less reliant on Facebook and other Death Star-sized tech companies. It needs more redundancy, more antifragility, to borrow a useful buzzword from author Nassim Nicholas Taleb.
Both publishers and the public need this to happen, albeit for different reasons. For publishers, it’s a matter of business viability, so they’re not forever stuck on someone else’s digital toll road. For the public, it’s a matter of reliability and quality of the information that acts as a lifeblood for civil society.
Facebook (and its Big Tech peers, in fairness) simply aren’t equipped or incented to fix this. Sure, it’s possible they can, given their prodigious technical smarts. But I’d argue all available evidence suggests they never in fact will.
I say that for a number of reasons, chief among them the cold, hard cash that all those clicks on nonsensical content provide.
The rest of us need to wrap our brains around this and act accordingly. That means getting to work on building a post-Facebook (and post-Death Star in general) world for news.
No question, that’s a big task. But I think the following three technologies, all open source, could provide the foundation for such a system, if we commit to building it out over time.
To stick with the supply-chain metaphor, I’ll break things thematically here into three parts that engineers might use to describe delivery of physical goods — the first 10 feet of production, the first mile of delivery to the consumer, and the last 10 feet to the consumer:
- Kubernetes (the first 10 feet): This software helps organizations “containerize” and run applications at scale. For news organizations, that means Kubernetes can help run the various moving parts of production and publishing — like content management, audience analytics, and so on — in a more modular way. Thus the various parts can also be switched out more easily if newer tools come along later, making organizations nimbler and better able to innovate over time. Kubernetes can essentially serve as a future-proofing layer, which the news industry sorely needs.
- RSS (the first mile): Not a new technology, by any stretch, but good ol’ Real Simple Syndication gets the job done. In particular, although RSS readers have fallen out of favor among consumers as a primary user interface with news, RSS still works great as a “firehose” for developers to broadcast news widely and integrate under the hood of their applications. The recent years’ boom in podcasting is built on a foundation of RSS, for instance, even though most consumers don’t interact with podcast feeds’ urls firsthand. Other newsy applications and sites should be re-committing to it now that the proprietary social networks are falling out of favor as broadcasting tools.
- Solid (the last 10 feet): An MIT project led by the web’s inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, Solid is a set of conventions and open tools whose name is derived from the phrase “social linked data.” With these tools, we can personalize and improve functionality and interactivity for the news firehose using the open web rather than proprietary platforms like Facebook.
I’m starting to redesign Indizr.com, both visually and at the infrastructure layer, to incorporate all the above technologies. Of course, Indizr is a tiny site (for now), but hopefully we can provide useful proof of concept to others, including the big boys.
If you’re interested in this stuff, or if you’re doing something similar, I’m definitely curious to hear about it. Please touch base via Twitter or email me at peter[at]indizr[dot]com.
Thomas Edison famously said that people need two things to invent — imagination and a pile of junk. I think the stuff listed above is just the pile of junk we need to make a better, post-Facebook delivery system for news.
Now, do we have the imagination?