Tag Archives: clay shirky

Clay Shirky, Connected and Yellow Pages

Yellow-pages-comicTwo weeks ago, after seeing Yellow Pages stacked, unused and unwanted in both my own and several friends apartment buildings, I started a Facebook Group entitled 100,000 Canadians who’ve opted out of yellow pages! In two weeks, with friends telling a friend here and there, we’ve grown to 1000 people. So where did this come from and where is it going?

Well, for a number of years there have been petitions against Yellow Pages but obviously they have had little impact and, frankly, I suspect they actually garner few sign-ups. In Connected: How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do Christakis and Fowler show how people are more likely to vote when their friends, and friends’, friends voted. This suggests there is a strong social component to behaviour. Given that many people I talk to want to opt-out, I thought maybe people will be more likely to opt-out if they knew their friends and their friends, friends opt out. And maybe we could help create that cycle. Facebook, because it allows us to connect with our friends and share some online actions we take, felt like a great platform to do this. Indeed, it seemed to me exactly the ingredient that many online petitions (Which don’t allow you to socialize your activity) seemed to be missing. Also, surprisingly, there wasn’t already a Facebook group dedicated to this.

yellow-pages-banIndeed, looking at Yellow Pages own research reaffirmed my belief that such a group could be successful. They claim 61% of Canadians aged 18+ use their directories at least once a month to look up a business. (Interestingly you can’t read the report on which the claim is made). But (a) this felt unlikely and (b) once a month? So people use the yellow pages 12 times a year…? That’s not delivering value, indeed the number is so unimpressive and underwhelming that if that is the best they can offer, I’m sure we can find lots of Canadians who’d prefer to just say no.

So how I have I structured this (admittedly) off the side of my computer and amateur-driven campaign? I’m trying to follow Clay Shirky’s three pieces of advice at the end of Here Comes Everybody. Make clear the promise, the tool and the bargain.

The Promise: the thing that convinces a potential user to become an actual user.

The promise of this Facebook group is: by taking a simple action and sharing it with our friends, we can save a lot of waste and not receive a large (and annoying) piece of spam in our mailbox. The goal here is to keep everything simple. Participating requires very little time, the impact is immediate (you stop receiving the yellow pages) but also can scale significantly (lots of yellow pages may never get printed). Indeed, an extreme possible outcome – should enough people join the group – is breaking the printed yellow pages business model. If a sufficient number of Canadians actually opted out of the yellow pages, it would be hard for advertisers to believe Yellow Pages marketing materials as probably several more million aren’t on facebook, haven’t joined the group, but also find it useless. But, I’m not holding my breath – for now, I’m happy even getting a few thousand people to opt out.

The Tool: what will enable people to do what they actually want to do.

In our case, it is opt out of receiving the yellow pages. So there are two key tools. The first, is Yellow Pages opt-out form. Indeed, this group exists because there’s failure in information distribution. In some ways the group is about socializing this tool that people find helpful. Most people I talk to think the Yellow Pages are a waste and wish they didn’t have to get them. The truth is, you can opt out of receiving them – it was just that nobody knows how. We are fixing that information gap.

The second tool is a way to share the good news with others. Here, thanks to facebook, we leverage their tools, such as invites, status updates, people even upload photos of Yellow Pages siting unwanted in their apartment lobbies, share videos or – as in the case of Rob above – draw cartoons!

An unanticipated tool has been people helping each other out with filling out the form, or giving feedback to Yellow Pages about their service.

The Bargain: Helps clarify what you expect of others and what they can expect of you.

The bargain for this group is possible most interesting. Since I believe the Yellow Pages is spam and that, frankly, no one likes getting unwanted emails here is the bargain I’ve crafted. Users will opt out of the yellow pages and, hopefully, tell a few friends about the group. As group owner, I promise to only reach out to the group 5 times. Once when the group size hits 1000, 5,000, 10,000, 25,000, and (if we are so lucky) 100,000! I don’t want people to feel burdened by this group – I want them to feel liberated, happy and rewarded. Moreover, people’s time is valuable… so not communicating with them is probably the best thing I can do – hence, the self-imposed limits that reflects milestones we can collectively feel proud of achieving.

Going forward

So without spamming our own networks we’ve gotten to 1000 people in two weeks. Fairly good growth. Will we hit 100,000? I don’t know. It is an ambitious goal. Will we break the Yellow Pages business model? Probably less likely. But can we save some trees and save ourselves the hassle of receiving some very bulky and unwanted mail. Yes. And maybe we can show that Canadians don’t use the Yellow Pages. Ultimately, though we can tell a company that the very people it claims to serve just think it is appalling that they spam an entire country with a 400 page book particularly in an era where, as far as I can tell, so few people actually use it.

Oh, and I hope you’ll consider joining the group and telling a few friends.

The Future of Media in Canada – Thoughts for the Canadian Parliamentary Committee

Yesterday, Google presented to a House of Commons Heritage Committee which has launched a study of “new media.” Already some disturbing squawks have been heard from some of the MPs. For those who believe in an open internet, and in an individuals right to choose, there is no need to be alarmed just yet, but this is definitely worth keeping an eye on. It is however, a good thing that the parliamentary committee is looking at this (finally) since the landscape has radically changed and the Canadian government needs to adjust.

In his SXSWi talk Clay Shirky talked about how abundance changes things. One an item ceases to be scarce – when it is freely available – the dynamics of what we do with it and how we use it radically change.

It is something government’s have a hard time wrestling with. One basic assumption that often (but hardly always) underlies public policy is that one is dealing with how to manage scarce resources like natural resources. But what happens when something that was previously scarce suddenly becomes abundant? The system breaks. This is the central challenge the Heritage Committee MPs need to wrap their heads around.

Why?

Because this is precisely what is happening with the broadcast industry generally and Canadian content rules specifically. And it explains why Canadian content rules are so deeply, deeply broken.

In the old era the Government policy on Canadian content rested on two pillars:

First, the CRTC was able to create scarcity. It controlled the spectrum and could regulate the number of channels. This meant that broadcasters had to do what it said if they wanted to maintain the right to broadcast. This allowed the CRTC to mandate that a certain percentage of content be Canadian (CanCon).

The second pillar was funding. The Government could fund projects that would foster Canadian content. Hence the CBC, the National Film Board of Canada and various other granting bodies.

The problem is, in the digital era, creating scarcity gets a lot more complicated. There are no channels to regulate on the internet. There is just the abundant infinity of internet content. Moreover you can’t force websites to produce or create Canadian content nor can you force Canadians to go to websites that do (at least god hopes that isn’t a crazy idea the committee gets into its head). The scarcity is gone. The Government can no longer compel Canadians to watch Canadian content.

So what does that mean? There are three implications in my mind.

First. Stop telling Canadians what culture is. The most offensive quote from yesterday’s Globe article was, to quote the piece Bloc Québécois MP Carole Lavallée quote:

Bloc Québécois MP Carole Lavallée highlighted the often low-brow, low-budget fare on YouTube. She accused Google of confusing leisure with culture.

“Leisure is people who play Star Wars in their basement and film one another and put that on YouTube,” she said. “ But culture is something else.”

Effectively, she is telling me – the blog and new media writer – and the 100,000s if not millions of other Canadians who have created something that they do not create Canadian culture. Really? I thought the whole point of the Heritage Ministry, and tools like the CBC was to give voice to Canadians. The internet, a tools like YouTube have done more on that front than any Government program of the last 5 decades. Lavallée may not like what she sees, but today, more Canadian content is created and watched around the world, than ever before.

Second. Be prepared to phase out the CRTC. The CRTC’s regulatory capacity depends on being able to create scarcity. If there is no more scarcity, then it seizes to have a lever. Yes, the TV industry is still with us. But for how long? Canadians, like people everywhere, want to watch what they want, when they want. Thanks to the internet, increasingly they can. The CRTC no longer serves the interests of Canadians, it serves to perpetuate both the broadcast industry and the cable industry (yes, even when they fight) by creating a legal scaffolding that props up their business models. Michael Geist understands this – the committee should definitely be talking to him as well.

Third, if the first pillar is dead, the second pillar is going to have to take on a heavier load and in new and creative ways. The recent National Film Board iPhone app is fantastic example of how new media can be used to promote Canadian content. If the Commons committee is really worried about YouTube, why not have Heritage Canada create a “Canadian channel” on YouTube where it can post the best videos by Canadians and about Canada? Maybe it can even offer grants to the video creaters that get the most views on the channel – clearly they’ve demonstrated an ability to attract an audience. Thinking about more micro-grants that will allow communities to create their own content is another possibility. Ultimately, the Government can’t shape demand, or control the vehicle by which supply is delivered. But it can help encourage more supply – or better still reward Canadians who do well online and enable them to create more ambitious content.

The world of new media is significantly democratizing who can create content and what people can watch. Whatever the heritage committee does I hope they don’t try to put the cork back on that bottle. It will, in effect, be muzzling all the new emerging Canadian voices.

Update: Just saw that Sara Bannerman has a very good post about how Canadian content could be regulated online. Like much of what is in her post, but don’t think “regulation” is the right word. Indeed, most of what she asks for makes business sense – people will likely want Canadian filters for searching (be it for books, content, etc…) as long as those filters are optional.

The Open Cities Blog on the Creative Exchange

Excited to let everyone know that I’ll be blogging at the Creative Exchange on Open Cities. I’ll continue to blog here 4 times a week and the pieces I post there I’ll cross-post here as well.

It’s an opportunity to talk about how openess and transparency can/will change our cities to a wider audience.

Wish me luck. Here was my first post.

Creating Open Cities

Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.

Tim O’Reilly

To the popular press “hacker” means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, “hackers” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants-whether the computer wants to or not.

Paul Graham, Hackers & Painters

Welcome to the Open Cities blog on CCE. My name is David Eaves and I’ve been writing, speaking, and thinking about open, citizen engagement and public policy for a number of years. Most recently, I worked to help push forward the City of Vancouver motion that requires the city to share more data, adopt open standards, and treat open source and proprietary software equally.

Cities have always been platforms – geographic and legal platforms upon which people collaborate to create enterprises, exchange ideas, educate themselves, celebrate their culture, start families, found communities, and raise children. Today the power of information technology is extending this platform, granting us new ways to collaborate and be creative. As Clay Shirky notes in Here Comes Everybody, this new (dis)order is powerful. For the meaning and operation of cities, it will be transformative.

How transformative? The change created by information technology is driving what will perhaps be seen as the greatest citizen-led renewal of urban spaces in our history. Indeed, I believe it may even be creating a new type of city, one whose governance models, economies and notions of citizenship are still emerging, but different from their predecessors. These new cities are Open Cities: cities that, like the network of web 2.0, are architected for participation and so allow individuals to create self-organized solutions and allow governments to tap into the long-tail of public policy.

And just in the nick of time. To succeed in the 21st century, cities will have to simultaneously thrive in a global economy, adapt to climate change, integrate a tsunami of rural and/or foreign migrants, as well as deal with innumerable other challenges and opportunities. These issues go far beyond the capacity and scope of almost any government – not to mention the all-too-often under-resourced City Hall.

Open Cities address this capacity shortfall by drawing on the social capital of their citizens. Online, city dwellers are hacking the virtual manifestation of their city which, in turn, is giving them the power to shape the physical space. Google transit, DIYcity, Apps for Democracy are great urban hacks, they allow cities to work for citizens in ways that were previously impossible. And this is only the beginning.

Still more exciting, hacking is a positive sum game. The more people hack their city – not in the poorly misunderstood popular press meaning of breaking into computers but in (sometimes artful, sometimes amateur) way of making a system (read city) work for their benefit – the more useful data and services they create and remix. Ultimately, Open Cities will be increasingly vibrant and safe because they are hackable. This will allow their citizens to unleash their creativity, foster new services, find conveniences and efficiencies, notice safety problems, and build communities.

In short, the cities that harness the collective ingenuity, creativity, and energy of its citizenry will thrive. Those that don’t – those that remain closed – won’t. And this divide – open vs. closed – could become the new dividing line of our age. And it is through this lens that this blog will look at the challenges and opportunities facing cities, their citizens, and institutions. Let’s see who’s open, how they’re getting open, and what it will all mean.

Structure of Scientific Revolutions vs. The Black Swan (Journalism remix)

Structure of Scientific Revolutions CoverI’ve just finished Thomas S. Kuhn’s classic 1962 book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” For those unfamiliar with the title, it is the book that gave us the important and oft over-used term: “paradigm shift.”

I won’t pretend it was an easy to read. Written in a classic academic style, what is a fascinating topic and set of ideas struggles to shine. However, don’t hear me blaming the author for this… it is both that the book comes from another era, and that it springs from a cannon of academic writing that simply doesn’t seek to be as penetrable outside a certain community.

That said, I did enjoy it immensely. One reason is that I once again lucked out and ended up reading it at the same time as another book – Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s The Black Swan – that despite being on a different topics and written 45 years later, dovetails nicely.

blackswan-199x300Paradigm shifts are black swan events. They can be hard, if not impossible to predict. They can arise because of the appearance of a single unforeseen data point (a black swan in a world where all swans were previously believed to be white) and they overthrow systems that we have become overly, comfortably, complacent and reliant on. Finally, although paradigms shifts are rare, because they force us to see the world in an entirely new way they have a disproportional and possibly even unparalleled, impact.

I often like to refer to Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

Both Taleb and Kuhn’s books play on this theme. For Taleb, our problem is that we can’t see or predict the changes in our world. We expect that we can predict them and that they’ll arrive in a nice orderly – or bell curve distributed – manner.

They don’t.

Despite the mental image we have of history (and our lives), history doesn’t crawl. It moves it fits and starts. Oscillating between long steady states and sudden change. We often believe the steady states will last forever, and when change comes we trivialize it and then fight it, until it becomes the new steady state, at which point, we come to believe it was always that way.

This is also Kuhn point. Look at how he sees paradigm shifts as being important for both the science and politics changes:

Political revolutions are inaugurated by a growing sense, often restricted to a segment of the political community, that existing institutions have ceased adequately to meet the problems posed by an environmental that they have in part created. In much the same way, scientific revolutions are inaugurated by growing sense, again restricted to a narrow subdivision of the scientific community, that an existing paradigm has ceased to function adequately in the exploration of an aspect of nature to which that paradigm itself had previously led the way. In both political and scientific development the sense of malfunction that can lead to crisis is prerequisite to revolution…

…The parallel has, however, a second and more profound aspect upon which the significance of the first depends. Political revolutions aim to change political institutions in ways that those institutions themselves prohibit. Their success therefore necessitates the partial relinquishment of one set of institutions in favour of another, and in the interim, society is not fully governed by institutions at all. Initially it is crisis alone that attenuates the role of political institutions as we have already seen it attenuate the role of paradigms. In increasing numbers individuals become increasingly estranged from political life and behave more and more eccentrically within it. Then, as the crisis deepens, many of these individuals commit themselves to some concrete proposal for the reconstruction of society in a new institutional framework. At that point the society is divided into competing camps or parties, one seeking to defend the old institutional constellation, the others seeking to institute some new one. And, once that polarization has occurred, political recourse fails. Because they differ about the institutional matrix with which political change is to be achieved and evaluated, because they acknowledge no supra-institutional framework for the adjudication of revolutionary difference, the parties to a revolutionary conflict must finally resort to the techniques of mass persuasion, often including force. Though revolutions have had a vital role in the evolution of political institutions, that role depends upon their being partially extrapolitical or extrainstitutional events. (Kuhn, Pages 92-93 of the 3rd edition)

If you don’t think the world operates this way, just look as far as the news industry.

When Shirky says revolutions are times when “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” he is paraphrasing Kuhn. Journalism is already dividing into camps, those defending the old, and those seeking to figure out what the “new” will be.

But despite all the discussion, we are still very early on in the debate. How do I know? Because we haven’t even begun to shed the old paradigm? The entire debate about journalism, what it is, how it should be practiced and what makes it good or bad is still being largely being evaluated and adjudicated by the old matrix. When journalism finally gets saved I suspect it will be because it will be, in part, radically redefined – a redefinition affirmed and made possible by the establishment of some new institutions, organizations and/or processes. (That’s what my post on the death of journalist was seeking to do).

So yes, we’ve left the ridiculed phase (that lasted 20 years), but we are still early on in the violently oppose phase. All thos unhappy journalists are angry because they may be the midst of a paradigm shift, and that means much like Newtonian physicists confronting Einstein’s theory of relatively everything, absolutely everything they believed in, fought for, taught and lived. is probably going to get redefined and altered beyond recognition. It will still be there, but it will forever be understood differently.

That’s a scary thought. But it is fun one as well, filled with possibility. Which is why Kuhn and Taleb are fun to read together.

RCMP and Vatican: The downfall of hierarchical and opaque organizations

I’m on the road which is basically the only time I watch TV news and was pleased that I did this evening since I caught Terry Milewski’s excellent follow up piece on the how the RCMP has dealt (or in this case, not dealt) with investigating its own officers over the death of Polish traveler Robert Dziekanski.

The thing that really struck me about Milewski’s story was how much it appeared to suggest that the RCMPs method for dealing with problematic individuals parallels that of the Vatican’s. In the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the Vatican regularly moved priests it knew was molesting children from diocese to diocese. Priests like Father John Gagan, who molested dozens and dozens of people were never suspended or ordered to take treatment. They were simply shuffled around and the problem was covered up.

The retired RCMP officers in Milewski’s piece suggest that a similar practice occurs within the RCMP. For example, one of the officers involved in the death of Robert Dziekanski, Corporal Benjamin Robinson (who subsequently, has allegedly been involved in a drinking and driving incident which resulted in a death and in which he fled the scene) has apparently experienced a number of challenges in his previous posts. The point here is not to assess Corporal Robinson, but a system that promoted and moved him around rather than offer him needed support.

What is most scary for Canadians is that the RCMP does not appear to understand how quickly the public’s loss of faith could grow and thus manifest into a real crises of confidence in the organization. Consider the recent past of RCMP scandals:

In isolation, each scandal is not a problem. Collectively, given people’s capacity to use the internet to create coalitions and mobilize, resistance to bureaucratic, authoritarian and opaque institutions can crystallize very, very quickly.

Clay Shirky offers one of the best examples of this in his book, Here Comes Everybody where he talks about the rise of Voice of the Faithful – a catholic protest group formed in reaction to the pedophile priest scandal in 2002. Here is Shirky discussing the issue in an interview:

Because in 2002, Father John Gagan, a pedophile priest in Boston, was brought to trial and The Boston Globe covered the story. And during the course of this trial and then the subsequent outrage, this little group formed in a basement in January, called Voice of the Faithful. It was basically outraged Catholics who wanted to do something.

By that summer, they went from 30 people in a church basement to 25,000 members in 21 countries around the world. Now, groups don’t grow that fast, or they didn’t prior to the Internet.

And one of the really remarkable things that I think demonstrated how quickly the Catholic outrage solidified into this reaction – and Voice of the Faithful was instrumental in both changing Vatican policy but also getting several high-level bishops and archbishops to resign their posts because of the bad handling of the pedophile scandal.

The Catholic Church very much wanted to say, this is a one-off. This is an unusual case. But, in fact, almost exactly 10 years before, in 1992, something almost identical happened. In that case, the priest’s name was Porter. But it took place in the same diocese in Massachusetts. Bishop Law was the same person in charge. The Boston Globe was the same newspaper reporting.

But in that case, it just blew over. Part of the difference between ’92 and 2002, which is to say, between failure to reform the Church and at least partial success in reforming the Church, is that in ’92 The Boston Globe wasn’t really global. It was a local paper. There was no way for coverage in the Boston area to suddenly become of global importance.

The other part of the story is that it isn’t just about consuming media. It’s actually about doing something about it. Everybody who read about Voice of the Faithful in one of these stories could join online, they could make a donation immediately, and that changed from a big gap between thought and action in ’92 to a very small gap between thought and action in 2002.

Canadians are increasingly losing faith in the RCMP. And much like many Boston Catholics lost faith in the Vatican, they should be. It is an organization fraught with challenges, that has little, or at least very poor, civilian oversight.

The problem for the RCMP is that, increasingly, Canadians have the capacity to mobilize over this issue and the organization’s response to challenges to its authority have not been well received. Today, a rag tag and splintered group of people ranging from anti-rape activists, first nation advocates, the polish community, human and citizen right advocates and harm reduction advocates could be the proverbial 30 people in a basement Shirky talks about in his Voice of the Faithful example. When those concerned with the RCMP coalesce, it may appear to happen quickly and grow exponentially. My hope remains that the RCMP addresses its issues before this happens. My fear, is that without pressure, it won’t.

Ultimately, authoritarian and opaque institutions such as the RCMP and the Vatican will continue to have relevance in a world of networked enabled citizens, but I suspect that their freedom to operate unobserved and unquestioned will become increasingly constrained. Another painful transition is ahead, but one that is long overdue and necessary.

who is going to cover city hall? we will…

More follow up on the future of democracy and the media. In the comments one reader – Karen – commented:

So….which of you brilliant Gen Y bloggers is going to sit at local park board meetings to find out how they are spending your tax money? Just wondering.

I don’t care whether newspapers live or die. It’s just a medium. (Yes, the singular of “media.”) It may well be it’s an outdated medium. It’s certainly a wasteful, expensive and environmentally harmful medium.

However, when newspapers die (so what? good riddance) the services that newspapers have traditionally supplied – such as serving as watchdogs for even the smallest municipalities, taxing bodies and so on – remain necessary to a functioning democracy. What happens when governments make decisions with no one watching?

And it’s tedious, people. Maybe some of you are experienced with this. Sitting through three-hour meeting of county commissioners, poring through stacks of facts and figures, following up to ask questions, finding alternate points of view – this is time consuming and not a whole lot of fun. When there are no reporters at these meetings, who will do this? Do you think it is no longer necessary? Will citizen journalists spend hours – unpaid – going line by line over the police board’s budget?

Well, according to Frances Bula, one of Vancouver’s finest journalist’s focused on local politics (she used to work at the Vancouver Sun, and now freelances for several publications, including the Globe and Mail) it is us who are covering this “small” stories. In a recent post entitled “When did civic politics get so interesting?” she states:

It’s hard to remember, but in those days, no one cared about city hall. It used to be me and a couple of Chinese-language-media reporters who would hang out in the pews at city council chambers on Tuesdays. When I went to the committee meetings on Thursday, I was usually the only reporter there. People coming to speak to council issues sometimes thought I was the recording secretary. And it was like that for quite a long time. Years and years, really, although Allen Garr started writing for the Courier after a while so then there was, thankfully, one more person.

This week in Vancouver, when city hall was stuffed like a turkey with news — the budget, cracking down on crummy SROs, whether to allow mixed martial arts events, police budgets being wrecked by gang investigations, Councillor Suzanne Anton grilling the mayor like he was a naughty boy about campaign financing — there were as many reporters and outlets covering the events as at any session of the provincial legislature…

…So, even though I now can’t get a seat at the media table these days if I come late to council, and it feels sometimes like everyone is falling over each other to get the latest little tidbit from the city, it’s okay — and even kind of fun — that it’s crowded.

But then this is what Shirly predicted would happen once the we understood the size of the cognitive surplus that is out there…

The Death of Journalism? (or journalism in the era of open)

For those that missed them two of my favourite authors – Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson – posted brilliant pieces on the future of the news industry this week. I’ve pulled some of the best lines from both so you can glimpse at why these to writers are models for me. These relevant paragraphs also reveal a further analysis, one I think both authors stop shy of but that both pieces hint at: the Death of Journalism.

…in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest. Local news may be the best example of this. When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage… I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life – out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house;

But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. [A veritable rain forest of information where there was once a desert]

Steven B Johnson

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

Clay Shirky

Both Shirky and Johnson’s pieces acknowledge that the trends hitting the news industry are hitting every part of society but – because they have written articles and not books – they deal with the changes to the news industry ecosystem in isolation. As a result, their analyses account for the death of the newspaper in its current form. However, both shy away from explicitly looking over that bigger cliff – are we seeing the death of Journalism? I for one, hope so, as it will mean a more profound change may be upon us.

Step back and look at the relationship between news gathering institutions and the organizations they report on. A large piece of “investigative news” has been about one set of opaque institutions – the news organization – covertly gathering information on another set of opaque institutions – government, corporations or non-profits – so as to shine a light on some malfeasance.

What if it isn’t just the business model newspapers and TV news that is faulty. What if it is the underlying structure and values are eroding not only among news institutions but also among the entities they normally cover? What if the belief in objectivity and trust in opaque structures are dying? This would mean that the public’s confidence in products, ideas, services, policies and news created behind a curtain – within any opaque institutions – is slowly crumble. In his Bertha Bassam lecture, this is precisely what David Weinberger brilliantly argues is already taking place:

“Wikipedia is far more credible because it shows us how the sausage is made makes Wikipedia far more credible. Yet this is exactly the stuff that the Britannica wont show us because they think it would make them look amateurish and take away from their credibility. But in fact transparency – which is what this is – is the new objectivity. We are not going to trust objectivity, we are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.”

Such a transformation, a reshaping of credibility from objectivity to transparency, would have profound implications for every organization – corporate, non-profit and governmental – in our society.

The trends Shirky and Johnson describe as killing newspapers – the fact there are more eyes, able to create more information, that is able to flow faster, and freer than ever before – may be making openness and transparency a strategically salient choice for an increasing number of organizations. Firstly, it is simply becoming harder and harder to keep secrets. More and more organizations may decide that, rather than devote energy to hiding secrets that will inevitable see the light of day, why not devote energy to solving the underlying problems that are creating them? More importantly, by being transparent allows these organizations to access the long tail of analyses an additional powerful incentive to being open. Those who share information and invite criticism and analysis may be better positioned to survive crises and challenges than those who don’t. Many eyes makes the bugs in any institution more likely to be shallow.

As a result we may see an organizational ecosystem emerging that strongly favours transparency. This is not to say that every organization will instantaneously become “open” overnight… but there would be increasing pressure, and more powerfully the adoption of the naked corporation as the default model in the new system.

Such a shift would forever change journalism. The first is that opaque news entities – those that don’t make clear the bargain with their readers, that fail to spell out their editorial decisions and philosophy and allow readers to hold them to account, will themselves be at risk. I suspect this will be true even if some magical financial solution (like the terrible idea of subsidizing news with an internet access tax) were to emerge. The problem would simply shift from being a financial crisis to a credibility crisis. If journalism prides itself on objectivity – then it had better find ways to be transparent. This means news sites had better engage with legitimate critics: and this means doing more than having columnists who ignore commenters that poke large holes in their arguments or electing to publish retractions on the bottom corner of page 8 or on some lost webpage.

More profound however may be that journalism in a transparent ecosystem could look very different than it does today. If investigative journalism has been about uncovering the dirty secrets within opaque institutions – what does it do if an increasing number of institutions have no secrets?

I suspect the ideal of good journalism will shift from being what Gladwell calls puzzle solving to mystery solving. In the former you must find a critical piece of the puzzle – one that is hidden to you – in order to explain an event. This is the Woodward and Bernstein model of journalism – the current ideal. But in a transparent landscape where huge amounts of information about most organizations is being generated and shared the critical role of the journalist will be that of mystery solving – figuring out how to analyze, synthesize and discover the mystery within the vast quantity of information. As Gladwell recounts this was ironically the very type of journalism that brought down Enron (an organization that was open, albeit deeply  flawed). All of the pieces of that lead to the story that “exposed” Enron were freely, voluntarily and happily given to reports by Enron. It’s just a pity it didn’t happen much, much sooner.

I for one would celebrate the rise of this mystery focused style of “journalism.” It has been sorely needed over the past few years. Indeed, the housing crises that lead to the current financial crises is a perfect example of case where we needed mystery solving not puzzle solving, journalism. The fact that sub-prime mortgages were being sold and re-packaged was not a secret, what was lacking was enough people willing to analyze and write about this complex mystery and its dangerous implications.

Interestingly this is precisely what many blogs – alone or as part of an emergent network – already do. They take large complex stories, break them down and, by linking back and forth to one another, create a collective analysis that slowly allows the mystery to be decoded. I hope this post is part of such a mystery solving exercise – I’m trying to build off of, and extend, the brilliant analyses of Johnson and Shirky.

Does this mean the death of journalism? Well, in a world where everybody can be a journalists… is anyone a journalist? I don’t know. I’m sure there will always be some professional journalists, but in a world where people distrust opaque institutions I’m not certain they will reside in organizations that look even remotely like the news institutions of today. Most importantly, in a world of mysteries perhaps citizen journalist and bloggers, and their role in the news ecoysystem, will be less frightening than the one most present day pundits (especially newspaper columnists) would have us believe.