s4e07: News and Religion 

by danhon

0.0 Station Ident

Friday, March 17, 2017.

I just spent some time with a number of internet people talking and thinking about, well, digital stuff that doesn’t exist that could exist that would be *helpful* given the current… situation. And while I’ve been thinking about this for a while, I’ve been reluctant to write anything about public about it, but who the hell cares, really.

Otherwise, I’ve been having a difficult time, lately. But hey, I think I give myself points for presenting as high-functioning. And for everyone else who is having a difficult time: hey, you look pretty high functioning too.

1.0 News

With a few years worth of introspection and paying attention to what I think about and how I think about things, I’ve realized that I pull on threads and inevitably small problems become big problems that turn out to be systemic problems and I then propose a systemic solution. Hopefully, that systemic solution can be broken down into a number of things that can be done either one-by-one or in parallel, but I think the main idea is this: to fix *this* thing, we’re going to have to jiggle and fix *all* of these other things.

This is just to set you up so I can naively tell you my opinions and thoughts about news, the role that it plays in culture and society at the moment and come up with a few things that don’t exist now, that would be interesting to exist and might also solve some civic, societal and news-industry-business-related problems.

First, let’s count some additional ways in which the internet broke news – and by news, I mean the news environment that existed in the 80s and 90s: a small number of gatekeepered sources due to the cost of distribution, either by paper or different parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.

I think that the internet additionally broke news – outside of distribution – by disaggregating and unbundling in a really fundamental way. Before the internet, before distribution costs hit where they are right now, *news* was a product. There weren’t really smaller *bits* of news that you could get. You paid for the newspaper, or you watched the broadcast. The cheaper stuff – newspapers instead of special interest magazines – were the things that thrived.

Now, it feels like people are less interested in news-as-a-singular-product (ie: a thing that I get from the New York Times or, in a way that gives me such a tremendous sense of delight, Teen Vogue) than they are interested in *issues*.

This might be blindingly obvious to some of you or people whose actual jobs are in media and journalism and the business part in-between, but I caveat all of this with the reminder that I’m just a person thinking about shit out loud. So there. And hey, *you* decided to subscribe to my thoughts-written-down.

In that: these days, would it be true to say that people care more about *their job security* than *being informed about the world from the perspective of a newsgathering organization like CBS or The Washington Post*? Or that, for some other reason, people *now* have to care more about their job security, or womens’ reproductive rights, or immigration policy, or racial profiing, than they’ve had to before? Obviously for some of the issues I’ve listed (especially racial issues in America), people have had to care about those issues for a distressingly long period of time.

At this point I’d expect someone to say something like: But Dan, This Is Why The Future Of News Is Local! To which I’d answer – aha, no. You missed my point. Because this is 2017 and Dan has been completely and utterly infected with the Cult Of User Needs, and The Future Of News Being Local is just but a lens that biases towards certain needs in certain ways.

I’ve talked to some people about this. The rough theory is: Fox News does well because it does two things:

a) acknowleges (and arguably, creates) emotional needs (I feel unsafe)
b) provides an opinionated outlet as to what to *do* about those needs (vote GOP)

Neither of these things have anything to do, necessarily, with “being informed about the world so that you can make the best decisions for yourself” which is what I (roughly) see “the news” as having positioned itself during my life.

The Times (any country) and The Guardian and The Washington Post have inherited a worldview and business model that, yes, is the “neutral point of view” model. This model *doesn’t do anything* for addressing what appear to be urgent, unmet needs of their potential audience. If “the news” didn’t have the job of “providing factual verified information about the world that helps you live in it”, then what would, or could, it do?

The model that I’ve been playing with in my head is imagining people who’re more interested in being informed about, say, women’s reproductive rights *and* doing something about women’s reproductive rights because women’s reproductive rights are something that directly affect them. Or that there are people who genuinely care about economic policy to the extent that they want economic policy that will help them because they live in an area that is economically devastated with life-and-livelihood-threatening implications.

If I were to imagine myself in an Appalachian coal-mining town, what good does just *reading* about economic policy or being informed about it via the New York Times do for me? Does subscribing to The New York Times help me *feel* like I’m in control, by offering me something to do? Does it provide me with options for action? Not really.

The shitty way of talking about this that would be the kind of thing that you’d hear in an SXSW panel would be saying: what’s the call-to-action for each piece of journalism? Which is a shitty thing *because* it thinks about things from the news publishing organization’s point of view and doesn’t offer anything to the reader.

The reader doesn’t give a shit about news. The reader wants their job back, or the reader wants the *prospect* of jobs back.

(Yes, I know. All of this is stupendously patronizing. I am sorry.)

The more enterprising news publishers might spy an opportunity to target and sell job ads against stories about economically devastated areas, but that’s totally missing the point, from my point of view.

No, the real opportunity is to combine issue and action that actually delivers against the need. If you look at things this way, news is just a bystander, or just something that gets roped in to *do* something. What is it that news is supposed to help get *done*?

In this way, you’d unbundle everything that The Washington Post publishes and map each of the user needs that each desk potentially helps meet and then you’d throw away the *news* part of it and then sit down and try to figure out what’s the product or service that would *meet* that underlying need. And then you have nothing to do with news anymore, because the news is just a means to an end.

Take women’s reproductive rights. This is an issue I care about. I know what the end goal is: to preserve the right for women to choose the care that they want and need, including an abortion. I understand that right now, that ultimate right is under assault, in various different ways, in various different places. I might care about that right being under assault *where I am* because the best, most affordable place where I can get the care I want is Planned Parenthood, and I don’t want it to go away.

There isn’t – I don’t think – a thing that I can go to that aggregates and summarizes the current state of play of the issue that *I* care about – and only that issue – as well as making clear to me what’s happening to it. That non-existant place also doesn’t tell me what I can do to support the issue. Who can I call? Where should I go? Should I donate? Is there someone I need to vote for, or against?

The threat of all of this is to say that the inevitable monster is a whole bunch of single-issue voters but I’d hope that we’re in a place now where we realize that people are complicated and can show that intersectionality is actually a thing, and not a made-up thing.

I see bits of this. Buzzfeed understand the value, I think, of aligning around issues and they’ve got more-discoverable verticals, I think. Teen Vogue does this, I think, in terms of its entire editorial stance and positioning.

But Buzzfeed draws the line at activism and campaigning. Why? Do we have to stop there?

What does a product about meeting employment needs in a depressed area look like? What does it look like if it tries to explain (1) *reasons* why employment opportunities are depressed as well as (2) offer *actions* and solutions*? What might those actions and solutions even be? And for the (1) part – explaining the reasons, what type of reporting and journalism does that look like? For the (2) part, what type of products, services, civic and societal actions might address the need?

Now, something else, more thinking out loud about how some of these needs-that-are-only-somewhat-served-by-news might be more fully met.

There is an aside here where I think about the Detroit Water Project which was an ingenious discovery of a need (people not having access to water because Jesus Christ What The Fuck) and meeting that need (if we tell people about this on the internet, then anyone from anywhere can help pay) combined with relatively *technically simple* implementation. “Moving money around on the internet” is not a hard thing to do these days. Figuring out what we can apply it to is genuinely transformative.

In a meeting today, we were talking about the role that churches play, and/or used to play. They form around (local) community. They provide a way for a group to help individuals when individuals need help – and yes, for the snarky, not just by praying for them. By helping to run food banks, and by raising and donating money to, say, cover medical costs.

Unions used to help meet local employment needs. They’re not really around as much anymore, and some of them arguably have lost their way in what they’re trying to accomplish – what need they’re meeting – and how best to meet it. OK, fine, there’s disagreement and room for interpretation in implementation.

Unions and churches were historically organized locally because we didn’t have a choice. The internet collapsed distance. GoFundMe removed two things: the geographical and religious requirement for a collective to form for mutual support and to collectively provide assistance in meeting individual needs. Churches, though – local server nodes plugged into a worldwide network – have been doing this for ages and have evolved a whole bunch of patterns and rituals and hacks into our cognitive architecture that reinforce and help them meet some of these needs. They employ shame and repetition, for example: shame when you don’t turn up to service or you don’t help out with the food bank, and repetition through having to turn up every worship day.

What do unions and churches look like when we remove the requirement for locality? What do non-local churches look like, just organized by affinity group? Some of this has *already* started to happen: online, non-geographic communities *spontaneously* organize and step up to help individual members in need but we haven’t yet developed repeatable digital infrastructure to support online community.

And I know there’s those of you reading this right now who will look me in the eye next time you see me and place a hand on my shoulder and say: Dan. We knew this about online community back then. We wrote the book on it. They never listened to us.

Well, maybe it’s time that we tried again.

People would joke about a church of Metafilter. But… what would a Church of Metafilter need? It has rituals. It has a space. GoFundMe doesn’t necessarily create *repeatable* communities because they’re task-based.

There are those of you out there who know what it takes and know what patterns, what designs and what software would reinforce sustainable, long-term affinity-based community. You know – we know – that the value in those communities has *always* been down to human moderation. That the cost has always been paying for and accurately valuing the human and time cost in *running* those communities.

Churches provide a place for a minister to live to tend to their flock.

Congregations contribute to helping their minister have what they need for a living.

Maybe none of our online communities work because we tried to turn them into businesses. I mean, we don’t have to say maybe. We know they didn’t. But there are some of us who *have* known these kinds of online community that I’m talking about. And those communities were amazing and we made lifelong friends, and met partners.

And yes, part of this perspective is that these communities would be non-local, that they wouldn’t directly foster ties between people who are physically neighbors. So? And? None of this has to be binary.

So.

Who wants to found a religionless-religion, where we all worship at the IP packet?

2.0 Other Things That Caught My Attention

My We The People stickers[0] arrived today. I have a new laptop, and I’ve been waiting to put something on it. But these stickers – these are the ones where if I put them on my laptop, I worry that they will cause or contribute to extra screening whenever I go through security or have a law-enforcement interaction.

Which is heartbreaking.

I have TSA Pre/Global Entry and because of that – and, I think, because I look Asian and talk with a British accent – pretty much all of my TSA and airport security interactions in domestic America are relatively respectful and pain-free.

Putting a sticker like this on – with the discretion that TSA and CBP have, feels like choosing to score an own-goal.

My second thought, of course, is that it will be amusing if Nike aren’t careful and ally themselves *too* closely with any sort of resistance movement, and in a similar way, corporate *branding* and having a swoosh on you will cause you to be singled out.

I guess that’s for next month.

[0] We the People » The Amplifier Foundation

That’s that. Have a good weekend, everyone. I don’t know about you, but I feel like I worked out a bunch of stuff through this. As ever, send me a note, even just to say hi.

Best,

Dan