Social media and breaking news: Why authenticity trumps authority almost every time

There were a number of panels at the Web Summit in Dublin this week that talked about media and journalism, but the one that included VICE News, Time Inc. and Storyful was the discussion that has stuck with me — mostly because of a comment that Storyful founder Mark Little made about the paradigm shift that we’ve seen over the past few years involving real-time social media or “citizen journalism.” Among other things, Little said that “authenticity has replaced authority” when it comes to news, and especially what journalists like to call breaking news.

That makes for a great sound bite — you can tell that Little used to be a TV correspondent before he started the company — but what does it actually mean? For me at least, it means that many people (not all, of course, but many) are willing to pay more attention to sources of information that they believe are close to an event, rather than to traditional sources of sober, objective second-hand or third-hand information. In this scenario, Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and Snapchat are the platforms that stand to gain, and traditional media like newspapers or even television mostly lose.

This isn’t going to be the case in every situation, but when it comes to breaking news about a specific event, in the initial stages of that event attention is always going to flow to the sources that are closest to the action, even if — and this is the really important part — the “authority” or credibility of those sources is in question. As Little put it during the Web Summit panel:

“Now people can bypass us using a camera phone and a social network, and the means of production have been completely overturned. Now everyone out there is a creator of content, and our job is more as managers of an overabundance of content.”

Dial up the immediacy, dial down the authority

We’ve seen this happen time and time again, whether it’s during the Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere, or in the aftermath of the Boston bombings, or any of the mass shootings that have occurred in the U.S. over the past couple of years. Even if the information is flawed and inherently untrustworthy — at least by the standard journalistic definition — people flock to it, share it, discuss it, and engage with it. It might not be the kind of behavior that media outlets would like to see, but it’s what happens. And it’s going to continue to happen.

This is an analogy I’ve used before, but it’s almost like people have two dials in front of them that they can use to filter or change the information they get: one of them says “speed” and/or “immediacy” on it, and the other one says “facts” and/or “authority.” And what many people do, using services like Twitter and Instagram and Facebook, is dial the first one up as soon as something newsworthy happens.

Please read the rest of this post at Gigaom

Kayaking the Rouge River and Toronto’s harbour and islands: A photo essay

I got a kayak for my 50th birthday a couple of years ago — a red, 14-foot Perception Carolina, in case you’re interested in the specifics, with two dry wells — and I’ve been paddling a lot around our cottage north of Toronto, but I hadn’t brought it down to the city before until this fall. I thought I would bring it and see if there was enough to do with it to make it worthwhile, especially since we live near where the Rouge River feeds into Lake Ontario.

I’ve biked down the lake-front trail near our house to the mouth of the Rouge many times, and across the bridge into Pickering and along the bluffs out to Frenchman’s Bay, and I would often see kayaks and canoes coming down the river, and wonder where they had been. So one day I strapped the kayak to our old car and headed over to the Rouge.

It was a beautiful sunny day, and I paddled around the marshes at the mouth of the river for a bit and saw some swans and Canada geese, some blue herons and some white egrets, and then I headed up-river. Unfortunately, I had chosen to go just a couple of days after a big rainstorm, and the river was running quite hard — I was fighting the current the whole way, and after about 45 minutes of hard paddling I could go no further. The ride back to the mouth of the river took me about 15 minutes.


The next time I went, it hadn’t rained for a week or so, and the river was about three feet lower at least — I could see the muddy water-line on the trees and bushes along the bank. Since I didn’t know how fast it would be going, I decided to put the kayak in at Glen Rouge campground, which is just north of Highway 401, off Kingston Road.

I carried it down to the water and dropped it in, and it was an easy paddle of 30 minutes or so down to the mouth of the river — so easy that after I got there, I decided to paddle all the way back up again. I saw more herons and egrets, and even saw a deer at one point in the woods. The most amazing part was that as soon as I got out of sight of the highway, I felt like I was out in the woods in the middle of nowhere. The banks of the ravine were so high I only saw one or two houses.

At one point, I saw a ruined old chimney and fireplace standing right near the bank, made of fieldstone and probably close to a hundred years old — whatever building it used to heat was large and two stories at least. I read that around the turn of the century, someone had tried to sell lots near the river to wealthy settlers, but didn’t sell many and eventually the land was taken over by the province.


Next to the chimney there was a sort of structure made of sticks tied together at the corners, with industrial-size plastic wrapping for walls and a ceiling. I got out to take a look, since the owner didn’t seem to be around, and inside was a cot and some boxes. Outside was a pot hanging from a tripod of sticks over a fire — and hanging from a wire near the chimney (which was tied to the structure) was a small crossbow. Obviously someone was living there, but I left before they returned.

I’ve been back a few times since, and the river is such a peaceful spot. And once when it was calm, I paddled out into Lake Ontario itself and followed the shore all the way out to Frenchman’s Bay and back again.

Since the weather was so beautiful in September, a friend who kayaks with a group out of Harbourfront in downtown Toronto asked me if I wanted to come for a sunset paddle with some of the group — and of course I said yes. We took the boats out into the harbour and across to the Toronto Islands, which I hadn’t been to since I was in my 20s. We paddled into the inland waterway that runs through and around the islands (there are about a dozen of them) and then back across the harbour just as the sun was setting.


It was such a great trip that when my friend asked me if I wanted to go for a longer paddle the next day, I said of course. I showed up at 10 a.m. and we left in a group of 15 or so, and paddled west along the shore through the Western Gap near the island airport, then turned north and paddled into the old Ontario Place grounds, and followed the waterway in and around some of the old buildings like the Cinesphere (where they used to show the first IMAX movies) and back out to the harbour.

After paddling back into the harbour, we went across to Ward’s Island, one of the largest of the islands, and pulled our boats up on the beach and headed inland to a small cafe there for a sandwich and some coffee. It was a beautiful spot — and then it was back into the boats and out around the eastern end of the island.


We paddled up the entire length of the Leslie Spit — a man-made promontory that sticks out into the lake near the end of the Don Valley Parkway — and turned around when we got to the lighthouse at the end. Everyone with a sailboat or any other kind of boat seemed to be out on the lake, which isn’t surprising since the weather was so gorgeous.

Then we came back down the side of the island and into the inland waterway again, and paddled in and around all of the islands, watching people sitting on their sailboats at the marina, or walking and biking around the laneways on the island. After seeing some swans near the island amusement park, we paddled back out the mouth of the inland waterway and across the harbour back to the boat-rental place. We were out for almost seven hours, and probably paddled about 25 kilometres or so.

All in all, it was a pretty amazing September for kayaking, and I’m glad I brought my boat down to the city — I’ve seen far more of Toronto’s rivers and lakes and islands than I ever knew existed.


If you want to see some more photos, there’s a Google photo album with some more photos of the harbour trip here and another one of the sunset trip here.

The web responds to the untimely death of hacker-activist Aaron Swartz

The open web and freedom of information in general lost one of their most passionate proponents yesterday, with the death of early Reddit staffer and Demand Progress founder Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide on Friday, according to a family member. He was facing federal charges for hacking into the JSTOR academic database and downloading millions of research papers, but had also reportedly suffered from depression. He was 26 years old.

As the news of his death spread throughout the web and social networks like Twitter, there was an outpouring of grief and sorrow from some of his friends and those he had worked with on a number of projects — including the early development of the RSS syndication standard, the software framework, the Creative Commons movement and the W3C web standards committee.

We’ve collected some of those comments and responses here (there’s also a Reddit thread and a Hacker News thread about his death, and Alexander Howard of O’Reilly Radar has collected some tweets and links of his own in a Storify post):

Update: Swartz’s family and his partner have released a statement about his death, in which they point the finger of blame directly at the U.S. Attorney’s office and say their prosecution played a role in Aaron’s suicide. The statement says:

“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death.”

Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, posted a message after he learned of the news, saying:

“Aaron dead. World wanderers, we have lost a wise elder. Hackers for right, we are one down. Parents all, we have lost a child. Let us weep.”

Cory Doctorow, author and BoingBoing co-founder, posted a long and heart-felt tribute to Swartz and a discussion of his struggles with depression, saying:

“Aaron accomplished some incredible things in his life. He was one of the early builders of Reddit (someone always turns up to point out that he was technically not a co-founder, but he was close enough as makes no damn), got bought by Wired/Conde Nast, engineered his own dismissal and got cashed out, and then became a full-time, uncompromising, reckless and delightful shit-disturber… we have all lost someone today who had more work to do, and who made the world a better place when he did it.”

Matt Haughey, the founder of Metafilter, posted a comment on his site about Aaron, whom he met while he was working on the Creative Commons project with Larry Lessig — and how at one programming event, Swartz had to come with his father because he was only 15:

“Aaron, I’m so sorry to see you go. You were an amazing person who did incredible work that helps us all out and I really wish you stayed for many more decades so you could continue making society a better place to be. I’ll really miss you.”

Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, posted a memorial entitled “Aaron Swartz, hero of the open world, dies” — and recalled working with the young man on Kahle’s Open Library project, which he helped to code:

“Aaron was steadfast in his dedication to building a better and open world. Selfless. Willing to cause change. He is among the best spirits of the Internet generation. I am crushed by his loss, but will continue to be enlightened by his work and dedication. May a hero and founder of our open world rest in peace.”

In 2007, Swartz wrote what many took to be a suicide note (thanks to Nik Cubrilovic for the link) after he had been fired by Conde Nast (which acquired Reddit in 2006), a note that eventually led Reddit founder Alexis Ohanian to call the police and break into Swartz’s apartment. The young programmer later explained that he wrote it while he was in pain due to a medical issue, but some friends took it as a sign that he was struggling with emotional problems as well.

In 2007, Philipp Lenssen of the blog Google Blogoscoped posted a long interview with Swartz about his development as a programmer, his work with Reddit and Creative Commons, getting fired by Conde Nast and a number of other topics:

“Seriously, though, the Web is what we make of it. We have a powerful, widely-deployed, largely uncontrolled communication network. It’s up to us to decide where to go next.”

John Gruber of the Apple blog Daring Fireball also posted a tribute, saying: “Aaron was a friend and a brilliant mind… he had an enormous intellect — again, a brilliant mind — but also an enormous capacity for empathy. He was a great person. I’m dumbfounded and heartbroken.”

Swartz was also involved in the fight against SOPA, the draconian anti-piracy law that Congress tried to pass last year — this is a video of him discussing the campaign against the bill, which was later shelved:

Many of those who mourned Swartz’s passing wondered whether he knew how respected and loved he was by those who were close to him:

Some of Swartz’s supporters in his fight against the federal charges related to his JSTOR hacking questioned whether the threat of jail time might have accelerated his depression, but others said he didn’t seem that troubled by it. As we wrote last year, Swartz — who had hacked into a federal database in 2009 and download thousands of documents but never been prosecuted for it — gained access to a computer at Harvard and ran a program that downloaded a huge proportion of the research papers JSTOR sells to universities and other institutions.

Larry Lessig, who worked with Swartz on Creative Commons and other projects, has written a post saying what his young friend did with the JSTOR archive was wrong — although the principle may have been right — but that the government’s case against him was reprehensible and over-reaching in the extreme: “Here is where we need a better sense of justice, and shame. For the outrageousness in this story is not just Aaron. It is also the absurdity of the prosecutor’s behavior. From the beginning, the government worked as hard as it could to characterize what Aaron did in the most extreme and absurd way.”

According to those who knew him, Swartz believed that it was wrong to charge so much for access to these papers, many of which were produced by academics for free, and in some cases with government funding (Maria Bustillos has a great overview of the case here). And even though JSTOR said it didn’t want to proceed with a case against him (and has since opened up its database — at least a little) the Department of Justice continued with its case, and Swartz faced a potential 35 years in prison.

Bradley Horowitz of Google, and formerly of Yahoo, remembered talking with Swartz about his plans to use Hangouts for journalistic purposes around the Occupy Wall Street movement:

“I was really heart-broken by this news… Thank you Aaron, for all you contributed to the world, and inspiring so many.”

In this video conversation from 2008, Swartz talked about how he got started as a programmer with Economist blogger Will Wilkinson:

Swartz had prepared a webpage in the event that he was “hit by a truck” as he put it:

“I ask that the contents of all my hard drives be made publicly available from… please update the footer of this page with a link. Also email the relevant lists and set up an autoresponder for my email address to email people who write to me. Feel free to publish things people say about me on the site. Oh, and BTW, I’ll miss you all.”

Web pioneer and Harvard fellow Doc Searls wrote a memorial post for Swartz, along with a picture of him at a conference with Dave Winer — a conference Swartz had to be driven to by his mom, since he was only 15 — and said: “We haven’t just lost a good man, but the better world he was helping to make.”

Alex Macgillivray, general counsel at Twitter and former Google lawyer, said:

A comment on the discussion thread on the Y Combinator site Hacker News that appeared to be from Swartz’s mother said:

“Thank you all for your kind words and thoughts. Aaron has been depressed about his case/upcoming trial, but we had no idea what he was going through was this painful. Aaron was a terrific young man. He contributed a lot to the world in his short life and I regret the loss of all the things he had yet to accomplish. As you can imagine, we all miss him dearly. The grief is unfathomable.”

Microsoft research and sociologist Danah Boyd has written about the boy/man she knew for the past nine years, and how he could be both brilliant and frustrating — but she says the thing that makes her the angriest is how unreasonable his prosecution was: “He became a toy for a government set on showing their strength. And they bullied him and preyed on his weaknesses and sought to break him. And they did.”

David Weinberger of Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society has a post on his blog in which he calls Aaron Swartz not a hacker but “a builder.” And Weinberger points (as many others have) to a post from Alex Stamos, an expert in information technology who was an expert witness in Swartz’s case, who argues that his downloading of JSTOR articles wasn’t a criminal hack: “I know a criminal hack when I see it, and Aaron’s downloading of journal articles from an unlocked closet is not an offense worth 35 years in jail.”

Micah Sifry of TechPresident remembers meeting Aaron in 2004, when he was 18, and being impressed with how dedicated he was: “I don’t know where he got the bug, but I understood it. If you have “change the world” disease, there is only one cure. And he tried mightily to change the world using every tool at his disposal.” And Dan Gillmor argues that we should remember Aaron by working for open society and against government abuses: “So amid my grief for Aaron, I’m angry — and committed to working for honorable enforcement of rational laws, and for values Aaron exemplified in his short life.”

James Grimmelmann, a law professor at New York Law School who knew Swartz well, writes about some of the incredible things that he accomplished at such a young age: “Aaron was a friend, and more than that, he was one of my heroes. No one I have known better embodied the bumper-sticker motto to “be the change you wish to see in the world.” It is hard to believe he is gone.” And Glenn Greenwald writes at The Guardian about what he calls the “inspiring heroism” of Aaron Swartz — he didn’t just talk about internet freedom and civil liberties, Greenwald says, “He repeatedly sacrificed his own interests, even his liberty, in order to defend these values and challenge and subvert the most powerful factions that were their enemies. That’s what makes him, in my view, so consummately heroic.”

A number of academics have tried to honor Swartz’s commitment to open information by making their journal articles free to download. And Quinn Norton, who was Swartz’s girlfriend for a time, has written a heart-wrenching post about their time together here.

The pros and cons of newspaper paywalls — a Storify conversation

Having a debate about the merits and/or disadvantages of newspaper paywalls is nothing new — one seems to break out whenever two or more journalists are in a room together — but not all of them involve a former Dow Jones chief executive, a former Wall Street Journal executive, a current Wall Street Journal managing editor, the president of BuzzFeed and the media reporters for Bloomberg and All Things Digital. Since I got involved in one that did on Sunday afternoon, I thought I would Storify it so others could eavesdrop in a digital sense.

The conversation didn’t actually solve the question of the merits of paywalls, because it’s not the kind of question that has a specific answer — it’s more about the tradeoffs involved, and the effects that subscription plans can have on a content business. But there were some interesting viewpoints expressed and some interesting facts debated, such as the news that charging readers hasn’t improved the advertising picture at the New York Times (something many paywall advocates argued that it would do). The Storify is here, and I also posted an edited version at GigaOM.

Wikipedia, Instagram and real-time news

I realize that RSS feeds are kind of passé (sorry, Dave) and so some readers may have missed some of my recent posts over at GigaOM — so I have collected some of them here in case you want to catch up:

  • “Ruining the social web: How can we avoid the Bieber effect?” — Does every social network eventually become so large and noisy that it turns into a broadcast-style platform instead of something truly social? And is the desire for monetization and revenue part of what drives social platforms to look out for their own interests instead of users?
  • “What Wikipedia can tell us about the future of news” — Researcher Brian Keegan specializes in analysing the way that information flows through Wikipedia during a breaking news event, and recently compared the way that seven mass shootings — including the incident at Sandy Hook elementary school in Connecticut — were reported on the crowdsourced encyclopedia. He found some interesting patterns that media entities of all kinds might want to pay attention to.
  • “Who’s to blame for the Instagram debacle? Take a look in the mirror” — Instagram has come under fire — as other services based on user-generated content have — for changing its terms of service in a way that suggests it might experiment with advertising. But should that really be a surprise? What else should we expect from a free service?
  • “Like it or not, real-time crowdsourced news verification is here to stay” — Critics of the kind of real-time verification that National Public Radio editor Andy Carvin practices on Twitter during events like the Sandy Hook shootings say the process introduces too many errors and sows confusion — but the benefits of this approach arguably outweigh the disadvantages.
  • “Why an Apple-Foursquare partnership would make sense” — According to one report, Apple is considering a partnership with Foursquare that would involve using the location-based service’s data inside Apple’s maps. That would be a smart move for Apple at a time when its maps have come under heavy fire for a lack of features.
  • “It’s not Twitter — this is just the way the news works now” — The way that inaccurate news reports about a mass shooting in Connecticut filtered out through social media has brought up many of the same criticisms as Hurricane Sandy — that social media isn’t an appropriate forum for journalism. But this is simply the way news works now.