Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Enter ‘Wikitribune’: A Game changer for News Writing or just ‘Meh’?

Wikitribune Campaign from impossible on Vimeo.

Remember when I talked about how the world might benefit from embracing radical openness brought about by using decentralised wikis and similar software systems? Jimmy Wales of Wikipedia fame must have had similar thoughts because today he announced Wikitribune (see the video above).

In a nutshell, Wikitribune is a wiki site for news. The initiative is currently seeking funds via crowdsourcing to hire at least ten journalists for now to write quality news pieces that people online might care about. According to the initiative’s website, ordinary volunteers from the public will be able to ‘work’ with hired professionals to write news pieces that are well sourced, fact checked and created in an open, accountable manner.

Moreover, it has been stressed that the initiative will not rely on advertisements to fund itself. Instead, there will be a monthly subscription, though it seems this subscription will be a voluntary thing because the initiative’s site also mentions that ANYONE will be able to read ANYTHING (that is, no paywalls which is a big thumbs up from me) and ANYONE will be able to flag any piece that appears to be problematic or even fix it before sending it for reviewing (presumably by the hired professionals).

So far around 3370 people have contributed to the effort with 29 days left on the fundraising clock as of the writing of this article. Having said that, there has been some incredible amount of back-and-forth happening on the great forums of the web and social media regarding this effort and even some in mainstream media outlets are throwing in their two cents which is a good thing because Mr. Wales is right about one thing in all of this:
The news is broken. So broken in fact that some might say it is beyond saving.
If you’re surprised by that last part then therein lies the problem: this is not news at all. It only seems so now because, well, it pays to say it is so (it brings in them clicks) and its good political ammunition considering current political circumstances. In fact, people have been talking about the broken nature of news since the turn of the last century and maybe even before that (I am currently reading a book titled “How the News Makes Us Dumb” by C. John Sommerville, Professor of English History, Emeritus University of Florida, published in 1995 but it might as well have been written today). Some people have become so uppity over the issue of broken news and the nature of fake news that they seem to have forgotten that humans have been producing AND listening to fake news since the beginning of civilisation itself. Modern industry turned it into a product and online advertisement made it damn cheap to produce.

However, in the end, the most fundamental problem lies in people themselves. We want to be informed; we want our news, yes, but we want it every second, every day and we want it real cheap and, most importantly, we want to feel FULFILLED by it, and not offended. Gossip works in a similar manner (Instagram and Whatsapp gossip literally determines political events on the ground where I come from), and that’s why gossip packaged as a news product sells. And that is also why we have libel laws (and why certain religions label gossip as a sin, but let it be known that I completely believe in the supremacy of freedom of speech).

So, after all has been said and done, can Wikitribune fix all this? No, of course not. If the goal is to fundamentally produce everlasting, super-mega, out-of-this-world editing wars and drama (which will be news itself and will definitely sell) between the community and the professionals, then yes, it will totally be a smashing success (I don’t know how an initial team of 10 people will be able to engage with a global-sized community of volunteers while covering stories at the same time). Otherwise, it is trying too hard to solve an unsolvable problem, kind of like how some early proponents of bitcoin tried to “replace politics with mathematics” (that turned out to be a load of 💩).

But, it may set the stage for more accountable news creation, though IMHO Wikipedia can already do this quite well in its current state WITHOUT indulging in too much news creation (we already have a HUGE surplus of the latter). I am of the opinion that all this effort could be better spent at enhancing Wikipedia’s news aggregation capabilities (and real news journalists can chip in like all the rest) and improving the site’s editing system and what not.

I love Wikis; I love what they can do and I also recognise what they cannot do. Wikitribune may very well be able to do what it says will do but it will not be able to fix a flawed industry that serves a flawed need. Consequently, the people who sign up for this should prepare themselves to question the entire endeavour eventually when the time comes, just as it happened with Wikipedia back when it was a nasty place (it sometimes still is), and perhaps change it in some way, for better or worse. It has yet to fix anything, despite Mr Wales saying that they have “figured out” how to fix the news. They are still at the very beginning of the discovery process, and there is a lot of ground to be covered before Wikitribune can claim to have solved the problem.

In conclusion, I would argue that it would be much more useful to have a wiki site that offers tools and tips on how to be a great Wiki journalist, and then set the site’s subscribers lose on Wikitribune, or Wikipedia for that matter. In fact, I think Mr. Wales should probably focus more on improving Wikipedia rather than creating something that may very well end up becoming something like a Wikipedia clone, but with the journalists doing more editing and community engagement than actual journalism, among other possibilities.

I look forward to seeing what comes out of this initiative. Hopefully we might just learn something new from it all.