Filtering the Stream

Simple question: Let’s say you live in a heavily populated metropolis, would you trust the neighborhood stream or creek for your drinking water? If you are like most people my guess is that you wouldn’t, not without a filter.

One of the main complaints about new media, and the twitteriffic, publish-for-pennies, information overloaded society that we inhabit today is that the information we have to consume is devolving in quality as the quantity has increased. The argument goes: with the advent of the “citizen journalist” any idiot can put their ideas out there and that brings down the quality of debate and information. When you no longer have to be the New York Times to be read, what stands between lies and falsehoods and widespread distribution?

Not only that but the trusted names that have deciphered the worlds information are facing harder times than almost any other industry. Major newspapers are struggling to maintain advertising revenue when competing with better targeted online advertising platforms. The millions of dollars spent on publishing and distributing facilities are beginning to make those institutions creak heavily under the weight of competition from lighter, more timely online operations with one-hundredth the costs. Business models that sustained these operations for hundreds of years now seem antiquated and even quaint, the domain of grand parents who enjoy black ink on their hands. So what is to become of the quality of information?

The answer is clear. As information distribution has been democratized, so will editorial discretion. Basically, I would argue, people will evolve to develop more advanced ways to filter the enormous amounts of available information. Humans will learn to filter their stream using an old method.

The methodology for this filter is quite an old idea, new technology has only grown up around it and empowered it. In his groundbreaking study of mass media effects, Paul Lazarsfeld penned a theory of consumption and effect of mass media called the “two-step flow model” for communications. The theory, based on his empirical research, basically posited the importance of human intermediaries, called “opinion leaders,” who effectively filter information provided by mass media for their peers. While today’s mass media has changed dramatically from the days of Dr. Lazarsfeld there seems little evidence that the role of key community opinion leaders has, and some examples exist of this role being expanded and formalized by new technology.

Facebook, the worlds largest social network, serves to connect people to their friends and to share things they find important with them. For those that fit the role of an opinion leader among their peers this formalizes the sharing of information and gives a perfect tool for doing so. This creates a social filter moderated by friends and family for worthwhile information to be distributed but which also creates a forum on which content lacking factual accuracy can be quickly met with fact and corrective debate.

Twitter, a social-broadcasting short messaging service, it’s roles very directly correlating with the “two-step” theory of communication: “mass media” to “opinion leader” to “followers.” Twitter has created an enormous network of easily accessed sources of information that are quality checked by one thing: their need to survive in that information ecosystem. Sources of “bad” information are filtered out over time, while sources of quality information are usually rewarded with a larger following and greater credibility.

As we adapt to a socially mediated world, where your own brand and credibility is based on the quality of the information you share, we will become more dependent on those around us to judge the quality of information. Editorial discretion will be informed by your colleagues, friends and family and those discussions will happen in a public forum.

This model, however, depends on one assumption: that those around you are more concerned with the merit and validity of arguments than their adherence to their own worldview. It depends on humanity to become good-faith arbiters of information of a high quality, not that of self-aggrandizement. It may be a fool hearty assumption, but I’m an optimist.

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