Have You Heard?

Journalists are incredible gossips. Professional gossips. They dig into dirt with a delight that approaches Julia Child in the butter aisle.

Traditionally it’s been their job to take the gossip, and judge it, sift it, research it, integrate it, fact check it and verify otherwise unattributed information with two reliable sources, tell it in a well-written story and then stick it in whatever publication/distribution employs them. Then its not called gossip anymore, it’s called news.

But the digital era has struck at each of these points. The finding out, the composition, the sifting and most especially the distribution. The information economy and networked era, coupled with a population gasping for distraction, urges: FASTER PUSSYCAT, WRITE, READ!!

We are moving to a world in which anyone can make information or news media and distribute it to an audience. Meanwhile, the time between an event occurring, or information surfacing, and it being reported has already shrunk to zero. This means that media often is gossip.

A couple of elements are helping this movement along: the emerging Servant Media model and the Real-Time demand for instant business and the newest news. All of this adds up to a kind of massive questioning of authority. Who do we listen to? While the speed and neutrality of technology might seem to give us the circumstances for media nirvana, it will not replace the authority of more traditional media outlets which are aided by, but do not wholly consist of, technology.

Servant Media

So who makes the new new media in the networked digital era? We all do.

As a convenient way to describe this model of media production, distribution, and consumption, I borrow the phrase Servant from the original Gnutella developers. Gnutella collapsed the ‘server’ and client’ into one unit (thus, servant). This means every consumer is also a producer. All of these units are simultaneously connected, which means that every producer is also a distributor. (This is the model I called distributed serving back in January [please see ‘Infringement, The Web and Media Businesses: Part Two,’ Futuredays, digital mogul Volume 3, Report 1].)

With news and information, it works this way: each of us is capable of taking in and observing new pieces of information. We can easily create gossip, news and opinion and distribute it quickly to many in the networked world, by emailing this information to friends, to our own mailing lists, to a general listserv, to a web site.

In fact the human instincts behind gossip–showing you know something others don’t, sharing information–these are the same instincts behind all of the development in the technology referred to as P2P (which stands for person to person–isn’t it just like technophiles to come up with a way to turn people into an acronym?).

The information and opinion in a personal email or listserv posting hasn’t been verified by an external source. This ‘I’m pretty sure it’s true’ quality of gossip can add to it’s titillating nature and, thus, its distribution. This news doesn’t just go from a box to everyone. It moves from one of us to the next. Like gossip.

Surely you’ve get some email each week that looks like this…

Subject: Have you heard?

Subject: I thought you’d be interested…

Subject: FYI

Subject: Fw:……

Some of the most vibrant examples of Servant models–Slashdot, the pho listserv and FuckedCompany.com (FC)–have popped up in new subject areas that are within the new digital economy (Linux, digital music and entertainment, and bad Internet employment experiences and failing dot coms) which were not being covered well or at all by traditional media. Those who organized these Servant media outlets created skeleton structures that allowed many many contributors to add the results of the most recent press release or opinion about the latest rumour. These skeleton structures (a listserv, editorial sections or a system that makes a game out of reader contribution, by taking bets) does away with the expense of having actual writers or editors.

Remove little things like overhead costs and fact checking, add a subject matter that’s feeding a focussed audience with an insatiable appetite for the latest dirt, and you’ll find that Servant Media has the ability to grow at a pace far outstripping the traditional 5 year growth patterns planned for magazines and newspapers.

As each Servant Media outlet reaches a larger audience, some percentage of that audience become contributing participants in the Servant Media. The growing number of writers also means that Servant Media is better equipped than traditional media to meet the new Real-Time pace.


Real-Time is being ushered in by the digital economy.

Forces are orienting business and media outlets around the same principles of the technology underlying the changes. That technology tends toward allowing events and transactions to occur almost instantaneously. In terms of media, that means that the time between an event occurring and it being reported, collated and distributed (and sometimes analysed through Servant Media outlets) is approaching nil.

The value of news media is that its, well, new. The freshest, most immediate reporting is the ticker that flows from the stock markets. Ask one of the dozens of financial media outlets that have sprung up to service and further our speculative Internet lives: the closer to Real-Time, the more willing people are to pay for information.

The digital tools and networking increase the need for media. Changes happen more quickly than ever. There are more companies, more individual efforts and greater impact on our lives. So the tools that enable more people to make and distribute media more quickly also increase the demand for more media. This expansive kind of onanism synchs with what venture investors like to call the ‘network effect.’ The area of investment creates its own customer base/audience. This is why the people actually making cash money right now off of the digital economy, are those who publish its media, like F@stCompany and The Standard.

What is most important is that Real-Time cannot be commodified, like other forms of information or ‘content.’ In an era in which competitive advantage is getting more and more difficult to create or maintain, it’s hard to argue with something as absolute as Time.

Of course, the closer a media outlet is to Real-Time, the more it approximates a tool (ie. useful implement) and the less it looks like what the digital era has vaguely labelled ‘content,’ ie. some random creamy filling you stuff in and take your time experiencing. And, the information that comes in real-time about events is, almost by definition: gossip or a press release, because neither of these needs any time for editing, checking of contextualizing. The Servant Media outlet, targeted like a Slashdot or Fuckedcompany.com, relies upon the think organizational shell of the outlet’s narrow focus, plus the quick responses of many people, to function as context.

Fuckedcompany.com, is a kind of reverse NASDAQ without having to deal with government regulation. The site allows people to vent their frustrations and gossip about the mismanagement of various dot coms, and bet on the speed of their demise. FC is entertaining and has an augmented value (as recent eBay bids on the site show) because it gives gossip to speculators who then use it at their own risk, but who do look at it as an information source. FC is a mix of information and entertainment that reflects a trend we’ve been seeing for some time: that news is being used as entertainment as much as entertainment is being passed off as ‘news.’ Real-Time markets are inherently entertaining because they can be watched as sport and entertainment. They hold an inherent sense of serial drama and narrative.

But does this gossip media system supplant (or supplement) well-reasoned and researched news? It is all a question of authority.


Gossip is like sex or candy. Fun and enticing, but not sustaining on its own.

While the growth and influence of the Servant Media model has real benefits and cannot be stopped, it will not replace established traditional reporting and media. For what builds and conveys authority are a number of factors that the Servant Media model and Real-Time don’t support: consistency; context; ethics; journalistic independence; and most of all accountablity.

These factors depend upon time for reflection. Time also means money. The quality of writing and consistency depends upon the contributors and editors and the only way to maintain that is paid quality staff and freelancers. Without substantive editorial work, the signal to noise ratio becomes onerous for the audience. Even focussed Servant Media outlets can become cluttered with repetition, poor grammar, personal attacks and the same loud voices (not necessarily interesting or informed ones) shouting over and over.

The fact is that most people don’t have the time and certainly don’t have the contacts or the ability to piece all of this information together for themselves.

I imagine that even the most libertarian Servant Model proponent, suspect of any centralization, still read and rely upon the Wall Street Journal and watch CNN when it comes to their investments.

The abdication of judgement, editorial and responsibility may work for a pure communication tools–an instant messaging system for example. But it is judgement that is consistently well exercised that builds up reputation and authority of any kind of media outlet. Technology systems by themselves are not good at this kind of accountability. There’s too much nuance and context involved. God knows Amazon can’t even give you a decent book recommendation, never mind filter for truth or what’s really important to you to know. Trust needs to build in order for readers and audiences to convey authority to an outlet. Anonymity is of limited use in building trust because independence cannot be ascertained.

Anonymity is sometimes useful in questioning authority. And so the highest use of the Servant Outlets will be as watchdogs. It may even be a good idea for traditional outlets, to all have a servant web component running alongside them to keep them honest.

Heard any good stories lately?