Kill the Gateeper

With the Kindle DX — Amazon’s new large-screen e-reader – the debate about the delivery of information via printed paper compared to that of digital is starting to pick up even more. Earlier, I’d wondered about reasons to prefer dead tree media that weren’t based on just aesthetics. I see that in reviewing the new Kindle, and much to their credit, Slate has avoided misty-eyed discussions of ink-stained fingers or the timeless aroma of newsprint. Instead, they’ve gone for “graphic design” (although they actually mean information architecture, but I’ll let that pass):

“But both versions of the Kindle are missing what makes print newspapers such a perfect delivery vehicle for news: graphic design. The Kindle presents news as a list—you’re given a list of sections (international, national, etc.) and, in each section, a list of headlines and a one-sentence capsule of each story. It’s your job to guess, from the list, which pieces to read. This turns out to be a terrible way to navigate the news.”

This is an interesting point. Does the presentation of information (the “design” of it) count as an advantage that newspapers have over current devices like the Kindle? If we ignore the aesthetic aspect of this and concentrate on the “navigation” they mention, the answer as far as I’m concerned is an emphatic “no”. Such design actually shows just how bad the information design of newspapers is when it comes to presenting news.

To understand why I think this, let me digress slightly. A number of years ago, I was asked to submit ideas to the BBC for innovative things they might consider in order to further the public good. I suggested a couple, and one of them was to kill off the editors at BBC News Online. Failing that, they should at least provide a part of the BBC News site where all stories could be presented without any editorial filtering or other controls. Just stack ’em up in date order and let the people sort, filter and read them as they wanted. This idea came in response to a rather shocking revelation I had while working at the BBC on a prototype of the BBC News Online CMS. At the time, news reports were coming in from all over the world all the time. A large part of a BBC editors’ job was to pick out “important” stuff and ignore (or demote by redaction) the rest. Thus, news about the Queen always got priority over that of Jose Ramos-Horta, because nobody knew much about East Timor. This somewhat circular reasoning would be fair enough in a printed publication, but in my opinion it was almost evil in a digital one.

For the record, the BBC ignored my suggestion, although Slashdot did something very similar a year or two later with their “Firehose”.

Choosing to highlight what the editors think are the most important stories, and buring other news, is something that is both pointless and unnecessary in digital media. It’s pointless because content is becoming increasingly de-coupled from presentation. It’s unnecessary because in digital media there is no such thing as limitation of space or resources by which to publish – everything may as well be headline news.

But what about the tradition of editorial? What about benign gatekeepers who surf the information highway so you don’t have to? Who will save us from the deluge of minutiae, the distraction of the unimportant, the information we can’t be expected to understand without help? That, I suggest, isn’t worth worrying about because the Internet facilitates the right delivery for the right people by itself. This is through collaborative filtering, discussion, the expression of individual preferences, tagging, and other mechanisms yet to emerge. Of course, it might be a rather dystopian future in some ways, but then all futures are to those that examine the present in enough detail.