The Network is the News

A long time ago in Internet years there was a Silicon Valley super power called Sun Microsystems.  Their slogan was ‘The Network is the Computer’, a clever aspirational statement challenging the centralized power of mainframe computers.

It wasn’t long before that vision became reality, and the Internet grew into something much more powerful than a network that computes.  The idea became more of a principle of technology today rather than something any company could own.

Many variations on this theme have surfaced and resurfaced over the years, and yet it still feels like a fresh idea with a lot of unexplored territory.

Journalism, for example, is not often enough a networked activity.

An opportunity to try something that might function as if journalism were a network arose recently when my colleague Sean Clarke was looking for some help identifying a tool he needed for a special project.  Is there a better solution than Google Docs for collecting, analyzing and rendering structured input from users?

Of course the answer must be ‘yes’, but which one?

Around the same time, Knight’s next News Challenge was announced, a very appealing high level question about making the Internet stronger.  Maybe Sean’s need was something we could answer for everyone with a new open data platform.  Ideas are cheap, though, and we needed a team to work on this very unformed idea.

Guardian architect Graham Tackley is the creator of the company’s realtime analytics platform, an incredible tool that makes analytics work for editors in a way analytics tools have traditionally failed to understand.  He was eager to look at the realtime aspects of a project like this and how you can platformize it to serve many different users and use cases.

Also agreeing to join the project was Tom Armitage, a sort of mercenary artist whose canvas is code.  I met him at our first hack day at the Guardian a few years ago, and he supported the Contributoria team in its early phases.  He had some ideas about structured participation that he could tease out with this project.

I’m very interested in journalism platforms and, in particular, ways to make journalism work in a more network-y kind of way as opposed to a broadcast-y kind of way.  In my mind journalism is not yet fully embracing the power of the Internet as a network.

Yes, media companies are now very good at manipulating network behaviour to reach the masses, but very few are effectively using the two-way, linked node architecture of the Internet software and hardware stack.  And, of course, using raw data and user participation as the ingredients for networked journalism is something that needs much more exploration still.

As Susan Crawford said in her opening keynote at the MIT-Knight Civic Media conference announcing the funding for our project, among others, “data can provide a level of factual persuasion that storytelling isn’t always capable of doing.”

We’ve called this project Swarmize.

It’s going to stay very small for now while we figure out precisely what it is and apply it to one or two specific use cases.  My hope is that it sets the stage for something very potent as we’re able to collectively generate insight across the network, that ultimately the network becomes the journalism.