A funny thing popped up last week that I only now sat down to write about. Earlier in the week, I'd read that the wall of TimesSelect was coming down. This pleased me. It always seemed a bit counterintuitive to restrict access to your site's best content. But I'm part of that entitlement generation that wants its Internet to remain free. Where's mah cookie?
Anyway, I found a nifty little op-ed by Roger Cohen called "Is There Wisdom in Crowds?" As someone who loves a hearty critique of a tired cliche, I couldn't help but want to read it. Alas, this was where the link sent me:
To continue reading this article, you must be a subscriber to TimesSelect.
What a tease. Fortunately, there's a site called Behind the Times that specializes in getting behind the Times subscription barrier. I could finally read this Intl. Herald Tribune piece. Hurray.
Cohen gets off to a great start, comparing digg to "a few 20th-century bummers, not least in Germany, Italy, the Soviet Union and China." But this is too easy, and Valleywag has already been here, so I'll move on.
What didn't surprise me were the cherrypicked popular links that featured the inane and trivial. Granted, reddit has it's days, but we designed it simply to be a site where people find and share interesting content. If they get informed while being entertained, it's an bonus. There is an important need in any healthy (keyword) democracy for its population be informed. But we're not kidding ourselves, reddit was built as somewhere to go when you're bored at work -- any knowledge gained is gravy.
I'm still waiting for the Today Show segue from Hefner's rape denial to Mr. Blank's online disclosures. (Yeah, I cherrypicked that Hefner story, it was the top story on the Today Show website.)
But I acknowledge that the Today Show is just selling to its audience. Have you seen this show after 9am? These cherries are delicious!
I know nothing about this industry, but I suspect they measure this in ratings and advertising revenue. It's why this question asked by Cohen is such a pertinent one (and not just because it gets its own paragraph).
But it only begs the question: What makes stuff - a story, a book, whatever - a hit rather than a flop?Ignoring his misuse of "begging the question" (thanks, PG) he has made a seamless transition to the core issue. Media is produced to be "a hit" whether it's a movie or book (as he posits) or news.
Why stop talking about news as a commodity? Oh right, I'm more comfortable imagining a producer deciding if it'd be worth financing a sequel to Ghost Rider* than thinking about an editor deciding which front page story will sell more copies...
I suspect the troubling part is that on sites like reddit, the curtain is now raised. The same mechanisms are in place, only the "consumer feedback" comes much faster.
When the audience wants LOLCATs, they get LOLCATs. Just once I want to hear Ann Curry say "Mr. Blank."
With the right mechanisms in place, reddit can give people what they want and maybe a few things they didn't know they wanted. We're still working on that, but I'm pretty sure we're not working toward totalitarianism (or is that exactly what you'd expect me to say, Comrade?).
*Answer: Of course it would be.