Wednesday, March 19, 2008

BONUS POST: "Ad hocracy"

I'm breaking up my series on newspapers to float an idea that I'm hoping to present at a workshop next month.

It comes from this basic observation: We've already got the free tools to construct ad hoc breaking news networks around discrete events: Blogs act as a reverse-order chronology of evolving events; Twitter gives us two way communication across platforms, plus a means to capture text via SMS from "dumb" phones and then push those messages out to the Web. Utterz lets us send audio clips from our cell phones straight to the blog. And Flickr gives us a way to organize and "theme" photos coming in live from multiple users.

The fun part? Figuring out how to configure the parts and administer the results so that you find the Goldilocks Zone between immediacy and chaos.

For the record, I experimented with something similar to this in 2006. The idea of creating ad hoc news networks arose from my thought that I'd have set up Storm Watch differently if I'd been a Twitter user.

I'm posting the original concept here so that everyone can bang on it, come up with better solutions. Have at it.

STEP 1: Administrator sets up a breaking news blog on a standard blogging platform that can handle multiple authors.

STEP 2: Administrator publishes the URL of the new blog and encourages members of the network to bookmark it. The blog will remain absolutely dark until it is needed.

STEP 3: Administrator creates a Twitter account for the new blog and encourages people within the network to Follow it.

STEP 4: People who are known and trusted by the administrator (reporters, bloggers, Twitterers, photographers, videographers, frequent commenters on other sites, etc.) are invited to create author accounts/Utterz accounts that will feed into the blog when it goes live.

STEP 5: Administrator adds a Twitter widget to the blog to display recent Tweets. (?)

STEP 1: The administrator/network wrangler hears about a breaking news event (a plane crash, a storm, a riot, a blogger conference, etc.) and wakes up the network via a variety of means: Tweets, cell phone alerts, e-mail, blog posts, etc.

STEP 2: Eye witnesses begin filing reports in a variety of ways: Tweets to the @breakingnewsnet account; Utterz calls that go straight to the blog; photos uploaded to individual Flickr accounts but tagged to create an event-specific Flickrstream.

STEP 3: Eye witnesses who are live-blogging to their own sites can share their posts with the breaking news blog by sending links in multiple ways.

STEP 1: The administrator should focus on trying to manage the flow of information across platforms in real time. In particular, the administrator should look for reports from non-trusted sources that could be misleading, erroneous or threatening.

STEP 2: If the interface between Twitter and the blog is manual (i.e., the administrator is copying and pasting Tweets as new posts), then information flows will be managed by deciding which reports to publish elsewhere. If the connection is scripted (@breakingnewsblog Tweets appear automatically on the blog, or in the blog publishing queue), then the administrator has to decide whether some reports should be removed awaiting verification.

STEP 3: The administrator(s) should attempt to develop as clear a picture of events as possible, posting updates that write-through the various incremental reports from the field.

STEP 4: Witnesses get feedback, questions and requests for clarification from the administrators and other users. Follow-up reports attempt to address those questions and requests.

STEP 1: As the situation moves from real-time development and into the more traditional news cycles, the administrator notifies the network that the breaking news blog is shutting back down.

STEP 2: Administrators capture and save the Twitterstream, tag photos and video, and formally concludes the blog coverage. Commenting continues as long as needed.

STEP 3: Administrators review inputs and extend "trusted source" accounts to network participants who performed as reliable observers. Sources that perform poorly could have their "trusted source" status rescinded.

STEP 4: New account requests and Twitter follows are processed and prepared in anticipation of the next breaking news event, which will wake up the blog and the network all over again.

SCRIPTED VS. HUMAN: First, is there a way to capture specific Tweets (my example: @breakingnewsblog) and script their posting to the blog? Second: If there is, should we? My gut tells me that the Twitterstream would be the raw material: Anyone could Follow it and see the incoming reports in real time. The blog, on the other hand, could be a step up in terms of making sense of the reports. What's the best way to moderate this?

BEST USES: Should this be done using the system I described or something different? Would hashtags work better? Should Facebook be used instead of/in addition to?

WHICH BLOGGING PLATFORM? Each blogging platform has its quirks. Which one would work best for an ad hoc news network?

IS MORE BETTER? This blog could handle everything from organizing live responses to a scheduled political debate to receiving reports from a surprise earthquake, but obviously each event would have a different network of contributors. My thought it that you want to make it as easy as possible for people to contribute (and cell phone to Twitter is pretty easy). But am I right? And will the administrator be able to keep up if the size of the reporting audience gets too big too fast?

IS THIS ONE IDEA OR SEVERAL? A version of this created for covering tech conferences might look different than a version built to cover breaking news in a geographic area. Or maybe you'd do this within a very defined community (graphic novel fans, infectious disease experts) to handle particular types of information.

WHAT ABOUT ETHICS? Your average professional organization would be scared to try something like this because of fears that people might use bad language or make libelous claims against individuals or post hoaxes or upload photos that invade privacy, etc. Well, aren't those legitimate concerns? How could we address them in an ad hoc, cooperative breaking news network?

That's what I'm thinking about. I'd love to hear your thoughts...