Close The Gate Behind You.
Indy100.com : A professional news website consisting of the top 100 news stories from that day across 8 different topics. The editorials are displayed in list form, changing the hierarchy in accordance to how its readers interact with it. This discussion aims to understand how the online newspaper ‘Indy100’ determines news to its readers and if it is an effective way of delivering news in a more democratic fashion.
A study previously conducted examined how BuzzFeed.com deciphered content to its users. The research discovered both positive and negative implications of algorithms and journalists deciding content to users, and in conclusion the research pushed for a more democratic way for online users to receive news (Clarke, 34). ‘The Independent’ a British online newspaper launched: ‘Indy100’: a sister online newspaper displaying in list form what The Independent perceives to be the top 100 stories from the day under the categories: “Discover”, “News”, “People”, “Videos”, “Sport”, “Tech”, “Offbeat” and “Ents”. ‘Indy100’ allows its users to ‘up-vote’ stories that they perceive to be meaningful and help adjust the position of the story on the list of 1-100. Accordingly if the user shares, reads or posts a comment, it also rises (@christian_b). It appears a step towards a more democratic system in which public can retrieve, receive and interact news. It is necessary to discuss the boundaries of ‘Indy100’ to discover if this is an emerging, democratic way for online newspapers to give information and what limitations still exist.
The system to ‘up-vote’ will be familiar to Reddit.com users. Reddit encourages users to engage personally with user produced content, rather than contribute with an “emotional reaction” unrelated to the content (Sodypop). An ‘up-vote’ should be cast if the content is important or meaningful to the user and in opposition a ‘down-vote’ can be cast if the content is irrelevant or meaningless to the user. ‘Down-vote’ is an unavailable function for ‘Indy100’, reinforcing user to interact in a positive light. What ‘Indy100’ users do not find interesting soon becomes obvious as they fall to the bottom of the list automatically. Similarly Axel Bruns suggests if articles are unworthy they will be “moderated down or augmented by more insightful commentary” by editorial staff (41). This system is encouraged to be used in the way it was intended for, but the system can be (and is) abused. It is important to be critical of ‘Indy100’ that have adopted a similar system to Reddit.com when trying to remain a professional journalism news-site.
The term: Gatekeeping has been used broadly throughout scholars when discussing professional news outlets. It is the process which determines what is newsworthy. Julian Wallace gives an account of gatekeeping throughout history in order to understand its relevance today. It was first acknowledged by Lewin in 1947 to describe how food arrives to your plate and every decision made to receive the food was made by a gatekeeper. It continued to be used in a journalistic context after 1950’s when White introduced the editor as a gatekeeper, deciding what news arrives on your plate. Decades later with the emergence of the internet, personal computers and online communities, the way news is retrieved, produced and spread throughout the world has shifted. Recounting Shoemaker in 1991 who envisages gatekeeping as “the process by which the billions of messages that are available in the world get cut down and transformed into the hundreds of messages that reach a given person on a given day” (3) allows to only imagine the sheer size of such a process when considered 26 years later.
With the rise of non-human interfaces making decisions on how news is given after production, it calls for what Wallace describes as “gatekeeping theory in transition”, from traditional gatekeeping to algorithmic gatekeeping (4). Their audience has the potential to ‘up-vote’ for reasons unknown and The Independents algorithmic ‘gatekeepers’ are unaware why a user could share, read or comment on a post; these actions do not directly strike as an interest. However a comment on an article, pushing the article to rise, would then engage others in the conversation to open a more orderly community. Evgeny Morozov is critical of logic determining outcomes: “issues that give rise to publics need to be backed by reason giving, not by some invisible ultimatum- eventually encoded in algorithms- from above.”(202) Discontent with a rational process influencing irrational beings it is speculated that by the time a solution has been created, the problem has been forgotten. Perhaps there is no need for ‘Indy100’ and everybody should return to the good old fashioned newspaper.
In 2003 Axel Bruns introduced the phenomena of “Gatewatching: Not Gatekeeping” suggesting each individual has the power to be a gatekeeper, with the ability to share ideas, links and news that are deemed important to themselves with potential to create viral news: “… gatewatchers keep a constant watch at the gates, and point out those gates to their readers that are most likely to open on to useful sources”(33) this is ever more possible than it was when this was written given the affordances of social media sites today like Facebook, Twitter etc. It is interesting to highlight John Websters idea of a “power user” here (83). A popular online being with influence over other users could perhaps become a power-gatewatcher. It is possible that a power-gatewatcher up-votes, shares or comments with the intensions to influence other users that may be observers rather than participants.
The closest related site discussed by Bruns to “Indy100” is gatewatching for “Open News Sites”, suggesting that the combination of both staff editors and user interaction allows for consistency on remarkable news (37). If something is written poorly or holds little importance to the users it can be removed by staff editors or disappear into the noise of information by users, which similarly relates to the lack or need for a ‘down-vote’ button. Critically questioning: can this lead to important information getting lost? A study conducted by Tim Weninger on Reddit.com found that “early random up-votes makes a post 20 percent more likely to appear on the front page”(08.22). Another study conducted by Lev Muchnik found similar results and if a “comment’s very first vote had a huge impact on individual rating behavior and gave rise to herding effects … just one upvote – were 32% more likely to receive another upvote” (Gonzalez).
Weninger tells that 0.25% of Reddit community that participate influence what the rest see on the website, and if more people participated the outcomes would allow for a better outcome (09.34). If individuals do not participate in upvoting, commenting and sharing news they deemed worthy on ‘Indy100’, this allows for influence by “power users” to take place. If each individual using ‘Indy100’ took part in the conversation and participated only then would a more democratic way of receiving news could emerge. Andrew Linder provides insight into gatekeeping settings for Citizen Journalism (CJ) in comparison to Professional Journalism (PJ): “evidence suggests that young news consumers see CJ as just as credible as the pros” (1179). Perhaps ‘Indy100’ readers are trusting of what other readers deem important rather than The Independent themselves. The Independent even states “you can still trust us to take our facts very seriously” having to reaffirm seems unnecessary. Could it be a tactic of ‘Indy100’ to have there users feel apart of their liberal community so they interact in a way that is more natural to their true selves and inevitably create revenue by selling their users data.
Thaler and Sunstein suggest “there is no such thing as a neutral design” (3) and uncovers how design architecture can play a huge role in influencing decisions individuals may be unaware of. Where certain things are displayed on a page may urge the user to click it. What the headline of an editorial reads nudges the user to read it. If an editorial is ranked at the top of the Indys 100 list, yes, more people are nudged to click it. Although ‘Indy100’ attempt to push this idea of equality between those giving news and those receiving, it is inevitable that every small choice, made by editor, individual or machine renders another choice. Weather participants purposely influence or not the influence happens. Thaler and Sunstein also suggest that giving more choice can allow for a more a neutral design (11). Is giving 100 top headlines through 8 different headings enough of a choice? Could ‘Indy100’ flip the list having what they have deemed the most popular at the bottom of the page, forcing users to scroll through all 100 headlines before reaching the ‘top’ news? Is having a user-friendly design more important than a neutral one? It is also important to question how new stories get introduced and question if old news is recycled if popular across more than one day.
“Gatewatchers are unable to keep the gates through which news and information passes. Indeed, as we move away from a mass media ‘information-push’ news model to an individualised ‘information-pull’ approach, these gates no longer allow news to come to us, but enable us to access the news contained within.” (34)
With every blade of grass keeping and watching the vast amount of gates, it is a wonder how anything else gets done. ‘Indy100’ which is allowing for researchers, writers, editors, algorithms and public to partake in opening, closing and staring at the gates is allowing for a democratic process to take place. What is missing from the design is a function that can break apathy in its observers. The more participants, perhaps the better a democracy.
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@christian_b, et al. “About indy100.Com.” The Independent, Independent Digital News and Media, 17 Feb. 2016, www.independent.co.uk/news/media/about-indy100com-a6879446.html. Accessed 17 Sept. 2017.
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