Maybe "Saving democracy through good design" is a bit extreme, but not
Newspapers in print appear doomed. Who knows what'll really take their
place, but it'll be something online and it's up to us to make it as
usable and useful as possible. But it's not just using the right text
for links or making the sports section easy to find. People have to be
able to find important information as easily online as they can with
print newspapers so they stay as informed as possible.
And that requires two things (at least):
= The news-gathering organizations have to collect & publish enough
= People have to find the information that's published.
Collecting news depends on there being enough people to do the work.
Large newspapers are cutting back now. Will blogs, online newspapers
and "hyperlocal" newspapers have staffs big enough to do real
reporting? I hope so, but I'm not optimistic.
More related to our work is how people will *find* information once
it's published. I've never been a fan of customizing a news feed
because I can't describe ahead of time what I'll be interested in. I
think that serendipity is really important -- finding something I
didn't expect to find. Remember using the card catalog at the library?
(It was a cabinet full of drawers full of cards full of information
about individual library items.) Or a paper dictionary? The journey
was almost as important as the destination -- you'd always find
something you didn't know you were interested in as you got closer to
your original goal. It may have just been something to smile about,
but it may also have been something really relevant to your search.
How many of our information systems support that sort of serendipitous
exploration? Certainly not the online systems that have replaced card
catalogs. Nor the online news systems that I've seen.
So, why is this important, and how will we save democracy by designing
better news systems? The US Constitution's first amendment includes
freedom of the press because it's so crucial to a democracy -- if
people can't find out what the government is doing, the government can
do whatever it wants to do. If we rely on neighborhood newspapers and
blogs, or TV news, or current online newspapers, will we learn as much
about what's going on?
We'd probably learn about items like Watergate or the clergy sex-abuse
cases because they're so big. But what about smaller, but still-
important, items? They might not be investigated enough, and might get
lost in all the noise if we don't have good ways to just stumble upon
them as we flip the pages of the newspaper over breakfast.
There's a lot of great stuff going on online, but we have to be
careful that we don't give up too much as we move ahead.
Two random references:
1. There was a good paper at CHI 2009 on serendipity: "From X-Rays to
Silly Putty via Uranus: Serendipity and its Role in Web Search"
2. Maybe this will help, or maybe it'll just propagate more which-
planet-would-you-be quizzes (from <http://blog.seattlepi.com/techchron/archives/176699.asp
"Facebook members can now log in through HuffPost Social News and
automatically see the stories their Facebook friends are reading and
making comments on. ... In a Facebook blog post headlined 'The Future
of News Will Be Social,' co-founder and editor-in-chief Arianna
Huffington writes that despite 'the dire state of newspapers, we are
actually in the midst of a Golden Age for news consumers. The Web has
given us control over the news we consume,' she said. 'Now the
explosive growth of online social networking is fundamentally changing
our relationship with news as well. It's no longer something we
passively take in. We now engage with news, react to news and share
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Hal Shubin - Interaction Design, Inc.
617 489 6595 - www.user.com
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