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"ACM SIGCHI WWW Human Factors (Open Discussion)" <[log in to unmask]>
Hal Shubin <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 28 Aug 2009 10:36:06 -0400
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Hal Shubin <[log in to unmask]>
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Maybe "Saving democracy through good design" is a bit extreme, but not  
completely so.

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 < 
 >, undated!):
"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  
news.' "

- - - - - - - - - -
Hal Shubin  -  Interaction Design, Inc.
617 489 6595  -

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