22 Sep 2009 7:42 am   //   Filed under: Media, Technology

Information Darwinism

I still remember sitting in my 9th grade science class and seeing, for the first time, a simple explanation of DNA. It blew my mind how elegant a solution it is to coding information: A zipper of matching teeth. Sometimes a mutation occurs that helps a species stay alive and reproduce. It gets copied ferociously, and we call that evolution. It’s beautiful.

In some ways, the spreading of news via the Internet these days is like natural selection. I’m going to single out Twitter here—not because Twitter is the only place information Darwinism is happening, but because it’s easiest to explain. On Twitter, people are sharing millions of facts every minute. Some of these facts get retweeted, copied. The most valuable, urgent and interesting information gets copied with great speed. Definitive, immediate news of mass interest (think: death of a celebrity) spreads the fastest and the farthest. Contrary to my prediction a few months ago, Twitter is surprisingly good at preventing the spread of bad information. Sure, a few people will copy a false rumor or a non-story (“URGENT! Earthquake reported in ___!”), but there seem to be enough influential Twitterers who know how to check facts, debunk false rumors, and consider history and context. Look at Wikipedia for evidence that, generally, crowdsourced editing works way better than you think it should.

We’re moving closer to an information ecosystem in which the fastest, best versions of important stories thrive and multiply.

Problems still to be solved:

  • Twitter (and the rest of the Internet) still isn’t great at separating genuinely good stories from bad stories that just sound good because they’re showy. There are some half-assed posts from Mashable that spread like wildfire, while there’s some excellent journalism on… I dunno, Mother Jones?… that nobody ever reads.
  • CB radios have a squelch knob so you can turn down the static and only hear the good stuff. Twitter needs a squelch knob. When you want to hear a lot of noise—you’re bored—you can turn up the noise. When you’re busy and in a hurry, you can turn the knob so only the most important stories—the strongest signals—get through.
  • Who pays for this stuff? Online advertising is a horror show. Micropayments and paid subscriptions are incompatible with this linking environment. In the future, will all Internet news be provided by people selling and promoting stuff?
  • Intellectual property. Nobody cares if you copy a 10-word headline, but in some situations people copy entire stories in a misguided attempt to make a few ad pennies off somebody else’s work. The systems in place to prevent this kind of infringement are weak and don’t work.
  • It’s too complicated. Nobody thinks about radio waves when they turn on NPR. You shouldn’t have to understand the medium to get the message.