The guardians of the new transparency

One principle of transparency is that influence does not simply rest with the ‘idea starters’ and ‘amplifiers’ who energise the beginning of the conversation.  As conversations develop two important behaviours have a major impact on how the conversation is shaped – this is where the ‘curators’ and ‘commentators’ fit into the topology of influence.  The curators and commentators are in many ways the guardians of the new transparency.   To explain this here is a quick digression on the hidden hero of the Web.

Hyperlinking and the conversation revolution

One of the unsung heroes of the Information Age is the hyperlink.  This one innovation in the entire history of the online revolution meant that Internet readers could instantaneously connect with referenced primary source material or ideas to check the legitimacy, background and context of the information. Indeed the ability to ask, question and then interact, became the prerogative of the reader.  This might not seem a huge change from traditional media where the published word was always open to interrogation, scrutiny or legal action, but the main difference is that the only way to do so was only available through a formalised process of writing a letter or directing your query through a complaints procedure. The hyperlink helped shape a new culture around how ideas and thoughts were developed and questioned, the speed at which they were to do so, and how conversations pervaded the online world.

The second innovation around hyperlinking was the ability at one click to email a question or directly challenge the creator of the material. Ideas became live and open to dissection like never before, and in real-time. This did not just include the big ideas either, any thought was now open to the smallest piece of plagiarism or unsourced repetition. The creator of ideas was now in a live Q&A and it was because of this new transparency that he or she had to respond.

The culture of transparency and authenticity

This technical ability, above all else, drove the culture of authenticity that emerged around Internet communities and conversations, and the insistence of cross referencing, and credibility checking that has become the norm today.  This process eventually embedded itself and became a natural instinct for every true geek who insists on contextualising the online conversation always maintaining transparency. 

Even in places where this culture of open transparency is weaker, such as parts of Asia, true geeks know that if the link is not there then the phrase or source can be checked out on a search engine which is exactly how the true geek thinks.

This mindset is summarised in a short but brilliant post on the Joho blog – Transparency is the new objectivity. 

“You can see this in newspapers’ early push-back against blogging. We were told that bloggers have agendas, whereas journalists give us objective information. Of course, if you don’t think objectivity is possible, then you think that the claim of objectivity is actually hiding the biases that inevitably are there. That’s what I meant when, during a bloggers press conference at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, I asked Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Walter Mears whom he was supporting for president. He replied (paraphrasing!), “If I tell you, how can you trust what I write?,” to which I replied that if he doesn’t tell us, how can we trust what he blogs?

 

So, that’s one sense in which transparency is the new objectivity.

 

What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position. Transparency gives the reader information by which she can undo some of the unintended effects of the ever-present biases. Transparency brings us to reliability the way objectivity used to.

 

This change is, well, epochal.

 

Objectivity used be presented as a stopping point for belief: If the source is objective and well-informed, you have sufficient reason to believe. The objectivity of the reporter is a stopping point for reader’s inquiry. That was part of high-end newspapers’ claimed value: You can’t believe what you read in a slanted tabloid, but our news is objective, so your inquiry can come to rest here. Credentialing systems had the same basic rhythm: You can stop your quest once you come to a credentialed authority who says, “I got this. You can believe it.” End of story.”

This culture of transparency is central to the way conversations work and it explains why the model changed from being top down to bottom up, as it pervades the whole conversation wave. Yet the crucial behavioural element to ensuring it works rests in our topology with the highly influential idea starters and amplifiers.  After all, in the traditional top down world there have always been people with ideas who amplified them via publishing and broadcasting throughout history i.e. the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther’s attack on the Catholic Church in 1517, the Scientific Revolution from the 16th century, Louis XIV’s Absolutist reign in 1643, and Hitler’s dictatorship from 1933.

The revolutionary, new influential behaviours are what we call the curator and commentator segments.  In many ways these groups are the guardians of the new transparency, the executioners of deference and true democrats. It is these, often ordinary people, that take amplified ideas and either validate them, question the assumptions, challenge the ideas, seek the reference and even start fragments of a new conversation or debate. Just look at how Wikipedia works and has grown for instance.

Curators – individuals who use a broader context to define ideas

Curators are the historians, librarians, encyclopaedias, researchers and organisers of the online world. They find, group, share and archive digital information with the aim of categorising content, providing quick and easily accessible information for today’s time precious audience, and preserve cultural heritages for future audiences. Curators may subtly edit information to include a broader context to define ideas, but they usually have a low level of online engagement compared to idea starters and commentators.

Wikipedia is the ultimate curator’s tool and currently one of the most popular online preservation platforms to resonate so successfully with the online world. Another, as discussed, is hyperlinking and other forms include mash-up sites.

Curators are in many ways a radical group.  The key point with this segment is that as a behaviour it barely existed in the traditional world beyond academia and the spoken word.   Before the web you could not comment on a media in any specific way beyond rather formalised processes that were very controlled, for instance writing a letter to the editor, and you certainly did not really adapt this content to your way of thinking other than an equally formal expert response in another journal.  The Internet changed all of this. Now you could take a person’s thoughts from an article, mash it up with other sources, and then share this broadly as your own adapted content.  You could be wildly wrong and inaccurate in which case you may often be called to account on this or you could be wildly successful in hitting a huge communal conversation with this adapted content. 

Preservation platforms such as Wikipedia have helped make the new transparency become a reality. Wikipedia successfully brought a library of information to the masses; it removed geek perceptions once associated with looking up information in printed encyclopaedias, cost boundaries (think back to buying CD-ROM software such as Microsoft Encarta), language barriers as Wikipedia is available in a multitude of languages, and became relevant to today’s audience because of its real-time and broad content.

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