For about three-and-a-half years, I ran the news department of a major Web site where I had one hard and fast rule, the utterance of which will surely bring back headaches for my former writers. The rule was called "Over & Above," and it boiled down to this: We would print nothing without the inclusion of original reporting. If a story was inspired elsewhere, we would give full attribution to both the source and the author. But we would add original reporting - and by that, I didn't mean "original ruminations from the safety of one's armchair."
An attempt is being made today to promote an ethical concept: a movement to tie new stories using existing information back to the sources of that information. It's called The Curator's Code, and I'll admit this up front for complete transparency: I didn't discover it without some help. Which, to some degree, is what this story is about.
Crediting the source of a story is a nice thing to do. When one's "worldwide" journalistic resources amount to four people about as close to the location of any breaking story as any four hydrogen molecules are to the Big Bang, you spend a lot of time crediting journalists who were actually on the scene and who did the legwork. But the idea of "Over & Above" was to try to maintain some dignity about the whole thing. On the one hand, no single Web publisher is capable of providing a comprehensive picture of the world with solely its own resources. On the other, if the meaning of "Web journalist" truly is a guy posting tweets about other people's Web pages from the comfort of his riding mower, then every Web publication could be as good or bad as any other.
The balance, if there is to be one, is to assert that our job as journalists is to add value - if not as a whole, in at least in substantively large part.
Maria Popova is a contributor to The Atlantic, among other publications. (It's through an article in The Atlantic that I discovered Popova.) Her idea is to promote the ethic of proper attribution by way of a pair of cool characters plucked from the Unicode alphabet: ᔥ meaning "via," or "by way of," and ↬ meaning "hat tip," or, "Thanks for the inspiration." By using Popova's on- and off-site tools, when you use these characters to mean what she suggests, you also embed a link to her Web site, as I did above the first paragraph of this article. (Capitalism still requires ingenuity.)
Popova says her objective is to repair what she calls a "fundamental disconnect in the information economy:" essentially, a means for giving credit to where credit is due. "Information discovery," Popova writes, "is a form of creative and intellectual labor, and one of increasing importance and urgency. A form of authorship, if you will."
There's also this nugget of insight from Popova's personal bio, in her Brain Pickings blog: "Creativity, after all, is a combinatorial force. It's our ability to tap into the mental pool of resources - ideas, insights, knowledge, inspiration - that we've accumulated over the years just by being present and alive and awake to the world, and to combine them in extraordinary new ways. In order for us to truly create and contribute to the world, we have to be able to connect countless dots, to cross-pollinate ideas from a wealth of disciplines, to combine and recombine these ideas and build new ideas - like LEGOs. The more of these building blocks we have, and the more diverse their shapes and colors, the more interesting our creations will become."
If Popova is right, then my having cited her at length is another form of authorship. If I use her tools instead, however, then who needs authorship when you have hyperlinks?
While I appreciate the nobility of promoting an ethical concept as something cool to do, I often wonder whether the Web as a whole has taken the linking business way too far. This screenshot of my Twitter page from earlier today should shock no one, especially those who use Twitter far more regularly than I - which, at this rate, may be a majority of humankind. Even from a distance, you get the gist of its content. I call it LWIR (Lookie What I Read) - a collective category for all the stuff that points to other stuff. At least 95% of the tweets I see on anyone's Twitter page is comprised of LWIR (or in some cases Lookie What I Wrote) - links to things we should be able to find for ourselves if the Web worked the way it should.
This is what Legos look like for most of their existence: disconnected bricks which once belonged to other contexts, scattered willy-nilly on the floor in a desperate search for something inspiring. In my conversations with vendors in the "big data" space, I'm told that terabytes of data are being generated and stored every day in the cloud, comprised solely of recordings of Twitter feeds. Millions upon millions of the same hyperlinks being retweeted and re-retweeted, in the event that a program can someday mine them all and discern some pattern revealing something about the behavior of the person who propagated them.
In the interest of discovering whether something I see in Twitter, or one of the aggregator pages like Techmeme, is newsworthy - something worth investigating using real journalism - I find myself daily trekking through Ms. Popova's "magical rabbit-hole of curiosity," clicking through the "via" and "hat-tip" links in search of the original source. This process makes me feel less like a rabbit and more like a mole, scavenging through bits and pieces of other people's reinterpretations in search for a clean morsel of fresh knowledge.
I agree with Popova that there is a fundamental disconnect in the way we pass on information through this medium, and I also agree that it is ethically prudent to attribute what we've learned to where we've learned it. I may even use her symbols because it's a good idea to do so. But I fear that, in the interest of substantiating this horribly inefficient system we've concocted for disseminating information by attaching it to 1) noise and 2) reverb, we are confusing reproduction with creativity, and confusing source with origin.
So in addition to the two characters Popova has appropriated, may I suggest a third: one which enables someone not to just cite where information was discovered, but where the person citing it believes it originated. This way, someone linking to this article I've just written will accept it for what it is: a comment as opposed to a genuine flash of original inspiration or an original exercise in journalism. Not everything I produce is worthy of exaltation.
There is an opportunity here that we are missing to hard-wire this rabbit hole so that we are assured of an exit. It takes being more than present, alive, and awake to be a creator - if consciousness were the only ticket required, the Web would have been created a thousand years ago by ants.