In which Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook discovers…depth

The founder of the planet’s largest social network, Mark Zuckerberg, has been thinking about books and, fortunately, he likes them:

I’ve found reading books very intellectually fulfilling. Books allow you to fully explore a topic and immerse yourself in a deeper way than most media today. I’m looking forward to shifting more of my media diet towards reading books.

 

I have to admit I laughed when I first read this (how old do you need to be to get this?). But Zuckerberg was saying that books had depth and that intellectual depth was a value he looked for in media. And that instinct is right on a trend I wanted to highlight.

My inbox and Twitter feed is full of people summing up 2014 and guessing about 2015. Occasionally it’s useful to learn from predictions that were way off the mark and to wonder why. Around twenty years ago, a worried newspaper executive first mentioned to me that his biggest fear about the internet was “disintermediation”.

He would hardly have been the first person to use the term to describe the idea that the internet would destroy journalists role as intermediaries between events and the audience. I was certainly behind the curve with this vocabulary: my colleague had to explain to me what “disintermediation” meant.

Digital technology has wrought all sorts of changes and whacked some huge dents in journalists’ self-esteem, job prospects and professional sense of identity. But the role of intermediary has not been abolished. Rather the contrary: we’re looking at re-intermediation.

Don’t worry: this term is not going to catch on. Apart from being ungainly and undramatic, it describes a diffuse and gradual process, neither an event nor a sexy new digital device.

What I’m trying to catch with the term “re-intermediation” is this. The way journalism’s intermediary role works has been massively altered, but the need for that function never went away. Whether or not we define it as journalism done by people called “journalists”, people need and want selection, distilling and interpretation.

Never lose sight of the fact that perhaps the single largest change underlying the “digital era” is the simple increase in the quantity and velocity of information moving between people. That proliferation increases the need for intermediary help, not the other way round. Organising and clarifying information (something that social networks do) can create value.

To me, the story of the last few years is one of regular, gentle reminders that raw, unsorted information has few fans. It’s obviously true that in the digital era someone who wants their information uncontaminated by journalism has a much better chance of getting it. But information sifted, verified, clarified and – yes – packaged has the greater appeal.

Here are a few examples:

  • When Wikileaks began and before it made global headlines with leaks about Iraq, it revealed some extraordinary raw information about Kenyan corruption, Guantanamo and Swiss banks. The information had almost no impact because anyone who read it had no idea whether they could trust the Wikileaks platform and the unedited information was all but incomprehensible.
  • There’s a small counter-revolution in American websites against allowing free-for-all, anonymous comment strings on news and opinion. The Huffington Post now insists that commenters identify themselves; other sites have followed suit to insist that comments only happen through social networks (which require registration). Raw, anonymous opinion on an industrial scale has not been the great leap forward for the democratisation of media that some thought it might be.
  • There’s now a small sub-industry studying the analysis and presentation of data. This is material which simply can’t be useful without skilled intermediaries. Which is why there’s so much interest in training a new class of journalists display, visualisation, numeracy and analysis. (Many of the old class of journalists were inumerate).

The common factor here that information needs to be structured to be made useful and appealing. That process can be done well or badly. If it’s done well, it creates value; it can be expressed quickly online or more slowly in books. People can be distracted by novelty, speed, “ease of do” and lost of other stuff to do with how information reaches them rather than what the information tells them. But eventually attention swings back to what’s thought-provoking, useful and interesting.

So my prediction for 2015 (and beyond) is the steady rise of re-intermediation and more interest in depth and value. Handy to have one of the world’s most powerful individuals point this out.

 

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