How Algorithms Can Set Journalism Free
Photo by Nikola Knezevic on Unsplash

How Algorithms Can Set Journalism Free

Right now journalism is held captive by the money that funds it – mostly advertising revenue. But advertisers are not paying for journalism, they are paying for attention. And so for-profit journalism is only funded for as much as it is coincident with the type of attention that brands and advertisers pay for.

On top of this foundational schism, the attention economy has lumped journalism in with all other forms of content – social media, movies, education, etc. All curated and targeted at your eyeballs by proprietary algorithms with the express purpose of getting you to buy, click, and engage.

In this environment, good journalism often needs to wrap itself in sensationalism in order to compete with everything else being managed by a platform's algorithm. How often have we heard journalists complain about the headlines that were put on their stories just to get more clicks?

It doesn't have to be this way. What happens when we have algorithms optimized for getting you to think critically about your world? About telling you stories that improve your life on your terms, not just making you a better consumer?

Just like we've never seen for-profit journalism separate from advertising in the modern world, we've never seen content at scale separate from attention-optimizing algorithms.

The future of journalism, and content in general, doesn't need to look anything like it does today. But to see the full scope, we have to look at the primary forces underpinning this future and how it can be completely separate from advertising.

A Goal-First Digital Life

Many people view the internet as a way to help them achieve their goals. We shop online to have more time to spend not-shopping. We play video games to have fun or challenge ourselves. We use email to communicate with other people.

These technologies are thought to enhance our lives, not dictate them.

What we haven't quite internalized as a society is that when we use the current internet, we open up our brains to an unprecedented power asymmetry. In a first for humanity, we are experiencing AI and machine learning models that know more about ourselves than we perhaps ever will.

A small portion of these models are used to improve our health and humanity. A vast majority are being used to make us better workers and consumers from the perspective of profit-optimizing corporations.

And so when we use the internet, we are constantly struggling to maintain clarity on what are our goals, and what are the goals of the tools we use. We had a vision for how our life should be before we got in front of a screen and we are attempting to make it a reality – not change our vision to fit what corporations want us to be.

We want to have our goals first, and then have our technology support those goals.

Algorithms as Apps

In the decentralized world of web3, we can take our data with us from platform to platform. It no longer has to reside inside of the company that built an app or service that we use. We can control where it's stored and who can see it, if anyone. That also means we can run our own algorithms.

Let's say we have the "Highest Quality Journalism" algorithm. Then let's say we have a decentralized, platform agnostic feed of stories that all our friends are sharing. This feed might look like a Facebook news feed or a Twitter timeline, but it's generated on our device. No one makes money if we spend more time looking at it or not.

Just like you can sort your Twitter or Facebook feeds chronologically or filter to one particular group's posts, so can you now apply the "Highest Quality Journalism" algorithm to your feed.

Suddenly your feed of posts rearranges itself according to the algorithm. Instead of prioritizing posts that spark the most engagement, you now see posts and stories at the top of the feed that are widely regarded to have a high level of journalism.

If you agree that a post should rank high for journalism, you might mark it as such and that helps the algorithm prioritize that story for other people running it. You might also share it, which helps more people find it. Other users of the algorithm start categorizing and sharing the stories that it surfaces.

Finally, network effects are working to show us the content that is aligned with our goals, instead of the goals of a single platform or corporate entity.

We could have many such algorithms running on all our content, making algorithms more like apps that we run. You have your favorite news algorithms, your favorite meme algorithms, etc. You can tune them to your tastes and share them, allowing others to easily see their own content sorted according to your preferences.

These algorithms are open source. A public good. And your interaction with them doesn't generate profits for a private company, it makes the algorithm better at its job for everyone that chooses to use it.

Imagine a YouTube-like algorithm, but instead of trying to keep you watching with more and more extreme content, it intelligently delivers the best supporting videos for the latest hobby you've taken on, or explanatory videos for the topic you're researching. Its intent is not to make money, but to help you in whatever way you train it to.

This utopia has been kept from us because extractive third-parties get to decide what we should want and what we should see. We finally have the ability to change this with user-owned data and algorithms.

Web2 Stockholm Syndrome

It's completely rational to have a cynical posture towards much of the web3 ecosystem. There are hacks by North Korea that have national security implications. There are scams and rug-pulls that prey on optimists and idealists. It's rough.

On top of that, we have been conditioned over the years to expect the worst from the promises of technology. We are continuously surprised at how invasive Facebook and Google's apps are in our daily lives. How our most personal data is everywhere due to negligence on the part of the companies that were supposed to keep it safe.

We've been held captive so long that we can no longer remember the utopian promises of the internet.

So when someone like me starts talking about hope and transformation, the first reaction is often suspicion and eye-rolling. There is little to distinguish my message from the thousands of lies that have been told by technologists over the years. Some just as well-intentioned as myself.

Look for yourself. Learn about the nuts and bolts. Learn how we can go from "Don't be evil" to "Can't be evil". Take the incentives for corruption away. Put the locus of power back in the hands of the individual. If you're not sure how, ask us. This is why we're here.

We Need You

User-owned, open source algorithms are not inevitable. Things could go sideways. But those of us who have crossed the threshold of web3 with our principles intact desperately need more good people to come and help us build it.

JournoDAO is here to make sure that journalists benefit from the web3 transformation just as much as any other group, and to add value to the web3 community in only the ways that we can. Algorithms are just one of many opportunities we have to make journalism better and stronger than it ever has been. Join us.