Journalism as the fourth estate has been noticeably empowered in the Information Age, with technologies like the WWW, broadband connectivity and smartphones in (almost) everyone’s pockets. However, the opportunities to responsibly exercise the resulting power have been coming at a disproportionately greater cost: to be constantly fast, constantly smart and constantly vigilant. Put another way: in journalism until the early 1990s, there were the journalists and then there were the readers. Today, there are the journalists, there’s a tech stack and only then the readers. Many newsrooms often forget that this stack exists and often dictates what news is produced and how.
I received a very sudden reminder of this when I opened my browser a few minutes ago. If you use Pocket and have the Chrome extension installed, you’ll likely have seen three recommendations from the app every time you opened a new tab:
The article in the middle – ‘The 7 Biggest Unanswered Questions in Physics’ – pertains to topics something I’ve repeatedly discussed in my stories, although I’ll concede they may have been more detailed than is desirable for an article like that to become a hit. However, the details/nuance/depth all notwithstanding, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an article published by an Indian publication – or even non-American/British publication – among the Pocket recommendations. This of course is a direct reflection of where the app was made and people from which part of the world use it the most.
Where the app was made matters because nobody is going to build an app in location A and hope that it becomes popular in faraway location B. Pocket itself is San Franciscan and the bias shows: most recommendations I’ve received, or even the non-personalised trending topics I’ve spotted, are American. In fact, among all the tools I use and curation services I follow, I’ve come across only two exceptions: the heartwarming human-curated 3QuarksDaily and Quora. I’m not familiar with Quora’s story but I’m sure it’s interesting – about how a Q&A platform out of Mountain View came to be dominated by Indian users.
Circling back to the ‘7 Unanswered Questions’ article: Its creator is NBC News, a journalistic outlet, while its contents are being published via Google Chrome and Pocket – a.k.a. the stack. And the stack powerfully controls what I’m discovering, what thousands of people are discovering, and how easily they can save, consume and/or share it. Because Pocket and NBC – rather, app P and app Q – are both American products, there is an increased likelihood that P and Q will team up to promote content and distribute it worldwide; the likelihood is relative to that of an app and a publisher from two different regions teaming up, which is lower. This breaks the symmetry of globalisation.
Of course, the biggest exception to this would be an app that is truly global, like Facebook. Then again such exceptions are also harder to come by – nor do they always neutralise the advantage of having a cut-above-the-rest ecosystem of apps and app-makers that provide a continuous edge to homegrown publishers. Though don’t get me wrong: this isn’t a flavour of protectionism. I like many of Pocket’s recommendations and appreciate how the app has helped me discover a variety of publishers I’ve come to love.
Instead, it’s a quiet yearning (doped with some wishful thinking): Will my peers in India have been farther along in their careers had there been an equally influential Indian for-publishers stack?
Featured image credit: geralt/pixabay.