What is news?

Iranian protestor

An image of an Iranian protestor posted to Flickr this week

This week’s events in Iran remind me, perhaps too much, of the Tiananmen Square protests twenty years ago. People coming together peacefully to rally against oppression, whether in Selma, Johannesburg, or Berlin brings hope. Knowing how Tiananmen, Prague, and Myanmar ended brings dread.

Optimists say the world has changed. While tyrants can restrict the activities of CNN and the New York Times, they can’t block Twitter, SMS, YouTube, and Facebook as easily. The truth will get out. People can be called to action and know they will outnumber their oppressors. I hope they are prescient, but in this case the tyrants will prevail — at least in the short run, and people will continue to be injured and killed.

Ahmadinejad is about the worst the world has to offer. He will cling to power and he will be as ruthless as a cornered rat when confronted. People are already being killed by his and the clerics’ thugs, the basij. These people with their 15th century worldviews don’t understand Twitter, and they certainly don’t fear it. Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube might get the word out, but they can’t block the bullets. We will know more about what happens in Tehran in 2009 than we know about what happened in Tiananmen in 1989, but it’s not going to change the outcome.

The Economist summed up the old media v. new media coverage of the events in Tehran quite well. No flowery speech about how the face of politics is forever changed by Web 2.0 techologies. Just the facts.

[The] much-ballyhooed Twitter swiftly degraded into pointlessness. By deluging threads like Iranelection with cries of support for the protesters, Americans and Britons rendered the site almost useless as a source of information—something that Iran’s government had tried and failed to do. Even at its best the site gave a partial, one-sided view of events. Both Twitter and YouTube are hobbled as sources of news by their clumsy search engines.

It’s ironic that the same week China has begun stepping up its censorship efforts. PCs can only be sold in the People’s Republic with government controlled web filters.

The software, which manufacturers must install on all new PCs starting July 1, would allow the government to regularly update computers with an ever-changing list of banned Web sites.
The rules, issued last month, ratchet up Internet restrictions that are already among the most stringent in the world. China regularly blocks Web sites that discuss the Dalai Lama, the 1989 crackdown on Tiananmen Square protesters, and the Falun Gong, the banned spiritual movement.

And just this week, Google agreed to further restrictions on the information it serves up to the Chinese people.

Google caved. Dell, Lenovo, and company caved. They cannot be blamed. As publicly traded companies they have a fiduciary responsibility to their share holders to maximize profits, not a mandate to make the world a freer place. Our 401Ks contribute to the problem today, but not as much as many liberals complain. In the end places like Iran and China will have to open up and allow the freer exchange of ideas. Otherwise the best and the brightest will continue to bring their innovations to freer countries. Look at how many Silicon Valley start ups are started by immigrants to the US. Look at the wealth they create. Wealth that keeps the US the dominant economic power. If China and Iran want to continue to be economic and technological followerers, they are on the right path. Otherwise they have to open up their miserable political systems.

So what is news? If CNN can’t get there first, but Twitter and YouTube are too clunky to disseminate information quickly and efficiently, what models will emerge? Large news organizations will have to take on the task of organizing the world’s tweets and mobile videos. It will require new business models and new infrastructures. The traditional satellite feed will diminish in importance.

It’s a good time to be a software designer for the media industry. We still have our fiduciary responsibilities, but we can build the tools to help the world become a freer place.

One Thought on “What is news?

  1. Shehram on June 21, 2009 at 1:12 pm said:

    ‘Tyrants, CNN and New York Times’ are mentioned in the same line (read vein)….

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