The Demise of the Fourth Estate

“It is the best of times. It is the worst of times.” Paraphrasing Dickens, thus begins an eight-minute Flash movie written and produced by two recent college graduates who predict that the year 2014 will be the end of the Fourth Estate as we know it today, thanks to Google and Amazon.

The way they see it, by the year 2014, people will “have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age." The news media will cease to exist and 20th Century news organizations will be “an after-thought; a lonely remnant of a not-too-distant past.”

Far fetched? A bit, even according to authors Robin Sloan and Matt Thompson, who wrote the film while working at the Pointer Institute in Florida last year and were quite surprised by its meteoric rise to popularity around the web in the last month.

The film covers a quarter of a century, starting with 15 years of history. The 1989 invention of the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee, the launches of Amazon, Google and TiVo in the 1990s, the rise of Blogger, Friendster, Gmail, Newsbot and various other web-related innovations.

“And then,” Thompson narrative continues in a menacing tone, “Google goes public!”

The IPO, according to the story, sets the stage for the demise of the news media as we know it. Sloane and Thompson’s first prediction is that Google will buy TiVo -- not an impossibility, according to recent rumors and various blog reports. From there on, it gets interesting. The authors predict that next year Google will combine all of its services -- TiVo, Blogger, GMail, GoogleNews and all of its searches -- into the Google Grid, “a universal platform that provides a functionally limitless amount of storage space and bandwidth to store and share media of all kinds … It has never been easier for anyone, everyone to create as well as consume media.”

In response, Miscrosoft will launch Newsbotster, a “participatory journalism platform” that will rank and sort news, “based on what each user’s friends and colleagues are reading and viewing and it allows everyone to comment on what they see.”

Further down the line, in the year 2008, Sloan and Thompson say Google and Amazon will merge to form “Googlezon,” which will “use both companies’ detailed knowledge of every user’s social network, demographics, consumption habits and interests to provide total customization of content and advertising.”

Ultimately, Googlezon’s computers will “construct news stories dynamically, stripping sentences and facts from all content sources and recombining them. The computer writes a news story for every user.”

The rest of the story nails the news media’s imminent coffin shut, with the help of the Supreme Court, no less, and EPIC is born -- ‘Evolving Personalized Information Construct.’

Essentially, everyone contributes, everyone gets only the news they want exactly the way they want it, many people get paid for their efforts and the whole thing polices itself.

Sloan and Thompson’s script says that “at its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world -- deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before.
But at its worst, and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue.” Moreover, the New York Times has gone offline and has “become a print newsletter for the elite and the elderly.”

Impossible? Probably, but worth thinking about, because the project was inspired by a 2003 speech given by New York Times Digital’s CEO Martin Niselholz, who spoke about the future of the New York Times and the news. Sloan, who was working at Florida’s Pointer Institute at the time, shared the transcript with Thompson, who came up with a “very different interpretation of what Nisenholz was talking about.” The two started talking, arguing and eventually brainstorming their own ideas. In the spring of 2004, the duo wrote a first draft of the script and presented their ideas to Pointer’s professor Howard Finberg and a group of journalists. The reaction was mixed: “Some really dug it,” Sloan says, “some were freaked out; some were excited.”

Several iterations later, the pair completed the movie, with Sloan doing most of the Flash programming, Thompson narrating and another friend supplying the soundtrack. Originally, the intention was to release the film to a broader audience through a dedicated website complete with a discussion forum and other features, but that plan didn’t make it off the white board and the movie remained largely unknown. Finally, Sloan says, in November, he and Thompson decided to put their creation up on the web before it got too irrelevant and posted the film onto a handful of websites and their own blogs and “it just grew.”

To date, in Sloan’s conservative estimation, more than a hundred thousand people have seen the film, its popularity accelerating in December. “A week after I posted, I had to do a plea to other hosts to handle the volume and bandwidth issues,” Sloan says.

“It’s a real organic thing,” he adds. “We never designed it to be a viral internet thing. Or to share our ideas with the world. It was born as a conversation starter with the journalists. We were cognizant that it was over the top. We were trying to make a point and draw a really stark picture and get them talking.”

Asked if he truly subscribes to any of the theories presented in the film, Sloan offered a speedy denial. “I definitely don’t believe Google and Amazon are ever going to merge,” he says. “I don’t believe it would ever be called Googlezon. I don’t believe the NYT will actually go offline.”

In actuality, the 2002 Michigan State University graduate who majored in economics believes that the New York Times will be the very last organization to fold. “Some of the stuff they do online is incredibly good and incredibly smart,” he says.

The point of the film wasn’t to paint an accurate picture of the future, he says, explaining that Google, Amazon and The New York Times serve more as characters in a fable than actual companies, and represent entire sectors of the internet’s future, from ecommerce to news. Clearly, there will be many other players, Sloan says.

Nevertheless, talking of the film’s premise as a whole, “I don’t think it’s likely, but it could happen,” Sloan admits. Fable or not, EPIC 2014 has a poignant point. “News organizations have had a lot of different monopolies going for them, all of which are being threatened,” Sloan says. “They’re under attack from everything from Monster to Google. It hasn’t been so clear to them that the monopoly on news itself or people learning about the world is under threat. People who give a lot of credence to blogs know that there is a place for professional journalists. We just wanted to point out that there is a risk that the center of gravity of where people get their news could move.

Moreover, he says, “It’s very possible that there will be some crazy integrated suite of Google services that will rule the world, but it won’t be such a big deal. I do hope that there will be an integrated and easy to navigate network of citizen reports."

As for the advertising perspective, Sloan says the film doesn’t talk about it in greater details because neither he nor Thompson are experts in the field. But, computer-generated, ad-supported news models could spell disaster for the proverbial line between church and state. “Absolutely news sources will be corrupted and some are now," he says, and that reality “will drive both really concrete and slightly more intuitive systems for figuring out which sources you can and can not trust. There is room on the world for corporate shills. I hope there will be enough people who take integrity seriously and there is a beauty of having a broad multiplicity of options.”

The most gratifying part of the experience for Sloan has been the spread of the film. “It was just this thing that we came up with a year ago and now I know for a fact that it’s been in front of some pretty influential people.”

Additional resources:

Read the Nisenholz transcript 
Contact Robin Sloan at Robin@robinloane.com or http://www.robinsloan.com/
See EPIC 2014 

 

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