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Information costs

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Tuesday, Apr 14, 2009

When I was Spain, feeling highly disoriented and confused about how to even want things (though not as much as North Koreans who make it to the South), I began wondering about that favorite alibi of advertisers, that they supply useful, even necessary information to consumers and help them make informed decisions. Of course the information is entirely biased, but since that is so, we can, in theory, generally correct for it and take away a wider sense of our options. Is that something we need, or something that in our pursuit of convenience we have grown accustomed to? Do the costs of information search outweigh the costs of being led astray by deceptive marketing? Would I get enough information about what was going on in the world around me if every message with a commercial slant was filtered out? Does Google serve as a way to circumvent commercially sponsored information, or is it the apotheosis of the commercialization of all information. (Or is it somehow both at once? What would that even mean?)
  
So many questions. It seems important to know whether we can find unbiased information when we want to, or if our inertia and our addiction to convenient information makes us less likely to bother to confirm the depth and reliability of the information we can now turn up effortlessly. In other words, I’m wondering if I should have been embracing that confusion and disorientation I experienced in Madrid as the first rays of clarity breaking through the clouds of marketing disinformation I am normally content to live under. (Is it me or are my metaphors getting more tortured lately?)


The hegemony of consumerism is so complete that it is easy to mistake marketing for the only sort of information that exists. This makes the adman’s alibi, his excuse for prominence, seem only ever more convincing. But it’s not clear whether the internet exacerbates this or allows for more information to circulate non-commercially.


Yesterday, the NYT covered the existence of hyperlocal news aggregators—services that collect news customized for a user’s highly specific locale. Basically, these are services that would function like neighborhood blogs but with a little more pretense to newspapery objectivity. One such service, EveryBlock, furnishes its sites “with links to news articles and posts from local bloggers, along with data feeds from city governments, with crime reports, restaurant inspections, and notices of road construction and film shoots.”


Providing relevant information to a neighborhood is obviously good, but the question is always who will pay to have this news collected, and how? Right now, it seems like these services are mainly collecting government-generated information and making it more accessible. (Makes you wonder why the state doesn’t already do this.) And they are probably grabbing freely available stuff from amateur bloggers who may not even know they are being reprinted. But they still have to pay their bills, even if they are not paying writers and reporters. At that point, the problem of editorial independence emerges. If you support hyperlocal news sites with hyperlocal ads, the chances for objectivity seem more remote; it seems highly likely that the local news will then become the equivalent of an ad circular—those weird envelopes stuffed with coupons that sometimes end up in every single person’s mailbox, or those unwanted bargain broadsheets that can always be found lying on apartment building stoops collecting rainwater.


These two paragraphs get at the contradiction:


The news business “is in a difficult time period right now, between what was and what will be,” said Gary Kebbel, the journalism program director for the Knight Foundation, which has backed 35 local Web experiments. “Our democracy is based upon geography, and we believe local information is such a core need for our democracy to survive.”


Of course, like traditional media, the hyperlocal sites have to find a way to bring in sufficient revenue to support their business. And so far, they have had only limited success selling ads. Some have shouldered the cost of fielding a sales force to reach mom-and-pop businesses that may know nothing about online advertising.



If local information is truly going to be useful to grass-roots level democracy, it probably shouldn’t be manipulated to suit the limited purposes of interested businesses. But the distortions in what is covered that inevitably arises from commercial sponsorship of periodicals (through the efforts to capture audiences that can be sold to advertisers) are likely to be more pronounced when the field being covered is smaller. Omissions become proportionally larger.

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