3am London BST and I should be in bed, asleep. But I’m not. I’m watching a news channel on the internet. It’s not a mainstream channel or one that you can watch broadcasting on a regular television, it doesn’t drop on a wire from an agency and it’s not available on my radio either.
Since the dominos started to tip in North Africa and the Middle East, I have seen some extraordinary work happen online from around the world, focusing on finding ways for people in troubled places to communicate.
Do you remember when the internet appeared to most people as AOL or through a Netscape window? Did you think about controlling that window? How it appears, how the content comes to you, what it looks like, how it can be arranged, if it requires translation?
Heck, in the 90s I was stunned that I could chat with strangers in Japan in real-time. But it did not strike me as something I might control, much less a connection that I could wire up to suit my needs or those of my friends, we all just piled in and accepted the way things were given to us by “companies who know how”.
More and more I am seeing not just companies who know, but people who know how to control their data. It’s double edged but it’s also vibrant, refreshing and wild.
For a long time I have been out of love with TV. I watch sometimes and appreciate the work of people who make incredible programs. But when I want to know what is happening somewhere, I wish my TV was a browser….and thinking on that, I just prefer my computer after all. Especially now that it gives me control over the little TV I like to see.
The channel I was watching on my computer this morning, was live streaming an audio interview with someone in Libya. The interview was conducted in Arabic, not a language I can understand. But this was no problem.
While the audio continued, a group of people logged into a simultaneous live chat on the same screen. They were translating the audio into English. So I could hear the tone and intonation and read the meaning of the words at the same time. So far as I can tell, this is voluntary.
The material is created voluntarily, the site, set up voluntarily, the coding organised and completed by volunteers, the following clips after the live stream were verified, contributed, filmed, edited and captioned, by volunteers. A diaspora of Arabic speakers and Libyan people contributing to ensure clear communication. Not a company that knows how to broadcast, but people who know how to broadcast in a collaborative manner. That’s a news organisation isn’t it?
The other side of this is that I do not know who the people are. I work to nail down verification where I can. Information must be rigorously checked or it is misinformation, without value, or worse, damaging. But as a personal viewer, I have my choice online, I can choose to believe, I can cross check and verify as far as I am able. That extra work is part of the deal taking in information online. Watching TV, I should be able to believe what I can see without question, safe in the knowledge that professional teams have verified and checked so that they can provide a clear and clean stream for viewers.
Verification takes time. It is worthwhile, satisfying and sometimes difficult work. But it means that you can provide a trusted source of information, it’s just a little bit slower to come to a screen near you.
In verifying sources, having the internet as your beat can be tricky. If I tell you that I am in London, you probably believe me. Do you know why you might believe me? Probably you have read me mentioning that before, maybe you cross checked another account I have online or seen images I have uploaded. That’s a simple start to understanding a shape or a person online. There’s a lot more, the way people speak, their habits and the hours they keep as a live presence. Much of this can be faked too – but practice helps understanding and a keen sense can help you smell a rat, even if at first you can’t put your finger on why.
The channel I have been watching this morning is part of a multi platform organisation. Across established sites like Twitter and Flickr and Facebook they roam on multiple accounts, connected and decentralised. Meanwhile, others work on the back ends of systems, stringing them together, running lines through proxies setting up VPNs and enabling applications like TOR.
At a guess, most broadcasters have not had to deal with this or had reason to organise systems in this way. So the voices have technical back up from people who know how. A means for their message.
Meanwhile their translators around the world apologise for spelling errors after only sleeping 3 hours in the last 24. On another channel, breaking news tickers file across the top of the page. Familiar?
Broadcast channels like this, aggregating uploads from various sources and now broadcasting live interviews that are recorded for re-broadcasting later are currently topic specific. In this case it is for events in Libya. I suspect there will be so many more as the creation of such channels becomes easier and the knowledge of how is spread further. Channels for live news, choose your topic, run their live feeds where you find them and replay material when you feel you need to know. Headlines can be split into links to different spaces concentrating on the material collected and sorted by citizens. That’s a pretty wild way to watch.
I still read the analysis of experts to supplement my live feed addiction. To have context is key and not something currently appearing on these channels. But I suspect it might – soon. Having watched this channel grow from a stream of tweets and a separate FB page to a page of their own that was honed and defined, I think on what mainstream journalists can do. They still provide pages that I come to as a trusted place, they organise the information that is quicker to read but I suspect some connections need to be made with these wild and independent news channels forming online. It’s valuable work that would benefit from some translation for traditional TV viewers.
It’s not for everyone, I suspect people who drop by this blog are the choir in an digital church. My parents still watch the TV news in the evening though as do many of my friends who are not hooked up to the web like pixel junkies. I think they too would marvel at this work if it is properly explained and put in a place where they can easily find it.
It’s now very early AM, London BST and I am probably rambling. I have another question though, if anyone will indulge me. Would you subscribe to these channels, say if the internet were really globally ubiquitous – which channels would you tune into today?