May 2, 2002

THIS FANCY OF MINE for 5/2/2002: Only 12% of the CIMC newswire is original content

"Now, knowing as I do that it behooves us to obey the decisions of the authorities and to believe them, since they are guided by a higher insight than any to which my humble mind can of itself attain, I consider this treatise which I send you to be merely a poetical conceit, or a dream...this fancy of mine...this chimera."

-- Galileo Galilei, in a 1618 letter to Austrian archduke Leopold who asked him for a sample of his work.

Sir Thomas Gresham, the financial agent for Queen Elizabeth I, is best remembered today for his namesake dictum--Gresham's law--that "bad money drives out good". Or more generally, bad anything drives out good anything. In whatever forum you choose, its easier and/or cheaper to make and/or get something of lower quality than higher quality, and the resulting abundance of lower quality reduces the amount of higher quality.

Some Usenet groups I used to frequent exhibit this same quality. Spammers would flood the groups with posts that were commercial or pornographic, irrelevant or embarrassing. In so doing, most people were hard-pressed to find thoughtful, insightful, funny, quality posts, or anything of quality for that matter. Fewer people frequented the group, fewer posts were made (never mind fewer quality posts), and some groups shriveled up altogether due to lack of interest.

And, sad to say, the Chicago Independent Media Center newswire--whose main virtue is a free open-publishing service--is an understandable victim to the vice of lower quality.

To see how much firsthand, I conducted a small study of the Chicago IMC newswire. I surveyed 34 articles on the newswire from a point of time that passed--April 28 through April 30, article IDs 10195 through 10291. These are the articles that are currently in the newswire archives and which remain in public view.

In looking at the survey, I grouped newswire posts into one of four categories: (1) reposts of articles from other sources (e.g., AP, Reuters, the Guardian, etc.), (2) announcements of upcoming events, (3) original content, and (4) the barrelscraping "everything else" or "other".

Of the 34 articles I examined, 18 articles were article reposts (about 52% of the total), 7 were event announcements (about 20%), 5 were "other" posts (14%), and just 4 were original content (12%). (The percentages don't total 100% because of rounding. And by the way, of those 34 articles I looked at, some 22 comments were posted, clustering around only 9 posts.)

This dovetails with my personal experience of using the newswire. I wonder if similar numbers could be replicated on a larger-scale survey of the CIMC newswire or on a wide-scale survey of multiple IMC newswires.

So the course of action to take would be clear: those who can post original content to the newswire should do so. I'm not saying that a cool reposts or announcements shouldn't continue to be made to the newswire; they certainly should. But every post includes an exhortation for putting new quality content. So, put up new quality content.

In other words, don't hate the Indymedia newswire. Become the Indymedia newswire.

To that end, I'm starting a (probably biweekly [but more like "occasional"]) web column called "This Fancy of Mine." And you just read the first installment of it--my small part to increase the 12% of original content on the newswire and encourage others to contribute likewise.

If Rick Reilly can simultaneously amuse and annoy me with his 500-word-a-week screed in Sports Illustrated, why can't I crank out at least as many quality words on topics that are actually important? Zoe Mitchell can make occasional good contributions to the DC Indymedia; why can't I do the same for Chicago Indymedia?

Maybe the bad can drive out the good, but maybe the threat of a good example can encourage a backlash.

As Bertold Brecht wrote: "Do not ask what the future will be like but. Determine it."