More networked journalism: All for one, one for all

Here’s another notion of networked journalism. (Last week’s was Jay Rosen’s and later this week, I’ll tell you about one more from Berlin.)

Imagine this from the vision of Tom Evslin: What if all our Skype widgets had a button that allowed us to test and report the speed at which our Skype voice packets were being allowed through by our ISPs. What if then — following the 1 percent rule — just 400,000 of Skype’s 40-million-plus regular users hit that button and reported in how Skype’s — and other applications’ packets — were treated by their ISPs.

This would produce an incredible data base showing whether ISPs are, indeed, discriminating against certain packets and applications to advantage their own. I suspect Cablevision of playing wack-a-mole with my Skype because it works fine on slower lines elsewhere but horribly when I try to do interviews with the Guardian or the BBC (which prefer Skype) from home. But I have absolutely no way of knowing whether this is true. Evslin had similar suspicions about his satellite ISP and when I last saw him, he said he wanted to get folks at a place such as Skype to provide the necessary technical details to know how to test — and how to get many people — to test their packets. And wouldn’t it be great if that were as easy as hitting a button on Skype that tested and then reported the results to a central repository?

That is reporting, distributed reporting, pro-am reporting, networked reporting, whatever you’d like to call it. It is the people connected and gathering information that no one reporter could gather alone.

Now a reporter could take that data and go to ISPs to find out their side and get a good story out of this that has a big impact — one way or the other — on the net neutrality debate. Is there a smoking gun of discrimination to favor ISPs own packets? Or not? Let’s find out and report it.

Now, of course, there is also a sort of Heisenberg principle (using the bastardized definition of it) at work here: When the reporter calls, the ISP may say, ‘Oh, this is a mistake. We don’t discriminate.’ And whatever was switched on gets switched off. Or this could happen simply when the ISPs notice that they are being watched by the magic button. So the act of reporting affects the news reported (but then, it often does).

Now a journalist might say that this ruins the story. But the essential role of reporting remains in force: Journalism is a watchdog and now companies know that their customers are their watchdogs. Every customer is now a reporter.

One can imagine no end of ways to enable such large-scale distributed reporting. Some services are trying to get people to report gas prices. Jay talked about surveying prescription drug prices across the country. The Star-Ledger in New Jersey used to get high school counselors to share data that no colleges share on who really gets in and doesn’t (so what if thousands of college students shared their scores, grades, activities, acceptances, and rejections). We could all log out calls to customer service of certain companies — what gets fixed and what doesn’t and how long it takes. We could report and compare how much our local government officials are paid and spend: Every citizen is a reporter. Imagine the possibilities.