Perhaps more than most, the technology community believes in its ability to transform how things are done. But when you apply that to government, the chain breaks. Seemingly, we’re only just generating the connections that directly link our technically savvy with our politically powerful.
Soma Salon is an effort founded by TechCrunch honcho M.Butcher and supported by a group including Jonathan MacDonald, David Bailey, Daniel Appelquist to address this need. To assemble multi-disciplinary experts, identify key themes, stimulate discussion and ultimately draw attention to the problems that matter from the technology industry’s point of view.
Yes, the perspective requested is broad but it’s through the technology lens that our interests focus on social areas like government, privacy, education and more.
Most importantly, it’s an attempt to do so that doesn’t just generate hot air. Sister group Soma Labs is the first output of the Salon, assembling a small team to help turn the discussion into addressable and specific challenges.
So, can it be done?
Mind the mind gap
Attending on Tuesday night, it took an hour or so for the attendees of maybe 60-70 to identify key topics for groups to split up and discuss. Having spun out into the media group (for obvious reasons), the conversation included 30 minutes of anecdotes, observations, short discussion and ideas about how the media landscape and publishing have changed.
We touched on native advertising, the responsibility of the mainstream newsfeed algorithms as the new equivalent of the mainstream media, the idea of a sort of ‘free advertising’ where material that was reacted to positively on networks should build up currency for the publisher, which they can then use to favour their posts in the feed.
Here’s three big ideas I’ve been thinking about since the conversation.
1. Organic posts, sharing and interaction already acts as a more meritocratic curating algorithm.
Yes, if a Facebook brand page posts something, they probably have to sponsor it to get it into your feed. But if three of your friends all post a link to an article or piece of material then Facebook probably wants to assume that’s something you’re interested in.
We obsess with the questions of how we get material to reach potential targets. But nothing will ever trump being great and interesting. Start slowly and build a genuinely interested community and spend five years growing it. Sustainable will always beat immediate.
2. What’s the incentive to create important journalism?
Maybe I’ve been reading too much Ben Thomson recently but I’ve become more and more interested in the topic of misaligned incentives. In the case of the media industry, they pursue traffic. That’s fine, a company can do what it chooses to generate profit.
But what’s the incentive for creating useful meaningful news, the kind of stuff that makes democracy tick instead of lurch? What news organisation is motivated by the impact of traffic (you’ve got to reach people after all) multiplied by the effectiveness with which is informs the populace with clear unbiased information. It doesn’t exist — maybe it can’t. No, screw that, of course it can. But first we need to pay careful attention.
3. Where’s the BBC of the algorithm world.
Few things make me proudly British rather than a member of the World. But one of them has to be the BBC. In a time when publishers drove what people paid attention to, it was awarded a mandate to break free from the forces that can corrupt news production. For better or worse, it was designed with a social purpose.
These days, the Facebook algorithm is classically held up as one of the ‘editorial systems’ that determines the kind of news most people see. So, if you were to try and achieve something with similar goals to the foundation of the BBC — but with today’s media landscape — how would you go about it?
Do we need a public sector algorithm, kind of news.gov.uk that’s designed to identify and reward rising stories not about beach bodies or drunk celebs but the themes that matter in a democracy? Will it always be a flawed attempt? Probably yes. But is it worth doing and would you benefit by iterating based on how it ran over time? I think definitely.
What’s to come
It’s clearly early days for the Soma initiative and its various moving parts. Passion is clear but all too often it fades before potency can follow. The fact of the matter is, there’s no value in being cynical about the potential of this group. It’s unproven. It follows in the footsteps of countless other attempts that didn’t manage to turn the hot air into inflation.
But if it produces even a few sprouts of progress, how can it not be worthwhile.
Hopefully we’ll see you at the next one and find out what role the tech community will play in this brave, new world.