Emotional proximity: journalism between brands and platforms #ijf15

by Andrea Iannuzzi – translated by Roberta Aiello

This is the text of my speech at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, which was included in the IJFTalks. Below there is the full video (13 minutes).

Once upon a time there was the Brotherhood of the Knights of News. They were the undisputed lords of information and no one dared to question their authority in the Land of Media.

However, a threat hung over them and their kingdom. A group of rebels of the sect of semiconductors, alchemists and manipulators of a mineral more precious than gold, left the valley to conquer the Land of Media.
It was the beginning of a revolution that would oust the Knights of News, unable to defend their houses of cards from the silicon armies. Some tried to resist, others deserted and went with the enemy, and others sought a truce or an alliance.

It was useless. The rebels and their young heirs of the Valley were acclaimed by the crowd. They united all the dots and created a perfect world, where every problem seemed to have a solution. Above all, they supplanted the Knights of the past century, becoming the new lords of news.

The silicon revolution had opened the door to a new force: the Triple A Empire. A for Algorithms, A for Analytics, A for Aggregators. A perfect world that would answer to mathematical rules and be based on the Big Data law. No spice or silk, no money or treasure could compete with the only commodity to which the Empire gave a value, as the key of knowledge and foresight: data. A pact was established between the Empire and the subjects. All of them were engaged to deliver their part of data, in exchange for a better life, fulfilled wishes, shared information.

Be known in order to know. In the Triple A era everyone was knight and those who once practiced the noble art of news were not needed. Until someone began to wonder if all this had a price. If a world ruled in this way could really avoid those ancient knights, their commitment and their capabilities.

I am one of those ancient knights. I belong to the contaminated and already submissive lineage. I thought of telling this story inspired by The Lego Movie. After seeing it dozens of times with my son, I began to think about the value of its metaphor.

The Lego Movie recounts a world dominated by Lord Business. An orderly world, in which all follow the instructions, unaware of the overall design, so perfect that Lord Business wants to fix it permanently, using a secret weapon: the Kragle, capable of blocking everything. Lord Business seems to have defeated the resistance of the master builders who are endowed with great creativity and are able to build everything, rearranging the bricks as they like, without following the instructions. However, a prophecy upsets the plans of Lord Business. It is the prophecy of “the special” one, a simple little man, an insignificant figure of the large model, one that has always followed the instructions who is the guardian of the “piece of resistance,” the antidote to the weapon of the Lord.

Is this scenario not the right metaphor of the world of news nowadays? Lord Business is the emperor of the Triple A, the one who rules the great platforms for aggregation and content distribution. The master builders are the professionals, the sidelined ancient knights. “The special” ones are the “readers,” people formerly known as the audience.

What is the online digital information if not a re-composition of infinite Lego bricks, which become meaningful through relationships (links) and take shape thanks to the ability to adapt to containers (metadata)?

Links and metadata. This is what digital content needs to fly, to reach recipients or be found by them. Thanks to links and metadata, content becomes the container itself. This is the great problem of the Knights of News. Content no longer needs to be associated necessarily to those containers that publishers had created for them. In the Gutenberg era, the business was nothing but the association between content and container. That business is gone and will not return.

Lord Business can count now on platforms, which have become the new channels – not neutral or neutral, as explained among others by Frank Pasquale – of content distribution (the Triple A). Some claim that they are the new publishers, those who decide who, what, when, where and why.

The “master builders,” the professionals of information and their publishers, have realized that the battle must be fought not against the platforms, but on the platforms and with platforms, creating ad-hoc content even at the cost of entering into a Faustian pact with the devil, as written by Mathew Ingram (this is what Buzzfeed, for example, and potentially also the New York Times are trying to do). After losing the challenge of the containers, no longer counting on the role of content distributors, they have decided to focus on what is most important and valuable skill they still possess, namely their heir brands; the reliability, the ability to distinguish their content from others, thanks to the credibility and the trust they have earned.

Today, it is undeniable that the brand represents an added value in the classification of content, its empowerment and ability to spread. How long will this still advantageous position last?

Amy Webb, a scholar of communication trends, asks this question, imagining a future in which the value of the brands – as well as, what we consider them today, more or less established outlets – will erode up to the point of their disappearance, to the advantage of the ability of verification and authenticity, which will be evaluated on the basis of scores, values once again established on the algorithmic basis. That will be the real added value capable of distinguishing not only content but also, and above all, who offers, processes and shares it.

Verification and authenticity scores will replace the need for bylines and news brands. (Working on far-future of news stuff.)

If you think about it, it is a shift from the “master builders” recognized brand to the personal brand of each of us, the “specials”, who possess the true antidote to the secret weapon of Lord Business.

Between platforms that govern according to the Triple A rules and brands that seek to comply with these rules at the behest of Lord Business, there are the people. Around them – around each one of us – rotates the future of journalism. If we want to be those “special ones,” we must call into question the rules that we set up for ourselves today, and propose new forms of intermediation. We need to replace the traditional concepts of proximity that have always transformed a fact into news. As explained by the French sociologist Alain De Botton in his book “The News: A User’s Manual,” are we sure that most of the news as intended today is actually useful to people’s lives?

Are we sure that the geographical proximity, interest proximity, social or economic proximity are the criteria that distinguish news?

Or should we try to think of another type of proximity, which is basically what drives much of our life and our online presence, ie the emotional proximity?

In the digital universe, spatial, temporal and contextual distances are cancelled. The emotional proximity is what drives us to feel involved in an event, whether it happens a few steps from us or on the other side of the world, whether it concerns our usual competence or interest, whether we encounter it for pure serendipity. The emotional proximity is what drives us to get our hands dirty. It is no longer enough to recount what happens, we need to get involved, we must take an active part in change. After all, in the realm of the ancient knights, the simple act of informing, of making known, could lead to change and therefore have an impact on the world (on the importance of the impact as decisive metric Jeff Jarvis said everything there was to say). Nowadays, news, by itself , has no impact. Journalism must be active and emotional. Citing Sue Llewellyn, an expert of social media, “reason to care, reason to share.”

At the end of The Lego Movie, Emmet – the special one – has a revelation: the powerful “Kragle” of Lord Business is nothing but a tube of glue, the KRAzy GLuE, with a few letters on the crumpled tube which are impossible to read. The piece of resistance guarded by Emmet is simply the plug of the tube. What about the prophecy? We all are the “special one,” the real secret weapon is the imagination, the ability of each of us to break the mould and not follow the instructions.