Journalists Need Collective Intelligence – OPEN ’09

What skills will journalists need in 2020?

This was one of the questions we discussed on Monday morning at Open ’09. Will journalists need to know how to code HTML? To shoot and edit video for the web? To write stories in 140 characters? The more we talked, the more one simple answer coalesced in my mind.

They’ll need to understand collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence is the number one skill journalists need today, let alone 2020. It’s the ability to exploit networks effectively, to take advantage of the skills, knowledge and expertise distributed through the loose networks of people every one of us is plugged into.


Journalism has a lot of crafts – writing, shooting pictures, and so on – but the core craft that underlies all of this has always been about connections. Being a good journalist means, above all, creating and tending a network of contacts who trust you and who will be interested in talking to you when something important is going on. The writing skills, the photography or whatever aren’t really of much use unless you’ve got the nous and the network in place to pick the stories up in the first place.

And that’s the one part of journalism that is being changed more profoundly than any other – because of social media.

One of the reasons that social media is so popular is because it allows us to manage relationships with a lot of people efficiently. For journalists, this is of supreme importance. But this isn’t just another way of communicating and socializing (though that is very important in its own right).

Because it is so good a communications medium, social media allows us to do something quite different, and that’s to enact a sort of collective intelligence. Social media allows us to communicate widely and interactively with large groups of people that we know only tenuously, or even not at all. It is the most effective and least costly means of group formation and coordination – a subject explored in depth in Clay Shirky’s Here Comes Everybody. This technology makes communication so efficient that it actually makes possible entirely new behaviors and ways of working. Wikipedia is the classic example of this, of course. No one would have thought it possible before Wikipedia was published, and yet it is now the first reference of choice for many people.

In news, social media means that we can magnify our capabilities in information gathering and dissemination. For example, if I sent you a two-minute phone camera video shot in Arabic, how long would it take you to find someone to translate it for you?

If you’re working without social media, it could take hours. Depends if you personally know someone who speaks Arabic. But if you don’t? You need to start calling around contacts, and their contacts, and . . . this takes time.

A journalist adept in collective intelligence should be able to get a two-minute video translated from any language to any language inside an hour. I’d say fifteen minutes for common languages. I don’t have that many twitter followers, and even I can get a message out to a few hundred people instantly. With re-tweets, a message I send could reach thousands of people in minutes. That’s a lot of minds to tap.

This network of expertise and knowledge is immensely valuable. This is the hive mind, the collective intelligence. When it is accessed and focused in the appropriate way, it can solve almost any problem. Players of alternate reality games have proven this, by doing things like writing entire books and cracking military codes without payment, without command structures, or for any other purpose than their own enjoyment.

Journalists gain a powerful skill if they learn how to be a part of this collective intelligence, to work with it and within it. It is an ability and an attitude as much as a skill, but it can be learned (that’s one part of the thinking behind the Hive Mind Challenge).

Writing, photography, video and all the other skills of journalism production can work with the material gleaned from collective intelligence, but it remains the base.

And above all, this is what journalists in 2020 will need to be: masters of the hive mind, the focal points of collective intelligence. They will need to be constantly permeating the network, collecting disparate scraps of wisdom and collating them into powerful insights. They will need to be expert network tenders and community managers.

Heck, they need to be this way now.

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