A Media Web-of-Trust

What a spectacular sight to behold: I’ve just returned from an impulse shopping spree to the Virgin Megastore in Central London, and when I left the store, the cross roads that make up Piccadilly Circus were blocked by a bicycle rider demo. I have no idea just what their intent was, but they managed to bring the average traffic speed from about 10mph down to a solid zero.

On a side note: Whenever I travel, there are usually a few stores in the places I go to that either sell products that you can’t get anywhere else, or they sell them in a way that is different from any other vendor selling the same products. For London, there’s the Apple Store and the Virgin Megastore on Piccadilly Circus. Unfortunately, the latter is open until midnight, so it is really difficult to resist the temptation to browse their CD and DVD racks, even when your whole day is taken up by a computer conference. I do have a rather solid excuse for visiting this store, though: I really dig English humor, and it is stupendously difficult to get some of the better shows and movies outside of the UK. And it’s just not the same to order that stuff from Amazon, either: buying these things where they originated just makes them even more enjoyable, just like Italian food tastes twice as nice when you enjoy it in Rome. Tonight’s bag of goodies contained “The Complete Fawlty Towers” — British humor at it’s hilarious best; “Billy Connelly — Erect for 30 Years” — unless you’re easily offended, simply one of the funniest people to walk this planet; and “Hell Freezes Over,” the live DVD by the Eagles, which was anything but typically English, but it was a no-brainer buying decision just for “New York Minute” and “Desperado” alone. And now back to our regular programming…

It was a stunning sight — I just couldn’t help standing there and gazing like your run-of-the-mill tourist — a Knowing-Thy-Destination status that I have left well behind me when it comes to my beloved London. Two thoughts immediately came to my mind: 1 – Darn, what an inconvenient time for me to forget my camera at the hotel, and 2 – Darn, that’s a lot of digicams and camera phones popping up all over the place.

Piccadilly Circus surely is one of the world’s most famous tourist attractions, so it’s only natural to see people handle cameras to shoot their souvenir photographs to show to their loved ones and friends to prove that, yes folks, we really were there! Still, I did not expect to see that many cameras. And this got me musing…

Democratizing Media, One Digicam at a Time

With the current pricing of cameras and computers and the really easy and (almost) foolproof handling of photos in applications like Picasa or iPhoto, taking photos in fantastic quality has become affordable for just about anyone. What’s more, there are a couple of photo sharing-cum-“social software” websites out there that make publishing these photos almost as easy as taking them. Especially when considering the success of Flickr.com, I daresay amateur photo publishing has reached a level of democratization that was unheard of during the analog days.

As a high profile example, when London was struck by a wave of suicide bomb attacks on 7 July 2005, it was not just the incumbent media outlets that published photos of the tragic event. It was people like you and me who used their cameras and mobile phones to take photos right from within the event, providing a glimpse at what happened that was completely uncensored, but also — as an expected consequence — disturbingly raw and immediate.

Navigating The Media Streams

With this democratization of photography — or, rather, of publishing in general, thanks to the web — it is now possible to quickly and easily find other points of view on any given subject that will help you see a more complete picture of what is happening in our world. The only problem is that there are so many publishing sources that it becomes really difficult to decide on the precious few that will provide you with that glimpse on reality that is sufficiently broad, deep, and trustworthy.

Back to that sea of cameras in Piccadilly Circus, then: even if some, or even most, of the photos taken tonight will never be published beyond the confines of the family of the person who took those photos, there should be ample supply for lots of websites and Flickr pages to cover the bike demo. And ample opportunity for anyone following a personal agenda to give these photos and the accompanying text a certain slant. So, what if you went looking on the web for photos about the demo just by tags or keywords? Would you know whom to trust to give a reasonably objective view on that scene at the Cirucs? To tell you what happened there, and what was behind that event? Unless you know the publisher, you’d be hard pressed to judge his or her trustworthiness just from the sheer fact of publishing alone.

Share Your Trust

Maybe, what we need to help us find our way through the ever-growing flood of pictures, blogs, podcasts, etc., is a web of trust, just like the chain of trust that is the basis for the PGP. PGP, which stands for Pretty Good Privacy, is an software architecture that lets you encrypt data by using a public/private key system (there is both a commercial and an OSS implementation). If you want to send someone an encrypted file, or want to ensure that a certain file was actually authored, i.e., signed, by a specific person, you will need that person’s public encryption key. But how do you know that the identity attached to a certain key really belongs to the real person? That’s the ingenious part: you can sign other people’s keys with your own. That way, if you get the key to someone you have not met in person before, and that person’s key is signed by someone you do know and trust, and whose key you also have in your PGP keyring, you can be reasonably sure that the identity is valid. The more people sign a key, the “stronger” that key becomes, i.e., the safer it is to assume that the identity shown in the key file actually belongs to that human being or organisation.

How about adding this system to, say, Flickr: if you could assign a trustworthiness level to another user, those people who trust you could then could get an idea of how trustworthy — from your personal point of view, of course — those people are who you rated on that trustworthiness scale. Apart from an intra-web community approach, there could also be an inter-web community implementation, possibly making use of an identity architecture like Passel to ensure that the given media coverage is actually coming from whom you think it is coming from.

I am fully aware that this system would not be foolproof, either. But it could help social groups navigate the ocean of grass-roots media coverage more reliably and more safely, leading to a stronger media democracy than you get with a completely unregulated noise of messages from all kinds of sources with all kinds of — sometimes sinisiter — hidden agendas.

Oh, by the way, about that bike demo? I still don’t know what that was about, but I’ll see what I can find about it on Flickr. Then again, maybe the old-fashioned newspaper will suffice this time.

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