Modular by Design — Weblogs and News Gathering

In 2003, an off-hand remark by then incoming senate majority leader Trent Lott got little notice from the mainstream press. However, weblogs got into the action, picking up on the remarks and doing further research to put the story in context. The mainstream press picked up the brouhaha that ensued, eventually leading to Mr. Lott’s resignation from office. How does this relate to the modular by design approach? Let’s delve in.

While the Internet did facilitate such discussions, what happened here was the result of a number of individuals discussing and sharing information, individual units building on top of the work of other individual units to have an impact on the way news is reported. Had the story developed in the mainstream newspapers, it would have taken much longer to take hold. For example, Woodward and Bernstein and the rest of the Washington Post team worked diligently on the Watergate story for 26 months and because the mainstream press generally looks for validation from their competitors in the guise of follow-on stories (what one could call either pack mentality or group think), they often had to check and recheck that they were heading in the right direction. Granted, the secrets being uncovered in that case were not part of the public record but one can argue for the advantage of a larger group communicating.

In the weblog world, ideas and stories are either debunked or improved in with greater velocity over time. If one treats the meme as the most basic module of a thought, blogs provide a universe where a meme’s velocity increases over time, often forcing the mainstream media to play catch-up with the bloggers. The power of many is greater than the power of an individual but in the beginning is an individual idea or story. For example, Nova Spivak recently tried an experiment to see how quickly a meme could propagate and showed in the process that this particular item spread to nearly 740 weblogs in less than 3 days.

Taking into accounts Metcalfe’s law which states that the value of a network increases exponentially with every new member in the network, the modular approach to communication can have a tremendous impact. Because weblogs are individual modules, they cannot be controlled as a group. For example, a particular organization can be denied access to information but a wider group is harder to control. Once again modularity works to one’s best advantage.

How should the mainstream press deal with this new effect? The answer is somewhat counter to current thinking in that the only way one can fully mine a modular model is by partnering one’s module with others. This means working in conjunction with one’s competitors in order to get a greater advantage for everyone involved.

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