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Byron the bulb: how the velocity of journalism is changing

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As part of Verge Hack Week, we've invited great minds from around Vox Media to contribute their thoughts on the future of everything — from food to fashion to the written word. In this installment, we welcome senior product manager Mandy Brown, co-founder of Editorially, which joined the Vox team earlier this year.

In Thomas Pynchon’s famous and famously unreadable 1973 novel, Gravity’s Rainbow, a short story about a sentient and immortal light bulb named Byron includes a moment when a technician is sent out to test Byron for irregularities. Wearing seven-inch spiked heels in order to extend her reach, she gently unscrews Byron from the sconce he’s plugged into. At that moment, a hush goes out across the electrical grid, as every bulb everywhere "at something close to the speed of light," knows what has happened.

Information traveling at the speed of light was largely fantastical in the time period in which the novel is set, though it’s commonplace today. But as fast as we can distribute information, we are still figuring out how to learn from it at anything close to the speeds at which it can be conveyed.

We can create and share information at speeds much faster than we can comprehend it

The past week’s events in Ferguson hint at this: thousands of tweets a minute were shared from people on the ground and elsewhere, many conflicting with each other, reflecting entwined and complicated perspectives. Some information was false — both intentionally so and otherwise — but once distributed it bounced and careened across the network, often two steps ahead of any retraction. We can create and share information at speeds much faster than we can comprehend it.

The future — of news, of storytelling, of knowing — has to, in some way, address this. The methods by which we filter and evaluate and accumulate information need to be transparent and readily interrogated. Not because openness is a panacea — it isn’t — but because knowing something is an iterative process which depends upon collaboration, and collaboration can’t happen in a dark room.

Stories have traditionally been presented as final, fixed things. The paper that prints a story on the front page doesn’t share the rough drafts, the corrections, the anxious notes to self, the agonizing over word choices ("should we call this person a ‘looter’ or a ‘protestor’?") that are part of that story coming together. Only if a change is deemed important enough, and only if it’s decided upon after going to press, is any revision shared or explained. But we’re long past the point where stories are published once (and only once), at only one time. Who’s to say the revisions that happen after a certain point are any more important than the ones that came before? Who’s to say that all of the decisions that went into that story aren’t part of the story itself?

Why does a Wikipedia post reveal more about its creation than a story from the New York Times?

A better future would open the comments writers and editors make with one another, and invite readers in

The basic tools are already here: version control and comments. But the former are oriented inward (and rarely, if ever, shared) and the latter are relegated to the pews: comments are for outsiders to make, and for writers and editors to defend. A better future would open the comments writers and editors make with one another, and invite readers in. (Here I’ll add that my work at Editorially — and, now, Vox Media — has centered around laying the groundwork for this kind of open collaboration and experimentation.)

Byron’s compatriots could only know one thing — that he was gone. Beyond that they were ignorant. We have an obligation to know considerably more about what’s going on in the world, and we have the tools to participate in that knowledge coming together. What we don’t have is a framework for seeing how disparate bits of information are gathered together into something more — for a way to share not only the story, but the mechanics of it. Yet.