In an accompanying article for Wired, author and computer scientist Cal Newport describes the present problem in a COVID-19 world of distributing expert information. Essentially, in a fast-evolving global crisis, access to quality information needs to be easy and cheap. Twitter has helped surface the experts in these niche fields who can provide the best information and research regarding COVID-19.
Twitter is notoriously low-signal-to-noise and low-fidelity. Scientific journals, a very high-fidelity mechanism for sharing expert knowledge, have been publishing COVID-19 research at break-neck pace. Most people won’t and can’t have access to the knowledge in a scientific paper, however. So what’s in between Twitter and scientific journals?
Newport recommends leaning on existing institutions with high public trust (e.g. Johns Hopkins University which has been publishing official data on COVID-19 all along) and a strong technical foundation. (But we should avoid politically-charged institutions like news outlets.)
Experts could also rely instead on existing general-purpose publishing platforms like Medium, but this might exacerbate concerns about misinformation. The social capital required to request a blog hosted by a reputable institution would be significant enough to filter out cranks, but hopefully not so stringent that important dissenting voices would be excluded. (It’s here that relying on a diverse set of such institutions would matter.) There are also issues with consolidating all of this information on the servers of a small number of commercial companies granted the ability to censor posts without accountability or transparency. In the early weeks of the pandemic, for example, there were multiple reports of Medium taking down essays that challenged the effectiveness of stay-at-home orders versus less strict social distancing. Today, this topic is mainstream and an important part of the political discussion concerning restarting the economy. We don’t necessarily want to trust engineers at one company to make the decisions about what topics the public should and should not be able to read about.
I think this is a perfect idea, and many universities have a blogging system already setup. During my days at Cornell, we had a WordPress multisite setup that was linked to your NetID. Something like that could easily be used to further the discourse here and provide more high-fidelity information to the public.
Filed under: open-web
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Published 28 April 2020