The acceleration of news delivery towards its degree zero — instantaneity — is inevitable. It belongs to the very concept and reality of news itself. The newest news is the news that just arrived now. No news could be sooner, or faster, than this news now. Now is the zero point of news. When it comes to news, realtime is just another way of saying Now.
News seeks ever faster speeds. “This just in” announces new news, redundant as it may sound. Our culture, for better or worse, places a high value on the novelty of news, the newness of news. Call it the “newsworthiness of now.” As the media’s staple ingredient, however, it’s an empty calorie. Fuel good enough for baseline metabolic functioning, but little more.
News value informs what is newsworthy. When deemed to be newsworthy, news is issued as news and its novelty makes it so. In this way a piece of information acquires an additional value, a cultural valence, from which it attracts attention and by order of which it is set into distribution. The audience, which receives news, circulates news further in a fashion as old as the art of storytelling itself.
It is in this manner that mediated information becomes news in the mass medium, and becomes social fact in the social medium — irrespective of the inherent quality or claim actually wagered by the news item. Why is this?
Well, for starters there is no such thing as intrinsic value. Media by definition create reality. They do this in part by covering real events, of course, but in their coverage they produce a reality of their own. One that is observed, interpreted, and narrated.
The question then becomes: If mass and social media both serve to produce and circulate news in realtime (their respective means of doing so being increasingly less distinct), what is knowledge? What is it to be informed, and what is the relationship between information, being informed, and knowledge and being knowledgeable?
A social fact is information that, by being news validated socially (by its travels through social media), exists as fact because it has been observed. Social observation online involves posting, tweeting, re-tweeting, linking, and so on. Social facts come into existence in this way — and once in existence, can accrue a life story according to their ability to survive and persist past being new news.
At what point then does a culture produce knowledge from information? How is knowledge created from news?
It would seem that knowledge should be more than fact, more than news. That it ought to have validity for what it claims. That it make a claim upon the individual on the basis of being valid, for reasons that connect to more than what has been claimed.
Only claims that can be accepted or rejected as being agreeable fall into this category — statements not of fact (which are true or false), but of validity (which are right or wrong). Knowledge would be information that is not just true but which is useful because they can bind people by means of agreement about something — not just recognition of fact.
In the midst of the realtime revolution, and the rapid acceleration of news, we might ask whether we become more knowledgeable? Does the realtime web accelerate the production of knowledge? Or does it just speed up the distribution of news, and lend a hand in surfacing and establishing what constitute the social facts of our online worlds?
We might conjecture that realtime detracts from the sustained attention and effort demanded of knowledge production, by distraction as well as by sheer noise and confusion. Or we might suppose that realtime is imply the power law at work, and a means in some cases of vetting and surfacing the social facts that matter — after which perhaps knowledge forms along the tail.
This is an open question, and I don’t take sides and can see the merits of either perspective. There is also a third possibility. It is that the distribution of news in realtime, rapidly and broadly laying down layer upon layer of social sediment (fertile, as well as the, uh, crap), not only grounds mediated social realities but also supplies communication with opportunities for connection.
Perhaps, by means of this third possibility, social news serves as a vehicle for relating and connecting. A common stock of information with which to discuss the stuff that really matters. The notion would then be that news has value as a form, for it is helping to build a shared cultural language — a requirement all the more acute in open and diversified populations like those of social media. Such that when events and of consequence occur, communication already has its legs.