Aggregated Aggregation

We’ve heard before that the M&A geniuses in charge of the global economy, if any, have been gobbling up and globbing together the media companies, too. It’s all revenue — pure arithmetic — at the upper levels of financial decision-making, but those who notice the message in the content rather than (or in addition to) the price tag hanging off of it have worried a bit about that trend. Hands were wrung when Murdoch’s right-wing Nuze Corp. acquired The Wall Street Journal. That aggregation of ownership within the media business has continued to the point that only six sets of management-types control 90% of information content, including what passes for news, available commercially to Americans.

No one expects the growth in those markets to come on the dead-tree side. It will certainly involve online delivery, and the view of who’s supplying what information is even less clear in the mashed up muddle of distributed and aggregated content. Lonely Planet says it will supplement tidbits from its travel guides with reviews from hither & yon in an application improbably named Wenzani. Presumably they’ll be paying somehow for the commercial elements within that stream and keep the people who create them sufficiently well-nourished to continue supporting the new business. Users won’t know, however. Nor will they care, maybe, but it’s key that they won’t know.

The aggregation adds one more layer of filtering between people and their information sources, making it that much more difficult to evaluate quality and potential bias, should they be moved to do so. The effort may not be justified in reviews of coffee shops in [fill in name of exotic locale], but it retains its importance in news, at least, and probably also in more long-form enduring cultural content (again, if any). Information literacy is more than constructing an effective Google query, and it becomes a greater challenge as aggregation encases content within layers of completely opaque management decision process and a mishmash of revenue motives. The risk grows and grows that convenience will trump conscience.

At a minimum, the financial influences in play introduce noise to warp the signal. As the possibility of calibrating that effect dims, maybe people will eschew the commercial content and return to the back fence, control of which so far remains widely distributed, to hear from their neighbors. But again, the digital back fence typified by Twitter is more prone to unknowable consolidation of control than was the old dead-tree version. Who can say how different the Arab Spring would have been under possible influence by the lovers of freedom in the Saudi royal family?