When you say it out loud, "World Wide Web" sounds anachronistic. It sounds like an optimistic but geeky term scientists used to describe the Internet before real users had a chance to name it. Nevertheless, in 1996 millions of Americans for the first time forewent the traditional AOL and CompuServe experiences and used the World Wide Web as the primary protocol to access the Internet. It was the dawn of the modern web: although Netscape Navigator first premiered in 1994 and Microsoft Internet Explorer famously came coupled with Windows 95, it was 1996 when technology was mature enough that consumers could begin to enjoy the first versions of an experience we continue to this very second.
Almost immediately, before eBay and Amazon could begin to construct commercial empires and before Google began its ascent to ubiquity, journalists recognized that the web could be an incredible medium for releasing and sharing news and opinions. News could travel any distance, instantly. The New York Times went online in 1995, and many other newspapers around the world joined them shortly thereafter. Even with primitive search engines like WebCrawler and AltaVista, the rapidly growing amount of content made the still-small Internet feel unlimited. Rapidly, many of the web's novices began to create their own websites as well, publishing websites on every topic imaginable: although only an estimated 100,000 websites existed in January 2006, by the end of 2012, there were approximately 634 million. The great, vast majorities of these websites were and are completely free to access. Few pay to read the news: revenues are declining rapidly for newspapers.
Television news was undergoing its most significant transformation simultaneously. Before 1996, news was the domain of large television broadcast networks. In just half an hour per day, larger-than-life news anchors who had been in place since the early 1980s (Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather) would majestically tell the country all of the important events of the day. Somehow, everything important that transpired around the world could be told within just thirty minutes. Obviously, a lot was left out. But for the vast majority of consumers, life was simple: you read your local newspaper in the morning when it showed up on your doorstep, and at 6:30 p.m. you watched the network news. Afterwards, it was up to you to create an opinion and share it with your close network of friends and family. The public's opinion was based on information that everyone had access to. It's no wonder, when one thinks about it, that the political parties were less divided than they are today.
The only major competitor in the United States to the predominant network news was Ted Turner's CNN, a 24-hour cable alternative that was increasingly popular since the Gulf War. In 1996, everything changed overnight: Microsoft and NBC together launched MSNBC, and a few months later News Corp. created Fox News Channel. Talking heads were everywhere, and the news cycle never ended. If nothing particularly groundbreaking was happening, television news organizations would actively find something to report on and to debate.
Taken together, the rise of the web and 24-hour-news on TV led to consumers having unprecedented amounts of information to sort out. Increased competition on TV and on the Internet led to objectivity taking a backseat. "Angles" were invented and "opinions" were generated in order to draw more eyeballs to a news organization's content. These companies realized that people like to view content that they agree with in advance, so Fox News Channel took a conservative slant while MSNBC intentionally catered its content for liberals. News became more like entertainment -- and it's still that way. Although there are some websites that purport themselves to be objective, over time the same phenomenon held true to the Internet as well.
A "mob mentality" has overtaken the traditional analysis of world events: because every item is debated over endlessly, almost always the loudest and most outrageous conclusion is reported on the most. Eventually, some segment of society takes that outrageous and probably incorrect conclusion and they base their worldview on this foundation of false premises. In the last 16 years, almost no information is universally considered factual any longer.
The media has the power and the obligation to report whatever is "newsworthy." Today, no one medium -- not even papers of record like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal -- can be fully relied upon to do just that. As wonderful as many of these reporters and editors are, political agendas are too often at play. With declining revenues at newspapers, there are fewer and fewer resources for news organizations to properly determine what happened, particularly overseas. When even the government can no longer be trusted to tell the truth, where can Americans go to find out what's important and what should be covered?
Fortunately, the world-wide-web holds the answer to this. Social news aggregators like reddit, founded in 2005, allow for the very best of journalism anywhere in the world to be exposed to a wide swath of the population. Reddit allows users the flexibility to subscribe to channels (called subreddits) that fit their interests, whether they are extremely technical, hard-science or trivial but fun. On reddit, you can find all the cat GIFs you could ever want, as well as read a solid and sourced conversation between trained academics on any given subject.
Because a network of millions of users determines the content of each subreddit and even the front page, newsworthy reports receive the attention they deserve. Journalists who go above and beyond are often recognized for their hard work and ingenuity, and because users can and do comment in longer form, the debate on important subjects is properly nuanced to match the complexity of the issue. Frequently, even unpopular opinions will be "upvoted" to get exposure, provided they are well argued and properly sourced. Unlike on television, where quick witticisms and soundbites are all producers have time for, reddit allows for a determined reader to gather a more complete set of facts before forming an opinion. As long as a viewer takes what they see with an appropriately-sized grain of salt, a comments thread on reddit will typically better inform the reader what the holes and deficits of a news article are, or what about an opinion piece is truly innovative and conversation-worthy.
Beyond determining what's newsworthy, reddit allows for users to organize and act together better than ever before. When the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protect Act threatened (and threatened again) the freedom of information on the Internet, redditors gathered to fight the proposed law -- and won. Redditors are engaged in activism on many fronts, and as the userbase grows, their power will, too. One can expect the campaigns of the 2016 Presidential Election to appeal to reddit frequently and often.
Of course, like anything else, reddit can be gamed or trolled. Because the cross-section of users is so massive, there are requisite numbers of crazy people, too. Caution must be taken before believing any individual statement. But taken together, as a whole, sites like reddit are our current best hope for allowing hidden-but important stories to become top-of-mind public knowledge, and for a reasonable, complex discussion to follow. It's not 1996 anymore: more than ever, our complex society needs nuanced discussion to properly form opinions. Talking heads with too much influence and overbearing, slanted coverage are insufficient and perhaps dangerous to a free society. Democracy requires the individual input of millions of people with opinions to join together to form a consensus. Multifaceted issues require the input of a multitude of experts, and no one should be deprived of detailed exposure to all sides of the debate -- least of all, the voting public.
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