Ethan Zuckerman, director at the MIT Center for Civic Media, is spearheading the weirdest project on the consumption of news that certainly I’ve ever heard of: nutrition labels for news.
As Zuckerman explained back in 2008, “Over the course of a week, it might let you know that you hadn’t encountered any news about Latin America, or remind you that a full 40% of the pages you read had to do with Sarah Palin. It wouldn’t neccesarily prescribe changes in your behavior, simply help you monitor your own consumption in the hopes that you might make changes.”
Zuckerman, knows the Internet well. He is, in fact, one of the first people to become rich off the Internet, through the early Internet startup tripod.com. The site was sold to the Internet company Lycos for $58 million, in 1998.
As for the news “nutrition labels”, it would consist of a plug-in to Firefox that would passively monitor your web-browsing habits, and provide a gage of your viewing habits.
Matt Stempeck, a research assistant on the project, said that the goal of the project was “to strike a balance between the consistent, widely-recognized FDA label and the far more creative, dynamic approaches to visualizing information all over the internet.”
But how can you find and categorize all the Internet content that most news outlets put out, must less judge it?
Zuckerman already has the aid of the Media Cloud, a database he created back in 2008, that cataloged articles from the top 25 U.S. news outlets and posts from the top 1,000 blogs, from the previous four years. The database has roughly 43 million articles (!) amassing hundreds of terabytes’ worth of text.
Zuckerman, however, does have a certain agenda with his plan. Zuckerman claims that the Internet is not utilized to its full potential, as many do not get a global perceptive online, and many netizens suffer from cognitive dissonance (see link below). So while the program does not suggest that someone read or view other content, the goal is to get people to realize and possibly change their consumption habits.
The downside is that your personal browsing habits are available for others’ consumption. Of course, the nature of the Internet now is, seemingly, to share information. However, different people differ on how comfortable they are providing information. Some would even argue that many wouldn’t even see the value is such a technology.
Andrew Phelps, who wrote an article about it for the Nieman Journalism Lab, contextualizes it in a rather acerbic way. “Does everyone want to see a digest of his own news nutrition, let alone look at someone else’s? I bet a lot of us are afraid of what it might say,” he said. “Twenty-one years ago President Bush signed the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act. Many local laws now mandate posting calorie counts in chain restaurants. And America is still pretty fat.”