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Can Journalism be Virtual?

I have an article in the Columbia Journalism Review that explores virtual reality, Facebook, the challenges of doing journalism in and on virtual realities, and the importance of holding platform companies accountable for the worlds they are building.  Full piece is here, below is from the introduction:

As Facebook and others begin researching and developing technologies that could augment our lives in significant ways, a new space is opening up for journalism. And unlike early virtual journalism experiments in Second Life, which ultimately mimicked traditional “real world” reporting, journalism inside these new virtual worlds will require an entirely different set of skills and approaches, and will challenge three core journalistic concepts: representation, witnessing, and accountability.

First, virtual reality challenges the ways in which journalists think about representation. At the core of VR’s unique power is a deception–that the user believes she is experiencing something she is not. The goal of journalism in VR, therefore, is to inform the user by blurring the act of journalistic representation. But journalists cannot appropriate the physiological power of virtual reality without also thinking seriously about how leveraging it for journalistic purposes changes the way the world is represented.

Second, virtual reality challenges journalists’ ability to serve as witnesses with agency. It is entirely unclear what tools will be needed to observe events and institutions in a virtual space that is created by a confluence of human intervention and algorithmic control. If the boundaries between observation, participation, audience, and social structure fundamentally break down in virtual worlds, it is uncertain whether virtual reality journalism can be done by a human at all.

Third, as Facebook begins to build a virtual world and signals its ambitions to augment human capabilities, there has never been a greater need for accountability journalism, both within virtual spaces and for the companies building them. These virtual experiences will be designed and increasingly automated to be as addictive as possible. They will be marketed aggressively and widely, and could radically change our lives. The technologies driving them will undoubtedly be used by governments and militaries to seek ever greater control. But as the cluster of Silicon Valley companies building these futures rises to significant and largely unchecked social, political, and economic power, technology journalism has proven insufficient to hold them responsible for their actions.

Whether or not these technology futures emerge, they are being discussed and researched at one of the largest companies in the world, with a user base of over 1.5 billion people and rich data about much of the world’s consumption, movements, knowledge, and networks. How these virtual worlds are designed and created, and how humans will evolve to engage with these new technologies, pose fundamental problems for journalism.