How a BoingBoing science feature was mutated: the "telephone" game


As somebody who does a fair amount of curating—collecting and commenting on cool stories from around the Internet—I'm very aware of how easy it is to accidentally mutate the news. Kind of paranoid about it, actually. Done well, this kind of curation can add new ideas to a discussion, or, at the very least, help readers find stories and learn about new ideas they might otherwise miss in the vast sea of information. Do it poorly, though, and curation quickly turns into a game of telephone. The story gets twisted. The point gets lost.

For example, a few weeks ago, BoingBoing guest blogger Lee Billings published an interview here with Greg Laughlin, an astronomer who'd worked out a formula that calculated the value of newly discovered planets. The point of Laughlin's work isn't so much about the cash money price of a planet. Rather, it's meant as a guide. A way to help the press and the public get a better feel for whether or not we should get real worked up about a discovery. Calling a planet "potentially habitable" doesn't tell the average person as much as, say, comparing the probable worth of Gliese 581c ($160) to that of our home planet (approx $5 quadrillion). Laughlin's formula is meant as a way to provide context, and as a gauge that shows us the intrinsic value in exploratory scientific research.

After that interview went up on our site, Laughlin was interviewed about it by another publication, Britain's News of the World. They did a reasonably good job with the story, he says. But when other publications and websites jumped onto that article, they changed the focus, ending up with a story that was very far from the point Laughlin was trying to make. Laughlin tells the tale of what happened next on his own blog:

Predictably, newspapers in Britain saw the News of the World story and immediately picked it up. As is to be expected, successive iterations tend to lose focus on the exoplanets, and gain focus on the value of Earth. Radio stations are calling, trying to set up interviews about how much Earth is worth. Angry e-mails drift into my inbox. Google news is at 61 articles and counting.

What was an exercise in calming hyperbolic media speculation about astronomy research became a hyperbolic media story about wacky real estate. I think this is pretty interesting. Both as a peek at "how the sausages get made" for you, and as a cautionary tale for me. There, but for the grace of calm blogging & careful reading, go I.

For an example of curation gone right, check out blogger Paul Gilster's post about the exact same BoingBoing article.

Via Lee Billings