I hope to see the democratization of information. Just everyday people controlling the news.
The late Margaret Mead, a renowned anthropologist, once said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
That quote kept floating around in my head during my conversation with 24-year-old Austen Allred, the founder of Grasswire.
Grasswire is a platform that creates collaborative news reports by allowing users to highlight and fact-check social media content in real time. The Utah startup firmly believes everyday people should control the news, not governments or corporations.
Spend some time with Allred and you will find his passion for the democratization of the news process is undeniable. At first glance, possessing a random passion for how news and information is disseminated to the masses may seem a bit odd. How does such a passion come to fruition? In Allred’s case, it all started while serving a two-year mission in Donetsk, Ukraine, for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“In the Ukraine, I was really able to see how the news and media affects the way people think and the way they live,” said Allred. “A lot of that came from the shock of living in a place that looks at Lenin and Stalin in the same way we look at Washington and Lincoln. Just trying to process how all of that happens makes you understand how incredibly important the news and how people receive information really is.”
During his time in Ukraine, Allred became friends with Garrett Thornburg, who was also serving a mission on behalf of the LDS Church. Within five minutes of meeting each other, they were already talking about technology and startups.
“Garrett is one of the smartest people you’ll ever meet,” said Allred. “He’s very smart and very opinionated.”
Allred and Thornburg became roommates after returning home from their missionary service. The two were living in Provo, but that didn’t last very long. “I got kind of bored, so I decided to move to China,” said Allred.
One day while in China, Allred was supposed to catch a train, but ended up missing it at the last minute. That train ended up colliding with another train and killing hundreds of people. In the aftermath of the horrific accident, Allred witnessed first-hand how the Chinese media and government attempted to cover-up the cause of the accident and the number of casualties. “There were tons of people on the train. How come no one was talking to them and getting their side of the story?” said Allred.
Grasswire was conceived because of that train accident. Allred returned to Provo to attend BYU, changed his major to Communications, and joined forces with Thornburg to create a platform that allows people who are on the ground during major news events to tell their side of the story.
Grasswire makes it possible for anyone with a Twitter account to become a citizen journalist. Allred believes a person can become a citizen journalist without using Grasswire, but it’s difficult.
“The citizen journalist movement right now is like, ‘Hey, go research something, go write a story, and then go try to give it away somewhere,’” said Allred. “The everyday person is just not going to go through with that. They don’t understand AP guidelines, or where to start, or even who to talk to. Grasswire breaks that process down into little, easy pieces.”
With Grasswire’s built-in fact-checking component, Allred believes anyone can perform the role of a journalist without needing a degree from Columbia University.
“The goal with Grasswire is to take what’s happening in any journalistic institution and turn every aspect of that over to everyday people, but chunk it up into bits that are small enough so people will actually do it,” said Allred.
In order to make something like Grasswire work, a great deal of trust is placed on the users.
“We have a lot of faith in the crowd, and believe through sheer numbers they’ll be able to look at those links just as much as any journalist would,” said Allred. “Eventually by people working together, they’ll be able to come to some sort of conclusion. We don’t actually draw the conclusion for the users; we just show them all of the data, and expose them to what everybody else is saying.”
Grasswire expects to launch a working prototype in the beginning of January 2014. It likely won’t have the fact-checking component built-in for this initial version, but it will give users a very basic idea of what’s to come.
So, what’s the end goal? If everything goes well, and Grasswire becomes a huge success, what does Allred hope to accomplish?
“I hope to see the democratization of information,” said Allred. “Just everyday people controlling the news.”
Journalism and the way news is reported hasn’t changed much since the newspaper was first invented. The way we receive information has definitely changed due to technological advances, but the control of information by corporations and governments has existed from the very beginning. Changing that centuries-old process isn’t going to be easy.
It would be a mistake to doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens could bring about that change. According to Margaret Mead, it’s the only thing that ever has.