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Editorial: Take a Breath

Don’t stop us if you’ve heard this before, because it needs to be said frequently and at increasing volume. It is time for everyone to stop for a moment and think seriously, collectively, about an enormous topic—namely, the Internet’s combination of instantaneous, ubiquitous information and where the vaunted power it puts in the hands of the public is taking us.

And that part about where it is “taking us” may be the larger point. If often feels like the Internet is taking us somewhere rather than us being in the driver’s seat. The Internet gives incredible power, without an obvious list of guiding principles on how best to use it.

We are reminded of the old Star Trek episode where the crew of the Enterprise is dealing with what it believes to be a being of immense power— only to find out it is essentially a child playing with planets as though they were toys. That is the same vibe the Web sometimes gives off.

The FCC is taking its time coming up with an answer to how and whether over-the-top video providers should be regulated. We’re not sure how much more time the commission has in this endeavor. If distributors are moving to Internet protocol delivery of voice and video, the FCC will need to move much faster if it is to provide the kind of regulatory certainty that encourages the innovation and investment the commission has continually made its mantra.

But this is not so much about government agencies weighing in as it is about the rest of us conceding that things may be moving faster in the digital space right now than we can wrap our minds around.

Again, that doesn’t mean “stop.” It means, for one thing, that media literacy is more important than ever. The Web is a genie—a magical, transformative technology. It’s not going back in the bottle, and nobody wants it to. But we need to be wishing for the right things, or understanding how quickly and to what ends technology is able to grant those wishes.

It is imperative that every school has a media literacy curriculum. But it’s not just kids that need schooling. We need to agree not to label people Luddites when they want to pause and consider the consequences of having all of our information online, and not just the privacy and data security issues.

Recent online events, from the Reddit crowdsourced Boston bomber hunt (oops, wrong guys), to the AP tweet hacker who created a mini Dow plunge (oops, there hadn’t actually been explosions at the White House and the President wasn’t injured) illustrate the speed at which misinformation can impact the nation and the world.

Everyone wanted to catch the bombers, but unmediated crowd-sourced investigators are vigilantes by another name.

The problem can be compounded when the traditional media feed the frenzy by parroting information distributed via social media in the guise of reporting on “what’s trending.”

What’s really trending is that the way news and entertainment is disseminated has changed radically over the last decade in ways that sometimes feels like we are all just hanging on to the back of the fire truck as it careens around a corner we can’t see beyond.

The public has grown used to this new propagation of information, now relying on getting scoops that sometimes can’t stand up to a level of scrutiny not much stricter than a child asking for a repeated clue in a game of “telephone.” And that’s where the disconnect—literally and figuratively— comes in. Public reliance is one thing; public good is another.

The concern is not new. More than a decade ago, Ted Koppel warned: “Much of American journalism has become a sort of competitive screeching: What is trivial but noisy and immediate tends to take precedence over important matters that develop quietly over time.” Koppel said both journalists and the public appetite were contributory factors.

The rise of Twitter, Reddit and other social media have made it even easier to value speed and ease of delivery over context and analysis.

So while the FCC is pondering how to treat over-the-top services, the rest of us should take the opportunity to discuss how best to live, work and play in a 24/7, always-on, broadband world. The media should lead that discussion.