WHAT THE INTERNET WILL MEAN FOR JOURNALISM AND JOURNALISTS: INSIGHTS FROM THE EDGE

[ Sun. Mar. 14. 2010 ]

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 I am embarrassed to say that before this weekend I had never visited Edge.org. 

 I was first directed to the site on Friday by a post on 3QD, and I have remained there ever since, devouring responses to the 2010 Edge Annual Question, “How is the internet changing the way you think?” 

 There are many wonderful ideas to glean from this incredible collection of essays, but I was especially interested in what the replies suggested for the future of journalism and – perhaps a separate issue – the future of journalists. 

 In an article on Edge that is not actually part of the 2010 Question, the financial journalist Charles Leadbeater uses the example of open source software to suggest what the internet may allow in other cultural realms. 

 “The more people that test out a programme the quicker the bugs will be found,” Leadbeater explains. “The more people that see a collection of content, from more vantage points, the more likely they are to find value in it, probably value that a small team of professional curators may have missed.” 

 The application of this analogy to journalism is obvious and, to varying degrees, the concept has already been put into practice. The blog/traditional news hybrid site, Talking Points Memo, for instance, invites readers to contribute leads and even comb through government documents on their behalf. TPM’s crowdsourcing strategy has allowed the website’s comparatively tiny staff of reporters to break several major stories, including the U.S. Attorney firing scandal. There is also The Huffington Post, which famously employs unpaid “citizen journalists” and “volunteer bloggers,” in addition to paid editorial staff. 

More generally, the surge in claims and opinions that now appear on the internet would seem, by sheer probability, to have increased the amount of accurate or useful information that is available to the public. Of course, for every instance like the TPM U.S. Attorney story, in which the work of amateur internet journalists has had beneficial consequences for society, there have been, one assumes, many more instances of misinformation, slander and inanity. There is also the problematic tendency of independent online publishers to redistribute professional content without compensating authors.

 

As Leadbeater notes, many believe that the explosion of amateur-created content, combined with the increased ease of copying professionally-made content will “…undermine the creation of high quality commercial cultural products,” by making it financially unprofitable. Additionally, Leadbeater writes, ”They worry we are heading for a culture of constant interference, noise and distraction, in which the more music and writing, photos and films there are, the more cultural chaos and social disorder there will be.”

In other words, critics argue that the internet threatens quality cultural content, including quality journalism, in two ways: (1) by undermining the business models that currently finance it, and (2) by obscuring it in noise and distraction. 


Clay Shirky, author and Professor of interactive telecommunications at NYU, offers a terrific analysis of the first issue, in his response to the 2010 Edge Question: 

This shock of inclusion, where professional media gives way to participation by two billion amateurs (a threshold we will cross this year) means that average quality of public thought has collapsed; when anyone can say anything any time, how could it not? If all that happens from this influx of amateurs is the destruction of existing models for producing high-quality material, we would be at the beginning of another Dark Ages. So it falls to us to make sure that isn't all that happens.

While Shirky acknowledges the dangers of a world in which the forces of the internet have diminished the financial incentive to produce quality cultural content, he calls, optimistically, for the creation of alternative models or alternative types of content.
 
But even if some set of alternatives is developed to continue the production of quality material, it is not clear that such content would be produced by professionals or for commercial organizations. 

TPM and The Huffington Post are two examples of what this change might look like for journalism. Programs like Ushahidi, a web platform that allows users to aggregate information on maps and timelines via text message, might also help fill the vacancy left by old media. 


I share Shirky’s optimism that the internet will find ways to replace the systems that it destroys, but I also share his belief that this period of transition will be a tough one. 

“It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race,” he writes, half-ironically, “a misfortune because surplus always breaks more things than scarcity. Scarcity means valuable things become more valuable, a conceptually easy change to integrate. Surplus, on the other hand, means previously valuable things stop being valuable, which freaks people out." 

The second threat that the internet poses to quality cultural content – the threat of drowning it in noise – is also addressed by several Edge contributors. 

German intellectual, Frank Schirrmacher, for instance, proposes a conception of the internet as a Darwinian environment in which ideas compete for survival and the limited resource is attention.  

“We have a population explosion of ideas, but not enough brains to cover them,” Schirrmacher explains.

As ideas battle for survival, we become the arbiters of which ideas live and which ideas die. But weeding through them is cognitively demanding, and our minds may be ill-suited to the task.  


Conversely, in his response to the 2010 Question, the former Executive Editor of Wired, Kevin Kelly, suggests that when it comes to journalism, the act of weeding may actually confer a more nuanced appreciation of the issues of the day: 

For every accepted piece of knowledge I find, there is within easy reach someone who challenges the fact. Every fact has its anti-fact…I am less interested in Truth, with a capital T, and more interested in truths, plural. I feel the subjective has an important role in assembling the objective from many data points.

It seems to me that Schirrmacher and Kelly are both correct. The surge in content created by the internet both detracts from and enhances our consumption of cultural material, including news. The net effect, of course, remains to be seen. What is clear is that we must alter our approach to absorbing information.  

The science historian, George Dyson, may have put it best in his reply to the 2010 Question, which analogized the experience of modern web surfers to that of indigenous boat builders in the North Pacific ocean. 

“In the North Pacific ocean,” Dyson explains, “there were two approaches to boatbuilding” – the approach used by the Aleuts, who pieced their boats together using fragments of beach-combed wood, and the approach used by the Tlingit, who carved each vessel out of a single dugout tree. 

The two methods yielded similar results, Dyson tells us, each group employing the minimum allotment of available resources. However, they did so by opposite means. 

“The flood of information unleashed by the Internet has produced a similar cultural split,” Dyson argues. “We used to be kayak builders, collecting all available fragments of information to assemble the framework that kept us afloat. Now, we have to learn to become dugout-canoe builders, discarding unnecessary information to reveal the shape of knowledge hidden within.”

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