So I’ve been writing mini-rants, posting snarky comments and sending pointed tweets about the new media landscape for a while, and I decided to flesh out my thoughts more cohesively. The future of information. What should it be?
We’ve already started down the road toward what will be a much more rigorous, wild, free flow of information than ever before in human history. And this is a good thing.
Citizen journalists, new professional bloggers and Web aggregators are combining with social media to create a dynamic, fluid, link environment that has the potential to inform, engage, truth-tell and watchdog like never before.
Yes, there are some areas of concern. But some of it is simple hand-wringing over change, and much is being advanced by people with a vested interest in the status quo. We can pretty much put these worries to rest, at least in light of the potential benefits. Let’s try:
1) Where are the standards?
This has been a common refrain for years now, especially as it pertains to bloggers. But the same can be said of old media, what used to be the mainstream media — and what I am now calling "controlled media," because it just isn’t mainstream anymore. The only standards of the controlled media are self-imposed, mainly taught in journalism schools, and only partially adhered to, anyway. Those standards are not available for outside review, they are greatly influenced by the dictates of the business (read: advertisers and corporate offices) and there’s no punishment scheme, except by individual media outlets on themselves. Lots of controlled media outlets regularly blur their own lines, write fluff boosterism stories, and there has been a disconcerting number of Jason Blair-like outright violations. "Standards" isn’t a bogeyman unique to social media (a term in opposition to "controlled media" that I use to encompass all of the new media forms and tools, including bloggers, Facebook-like sites and Twitter) and it isn’t new.
2) How will people know what’s important?
Most commonly heard from controlled-media types, this bit of angst implies the masses won’t actively seek out or share information that’s "necessary" to the proper functioning of democracy. A cursory look at the Sarah Palin episode — how bloggers, primarily, unearthed acres of problematic information about her within 48 hours of her announcement on the McCain ticket in the 2008 election — shows that this, if it ever was true, isn’t anymore. Lots of people are engaged in finding out and telling "important" information. Talking Points Memo is one of my very favorite social media sources, and it provides a level of watchdogging and an anal-retentive political focus that no newspaper ever came close to.
Also, as the next step in human freedom after political liberty, the democratization of information is a necessary and important goal on its own. What the masses DECIDE is important, IS what’s important, frankly. Even if that turns out to be Ashton Kutcher’s Twittering, for a day or two. If that’s upsetting, we are free to yell at each other about it until we change the dialogue. That’s the marketplace of ideas.
3) Who will do investigative work?
Similar to the above, this very well-intentioned concern is most often advanced by controlled-media folks. Many of these people are smart, aggressive reporters rightly worried about abuses of power in government, nonprofits and business (though often much less by business, thanks to their corporate ownership). But also similar to the above, this worry simply doesn’t have a playlist any longer. Much of the infrastructure to take over this duty is still having the rebar sunk, but building it they are. Places like ProPublica, Huffington Post and Talking Points Memo are doing great original investigative reporting. Other outlets exist, and more will follow.
Also, the democratization of information in the social media structure gives much greater influence to folks like Amy Goodman and other left- and right-leaning reporters who have toiled for years while being kept mostly in the dark because of the overwhelming corporate stranglehold on public information. Simply by linking, sharing and commenting, outlets like Democracy Now! can have a greater impact than ever before. The investigating will get done, as long as there are abuses of power.
Finally, it should be noted that the controlled media have actually done a fairly terrible job of investigative work for years. Yes, there are important individual examples of great spotlight-shining. But corporate influence has kept the digging to mostly within certain acceptable frames, and away from many places where it needed to go. Who was playing Columbo while banks were running amuk with our economy and regulators were looking the other way? No one in the controlled media did, because you don’t upset the (supposedly) high-flying economy. Just isn’t good business. But it would have been good journalism. Shame on them.
4) How will local issues be reported?
Here is a slightly stickier situation, but one that can be addressed. It could be difficult for a single blogger to find enough audience to support their reporting on city councils and county boards. The idea of local citizen journalism portal sites has been tried a couple of times, mostly with failure. Back Fence still exists, but right now ("While we work on exciting new search features") it’s just a collection of business directories. I think this idea can still work, but needs some finessing — finding a number of regular "pro" contributors, like Huffington Post has, will need to be supplemented by aggregation of local blogs and citizen postings, in order to build audience.
Many states and cities already have bloggers focused on local issues, and these just need a wider audience. Some of that audience-shift will happen as newspapers, long the kings of local, continue to dilute and weaken their product. Some of it, though, needs to happen by people consciously choosing to support local independent reporters more regularly. I wonder, in the ever-increasing Internet shift, if a dedicated city affairs reporter — like a fellow called The One True B!x in Portland, Oregon, a few years back who ultimately failed to pay his bills — couldn’t be successful now. More people are now reading, linking and sharing, and someone with a fair eye and a dogged attitude might do very well.
In smaller cities, the difficulty will be more pronounced — but it’s important to point out that small cities have nearly always been the worst-served by newspapers, too. Many of these are rags, run by someone with money and a pronounced bias, often prone to boosterism and axe-grinding instead of power-challenging. I don’t think many of these locales will do all that worse in the new social media world. Also, the new technology provides some of these small-town folks ways to strengthen the ties among their smaller populations. That will serve them well.
5) Won’t disinformation and misinformation be a problem?
Put another way, this question is, "Who vets the content?" And this might seem to some the most threatening fear. Yes, misinformation will be out there. First, though, we have to note that even with the multiple layers of vetting given information at some controlled media outlets, misinformation exists now. And lots of it goes unchallenged, for many reasons. The entire Bush administration is a case in point for the controlled media not being the best at speaking truth to power.
And social media is amazing in its ability to self-regulate. We can look at the early days of Wikipedia and tut-tut until our tongue hurts. But Wikipedia has matured, and even now, when it contains flaws and has problems with disinformation, it is a stunning resource for the world, at least for broad knowledge, if not always for depth. Most importantly, it often cites its sources and points you in the direction of more information — a huge necessity in the link environment. If you’re not sure about something, check for yourself.
The Internet itself is another remedy for this concern. When something appears to be wrong, you can often go check. As the world grows into the Web more, this will become increasingly true. And this point speaks to something else important about social media — it encourages maturity in audiences. Readers are learning news analysis skills like never before. They can question, research and then report back on possible misinformation. This is a massive leap for human freedom.
So far, bloggers have done a ridiculously good job of challenging misinformation. When a public figure lies or mistates the past, thousands flock to the Web to denounce them, provide the truth, and tell each other about it. In the long run, social media will prove a much better antidote to disinformation than the controlled media ever were.
Those five are the top concerns I read again and again; at least, they’re the ones with any real meat on them. There are also folks crying that Facebook and Twitter are just filled with blather, self-promotion and navel-gazing. And yes, there is plenty of inanity in social media. But so is every medium that uses lots of words. Newspapers are stuffed with garbage, magazines have endlessly self-promotional nonsense about celebrities, and almost every written medium spends lots of words wasting time with navel-gazing. These things have nothing to with the new tools, they’re human.
Facebook and the similar sites are stunningly effective ways to connect many people on many levels while they provide near-constant feedback about what they’re doing, what they think and what information they’re consuming. There’s lots about these sites I don’t like, but they work really well for what they are. As I travel abroad, every Internet cafe I go into is filled with young travelers talking to friends and making plans on Facebook. Twitter, put most simply, is a giant chat room the whole world can participate in. I have met cool people, had interesting conversations and fought lots of meme wars thanks to Twitter. I’ve also been informed quickly — and succinctly — about breaking news items, even while I was engaging in the other valuable aspects of Twitter.
Social media is not the end-all be-all on its own, but it is an important strand in the new connective tissue of community that our technology is making possible.
And what’s so very important about these tools — and what provides the benefits that I am arguing vastly outweigh any possible concerns and growing pains that will continue to crop up as we make this transition — is that social media doesn’t require a gatekeeper, a mediator. This is people engaging in community with other people, without an authoritarian power structure, primarily run by older white editors and producers who don’t always have only the public interest in mind, deciding what’s important, or what’s nonsense, or what’s a waste of time.
Social media removes, to a large degree, the corrupting influence of corporate control and advertiser concerns, even as it relies on advertising to run properly. I have a whole separate beef with advertising, at least as it’s practiced currently in our Western-style dominator capitalism. But even allowing the advertising that gives most social media its business model, the new tools let people decide what rises or falls, what’s important or not, what gets widely disseminated, even when it threatens directly the interests of the advertising, the interests of the status quo and the power structure that for so long has kept the reins of information in its grasp.
And information OUGHT to be wild, democratized and free-flowing. Yes, it takes a slightly more discerning reader, but that’s a good thing. And the Wild West was an exciting place many times. We ought to have that kind of excitement as we trade information with each other; it’s one of the things that makes us so interesting as humans, and it’s the only thing that’s going to keep us alive as a species in the face of so many threats in the modern world. Yes, there will be regimes that will trample on this free flow of information — and those nations’ citizens will learn to rebel, to demand better, as they have with political democracy. Over time, freedom WILL win out.
This is a (r)evolution, folks, and it’s long overdue. The masses finally getting to be head chef at the information restaurant is a huge advance for freedom. And social media is just a child. As it becomes a gawky, smelly teenager (and hopefully an adult some day), we will gain better tools for more easily revealing, enlightening and delighting each other.
In the meantime, I encourage everyone to continue rewarding those sites, bloggers and tools that are making this (r)evolution happen. Tune in to what’s good, and turn off the dangerous, overhyped controlled-media noise. It takes some rebuilding of habits; I continue to find myself going to controlled media sites instead of first checking the independent social media folks that I am trusting more and more.
The cool part about this (r)evolution, though, is that we can make it happen without needing to march in the streets or protest in front of newspaper offices (who will probably ignore us, anyway). Where and how we spend our time reading and disseminating information IS fueling the change. So keep linking, tweeting, sharing and blogging, and viva la (r)evolution!
P.S. This article, too, IS social media. PLEASE tell me where I’m wrong, what I’ve missed and why. Argue, make your case, tell others. The beauty of this new world is that one person’s take on things can no longer be that important — it’s what we all decide together that will become truth — and set us free.