EveryOneIsAMediaOUtlet.pdf - HERE COMES EVERYBODY CLAY...

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Unformatted text preview: HERE COMES EVERYBODY CLAY SHIRKY THE PENGUIN PRESS | NEW YORK | 2008 54 f HERE comes EVERYBODY been labeled “ridiculously easy group-forming” by the social scientist Seb Paquet. Our recent communications networks— the internet and mobile phones—are a platform for group- forming, and many of the tools built for those networks, from mailing lists to camera-phones, take that fact for granted and extend it in various ways. Ridiculously easy group-forming matters because the desire to be part of a group that shares, cooperates, or acts in concert is a basic human instinct that E V E RYO N E I S A M E DI A O U T L E T has always been constrained by transaction costs. Now that group-forming has gone from hard to ridiculously easy, we are seeing an explosion of experiments with new groups and new kinds of groups. Our social tools remove older obstacles to public expression, and thus remove the bottlenecks that characterized mass media. The result is the mass amateurization of efiorts pre- viously reserved for media professionals. y uncle Howard was a small-town newspaperman, pub~ lishing the local paper for Richmond, Missouri (popula- tion 5,000). The paper, founded by my grandfather, was the family business, and ink ran in Howard’s blood. I can still remember him fiilminating about the rise of USA Today; he criticized it as “TV on paper” and held it up as further evidence of the dumbing down of American culture, but he also under- stood the challenge that USA Today presented, with its color printing and national distribution. The Richmond Daily News and USA Today were in the same business; even with the dif- ference in scale and scope, Howard immediately got what USA Today was up to. Despite my uncle’s obsession, USA Today turned out to be W % .RERE.COME$ EVERYBODY ‘1:_Llil(e the threat that old-time newspaper people feared. ' Ittook some market share from other papers, but the effect wasn’t catastrophic. What was catastrophic was a less visible but more significant change, already gathering steam when USA Today launched. The principal threat to the Richmond Daily News, and indeed to all newspapers small and large, was not competition from other newspapers but radical changes in the overall ecosystem of information. The idea that some- one might build four—color presses that ran around the clock was easy to grasp. The idea that the transmission of news via paper might become a bad idea, that all those huge, noisy printing presses might be like steam engines in the age of internal combustion, was almost impossible to grasp. Howard could imagine someone doing what he did, but better. He couldn’t imagine someone making what he did obsolete. Many people in the newspaper business, the same people who worried about the effects of competition like USA Today, missed the significance of the internet. For people with a pro- fessional outlook, it’s hard to understand how something that isn’t professionally produced could affectthem—not only is the internet not a newspaper, it isn’t a business, or even an institution. There was a kind of narcissistic bias in the profes- sion; the only threats they tended to take seriously were from other professional media outlets, whether newspapers, TV, or radio Stations. This bias had them defending against the wrong thing when the amateurs began producing material on their own. Even as web sites like eBay and Craigslist were siphoning off the ad revenues that keep newspapers viable—job listings, classified ads, real estate—and weblogs were letting people like gnarlykitty publish to the world for free, the executives of the EVERYONE IS A MEDIA OUTLET I 57 world’s newspapers were slow to understand the change, and even slower to react. How could this happen? How could the newspaper industry miss such an obvious and grave challenge to their business? The answer is the flip side of Howard’s ob- session with USA Today and has to do with the nature of professional self-definition (and occasional self-delusion). A profession exists to solve a hard problem, one that re- quires some sort of specialization. Driving a race car requires special training—race car drivers are professionals. Driving an ordinary car, though, doesn’t require the driver to belong to a particular profession, because it’s easy enough that most adults can do it with a modicum of training. Most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires ongoing management: librarians are responsible for organizing books on the shelves, newspaper executives are responsible for de- ciding what goes on the front page. In these cases, the scarcity of the resource itself creates the need for a professional class— there are few libraries but many patrons, there are few chan- nels but many viewers. In these cases professionals become gatekeepers, simultaneously providing and controlling access to information, entertainment, communication, or other ephemeral goods. To label something a profession means to define the ways in which it is more than just a job. In the case of newspapers, professional behavior is guided both by the commercial im- perative and by an additional set of norms about what news- papers are, how they should be staffed and run, what constitutes good journalism, and so forth. These norms are enforced not by the customers but by other professionals in the same busi- ness. The key to any profession is the relations of its members 58 I HERE CdfiESEVi—ZRYBODY in "one another. In a profession, members are only partly guided by service to the public. As the UCLA sociologist james Q. Wilson put it in his magisterial Bureaucracy, “A professional is someone who receives important occupational rewards from a reference group whose membership is limited to peo- ple who have undergone specialized formal education and have accepted a group-defined code of proper conduct.” That’s a mouthful, but the two key ideas apply to newspaper publish- ers (as well as to journalists, lawyers, and accountants): a pro— fessional learns things in a way that differentiates her from most of the populace, and she pays as much or more attention to the judgment of her peers as to the judgment of her cus- tomers when figuring out how to do her job. A profession becomes, for its members, a way of under- standing their world. Professionals see the world through a lens created by other members of their profession; for j ournal- ists, the rewards of a Pulitzer Prize are largely about recogni- tion from other professionals. Much of the time the internal consistency of professional judgment is a good thing—not only do we want high standards of education and competence, we want those standards created and enforced by other members of the same profession, a structure that is almost the definition of professionalism. Sometimes, though, the professional outlook can become a disadvantage, preventing the very people who have the most at stake—the professionals themselves—from understanding major changes to the structure of their profession. In particu~ lar, when a profession has been created as a result of some scarcity, as with librarians or television programmers, the pro— EVERYONE Is A MEDIA OUTLET ] 59 fessionals are often the last ones to see it when that scarcity goes away. It is easier to understand that you face competition than obsolescence. In any profession, particularly one that has existed long enough that no one can remember a time when it didn’t exist, members have a tendency to equate provisional solutions to particular problems with deep truths about the world. This is true of newspapers today and of the media generally. The media industries have suffered first and most from the recent collapse in communications costs. It used to be hard to move words, images, and sounds from creator to consumer, and most media businesses involve expensive and complex man~ agement of that pipeline problem, whether running a printing press or a record label. In return for helping overcome these problems, media businesses got to exert considerable control over the media and extract considerable revenues from the public. The commercial Viability of most media businesses involves providing those solutions, so preservation of the orig- inal problems became an economic imperative. Now, though, the problems of production, reproduction, and distribution are much less serious. As a consequence, control over the media is less completely in the hands of the professionals. As new capabilities go, unlimited perfect copyability is a lulu, and that capability now exists in the hands of everyone Who owns a computer. Digital means of distributing words and images have robbed newspapers of the coherence they formerly had, revealing the physical object of the newspaper as a merely provisional solution; now every article is its own section. The permanently important question is how society ear g gang cones EVERYBODY Wilibe informed of the news of the day. The newspaper used tr} be a pretty good answer to that question, but like all such answers, it was dependent on what other solutions were avail- able. Television and radio obviously changed the landscape in which the newspaper operated, but even then printed news had a monopoly on the written word—until the Web came along. The Web didn’t introduce a new competitor into the old ecosystem, as USA Today had done. The Web created a new ecosystem. We’ve long regarded the newspaper as a sensible object because it has been such a stable one, but there isn’t any logi- cal connection among its many elements: stories from Iraq, box scores from the baseball game, and ads for everything from shoes to real estate all exist side by side in an idiosyn- cratic bundle. What holds a newspaper together is primarily the cost of paper, ink, and distribution; a newspaper is what- ever group of printed items a publisher can bundle together and deliver profitably. The corollary is also true: what doesn’t go into a newspaper is whatever is too expensive to print and deliver. The old bargain of the newspaper—world news lumped in with horoscopes and ads from the pizza parlor— has now ended. The future presented by the internet is the mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from “Why publish this?” to “Why not?” The two basic organizational imperatives—acquire re- sources, and use them to pursue some goal or agenda—saddle every organization with the institutional dilemma, whether its goal is saving souls or selling soap. The question that mass amateurization poses to traditional media is “What happens when the costs of reproduction and distribution go away? What EVERYONE IS A MEDIA OUTLET I 61 happens when there’s nothing unique about publishing any- more, because users can do it for themselves?” We are now starting to see that question being answered. Weblogs and Mass Amateurization Shortly after his reelection in 2002 Trent Lott, the senior senator from Mississippi and then majority leader, gave a speech at Strom Thurmond’s hundredth birthday party. Thurmond, a Republican senator from South Carolina, had recently retired after a long political career, which had included a 1948 run for president on an overtly segregationist platform. At Thurmond’s hundredth birthday party Lott remembered and praised Thurmond’s presidential campaign of fifty years earlier and recalled Mississippi’s support for it: “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for presi— dent, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.” Two weeks later, having been rebuked by President Bush and by politicians and the press on both the right and the left for his comment, Lott announced that he would not seek to remain majority leader in the new Congress. This would have been a classic story of negative press cov- erage altering a political career—except that the press didn’t actually cover the story, at least not at first. Indeed, the press almost completely missed the story. This isn’t to say that they intentionally ignored it or even actively suppressed it; several reporters from national news media heard Lott speak, but his 52 HERE COMES EVERYBODY remark simply didn’t fit the standard template of news. Because Thurmond’s birthday was covered as a salutary event instead of as a political one, the actual contents of the evening were judged in advance to be relatively unimportant. A related assumption is that a story that is not important one day also isn’t important the next, unless something has changed. Thurmond’s birthday party happened on a Thursday night, and the press gave Lott’s remarks very little coverage on Friday. Not having written about it on Friday in turn became a reason not to write about it on Saturday, because if there was no story on Friday, there was even less of one on Saturday. William O’Keefe of The Washington Post, one of the few reporters to think Lott’s comment was important, explains the dilemma this way: “[T]here had to be a reaction” that the net- work could air alongside Lott’s remarks, and “we had no on- camera reaction” available the evening of the party, when the news was still fresh. By the following night, he adds, “you’re dealing with the news cycle: twenty~four hours later—that’s old news.” Like a delayed note to a friend, the initial lack of response would have meant, in any later version, having to apologize for not having written sooner. Given this self-suppression—old stories are never revisited without a new angle—what kept the story alive was not the press but liberal and conservative bloggers, for whom fond memories of segregation were beyond the pale, birthday felicitations or no, and who had no operative sense of news cycles. The weekend after Lott’s remarks, weblogs with millions of readers didn’t just report his comments, they began to editorialize. The editorial- izers included some well-read conservatives such as Glenn Reynolds of the Instapundit blog, who wrote, “But to say, as Lott EVERYONE IS A MEDIA OUTLET I 63 did, that the country would be better off if Thurmond had won in 1948 is, well, it’s proof that Lott shouldn’t be majority leader for the Republicans, to begin with. And that’s just to begin with. It’s a sentiment as evil and loony as wishing that Gus Hall [a perennial Communist candidate for president] had been elected.” Even more damaging to Lott, others began to dig deeper. After the story broke, Ed Sebesta, who maintains a database of materi- als related to nostalgia for the US. Confederacy, contacted blog- gers with information on Lott, including an interview from the early 19805 in Southern Partisan, a neo-Confederate magazine. The simple birthday party story began looking like part of a decades-long pattern of saying one thing to the general public and another thing to his supporters. Like the story of Ivanna’s lost phone (in Chapter I), the story of Sebesta’s database involves a link between individual effort and group attention. Just as Evan Guttman benefited from the expert knowledge of his readers, the bloggers posting about Lott benefited from Sebesta’s deep knowledge of America’s racist past, particularly of Lott’s history of praise for same. Especially important, the bloggers didn’t have to find Sebesta——he found them. Prior to our current generation of coordinating tools, a part-time politics junkie like Sebesta and amateur commentators like the bloggers would have had a hard time even discovering that they had mutual interests, much less being able to do anything with that information. Now, however, the cost of finding like-minded people has been lowered and, more important, deprofessionalized. Because the weblogs kept the story alive, especially among libertarian Republicans, Lott eventually decided to react. The fateful moment came five days after the speech, when he issued ‘ apoldgy for his earlier remark, characterizing it ass-'"a‘r‘poor choice of words.” The statement was clearly meant to put the matter behind him, but Lott had not reckoned with the changed dynamics of press coverage. Once Lott apologized, news outlets could cover the apology as the news, while quot- ing the original speech as background. Only three mainstream news outlets had covered the original comment, but a dozen covered the apology the day it happened, and twenty-one cov- ered it the day after. The traditional news cycle simply didn’t apply in this situation; the story had suddenly been trans- formed from “not worth covering” to “breaking news.” Until recently, “the news” has meant two different things—— events that are newsworthy, and events covered by the press. In that environment what identified something as news was professional judgment. The position of the news outlets (the very phrase attests to the scarcity of institutions that were able to publish information) was like that of the apocryphal umpire who says, “Some pitches are balls and some are strikes, but they ain’t nothin’ till I call ’em.” There has always been grum- bling about this system, on the grounds that some of the things the press was covering were not newsworthy (politi- cians at ribbon cuttings) and that newsworthy stories weren’t being covered or covered enough (insert your pet issue here). Despite the grumbling, however, the basic link between news- worthiness and publication held, because there did not seem to be an alternative. What the Lott story showed us was that the link is now broken. From now on news can break into public consciousness without the traditional press weighing in. Indeed, the news media can end up covering the story EVERYONE IS A MEDIA OUTLET because something has broken into public consciousness via other means. There are several reasons for this change. The professional structuring of worldview, as exemplified by the decisions to treat Lott’s remarks as a birthday party story, did not extend to the loosely coordinated amateurs publishing on their own. The decision not to cover Trent Lott’s praise for a racist politi- cal campaign demonstrates a potential uniformity in the press outlook. In a world where a dozen editors, all belonging to the same professional class, can decide whether to run or kill a national story, information that might be of interest to the general public may not be published, not because of a con- spiracy but because the editors have a professional bias that is aligned by the similar challenges they face and by the similar tools they use to approach those challenges. The mass ama- teurization of publishing undoes the limitations inherent in having a small number of traditional press outlets. As they surveyed the growing amount of self-published content on the internet, many media companies correctly un- derstood that the trustworthiness of each outlet was lower than that of established outlets like The New York Times. But what they failed to understand was that the effortlessness of publishing means that there are many more outlets. The same idea, published in dozens or hundreds of places, can have an amplifying effect that outweighs the verdict from the smaller number of professional outlets. (This is not to say that mere repetition makes an idea correct; amateur publishing relies on corrective argument even more than traditional media do.) The change isn’t a shift from one kind of news institution to 65 66 ! HERE COMES EVERYBODY another, but rather in the definition of news: from news as an institutional prerogative to news as part of a communications ecosystem, occupied by a mix of formal organizations, infor- mal collectives, and individuals. It’s tempting to regard the bloggers writing about Trent Lott or the people taking pictures of the Indian Ocean tsunami as a new crop of j ournalists. The label has an obvious concep- tual appeal. The problem, however, is that mass professional- ization is an oxymoron, since a professional class implies a specialized function, minimum tests for competen...
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