(Editor’s note: the following post is for a university course on Media Politics and Power in the Digital Age. It is not part of the regular reporting for The Nicaragua Dispatch).
The “mass amateurization” of the Internet, as described by Clay Shirky in Here Comes Everybody, has had a steroidal effect on the growth of the World Wide Web. Over the past decade, the Internet has evolved quickly from the nerdy nonage of Web 1.0 to the muscular collectivity of 2.0—all in approximately the same amount of time it took my dad to figure out how to use email. But in the brave new world of symmetrical participation and “radical connectivity” (see Nicco Mele’s The End of Big) the widespread and aggressive amateurization of the Internet is not influencing all online activities equally.
For some, the “radical spread of expressive capabilities” described by Shirky has been empowering, enlightening and economically rewarding. Online businesses that have successfully tapped into the creative capacity of Web 2.0 have created overnight empires, and previously unknown nerds have become the dorky captains of new industries. Other businesses, however, have been slower to adapt. For more traditional industries, the advent of mass amateurization has been as helpful as the Chicxulub asteroid was to dinosaur life.
And when it comes to dinosaurs, the legacy news industry is the king of the slow-moving quadrupeds. As Shirky notes, the recent proliferation of citizen journalism and the decentralization of the traditional media industry has blurred the line between traditional “broadcast media” and “communications media,” giving the former a run for its money. In the ensuring confusion, the business model for legacy media companies has been lost forever.
It’s not all doom and gloom. Many of the upstart citizen journalism initiatives, such as the Mídia NINJA group which recently provided invaluable coverage to street protests in Brazil, have made substantial and provocative contributions to news coverage. But for the most part, the mass amateurization of the media has been, well, amateurish. By putting a premium on speed at the expense of accuracy, content and other journalism basics (such as the use of reliable sources), the rapid proliferation of amateur bloggers and digital pundits has not necessarily increased our understanding of the world around us. Indeed, the open-source method of newsgathering can often go horribly astray, such as when Reddit misidentified the Boston Bomber.
While listening to more voices doesn’t necessary make us better informed, Shirky points out that some open-source activities buck the trend when it comes to the third law of thermodynamics. Indeed, some systems—most notably the collective brain known as Wikipedia—is getting stronger through mass amateurization and spontaneous division of labor. “Wikipedia assumes that new errors will be introduced less frequently than existing ones will be corrected,” Shirky notes. “This assumption has proven correct; despite occasional vandalism, Wikipedia articles get better, on average, over time.”
The importance of this phenomenon cannot be overstated. Amazingly, the outcome is opposite to the chaos or entropy one might expect from a platform where everyone is invited to talk at once. It suggests that too many cooks in the kitchen can actually improve the stew. “In a system where anyone is free to get something started, however badly, a short, uninformative article can be the anchor for the good article that will eventually appear. It’s very inadequacy motivates people to improve it,” Shirky writes.
While it may seem ill-advised to predicate your company’s operating model on the mildly addled premise that most humans are erudite, fair and motivated by an academic quest for truth, it certainly appears to be working for Wikipedia. Cleverer yet is Wikipedia’s business model, which is based on volunteerism and tapping the collective wisdom of the cyber community. Says Shirky, “Because contributors aren’t employees, a wiki can take a staggering amount of input with a minimum of overhead.”
Yet it remains to be seen where the wiki-generation will direct its collective content-generating efforts once they are done cataloging every event from the past and every thing around them. (And they appear to be well on their way to completing that task, considering Wikipedia already has an article entry and photo for “navel lint,” which I just learned is also known as “belly button fluff.”) Is open-source newsgathering and reporting 2.0 the next big thing for the wiki-wonks? It certainly seems possible. Indeed, Shirky notes that big events such as the London bombing became immediate article entries on Wikipedia, essentially becoming real-time news coverage by hundreds of volunteer contributors who joined forces to update the story as it unfolded.
Reporting 2.0 is still in its infancy and not everyone thinks it will develop into a healthy young lad. Indeed, the media company Wikinews—a collective attempt to cover the news using open source technology—has been slow out of the starting blocks. Critics claim the project suffers from a crisis of credibility. But given the ever-evolving way that people use the Internet to share information, generate content, and interact with the news around them in a 24/7 cycle, Wikinews—or, more generally, the “wikification” of the news—might still be an idea whose time is coming.
Instead of thousands of people producing mediocre and unnoticed blogs, it is not too wild-eyed to envision a near future in which aspiring reporters start to spontaneously collaborate with strangers to produce one constantly revised news story that forever trends towards increased accuracy. The wikification of the news industry would also create what Chris Anderson calls the “long tail” by covering stories, happenings and community events that traditional news agencies might not have considered newsworthy.
We’re not quite there yet. But if the success of Wikipedia is any predictor of future online news coverage, we might reasonably expect to see a stronger push toward an all-volunteer, open-source media platform to emerge where traditional outlets are failing.