A few days ago, Gary Stager tweeted me this link in the LA Times about the demise of journalism and freelance writing primarily due to everything being, well, “free” on the Internet. The subhead read, in part, “the well-written story is in danger of becoming scarce.” Gary’s Tweet read “This is disastrous for our culture and democracy…Web 2.0 won’t solve this problem.” And to the first point, at least, I think he’s right. The loss of quality reporting and thoughtful writing has to be a concern, especially for a society that by all indications is becoming more and more disengaged intellectually. (Read this David Brooks column and the accompanying comments and any of the magazine covers at your supermarket checkout stand for evidence.) But regarding the last part of Gary’s tweet, I’m stuck with two reactions. First, who says Web 2.0 won’t solve this? And second,Â what’s the alternative?
I mean sure, we can wring our hands and lament the slipping away of what many of us older types (ugh) feel are the best parts of our culture, the parts (good journalism included) that preserved and promoted democracy and citizenship and art by setting high standards and celebrating the complexity of the world. But all the hand wringing in the world is not going to slow down the train of participatory culture, this place where 4.5 years of mostly insipid YouTube video is being uploaded in the next 24 hours. Whether we see the Web as beast or feast, it’s long past the moment that anyone can argue it away on the grounds that decency and civility and intellectual engagement are being lost. And to me, at least, that leaves us with how do we make the most of it? How do we (and it’s notÂ “can we?” because I believe we can) take this huge disruptive force that is the Web and turn it into something that celebrates culture, promotes and supports the best of our democratic ideals, and improves the world in ways that maybe we can’t yet imagine?
Frankly, what’s our choice?
Clay Shirky writes compellingly about this in his most recent Edge piece, which, btw, is one of over 160 such pieces encompassing 130,000 words from some of the smartest folks out there that you can curl up with in front of a nice fire on a cold winter afternoon (and night.) I love this snip:
Unfortunately for us, though, the intellectual fate of our historical generation is unlikely to matter much in the long haul. It is our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race, 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.
We are in many ways “freaking out” right now about how these things are changing. And, specifically to Gary’s point, Shirky offers this:
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.
I won’t speak for Gary, but I would guess by his Tweets and comments over the years that that comes close to how he and others feel. But it’s the next line that I think sums up the choice we have in front of us pretty clearly:
So it falls to us to make sure that isn’t all that happens.
While the “us” there is certainly each and every one of us, there’s no doubt that’s a bar that is especially being set for educators and for parents. I’m convinced this doesn’t have to be disastrous. But I’m also convinced that we’re not working hard enough as a society to make sure that we find and promote the real intellectual value of these tools in literate ways. Because they exist, and because, like it or not, we’re the ones who in Shirky’s words have to set the norms for their use. I love the way he ends his essay:
The Internet’s primary effect on how we think will only reveal itself when it affects the cultural milieu of thought, not just the behavior of individual users. The members of the Invisible College did not live to see the full flowering of the scientific method, and we will not live to see what use humanity makes of a medium for sharing that is cheap, instant, and global (both in the sense of ‘comes from everyone’ and ‘goes everywhere.’) We are, however, the people who are setting the earliest patterns for this medium. Our fate won’t matter much, but the norms we set will.
Given what we have today, the Internet could easily become Invisible High School, with a modicum of educational material in an ocean of narcissism and social obsessions. We could, however, also use it as an Invisible College, the communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change, but to do this will require more than technology. It will require that we adopt norms of open sharing and participation, fit to a world where publishing has become the new literacy.
I know, I know. I’ve sipped the Shirky Kool-Aid pretty hard. But we do have a choice here, let’s not forget that. I don’t think any of us in this network sees the Internet as a place with just “a modicum of educational material” in a sea of flotsam and jetsam. I hope we see it more as that “communicative backbone of real intellectual and civic change” because if we don’t, if we don’t figure out ways to start setting those norms for our kids and others, then we surely will be on the precipice of disaster.
Harold Jarche says
I have read just as good journalism on blogs as in the mainstream media. I have read good and bad prose in all media. I am not concerned. Democracy has a better chance in the Internet age than it ever did during the Television age.
Justin Scott says
I think many people gave up on “the Media” many years ago when we realized that so much “reporting” was thinly veiled editorializing. The difference now is that there are options outside the major metro dailies….
Very thought provoking posting!
As a physics teacher I used to consider writing as belonging more to the ‘humanities’ than to the sciences. In the physics classroom writing had to be concise and impersonal mostly constrained to a lab report. It was not until I had my 9th grade students create their own blogs that I started to realize how much I had to unlearn!
Reading Clive Thompson on the New Literacy took me to explore Andrea Lunsford’s Stanford Study of Writing findings and a fascinating PEW report on Writing, Technology and Teens
I don’t believe that the web is destroying writing. The web is transforming culture and it is our responsibility as educators to tap into the students willingness to write, to nurture it, to guide them and be willing to learn along the way.
Don Watkins says
I think Gary is fretting unnecessarily. Who appoints these professional journalists anyway and what makes anyone more professional than anyone else. Who is vetting the stories of these professionals and why aren’t my stories or yours that professional. I think Gary’s concern sounds a bit like the monks at the time of Gutenberg. What will happen if this book and publishing thing really takes off?
I just read a blog by Seth Godin who talks about the future of libraries, http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/01/the-future-of-the-library.html. I think it’s time to re-think how we teach children about digital resources yes, it’s time to be more open to accepting Wikipedia and similar media as factual. Vetted yes of course, but who’s holding the New York Times, Washington Post, Washington Times, Fox News, CNN et al accountable.
The blogosphere came at a time when there was a real media and information vacuum and its done a great job of filling that void. It’s become the voice of the people and its empowered a generation of young writers and readers.
Patrick Larkin says
Will – As you have stated clearly previously, “if people aren’t feeling uncomfortable then they aren’t paying attention.” I think that people need top get past their discomfort and realize that this is truly a means for change. Not to engage in political talk, but let’s face it President Obama won the election in large part because he used this tool better than any of his competitors. In fact, I will make a digression and a prediction that the web will be the vehicle used to get a legitimate third-party in play in this country.
In regards to the way we educate our students, despite changes that I heard a friend recently describe as “glacier-like,” I think that the web has created an undercurrent that I believe will evolve into a meaningful change.
On the topic of media, I believe that the cream still rises to the top and with the web these writers are actually able to reach a far wider audience. The problem is weeding through the poor quality stuff that is out there.
I guess I will choose connectedness over disconnectedness.
I’ll take the good, the bad, and what Stager says because within all that I am able to get some pretty good stuff a lot easier than I could have just a few years back.
With the web, like most innovations, people find meaningful uses that can have a dramatic effect on the world. However, there will always be others that find less constructive uses and even destructive uses for innovation. There are certainly plenty of examples in history of this.
Disaster will only come when those with meaningful messages are silenced. What problems did journalism and free lance writing solve?
Alan Kwan says
This is anecdotal. In our schools, some English teachers have experimented with having their classes doing assignments via WordPress. The result is much high quality writing from our students. The primary reason being that the students put more thoughts into their writing knowing that their peers will be reviewing and discussing whatever each others wrote. In that regard, peer reviews created a much more progressive environment, leading to higher quality work. Put this on one end of the spectrum where the 2.0 mechanisms producing positive results.
Now considered the decline of journalism, rise of blogging, decline in quality writing, etc. all due to derivative work or some interpretation of the Internet being (or not) “free”. Now try and put this on the other end of the spectrum and labelled it where the 2.0 mechanisms producing negative results.
We can immediately call attention to the problem: The comparison is not valid as the spectrum is not the same. As in, the issue of decline in journalism has nothing to do with the 2.0 mechanisms at all. The 2.0 mechanisms merely highlighted the fact that what we used to attribute to “good” journalism are simply a reflection of the lack of peer review. Think about it, what was good journalism? Some person wrote something, got reviewed by a single (or a few) editors, got published, and we called those good journalism. The truth is that the majority of what was written (and published) in the past were rubbish. 2.0 mechanisms merely point out that fact.
Tim Goree says
The tools that allow everyone to express themselves also allow everyone to find the best content. Ultimately, the trash will fall to the bottom and the cream will rise to the top. This is the true reason that traditional news writing is falling to the wayside. It isn’t because people are becoming less interested in good, thoughtful journalism, it’s because, with all those who can now introduce content to the masses, most have realized that traditional news outlets aren’t all that great after all. It’s simple competition, my friend, and traditional journalists have lost – good riddance to them…
Over the last 10 years I’ve felt increasingly more engaged with the world than I ever have and I suspect I’m not the only one. Now I feel that I can make a contribution, not just consume. With enough of us, we can make a difference and eventually effect change, locally, nationally and globally.
Jason Stein says
The explosion in data brought about by the Internet has not killed good writing, there is an abundance of it, as evidenced by the lucidity of all of the commenters on this blog. But the explosion in data is segregating good writing. I consider myself relatively well educated and visit blogs that exhibit traditional good writing skills, both in the posters and the commenters. I do not visit blogs that lack capitalization, use l33t speak, and think “z” is a cool letter. I know that they exist, I simply do not associate with them. And this is the segregation that is happening, the Internet brings similar minded people together.
In my experience, the Internet is not a place that promotes diversity. I believe that when people are bemoaning the demise of traditional journalism, they are not bemoaning the quality of writing, but the loss of a common frame of reference, that made interacting between different citizens easier. I work in a school, and while I enjoy this blog, and many others, it is difficult to talk to my colleagues about it, because they have no reference to it. Any discussion is superficial because they have no vested interest in the topics it covers. Contrast this with the historic daily newspaper. Daily papers had a large number of sections, with many different stories. Because of the limited diversity in the paper, a discussion between my colleagues and I can meander through the paper, as we saw it, until we find a topic that we both have thoughts on. Meaningful dialogue can now occur and a relationship can be built.
I do not know where this will leave our democratic society as a whole, but as the cost of energy continues to increase, I have a small fear of a return to a type of dark ages. If the only people I know who are interested in a cause live in Boston, New Delhi and Shanghai it is less feasible for me to gather with them and actually do something. And doing is an important part of a vibrant society. It was enshrined in the US constitution that the right of the people peaceably to assemble shall not be abridged. The assembly of people is what the Internet might be killing, not good writing.
Todd Wandio says
I am excited about the prospect of 2billion amateurs expressing their valuable thoughts (and a great number of those perhaps not amounting to much of interest), opening their diaries, if you will. I engage in professional reading more often and more deeply now than I ever have, and little of it is on the printed page. I laud the advent of the social media to include and engage readers on a global level.
sylvia martinez says
I don’t believe that journalism as a profession is dying. Changing, obviously, due to the fact that the way it used to be funded is gone. Newspapers created this “editorial/advertising” separation based on the economics being favorable. They could afford that luxury, but that’s over now.
However, I still believe that people develop talent through hard work and mentoring. Society will find new ways to pay journalists, and the organizations that figure out these new revenue streams won’t just wait for “cream to rise” – they will pay journalists and cultivate their talents. Perhaps non-profits will take their place.
Emily Byers says
Shirky’s assertion that it is “our misfortune to live through the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race” is melodramatic and tiresome. Just as in other historical periods, the information of new new media is categorized and can appropriately accessed when needed. People looking for scientific journals or blogs by professionals are not likely to come across Johnny from Long Beach’s tweets or ninth grade research paper. On the contrary, I believe it is our great fortune to live in a time where the increase in expressive capability makes it possible to find answers, sources, companions, or support in a moment’s time.
Will Richardson says
I don’t think he disagrees with that at all. It’s our misfortune because of how disruptive it is.
Brian Elcano says
I do not believe that the internet is hurting our children and I do think it is helping them have a free voice. The only thing I am concerned about is the structure in which they are doing it in. We must make sure that etiquette is a large part of the learning curve when it comes to new platforms.
Aharon Eviatar says
I think there is irrelevant weeping here. The so-called pundits put out as much garbage per capita as the great unwashed who post on YouTube and write their own blogs. If you are not somehow connected, there is no way you can get on an op-ed page, so the Web offers a bully pulpit if you feel strongly about something. The audience you find may have a stochastic composition, but someone out there may be listening. Gutenberg opened Pandora’s box centuries ago, the developments today are just the logical conclusion as technology develops. Some intellectual Darwinism will prevail in the end, if there is an end.