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The new Corinthians: How the Web is socialising journalism
Average reader rating: 0  
by Milverton Wallace 31 Journalism

Amateur

Play for love

Participation primary,
winning secondary

Play to develop team spirit,
Cooperation, org skills

Fair play, the game's the thing
Professional

Play for pay

Winning is everything


Play only to win


Zero sum game, win at all cost


However, the differences between 17th century amateur reporters and 21st century citizen journalists go beyond stark polarities. The former were contributors to the new media of their age but over whose operation, growth and development they had no influence or control; their 21st century counterparts, on the other hand, are contributors to a new media which they themselves are creating. What started out as people's desire for unfiltered, independent self-expression is threatening to overthrow the old order in the world of media. How
come?

The old media model was/is based on assembling disparate and varied information - news reports, share prices, weather reports, crosswords, classified ads, sports scores, horoscopes etc. and selling this ensemble to readers. Today that cornucopia is being unbundled: content is cut loose from the formal wrapper, messages from their media container. (Note the dire fate of newspaper classified ads, financial information, product reviews, real estate and job ads as they become Craiglisted and Monsterised).

This unbundling has serious implications for the economic foundation of the media business as we've known it. For the journalists employed in these institutions, two critical changes, among many, stand out: their roles as gatekeepers between you and the world outside your window is irrevocably undermined and the line between themselves as producers of "tydings" and the former audience as consumers has become blurred.

There's a big misconception among professional journalists that the new media is about news. Wrong. It's about self-expression, it's about participating in defining and shaping the information/communication environments in which we live. The various forms of digital media - blogging, podcasting, social bookmarking and networking etc - are merely the means and the channels for achieving this. An entire generation - call them the digital natives or the new Corinthians - is creating an open, collaborative, networked communications infrastructure in opposition to the closed, top down, hierarchical traditional media organisations which have dominated the media universe since the 19t century.

Demanding that these digital natives adhere to old methods of discovering and learning about the world won't do. They're crafting their own methods, thank you very much. Ten years ago Slashdot, Kuro5hin and others pioneered peer-to-peer coverage of technology. Stories gained credibility through the trust and reputation of peers. Digg has added collaborative filtering via powerful algorithms; Del.icio.us lets you organise the world via shared social taxonomies. Even some of the backend functions of the news business have been socialised: Wikipedia for reference, Answers.com for expert sources, Flickr for pictures.

All these new ways of understanding, making and managing media are only a specific case of the mass participatory culture made possible by digital technology. All of a sudden, unprecedented numbers of people can express themselves and connect with each other on a global scale. And here's a salient feature of this mass participation: it's organised activity without a central organisation. More precisely, it's a self-organised collaborative endeavour in which people combine their ideas, knowledge, talents, skills without an hierarchy controlling and co-ordinating their activities.

Confronted by a disruptive technology, process or service, the disrupted party has only a limited number of responses: they can ignore it - not a viable choice for survival; they can try to destroy it - this is the "kill the messenger" option which may destroy the messenger (e.g. Napster) but fail to kill the message (i.e. file sharing); they can posit competitive offerings - but note the fate of newspaper "facsimile editions" versus RSS; or they can co-opt or embrace the new - note media mogul Rupert Murdoch's "Damascene conversion" and his subsequent moves in the digital media space.[3]

It is hard for a mature, long-dominant culture to make radical changes to its ideology and practice. And that's why many newspaper groups still cling to the command and control model even as their businesses head for the butchers4 and their customers "head into the cemetery"[5]. Bold and adventurous though he is, Rupert Murdoch has only chosen co-optation (buying the number one social networking service MySpace); however, full embrace of the new world is a revolutionary step, a rupture in the old order. Anyone doubting the difficulty of such a move need only look at the upheavals and dislocations being experienced by the UK's Telegraph Groups as it re-engineers it news gathering/reporting processes towards a networked journalism model.

The momentum of change is with the new Corinthians. The open source ethos and method of work/production, which began in the periphery with collaborative software development, is moving to centre stage by way of the blogging revolution and open standards in web services. In tagging, syndication, ranking and bookmarking we have the rudiments of a peer-to-peer trust, reputation and recommendation system well suited to self-regulating collaborative networks[6]. These could be taken as analogous, but not identical to, the "checks and balances" of traditional journalism, but we shouldn't belabour the points of difference too much.

In mainstream media "editorial authority" is concentrated in the hands of a single, all-powerful person whereas in social media it is distributed among many voices. This could be seen as a weakness and critics point to it as the Achilles heel of Web journalism. Yet in many instances, the networked world, e.g. the blogosphere, has proven to be much better (and quicker) at correcting errors, falsity, lies and distortions than the mainstream media.

As the number of people who participate in open, collaborative, networked communications increases, the veracity of messages will improve and the need for corporate gatekeepers and standards-setters will decrease. Will we all become Corinthians then?

[copyright 2006 Milverton Wallace]


Notes

1) See http://tinyurl.com/ykdalv

2) Mitchell Stephens, A History of News. Wadsworth Publishing. 1996.

3) "Speech by Rupert Murdoch to the American Society of Newspaper Editors"
(http://www.newscorp.com/news/news_247.html)

4) Vin Crosbie, "A Date with the Butcher" (http://tinyurl.com/ljjh3)

5) "Buffett: Newspapers are 'a business in permanent decline' "
(http://tinyurl.com/ycx4a5)

6) Tim O'Reilly, "The Architecture of Participation"
(http://www.oreillynet.com/pub/wlg/3017)



You can find more about 'the future of Journalism' in the Books and Links section.

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