July 2, 2003
The Internet, media, and meritocracy
David Hornik has written an interesting piece on VentureBlog asking if the Web is inherently democratic. This question has as many answers as "democratic" has meaning. From a political standpoint, if democratic is defined as "the ability of the people to have a say in political process" then my answer is yes, and no. Strictly speaking, we are a representative democracy and therefore the people don't really make political decisions—they choose the people who do. So to the extent the Internet increases voter participation, it is perhaps a tool for democracy. Of course, we all believe that we should have some ability, other than voting, to influence our politicians and there tends to be great outrage that vested interests get to do this while "people" don't. But vested interests are just collections of people (such as companies, industry groups, unions, environmental groups) trying to have a disproportionately large influence over politicians. I don't see anything qualitatively different from a group of people banding together via MoveOn to oppose the war in Iraq, for example, trying to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts, than a company—which is a collection of people (managers, employees, owners, customers, etc.)—trying to do the same thing—or the Sierra Club or the NEA or the NRA doing the same thing. Many with an inherent distaste for corporate power will claim that there is a moral difference because corporations are driven by profit. (I believe this is an over-simplification of what a corporation is and frankly prefer to worry about actions, not motivations.)
I believe that the Internet will surely empower more people to organize (it already does: what special interest group doesn't already use the Internet in some fashion) and that this will probably move us closer towards popular democracy, and further from representational democracy. And I think this is a mixed blessing.
However, I believe that the more interesting aspect of the Internet, and blogging, is not the democratic aspects but the meritocratic ones. Clay Shirky wrote persuasively that the blogging space is not egalitarian and flat, it is lumpy and in fact heavily weighted to the few, not the many. Hornik references this "the more interesting the things we say, the more referrers and traffic we get" and I agree with him that the Internet is more of a tool to empower people (not a tool to level people.) It is meritocratic.
And that changes things. Especially media.
We are used to thinking of media in the manufacturing paradigm. Historically "news" and information has been manufactured because that was the only way to disseminate information en masse. Books, newspapers, magazines had to be printed. Broadcast and radio signals had to be engineered with costly technology. But that's not the way we truly share and digest information at all! Formal media has been a crude approximation of how information is really shared. I get some of my information from reading printed material, but a lot more by talking to people informally in cafes, meetings, over lunch, or attending speeches. I learn about, debate, analyze, and digest information in a dynamic way, with formal, manufactured media being only one component. That's the way meatspace works, cyberspace is just catching up.
Online media is entering its next major generation. The traditional print media model dominated online media in the 1990s—in essence the newspaper and magazine models were ported to the web. This was characterized by deadline-based publishing almost entirely advertising supported. The next generation model for online media, characterized by community-based publishing, was foretold by GeoCities and now can be seen in the proliferation of weblogs as well as pioneering sites such as Slashdot.org in addition to the large Internet players such as eBay, Amazon, and Yahoo. Before this wave settles, however, the third generation, of the semantic web, webs of trust, emergent communities, reputation systems, RSS and the like, will be upon us. Here are some of the attributes I see in new online media models:
* Community is seamlessly integrated into, and sometimes indistinguishable from, content. The barrier that exists clearly in the print world between professional journalist and reader is dissolving in the online medium, replaced by a range of sources from professional to blogger to poster to reader. There is nothing new about getting useful information, analysis, and context from the community, but while this is difficult in the print medium, online media is bringing community content to a level of critical mass.
* The barriers between publishers are breaking down as professional and amateur sites alike thoroughly link and syndicate with each other.
* Information consumers are getting acclimated to new, diffuse media models, such as blogs and community sites.
Call this "emergent media"—media that emerges organically from the community, rather being planned and produced only by central players, on a meritocratic basis.