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We Media » Chapter 2: Cultural context - Behind the explosion of participatory media
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Chapter 2: Cultural context - Behind the explosion of participatory media

"Have you any news?"
The second message transmitted by Samuel B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph.1

Newspapermen of the Victorian era feared the telegraph would spell their doom. "The mere newspapers must submit to destiny and go out of existence," wrote one newspaper executive.2 Yet, just the opposite occurred. Despite fears of their obsolescence, newspapers were able to thwart a major technological threat by adopting it as a business advantage.

The telegraph was speedier than mail and enabled newspapers to publish more timely news. Other newspapers joined together to set up wire services such as the Associated Press. And the concern that a telegraph transmission might be cut short gave rise to the familiar writing style called the inverted pyramid, which places important news first followed by less critical details.

Journalism has always had to respond to technological and social changes. The Information Age brought about a tremendous expansion of media — cable television, growing numbers of niche print publications, Internet Web sites, mobile telephony. Media have become nearly ubiquitous, and journalism again finds itself at a crossroads as the media landscape becomes more fragmented and filled with competition from nontraditional sources.

"The way we get news has gone through momentous transition," Kovach and Rosenstiel write in The Elements of Journalism. "It has happened each time there is a period of significant social, economic and technological change. It is occurring now with the advent of cable followed by the Internet. The collision this time may be more dramatic."3

Unlike the telegraph, the Internet is far more pervasive and accessible by just about anyone. If history is any guide, journalism will change, although how dramatic that change will be remains uncertain.

This chapter attempts to shed light on the cultural factors that have provided the fuel for this explosion of participatory media. We'll also look at how information technologies are changing the traditional roles of consumers.

Extending social networks

People are inherently social creatures. We develop and maintain complex social networks of friends, family and acquaintances through various means of communication.

Regardless of technology, human "relationships will naturally continue to rely on face-to-face and physical contact, on shared experience and values, on acts of generosity and thoughtfulness, and on trust, understanding and empathy," according to a whitepaper for Groove, the collaboration software created by Lotus developer Ray Ozzie.

"Nevertheless, (Internet and mobile) technologies do have the potential to have significant, fundamental impact on the types of relationships we maintain, on where we live and work, on when and how we are educated, on how we entertain ourselves and spend our leisure time, on our politics, and on how we conceive of time."4

In the 10 years since its mass adoption, the Web has quickly become a reflection of our elaborate social networks. It has evolved into a powerful medium for communication and collaboration, as evidenced by the hypertext links of more than 10 billion documents authored by millions of people and organizations around the world.5

It is the greatest publishing system ever known, and it keeps growing. In May 2003, there were at least 40.4 million Web sites6 with thousands being added, moved or removed every day. It's a phenomenally extraordinary achievement, which has emerged without central planning and without government regulation, censor or sanction — an emergent, bottom-up process.

"Self-organization is an irrepressible human drive, and the Internet is a toolkit for self-organizing," according to Howard Rheingold, author of Smart Mobs. "The role of voluntary cooperation is the most important and least known story in the history of personal computers and networks."7

Indeed, the architecture of the Internet was the result of a decentralized philosophy, free software and collaboration. In 1962, Paul Baran of the RAND corporation was commissioned by the U.S. Air Force to design a computer network able to survive a nuclear attack to any part of it. His insightful solution required that there be no master or central computer running the network. Instead, computers could be connected to many other computers in a mesh–like pattern.

In a sense, Baran wanted to create a social network of mainframes that routed packets of information through a variable maze of connectors. The benefit was that the network could grow, or handle a loss of computers, without having to be redesigned.

As brilliant as Baran's idea was, it was rejected. AT&T, the telephone monopoly designated to maintain the network for the U.S. government, saw the "digital packet" approach as too costly to deploy and a threat to its monopoly position because it could allow for competition.8

But several years later, the Advanced Research Project Agency stumbled upon the same solution and created a network called ARPANET, the precursor to today's Internet. The network was built to allow military facilities to connect computers. By 1973, just three years after ARPANET went online, something unexpected happened. E-mail, which began as a novelty, accounted for 75 percent of all network traffic.9

Throughout the 1980s, the Internet grew steadily but remained mostly unnoticed behind the walls of academic and scientific institutions. In the early '90s, two events turned the Internet into the greatest publishing system in history by making it more accessible to the masses.

First, Tim Berners-Lee, a researcher at CERN, substituted the impossible-to-remember numerical addressing system of the Internet with the URL (uniform resource locator) for use as electronic addresses. Soon after, students at the University of Illinois, led by Marc Andreessen, created Mosaic, the first browser to display documents on the Web. This graphic, rather than text-based, interface resulted in an explosion of the Internet's popularity.

In December 1993, a New York Times business section article concluded that Mosaic was perhaps "an application program so different and so obviously useful that it can create a new industry from scratch."10

Years before the advent of the Web and Mosaic, email, bulletin boards and Usenet were the popular means of communication and collaboration on the Internet. Bulletin boards and Usenet, a stockpile of millions of email postings arranged into "newsgroups," changed radically and became more popular as forums. The browser-based graphic interface, which allowed participants to explore and contribute more readily, changed the practical nature of the Usenet idea into something more open, accessible and interesting to the masses.

imageThe Internet had become a massive repository of publicly accessible, linked documents. This doesn't sound like a breeding ground for social activity, but according to John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, it is inherently so.

"Documents do not merely carry information, they help make it, structure it and validate it. More intriguing, perhaps, documents also help structure society, enabling social groups to form, develop, and maintain a sense of shared identity," they write in The Social Life of Information. "Shared and circulating documents, it seems, have long provided interesting social glue."

Today, we see a new phenomenon. Given technological innovations in open source software, everyone has access to robust tools for publishing and collaborating easily on the Web. Weblogging tools are in many ways easier to use than most e-mail applications. It is this ease that accounts for their increasing popularity.11

Estimates of the number of active weblogs vary widely from 500,000 to as high as 1 million.12 According to the Pew Internet & American Life Project, more than 8 million U.S. Internet users (7 percent) have created a weblog13 and 90 million (84 percent) have participated in online groups.14

The Post-Information Age

In a way, the Internet was destined to be a social medium from the start — open, unregulated, extensible and unpredictable. Like the telephone, it removes one of the critical barriers to maintaining social networks: geography. In doing so, the Internet enables a vibrant social universe to emerge powered by the passions of millions.

Moreover, this medium has empowered millions to express their ideas and perspectives in many ways, which, according to futurist Watts Wacker, feeds a great hunger in the Post-Information Age.

In his 2002 book The Deviant's Advantage, Wacker suggests that our current society is undergoing relentless, all-encompassing change, which will do nothing but accelerate. This constant change results in an "Abolition of Context" — the inability of business and society to find commonly agreed upon reference points. 15

"Context is the framework, the structure, the collective common understanding that allows us to live our lives and run our businesses," Wacker writes in his book. "Take it away and it's all but impossible to know what's the right or wrong action to take."

Such a situation makes it more difficult for companies to create commercially viable, long-lasting goods and services. This environment also creates stress, anxiety and confusion for the individual. With social mores constantly shifting, people seek a "proliferation of perspectives" to make sense of the world.16

Credibility, a traditionally reliable context as it has been viewed until now, is dead, Wacker says. "Knowing what other people think news means, in many layers, is more important."17

It appears that the many forms of participatory journalism on the Web are ideally suited to serve this function. There is evidence that people are actively seeking new perspectives beyond those provided by mainstream media. Researchers have begun to categorize an individual's media diet as a more dependable method of segmenting audiences, as opposed to demographic and psychographic criteria.18

We are now beginning to lead what futurist Wacker calls "media-centric life," where all of our information is mediated, coming to us second or third hand. Media, he says, are how we define ourselves and our relationships.

This media-centric life requires a large amount of assimilation of information, most of it coming second-hand. Objectivity is one casualty of this massive abundance of viewpoints, Wacker argues.

Even traditionalists are questioning the practicality of objectivity. In The Elements of Journalism, Kovach and Rosenstiel write: "The concept of objectivity is so mangled it now is usually used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct."

But whether the demise of objectivity will give rise to a social environment governed by interests and relationships is debatable. What is clear is that the Internet provides more opportunity for people to share information among communities, thereby circumventing traditional media's role as privileged, trusted and informed intermediaries of the news.

In their report "Online Communities: Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties," the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that not only are people becoming more social online, they are forming vibrant communities and integrating them into their lives.19

Some of their findings:
• 90 million Americans (84 percent of Internet users) have participated in online groups; 26 percent have used the Internet to deepen their ties to their local communities.

• Use of the Internet often prompts Americans to join groups. More than half of the aforementioned 90 million say they joined an online group after they began participating over the Internet.

• Online communities bring about greater contact with different people. Participants say that online communities have spurred connections to strangers and to people of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

• Online communities foster lively chatter and connection. People exchange emails, hash out issues, find out about group activities, and meet face to face as a result of online communities. About 23 million Americans are very active in online communities, meaning that they email their principal online group several times a week.

• Online communities draw civic involvement from the young, a segment of the population that has not typically been drawn to civic activities.

Sociologist Barry Wellman argues that many new social arrangements are being formed through "glocalization" — the capacity of the Internet to expand people's social worlds to faraway people and simultaneously connect them more deeply to the place they live.20

More than just connecting, people are increasingly collaborating. The bottom-up nature of the Internet and several technological innovations — such as digital still and video cameras, mobile devices and wireless computing platforms — have resulted in an explosion of creative activity.

Customer as innovator

Just as weblogs and forums have turned audiences into participants, other industries have thrived by developing tools to turn their customers into creators. As Stefan Thomke and Eric von Hippel argue in "Customers as Innovators: A New Way to Create Value," the pace of change in many markets is too great and "the cost of understanding and responding to customers' needs can quickly spiral out of control."21

Some industries have already succeeded in turning their customers into contributors and innovators. Knowing they cannot predict the shifting desires of their customers, these companies have instead created the tools and frameworks to empower their customers to create.

"Essentially, these companies have abandoned their efforts to understand exactly what products their customers want and have instead equipped them with tools to design and develop their own products, ranging from minor modifications to major new innovations," Thomke and von Hippel wrote.

imageA number of industries are succeeding in the "Customer as Innovator" approach. Nestle has built a toolkit that enables its customers to develop their own flavors. GE provides customers with Web-based tools for designing better plastic products. This approach has transformed the semiconductor business, bringing the custom-chip market to more than $15 billion.22

Providing the tools and services to enable customers to act as their own auctioneers is at the heart of one of the most successful Internet companies, eBay. In 2002, eBay members bought and sold $14.87 billion in annualized gross merchandise.23

Perhaps one the most vivid and dramatic examples of customers transforming a business is the computer game industry.

In the summer of 2000, on the verge of graduating with a computer science degree, 23-year-old Minh Le built a computer game in his parents' basement called Counter-Strike. In 2002, Counter-Strike was the most popular multiplayer action game in the world, with more than 1.7 million players spending on average about 23.5 hours a month in the game. In addition to its free Internet distribution, Counter-Strike has sold 1.3 million shrink-wrapped copies at retail, with revenues of more than $40 million.24

What's remarkable is that Le didn't have to build the entire game from scratch. Instead he converted or "modded" the game from an existing popular game called Half-Life. The tools to modify Half-Life into a completely new game were downloaded from the manufacturer's Web site.

"Many of the best game companies now count on modders to show them the way creatively and to ensure their own survival in a savagely competitive market," says Wagner James Au, in his article Triumph of the Mod. "By fostering the creativity of their fans, their more agile peers in the game industry have not only survived but prospered."25

Even gaming giant Electronic Arts encouraged gamers to modify their classic hit The Sims. So far, more than 30,000 different Sims mods are available.

"In a sense, mods also represent the most visible success of the free (open-source) software movement on the larger culture," Au adds. "For the millions who play computer games, the same ethos of volunteerism and shared ownership that characterizes free software has helped utterly transform the gaming experience and the $8 billion-plus gaming industry."26

In many ways, the open-source movement offers a glimpse at the future. In open-source projects, the community builds the tools for itself motivated by hopes of creating better software through mass collaboration. In the best case, open-source movements can organize and develop industry-leading tools (e.g., Linux and Apache Web server), which sometimes threaten multibillion-dollar companies.

According to Dave Winer, weblog guru and founder of Userland Software, Google's acquisition of Pyra and its Blogger weblogging tool earlier this year "may signal a change possibly as deep as the personal computer revolution, where huge glass palaces controlled by technologists were routed around, by software and hardware that did the same thing, for a fraction of the cost. Today, the same software that Vignette sold a few years ago for millions of dollars can be had for hundreds, and it's much easier to install and use."27

Access to powerful and inexpensive tools is turning more people into innovators of all sorts. The challenge for news organizations, ultimately, will be to persuade their customers to become not just innovators but collaborators as well.

The power of networks

In their book Information Rules, Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian suggest an altogether new axiom for the news business and its future. "The old industrial economy was driven by economies of scale; the new information economy is driven by the economics of networks."28

Indeed, our traditional notions of economics are being disrupted and transformed by the power of distributed collaboration through our computer networks.

More than 2 million people worldwide have been donating their unused computer down time to help the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) analyze 50 billions bytes of signals from outer space. The SETI@home project, which began in mid-1999, put distributed computing on the map.29

About the same time that project began, the peer-to-peer file sharing program Napster was launched to enable the sharing of music between users connected to the Internet. At its height, 70 million users were trading 2.7 billion files per month. Since Napster was shut down, Gnutella clients such as Morpheus and Kazaa have stepped in, allowing billions of movies, songs, ebooks, software and other digital files to be exchanged among the masses.30

It seems as though the possibilities of distributed collaboration are limitless. "Today, millions of people and their PCs are not just looking for messages from outer space and trading music," says Rheingold in Smart Mobs, "but tackling cancer research, finding prime numbers, rendering films, forecasting weather, designing synthetic drugs by running simulations on billions of possible molecules — taking on computing problems so massive that scientists have not heretofore considered them."31

The network economy and the proliferation of media are presenting a tremendous challenge for mainstream media organizations, such as newspapers, radio and television. Not only will they have to adapt organizationally, and perhaps philosophically, but their products, over time, will be transformed in unexpected and unforeseen ways.

In the next chapter, How participatory journalism is taking form, we look at the exciting new forms that are emerging for this new media construct.
Footnotes
1. John. D. Ruley, "Yesterday’s Prejudices Today," Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books.
2. Tom Standage, The Victorian Internet (Berkley Books. 1999).
3. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel, The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect (Three Rivers Press, 2001).
4. The Connection Age (PDF): white paper published on the Internet in 2001 by Groove Networks.
5. NEC Research Inc.
6. Figure on Netcraft.com on May 13, 2003.
7. Howard Rheingold. Posted on his weblog dedicated to his book, Smart Mobs (Perseus Publishing, October 2002).
8. Albert-László Barabási, Linked: The New Science of Networks (Perseus Publishing, May 2002).
9. Andrew Odlyzko, "Content Is not King," First Monday, June 2002.
10. R.H. Reid, Architects of the Web: 1,000 Days that Built the Future of Business (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1997).
11. Leander Kahney, The Web the Way it Way: "Thanks to new easy-to-use software, the number of weblogs on the Net seems to be growing at an unprecedented rate," Wired.com, Feb. 23, 2000.
12. Most blogging communities do not publicly report the number of active blogs. Also, there is some debate over what qualifies as a blog. Just three and a half years old, the popular Blogger software (now owned by Google) has 1.1 million registered users. Evan Williams, founder of the company that built Blogger, estimates that about 200,000 of them are actively running weblogs (Dan Gillmor, SiliconValley.com, "Google Buys Pyra: Blogging Goes Big-Time," Feb. 15, 2003). Joe Laszlo, a Jupiter Research analyst, estimates that around 500,000 people actively maintain a weblog. (Peter Rojas, "Now Bloggers Can Hit The Road," Wired.com, Feb. 20, 2003.)
13. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Internet Activities chart. The statistic on weblogging is dated Sept., 2002.
14. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Online Communities: Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties, Oct. 31, 2001.
15. Watts Wacker, The Deviant's Advantage (Crown Publishing, 2002).
16. Watts Wacker speech at New Directions for News conference. "The News Business in Transition: Forces Shaping the Future," Austin, Texas, Oct. 31, 2002.
17. Wacker, from speech.
18. Wacker, from speech.
19. Pew Internet & American Life Project, Online Communities: Networks that nurture long-distance relationships and local ties, Oct. 31, 2001.
20. Barry Wellman, "Little Boxes, Glocalization, and Networked Individualism," online publication, July 12, 2002.
21. Stefan Thomke, Eric Von Hippel, "Customers as Innovators: A New Way to Create Value," Harvard Business Review, April 1, 2002.
22. Thomke and Von Hippel.
23. eBay.com. About eBay: Company Overview.
24. Geoff Keighley, "Game Development a la Mod," Business 2.0, October 2002.
25. Wagner James Au, "Triumph of the mod," Salon.com, April 16, 2002.
26. Au.
27. Dave Winer, "Comments on the Google-Blogger Deal," Post on his Dave.net weblog, Feb. 20, 2003.
28. Carl Shapiro and Hal R. Varian, Information Rules (Harvard Business School Press; 1998).
29. Howard Rheingold, Smart Mobs (Perseus Publishing, October 2002)

Posted on Sep 21, 03 | 8:14 am EST | PermaLink
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