Story location:

January 26, 2005

Big Wigs Confer, Part Three

At the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility conference, the highest buzz was about Wiki. How it worked. That it worked. What it could be. Charles Nesson had a word for it: WOW. That was how I felt. Read what others said.

Snowbound in Boston, I wrote a “request from a blogger,” and sent it to all the participants in the Blogging, Journalism & Credibility conference, asking for “one thing you changed your mind about” or just learned.

(AP report, for those catching up. Technorati tag is webcred. Part One of this post, “Big Wigs From the Blogging & Journalism Conference Say What They Found,” is here. It has my intro. Part two here. What’s a wiki, you say? The Wikipedia explained.)

1) It was heartening to hear a thread of “we’re all in this together” from participants of various leanings. There’s competition and cooperation in the wind — what some people out here call coopetition (though that word seems to translate at times in the tech world to “duopoly is less fun than monopoly, but it’s better than nothing.”

2) We’re not close to figuring out the business model either for tomorrow’s citizen journalists or today’s mass media as they make the transition to what’s coming. But we’d better, or society is the loser (see No. 1).

3) Community is the key. Whoever embraces and empowers community will have a far better chance of succeeding, no matter what form of media you work on.

4) Watch Jimmy Wales and his community for many of the lessons the rest of us need to learn. I’m still skeptical of WikiNews in a bunch of ways, but what he and his WikiPedia community have done is astonishing.

Rhetorical space. Think not of space-time as bending you but you of bending it. Understand story telling. Be a master. Why not. There is nothing else. Storytelling power is currency of the space, source of power. Not all to whom this power is entrusted use it well, for good and not for evil. Use power well.

Jimbo Wales. The Wiki, an online structure of networked human interaction that produces a knowledge product more powerful in rhetorical space than the Encyclopedia Britannica, acknowledged knowledge repository of my youth. WIKIPEDIA - product of collaborative efforts of an online community of people who can freely edit each others work. WOW!

Questions abound. Is it authentic; is it accurate; is it comprehensive; what is its business plan? Are there subjects on which the process fails, or enters and endless loop? Are there points in the process when it shuts down, or must be shut down? Are there areas of cultural division so large and passionately held that no common story can be told?

Before, I thought I had a clue about grassroots media and its possible contributions to mainstream media, as in, I thought I was clued in.

After, I realized I had a clue, as in, I had some leads but hardly the whole story. Stuff I was aware of, like Wikipedia and podcasting, I began to understand in much more detail. And stuff like Buzenberg’s database, and the impact of blogs on MSNBC ratings, showed me that I have only started to grasp the power the Web can give people and the institutions that respect them.

Reaffirmed: my belief in the value of face-to-face conversation and fellowship among people of diverse outlook and experience.”

The rise of Blogs, Wikis, Citizen Journalism, even MPR’s Public Insight database suggest an appetite for active involvement, small-d democracy as John Palfrey noted. But this time the gateways, funnels even, are new forms of media. These new media allow ordinary citizens to create content, correct it when necessary, challenge conventional wisdom and, when aroused, move to action.

So, while content may be moving out of the “container,” as I believe Jim Kennedy observed, so, it seems to me, are political and civic participation. Put them all together and they could inaugurate an exciting Era of Guerrilla Journalism.

Guerrilla Journalism says that too much of what we’re now producing is constrained by journalistic conventions that no longer safeguard the product. And so much of what we are producing is just more me-too noise. Could we produce the kind of journalism that would cause our audiences to stand up and take notice? Journalism that is totally out front of the mainstream media— not reactive or playing catch up. Not easily spun. Powerfully informative.

The mindset should be zagging instead of zigging. I consider guerrilla journalism to be journalism that zags — away from conventional wisdom, above the fray of feuding candidates, and never stooping to stenography.

So what does it look like? In my mind, it is heavily steeped in database reporting. It connects the dots on meta issues to give readers “news epiphanies.” And it is heavily visual or graphic— the better to avoid the conventions of he said/she said reporting or the pitfalls of false equivalencies.

The surprise: I’ve been under the impression that there’s a simmering conflict between bloggers and wikipedians. Bloggers tend to be building their personal brands; wikipedians tend to follow a self-effacing, monastic model of knowledge.

But this conference reminded me that both camps are firmly in the ‘amateur’ camp - where ‘amateur’ doesn’t mean ‘unprofessional’, but ‘motivated by love, not by financial remuneration’. I was surprised and pleased to see bloggers and wikipedians find common ground so quickly around common passions.

The reminder: Most ideological conflicts look much smaller when groups that disagree meet in the same room. And even smaller when they eat dinner together.”

The fundamental—but not insurmountable—challenge facing blogging: the lack of an editorial process. To paraphrase Don Murray, columnist for the Boston Globe, the three secrets to great writing are: (1) revise; (2) revise; and (3) revise.

I was surprised at the attempt to marginalize the work of Jimmy Wales during the Friday afternoon discussion, as I still think that part of the solution will be found by taking a closer look at Wikis. That said, I also still think that one of the real strengths of the Blogosphere is that it isn’t plumb.”

I use Wikipedia, know some Wikipedians, and am familiar with Wikinews and the controversies surrounding its start. But like Ethan I thought that we were moving towards a world of “blogs vs. wikis” and “transparency vs. Neutral Point of View.” (NPOV)

I have argued in the past that NPOV is impossible and particularly undesirable for citizens’ journalism. But after listening to Jimbo, I realize that saying “it can’t be done” would be like scoffing at Ted Turner’s idea of a 24-hour TV news network. Now I think: “it just might be possible.”

In cyberspace, ideas no longer need clear plans to create something revolutionary. Your community organically takes your idea and runs with it, shaping it into whatever they need that they don’t already have. Craigslist is an excellent—and profitable—example, though Craig isn’t doing news, yet. (I’m betting he will.)

This kind of approach to media innovation doesn’t strike me as very appealing, however, to corporate boards and shareholders of companies that own news organizations. Which is why the future belongs outside of corporate concentrated media.

I thought that Wikipedia was a community dedicated to openness first, product second. And I learned that they are first and foremost a purpose-based community, with openness as a critical principle, but a secondary one.

Jonathan Zittrain pointed out on day two that it’s pretty clear that no one at Wal-Mart has taken a look at the Wal-Mart Wiki page. He suggested that this was not likely to be the case for long, and that PR flacks were going to start figuring out how to use the Wikipedia (they’re already figuring out how to use blogs).

As a former PR flack myself, I think that he’s absolutely right. This, more than anything else that came out of the conference, changed the way I think. Blogs and traditional media share—with some notable exceptions—the general conviction that information should get out so that a democracy can make its choices.

But corporations, even benign ones, have an interest in controlling the release of information. As the webcredders hash it out among themselves, a third party is watching and learning how to adapt, a party that won’t necessarily hold ideals in conflict with ours, but also can’t be implicitly trusted not to. You don’t have to be a member of the tinfoil-hat crowd to be concerned about this.

I went into the conference thinking: Hmm, well, blogging, sure, fine, but I don’t have the time. What I need to do is get in touch with the blogging community to build bridges between that community and the wiki community.” But a dozen different things that people said made me realize that the way to get in touch with the blogging community is: blog.

The Wiki world has even more potential than I imagined. I am going to be trying to learn more about it as I work through how to re-design my own website for the next four years.

Bloggers seem to be struggling with the same questions that old-style journalists have worked over for decades: anonymous sources, ethics, conflicts, disclosure, standards. I suspect they will eventually come to many of the same conclusions, one of which is that there will never be agreement on a way to enforce standards. Another is that, in the end, individual bloggers will get the credibility and respect that they earn in the marketplace, just like older news organizations.

I think the real divide is between those bloggers who are mostly analysts or editorialists, and those old-style reporters who mostly aim to report facts and try (with greater or lesser degrees of success) to keep their opinions and personalities out of what they publish.

Bloggers are ill prepared to deal with the tests they will be facing soon, mainly how to deal with lawsuits. I doubt that pro-bono legal representation will go very far in keeping a blogger going in the face of a big libel suit from a determined corporate opponent, or from an aggressive prosecutor. I suspect blogging is (legally speaking) right now about where Napster was, before the record industry went after it.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

Part One of this post, “Big Wigs From the Blogging & Journalism Conference Say What They Found.”

Part Two of this post: 20 minutes into the future with bloggers, journalists and new media.

David Berlind, Is big media getting the picture?

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 26, 2005 3:40 PM