“Every tomorrow has two handles. We can take hold of it with the handle of anxiety or the handle of faith.” (Henry Ward Beecher)
For just a few hours today, I want to forget about Cindy Sheehan, George Bush, Democrats, Republicans, the right, the left, the MSM, Islam, Chrstianity, Osama, Zarqawi, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, any and all things I’ve been writing about since I started posting on this site almost exactly 11 months ago.
Instead, I want to think about the future. Not of the country or the world, but a much more personal future – a place that you and I will find ourselves before we know it. I think that a large part of that future will involve what’s going on here, on this site, on your site, and millions like them around the world.
In a large sense, we’ve moved far beyond Marshall McLuhan’s “The Medium is the Message.” McLuhan was talking about human interaction and the “extensions” we use to communicate. Everything from gossiping over the backyard fence to satellite communications fell within McLuhan’s broad definition of “medium.” McLuan also famously coined the phrase “the global village” to describe how these extensions would unite the planet while at the same time, shrinking it to the point that it could be squeezed through a cathode ray tube and shown on a TV screen.
But the old definitions, like the tired gatekeepers who are fighting a losing battle against the barbarians storming the pallisades of old media, are simply not working. We’ve had some fun on this site making sport of their demise. And like dinosaurs who didn’t have a clue they were on the way out, we can sit back and watch in bemused fashion as we take a perverse sort of pleasure in their death throes. In a ghoulish sort of way, this is what passes for entertainment on many blogs, including this one. I suspect that this will continue to be the case because the nature of this medium enslaves us, binds us, and with tortuous regularity ultimately dooms us to follow a certain path.
The nature of this medium is content. When I first started writing a blog almost exactly 11 months ago, I knew I wanted to write about politics, media, history, and the way that those forces intersect and ultimately interact. I found the best way to do that was to write essays. Occasionally, to feed the content monster, I’ve been forced to alter the formula and simply link to other good blog posts with scant commentary on what someone else has written. Whenever I do that, I feel a twinge of regret and feel like slapping myself for my laziness or lack of inspiration.
This demon of a blog is an all consuming beast. It eats ideas for breakfast. It gobbles up perspectives for lunch. It devours concepts for dinner and snacks on personal conceits and beliefs between meals. But what it really gorges itself on is time.
I figure to write a 500-750 word essay takes about 3 hours. Some take longer, some shorter. Where time comes into play is doing research for an essay. And this is where it’s easy to be seduced by the internet.
The amount of information out there is beyond belief. I’ve gotten pretty good at googling up whatever information I need in order to get different perspectives on just about any issue you can imagine. What’s even more amazing is that you can find a treasure trove of information on just about any event in world history. And there just isn’t time to read it all. I’d love to sit back and read a long essay on the reign of Franz Joseph and how the death throes of the Hapsburg dynasty resulted in the explosion of nationalism which was a proximate cause of World War I. But I don’t have the time.
Perhaps I should explain. One would think that in my position – unemployed by choice, financially comfortable – I would have all the time in the world. Indeed, I spend a good 10-12 hours a day in front of this screen trying to keep up with the world as it rushes past. But my purpose in starting a blog was two-fold; to reaqcuaint myself with the writing skills I used a couple of decades ago when politics was my life and to build a blog that could act as a stepping stone to making a living as a writer.
The problem is that in the content driven culture of blogs, you don’t really have time to work much on number 1 and thus become a slave to number 2. There are not too many people who want to say upfront that most of what they do on a blog is geared toward increasing readership, links, and ultimately their standing in the ecosphere. Some see such grasping materialsim as sullying the “purity” of this new medium. Spare me. This new medium is exactly what you make of it. If you want to remain pure as the driven snow and not take any advertisements and say that you’re only writing for yourself, that’s fine. You’re welcome to that point of view and I congratulate you for it. You’re a better man than I.
Ultimately, readers will praise or condemn me not for the reason I write but for what I write – content. And here’s where the future comes into play in a big way.
How are we going to be receiving content 5 years from now? Ten years? I say “receiving” content because at the moment, we are slaves to others for access to that vital commodity. Will there come a day when content will not be “received” as much as it just simply is? In other words, if we’re not slaves to gatekeepers for the distribution of information, will there come a time when the “message is the medium?”
Iâ€™m writing this post â€” grappling with perhaps the most fundamental truth of my brief blogging career â€” because I still hear big-media colleagues insisting â€” or perhaps theyâ€™re praying â€” that content is king, that owning content is where the value is, that equity will still grow from exclusivity.
But no: Content is transient, its value perishable, its chance of success slight. You think your article or book or movie or song or show is worth a fortune and in a blockbuster economy, if you were insanely lucky, you could be right. But now anyone can create content. And thanks to the power of the link â€” and the trust it carries â€” anyone can get the world to see it. Is some of this new load of content crap? Sure. Lots of content in the old media world was crap, too. But donâ€™t calculate the proportions. Look instead at the gross volume of quality: Thereâ€™s simply more good stuff out there than there could be before. And it can be created at incredibly low or no cost.
There is no scarcity of good stuff. And when there is no scarcity, the value of owning a once-scarce commodity diminishes and then disappears. In fact, itâ€™s worse than that: Owning the content factory only means that you have higher costs than the next guy: You own the high-priced talent or infrastructure while your new competitor owns just her own talent and a PC.
What Jarvis is saying – and I agree with him wholeheartedly – is that I and most other bloggers are barking up the wrong tree. Content is transient. It’s not the end. It’s not even a means to an end. It simply exists. Content is not even a commodity – unless it’s so superior that it transcends conventions and enters the realm of culture itself. As Jarvis points out, that is a rare occurence. Content and how you recieve it (distribution) are secondary. But to what?
This is so hard for those of us trained in the old economy to get our heads around. That is why, like an ape on 2001, I keep poking at this obelisk to figure out what it is.
But in this new age, you donâ€™t want to own the content or the pipe that delivers it. You want to participate in what people want to do on their own. You donâ€™t want to extract value. You want to add value. You donâ€™t want to build walls or fences or gardens to keep people from doing what they want to do without you. You want to enable them to do it. You want to join in.
And once you get your head around that, you will see that you can grow so much bigger so much faster with so much less cost and risk.
So donâ€™t own the content. Help people make and find and remake and recommend and save the content they want. Donâ€™t own the distribution. Gain the trust of the people to help them use whatever distribution and medium they like to find what they want.
In these new economics, you want to stand back and interfere and restrict as little as possible. You want to reduce costs to the minimum. You want to join in wherever you are welcome.
Okay…so there will be content and there will be distribution of that content but the value of both will take a backseat to the value of the community (or readership) itself, what Jay Rosen refers to as “a horizontal network” of like minded people all of whom will not only read content but contribute and help others contribute. In turn, the content is disseminated (linked?) where ideally, the value is contained in the act of sharing.
Here’s Jay Rosen on the sea change that’s taking place right under our noses:
Everywhere the cost of putting like-minded people in touch with each other is falling. (Idea number 8 on my Top Ten list.) So is the cost of pooling their knowledge. The Net is ideal for horizontal communicationâ€” peer to peer, stranger to stranger, voter to voter, reader to reader. When you talk about the Web era in journalism think: audience atomization overcome. Then you will be on the right track.
Think: media tools in public hands. We are in the middle of a producerâ€™s revolution in media, also called Citizens Media by its great promoter and sage, Jeff Jarvis, following in the steps of others, who recognized what a big shift this potentially was.
Open Source journalism is all journalism that derives from the Janes Intelligence Review case, which was, in fact, â€œa giant leap forward for collaborative online journalism.â€ (There were other leaps too, the most important of which is Oh My News.) Not satisfied with that definition? Simpler one: Dan Gillmor says his readers know more than he does. Open Source journalism builds on that insight, which is foundational.
On a macro level, we saw this concept of open source journalism in action during the Rathergate affair where literally thousands of blog readers whose expertise in arcane subjects like typewriter fonts of IBM Selectrics from the 1970’s contributed to the overall story. And now that concept has been extended to on-line publications and even the editing of on-line books!
But let me whine for a moment; I’m not a journalist. I don’t pretend to be one nor do have any desire to imitate one. Will there be room for a 51 year old opinionated fat man who sees himself in a silly, heroic sort of way as a polemicist, a rabble rouser, someone who 200 years ago would have been posting broadsides on buildings facing the town square? Where does that leave me? How do I participate in this brave new world if I don’t want to climb on board this new media bandwagon?
More questions; what innovations will there be in hardware and software that will affect this new medium? How about changes in the internet itself? Access to it? The portability of it?
These questions go to the root of my problem; how should I approach the future? As Mr. Beecher (whose daughter Harriet was to write the play Uncle Tom’s Cabin) points out, one can either be anxious about the future or have faith in it. At the moment, I’m extraordinarily anxious. I suppose that’s natural for anyone my age whose basic supposition about the way things are is undergoing a radical transformation. I’d like to have faith in the future but wishing won’t make it so. I think the best any of us can do is keep an ear to the ground, watch for trends, and even try to anticipate change wherever possible. Easier said than done. I suppose in the end, having faith in the future means having faith in oneself.
And that, dear readers, is a process that gives meaning to any life. Self-discovery in the internet age. Who woulda thunk it.
Demosophist at Jawa Report links the Jarvis post and ties into what appears to be an idea for an open source intelligence network during wartime. The idea comes from this post by Donald Sensing which lists some interesting advantages that such a network would have.
The writer ties this in with MSM coverage of Iraq:
As always the value is in reliability and validity, and what has changed involves the method by which the public at large arrives at its assessment of those conditions. Every time MSM provides an assessment that turns out later to have been imprecise and even wildly erroneous the public downgrades their determination of the reliability and validity of their information and explanations. But the cycle by which this process unfolds, while nearly instantaneous in some instances, can take up to a year depending on the kind of information involved. And some things, like the brushstrokes of the counterinsurgency in Iraq, are making it through in dibs and dabs. But this is the very nature of brushstrokes. When the entire masterpiece becomes fully visible things may change very quickly, because it will be universally recognized that the critical detail was largely, if not completely, invisible to MSM.