Monday, October 17, 2005

The New Media Food Chain

Anybody who has followed Jay Rosen's recent PressThink coverage of the Judith Miller debacle at The New York Times has probably noticed a change in the color of the sky this week. Some future historian will likely declare the Miller case a milestone in the development of global networked media, concluding with 20-20 hindsight that this was the week when we entered a new world.

In the Old World, the press and its superset, The Media, covered our institutions. When The Media became part of the story, some subset of The Media would examine that role and report on it.

In the New World, The Media still covers our institutions, but it no longer covers itself. That function has now been assumed by The Blogosphere. Permanently.

This is a natural phenomenon, because coverage of our shape-shifting, hydra-headed Media practically demands limitless perspective. No single observer can see the whole of it. But The Blogosphere is the totality of many observers. And while The Media is far better equipped to cover the world than individual citizens are, anyone with a TV and access to Google can cover The Media. Consequently, The Media covers tsunami recovery efforts, while The Blogosphere covers that coverage -- sometimes including unfiltered reports from bloggers on the scene. Is it accurate? Misleading? Does it offer the proper context?

While we have witnessed this phenomenon previously, the Miller story is the best example so far. Print-only readers simply do not have the same grasp of this complex tale as do those who read the comments and threads at places like PressThink, CJR, BTC News, Joho, etc.

Not only is The New York Times unable to cover itself in this instance, but other Old World publications seem to be struggling as well. They are bound by rules and conventions, friendships and rivalries, by "professional courtesy," and -- in some cases, no doubt -- by complicity.

In this limited sense, The Blogosphere has now transcended The Media. This is not to say that bloggers are more powerful than the TV news networks and big dailies (yet), but there is a comparison to be made here between a relationship that we understand far better: Media does not control government, but because it has the power to establish the narrative for government actions, media influences government.

To understand the New World, move one link up the new media food chain and look back. The Blogosphere does not control The Media, but because it has the power to establish the narrative for Media actions, the Blogosphere influences Media.

A scientist, looking at that event, would say that The Blogosphere is able to do this because it is larger and more complex than The Media. In every sense of the word, The Media is now the subject of The Blogosphere. It has "gone meta."

Let us pause and recognize the historic significance of this moment. We are democratizing power and changing the culture in ways few people have even imagined. Next step: Let's help those people imagine it.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

The Media "singularity"

Editor's note: When one of my posts over at Xark! (a criticism of Anderson Cooper called Enough with the posing) initiated an interesting back-and-forth about media credibility and objectivity, it prompted me to write a long comment. I'm cross-posting it here because, as I read over it on the page, it occurred to me that I had inadvertently described a state of media singularity -- an evolutionary step in human consciousness.
The discussion about credibility/objectivity/etc. is a worthy one, but my point here was more basic: I don't like the acting, the dramatic personae, the fake cinema verte. I think Geraldo has done it for years, and it's laughable, but when I watched Anderson Cooper do it, I found it disturbing.

One of the best things I read every day is a e-mail called Media Savvy: A daily update on media and political matters that has the effect of making me a better receiver. From an informed position, everything has value -- Hannity, Limbaugh, Franken, PrisonPlanet, Stewart.

But what I notice about myself is that I assume I'm capable of watching all this and sorting it out in meaningful ways, but I assume that people who tend to get all their news from one source or another lack this perspective. So an important question becomes: "Am I right about that?" And if I am, what (if anything) should we do about that? Does it require any action more specific than identification and discussion?

These days I write a great deal about biology, and here's a lesson from the life sciences: diversity is the sign of a healthy ecosystem. Taken as a whole, our mediasphere is more diverse than ever, but the real issue is, what about people who self-select a media monoculture? How do we re-engage them?

And this is where I think Janet is headed in the right direction: The spirit of the new media age is niche. The spirit of the old was One-Size-Fits-All. I think that when we fight over MSM coverage today, the unspoken goal is actually control over the normative power that Big Media represented in the One-Size-Fits-All Era. Conservatives aren't generally angry at bloggers who write opinionated pieces favoring homosexual marriage, but an AP story that takes no stand yet has the effect of making gay unions look normal drives them nuts.

Janet says that a new media will emerge, and I agree. I think we're actually making it, right now, right here, at this moment. The old model is top-down, normative, restrictive, authoritarian. The new model is sideways-distributed, group-forming and based (in the loose sense) on merit rather than authority.

It's hard to imagine this now, but it will become easier once we build the tools that that give individual users more direct control over information. By tools I mean the tools of discovery informatics, neural networks, intelligent agents: thinking tools, pattern-recognition tools, aggregators, quantifiers, connectors.

Today a blog is an individual neuron in a holographic consciousness that isn't yet fully self-conscious, something that allows us access to the greatest problem-solving technology ever invented (community).

In the future, a "blog" will be part of an aggregate, measured, fluctuating vox populi, and the back-and-forth flow of information will be ordered and shaped not by editors and producers, but by machines.

The human factor doesn't disappear in such a system -- it just moves to doing the things that humans do best: Asking questions, sharing experiences, considering options, etc.

That's the optimistic view. The pessimistic future is FOX Populai, the manipulation of small media by Big Media in a monocultural hierarchy. You can choose left or right or "phony centrism" (left and right will both claim that the "objective" journalists are all working for the other side secretly), and the culture will continue to polarize.

But we're not playing on that level right now. Today, blogs and VODcasts are just "cool," particularly with the demographic that forms the core audience for Anderson Cooper 360. When Cooper steps out of his news character and steps into his romantic citizen-journalist character, he is self-consciously trying to be two contradictory things at once. Maybe that's a sign of genius. And maybe it's just opportunistic and shallow.