Cast aside the anti-hype rhetoric, and keep in mind it is an argument not of fact or policy, but value, and you will find Nicolas Carr’s post on the amorality of Web 2.0 has a salient point — that social software is on an inevitable march of disruption. Commoditization wrought by commons based peer production does enable the triumph of the amateur over the professional. But this does not portend the destruction of mainstream media, only it’s reformation.
Yes, the economics favor the bottom-up. This allows the creation of an alternative we have never had before. A choice. But media selection theory holds that old media simply doesn’t die. Carr’s very desire to retain professional media as his selection is one consumer’s proof point.
The underlying economics of MSM must change, and it will, through creative destruction and unfortunately the loss of many jobs in the transitionary period. Think of social media as a fork in social software, or a third party movement in politics. Unfulfilled demand is self-fullfilled by a new grassroots consituency. New and previously unrepresented constituencies are forming fast as the cost of personal publishing and group forming trend towards zero. But the mainstream gradually co-opts these experiments and movements as their own to stay in power. Today MSM is experimenting with social media in areas where the cost structure previously prevented them to access the market, such as hyperlocal media. To say that mainstream media will not leverage the tools and co-opt the culture of the amateur smacks of technological determinism.
But this is an argument about values, so it’s important to highlight what values needs to diffuse from professional to amateur. Dan Gillmor’s mission to pass on ethical standards from journalists to citizen media is case in point. The former audience is about to go through media training on a massive scale, all in all a good thing, but there is much we can do to pass on practices.
Carr provides a healthy contrarian perspective for the blogosphere. Perhaps by claiming amorality he makes us think, and is advancing our values.
Where I have to take issue on fact is with his post on Wikipedia. I won’t repeat the dead, tired and defeated arguments on quality, so let’s center on fact:
Now, there’s a way around this “collective mediocrity” trap. You can abandon democracy and impose centralized control over the output. That’s one of the things that separates open-source software projects from wikis; they incorporate a rigorous quality-control filter to weed out the crap before it pollutes the product. If Wikipedia wants to achieve it’s goal of being “authoritative,” I think it will have to abandon its current structure, admit that “collective intelligence” makes a pretty buzzphrase but a poor organizational model, and define and impose some kind of hierarchical power structure. But that, of course, would raise a whole other dilemma: Is a wiki still a wiki if it isn’t a pure democracy? Can some wikipedians be more equal than others?
Open source software and Wikipedia are both driven by commons-based peer production. How they differ, and the reason software development requires rigorous quality-control, is that code has dependencies. Writing code is vertical information assembly, while contributions to a wiki is horizontal information assembly. Wikipedia does have quality control and an organiztional model, but it isn’t a feature embodied in code, it is embodied in the group. I know of no goal of being authoritative, but the group voice that emerges on a page with enough edits (not time) represents a social authority that provides choice for the media literate. Carr could create a Wikipedia page to help define what “pure democracy” is to help him answer his rhetorical question — but a wiki is just a tool, and Wikipedia is an exceptional community using it.
Keep in mind that most wiki use is behind the firewall where there is an organizational hierarchy and norms in place. There it taps into similar economics, without the great debates on social truth, and for the competitive advantage of firms.
Back to values, when you tap into the renewable resource of people in mass collaboration, allocated against the scarcity of time, driven by social signals — is this not of greater benefit for social and economic welfare than the disruption that created mainstream media in the first place? I’m glad we agree with Carr on the facts of the disruption. If we can get past the misunderstanding that there is a value difference, we could maybe focus on the right policies that will help us in years to come.