Open Social Discourse and Web Culture
By Stowe Boyd
Social tools are changing our world by changing the way we communicate, interact, and ultimately make sense of the world. Social media in particular are changing social discourse, moving it from the control of a few publishing companies into our own hands. We are witnessing the migration of millions of formerly passive consumers of content onto the Web, where they are become active participants in a freewheeling, sprawling, argumentative and distributed conversation. Where are we headed, and will we be better off when we get there?
The Rise Of The Edge, The Fall Of The Center
The Web is the most important and valuable human artifact ever created. And, it is not owned by any single group, government, company, or person. It is not patented, no one is in charge, and we have no idea whatsoever as to how much we have invested in it, or even how much it costs us to keep it running.
The Web is more like the atmosphere – a shared resource that governments manage on our behalf – than any other human construct. It is truly a shared commons in which we can all participate and in which any and all can derive the benefits that the Web affords. (I leave aside for this brief essay the questions of censorship and Web control in many authoritarian countries, since it does not blunt the central points I am making.)
The Web – and in particular the rise of the so-called blogosphere – has led to a resurgence of open public discourse that is unparalleled since the emergence of independent newspapers and pamphleteers at the outset of the Industrial revolution. The Web has grown from a handful of websites to millions of individuals and organizations publishing on every conceivable topic from every imaginable perspective.
This has been widely heralded as an aspect of the democratization of media, meaning, really, a leveling of the costs and constraints that had formerly blocked many from effectively participating in the framing of public policy, and the characterization of complex issues and what appropriate responses to them might be. I – and many others, like Umair Haque – have characterized this as a redistribution of power away from a handful of large publishing corporations into the hands of individuals forming the edge of a network.
This has led to a wider group of individuals or organizations being able to become publishers, in many cases growing in impact and readership that is greater than so-called mainstream or traditional media. There are numerous examples of small self-publishing experiments that have led to enormous influence: Michael Arrington and Techcrunch is one well-known example, especially after Time dubbed him one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Other examples – The Huffington Post, for example – have made real inroads against the media dominance of mainstream outlets.
Prior to the rise of the Web, as A.J. Liebling famously stated, “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.” And the rise of globalization in the past 50 years increased the costs of operating as a publisher, at least in the sense of publi- shing in such a way as to have an actual impact on even regional issues.
But, even with the power afforded them by owning the presses, traditional media have done a bad job of creating a context for open public discourse. The financial burdens of traditional publishing, and the rapid consolidation of newpaper chains, radio and TV stations, and national magazines treating public policy meant that in the past 50 years or more, access to the discussion was controlled by a smaller number of increasingly wealthy individuals or groups of individuals. Mass media had failed the public need for deep and open discourse in many ways:
1. In many cases, direct promotion of political or philosophical agenda by media owners and publisher squelched open discourse.
2. A widespread adoption of overly simplistic characterizations of complex issues – such as the journalistic canard of a diametric argument between two opposed advocates leading to the creation of a hypothetical middle ground, so-called journalistic objectivity – cheapened the multitude of views actually being promoted. In many cases, these aligned with the polarities inherent in a two-party political environment, which has come to dominate Western politics, and which found common cause with media.
3. A growing trend in media toward sensationalism, sports, entertainment, and the voyeuristic mindlessness of celebrity news has devalued the entire media world and gobbled share of mind and inches in the news hole away from deeper issues.
The centralization of media access in the hands of fewer and fewer companies led to a a decrease in the range and number of voices being heard.
Jay Rosen makes a sound characterization of the differences between what he calls closed and open editorial systems, which I am shifting to open versus closed discourse.
[from If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue. (http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/2008/09/18/because_we_have.html)]
Open systems take advantage of cheap production tools and the magic distribution system of the Web. This leads to a flood of cheap production in the blogosphere, some of which is valuable and worth distributing in wider rings, much of which is not. Thus, a characteristic means of creating value online is what I called the intelligent filter to do that sorting and choosing.
If you look at successful open systems, they don’t try to prevent bad, unreliable or low quality stories from being created or published. They don’t try to prevent the scurrilous. But the Los Angeles Times would. Typically, successful sites within open systems filter the best stuff to the front page. And this is how they try to become reliable, despite the fact that anyone can sign up and post rants.
In closed discourse – the pre-Web publishing world – those that control the means of publishing (newspapers, TV, radio, books, etc.) created a scarcity of discourse by limiting who could speak (or write, etc.), and theoretically were trying to impose quality as well. Those that were selected, were made: they had huge influence, partially because publishers were trying to select bright minds, but also because there was a false scarcity of opinion. And, honestly, the content was in general average. While there have been great writers working in conventional journalism, not every- one is a Pulitzer Prize winner. And altogether too often, the guy on the News at Seven fills a suit, and doesn’t necessarily know much about the topics he is reading on the teleprompter. Likewise for the reporter told to come up with 700 words on Avian Flu, or Who Is Using Twitter. These people may have been trained in journalism, but they don’t necessarily know their topics deeply.
In open discourse – what we see emerging on the Web today – we have an abundance of speech. In fact, one of the conventional knocks against the Web is that it is creating information overload: too many options, too many viewpoints, and too many voices creating noise. Strangely enough, we also hear the false argument that the Web is an echo chamber where too few perspectives exist, and blog- gers simply reflect back what small cliques already agree on. These are what I call the Two Tower Of Babel arguments, and they can’t both be true in an absolute sense, although in a relative sense, they are both true. The Web is certainly large enough to have small cliques parroting the same psychobabble to each other, as well as a hyperabundance of noise. But that’s true of other, earlier media too. Fox News seems to be a great example of a small clique echoing its own preconceptions endlessly.
The reality is that the rise of the Web has led to a large number of people writing really top notch material on subjects in which they are well-versed: designers writing about design, venture capitalists writing about innovation and investment, entrepreneurs writing about business, and thought leaders influencing large groups of people in many ways. Yes, there is a great deal of junk being written, but filtering is a side effect of abundance.
The second argument of Babel – that there is just too much to make sense of – means is that a new role is emerging: one of the jobs of Web author(itie)s is to curate. Many of the best Web essayists (websayists?) will seek out contrasting viewpoints on a given issue, perhaps filter- ing out a dozen with less to say (or saying it less well). These authors will winnow out the strong and weak points being made, and then offer some sort of synthesis as a conclusion. This is something like what the editorial boards of newspapers may have been trying to do in years gone by, but they naturally limited the voices they listened to: perhaps limited to other editorial boards, elected officials, and the super elite.
It’s Conversational: We Make Our Tools, And They Shape Us
This introduction has largely been steered along lines that address the Web from the perspective of an intelligent outsider who is knowledgeable about conventional media, and might be trying to understand the Web by contrasting its features with earlier forms of media. However, that omits perhaps the most important aspect of what is going on: it’s not broadcast, it’s a conversation.
From the very outset, discourse on the Web has been open, and in several dimensions. Yes, anyone can set up as a publisher, and write to their heart’s content. But more important by far: discourse on the Web, as typified by blogs, has been a very conversational place. I have often characterized the blogosphere as Ray Oldenburg’s Third Place: not your home, or you place of work, but that cornerbar or cafe where you drop in and chat with the locals about whatever’s on your mind or in the news´.
It’s perhaps indicative that studies by the Pew Internet and American Life project and others show that every hour spent on the Web is an hour not watching television, and in recent weeks they showed the results of a new study: for the first time Americans are more likely to get their news from the Web than newspapers, although TV is still 20% more influential than the Web.
The conversational aspect of the Web – that readers are participants, not an audience being ‘messaged‘ – changes everything, at a fundamental level. People can talk back: they can leave comments on blogs, or write their own blog posts linking to someone else’s writing.
The nature of the Web itself is shaped by actions like creating links. Google’s search algorithm is based on page-rank, meaning that those pages that are ranked most highly for some search term are judged based on the content indexed by Google – keyword matching – and then by the number and kind of links pointing to the page. People create those links, which from the perspective of Google’s search engine is a vote. And Google doesn’t treat all links equally. If one blog has high page-rank, links from that blog have higher weight than another, less highly ranked blog. In essence, Google has created a search substrate for the Web that works well, because it emulates the way that authority works in human society. Those that are considered more influential have a greater impact on social discourse. It makes sense to us, since we live in a social context where authority does influence us. That’s why Nobel Laureates have a greater influence on public policy than the policeman directing traffic, and why charities want celebrities as spokespersons.
But Google and search is only one part of the puzzle. We also have seen the emergence of a second tier of tools that have had a measurable impact on how ideas spread on the Web. Social networks have introduced new conventions for discourse.
Facebook’s minifeed was one of the first streaming experiences, where users had the various updates of their contacts collated into one great stream of information. This single feature has been extracted and made into an application in Twitter, where the only activity is updating status and sending messages, either publicly or privately, to other Twitter users. Twitter is a perfect case study for the nature or open and participative discourse on the Web: it’s such a minimal system that it’s like studying the brain of a flatworm, or the genes of fruitflies. Out of a minimal system – posting 140 character updates that are read by those who volunteer to follow you – amazing interactions arise.
Here’s an open conversation, started by Liz Gilbert, asking Jay Rosen’s take on the New York Israeli Consulate using Twitter to field questions during a press conference today (30 December 2008) about the Gaza War:
Liz Gilbert (anodyne2art) Dec 30, 11:30 AM @jayrosen_nyu Jay: What do you think about the @IsraelConsulate twitter conference? Would there have been a better way to handle?
Paul R. Potts (paulrpotts) Dec 30, 11:38 AM @anodyne2art oh, yeah. We should all keep in mind that Israel has nuclear weapons.
Liz Gilbert (anodyne2art) Dec 30, 11:42 AM @paulrpotts Yes … impossible to target and agree about existential fear & preemption. #askisrael
Jay Rosen (jayrosen_nyu) Dec 30, 11:42 AM @anodyne2art Better way would be: questions Tweeted to @IsraelConsulate, compile, reply in longer form at www.israelfm.org Tweet the urls.
Note that Paul Potts was not directly involved in the initial tweet (as twitter messages are known), but he overheard the message going by. I presume he is following Liz Gilbert. In this way, Twitter is like a cocktail party: people can overhear what others are saying without having to be directly messaged.
This creates a world of overlapping contexts: I follow Jay so I hear what Liz and Paul say, If I jump in, I can address them (using the @username convention) so that even if they are not following me they will see my contribution to the conversation. Or I can retweet a message, simply passing it along to my followers, basically saying ‘here, look at this!’
The Future Ain’t What It Used To Be
Twitter is far from mainstream; Facebook is more so, but we are long way from these tools shaping culture in a way equivalent to what news-papers did in the industrial revolution, or how TV influenced our worldview since it burst into our consciousness. However, social discourse, shaped by tools like blogs, social networks, and microstreaming à la Twitter will ultimately bring open social discourse into general use in the years to come. Authority still matters, but it not derived from the masthead of a newspaper or a press pass from CBS: it comes from engagement in a community of other participants who decide that your presence and contributions matter, that you help them make sense of the world, and who then opt to link to your posts, or follow your Twitter stream.
This is not what we might have thought the Web would be years ago when it got started, perhaps, when eBay and Amazon made it look like the Web would turn into a shopping mall. The fact that much of what is going on feels more like a cocktail party is not surprising to the anthropologists among us, however.