Post-web-cred thoughts

1.0 What have we learned at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility gathering?

We started this event — and an associated little firestorm — by broaching the topic of credibility on the web.  It was something, we thought, that both journalists and bloggers ought to have a role in working on.  Over the past two days (January 21 and 22, 2005), we made some progress in that direction.  But not frankly all that much progress.  We’re certainly a long way from a shared set of principles, or a code of ethics, or even an understanding of how they could come about.  (Personally, I think that there are already norms in the blogosphere that result in credibility, that such norms will continue to come from the bottom up, that those norms will be undergirded by accountability to one another, and that that will work, but I might be wrong.  And this notion did not come up at the event.)  

We made other kinds of progress, though.  I think that a group of journalists and a group of bloggers and a bunch of other people came to share a new vocabulary.  David Weinberger calls it “useful psychological work” such that “we are misunderstanding ourselves in subtler ways.”  “Good,” David says, “now we can begin.”  (Credit Portnoy’s Complaint.)  I agree.  

I also learned a bunch of things, from lots of different people — mostly about the future of information online and the role that each of us has to play in making that future come about.

2.0 What kind of a future, or even present, are we talking about?

We’re here because of a disruptive technology — or, more accurately, a cluster of technologies that are being deployed in a disruptive manner.  I think that everyone at this event had a sense that these technologies might be deployed in an incredibly constructive manner, in the public interest — for the good of truth and civic engagement and small-d democracy and global connectedness and other good things.  

In some ways, all we know is that it is also a neutral technology in its purest form. Every technologically deterministic view turns out to be wrong, unless by chance it happens to come true. David Weinberger said during his dinner speech that things are messy right now.  He suggested that things might well be messy for a long time to come.  We see this future –or at least our own personally-envisioned variant of a possible future — and we have a chance to build out into it, to shape it by how we interact with it.

Here are some elements of that future and relevant factors that cropped up in discussion:

* The shift from analog to digital is on. The weight of influence is shifting away from print, TV, cable, radio and toward the web.

* Business models matter.  A lot.  New models have to be stable, one way or another, as an economic matter, to survive — whatever form of the incentive might be.  Compensation doesn’t necessarily mean money.  But for some people it does mean money.

* The specific technologies and tools involved continue to evolve.  Obviously, we’ve got text blogs, with links and trackbacks, etc.  Then we explored podcasting, mobcasting, vlogging — losts of extensions beyond text.  Wikipedia is its own story — an extraordinary model.  Technorati, blogdex, popdex.  The use of mobile devices, like cell-phones and PDAs, as in South Korea and Japan.

* We didn’t even get to talk about RSS, which I personally think is, in some ways, the most explosive force of all, with its force to be felt a long while from now.

* The people using the tools are continuing to expand and to change.  Citizen journalism, of the Dan Gillmor, Oh My News variety, as distinct, or as a variant, from the “pure bloggers.”  The long tail — the civilian bloggers who are not on the map in terms of readers — what’s their role?  (Maybe there’s just value in the fact that they do it — are engaging in the public debate.)

* In any event: there’s the possibility of more sources, closer to the facts, ideally in a manner that is good for authors and readers and subjects alike, collected and rendered and discussed and spat back and re-created using tools that don’t yet exist.  There’s the possibility of all manner of new creativity.

3.0 What’s a desirable future?

I think the question is what sort of a future — of news, of information, of democracy, all around the world — that we want to bring about it still very unclear. But we’re making progress by sharing our problems and our excitement about the opportunities before us.

Let’s presume that Jay Rosen is right: the old “blogging v. journalism” thing is dead. But it might not just be “convergence” between two communities — or, “no blendo” as Chris Lydon said. This event underscored the differences, that the languages and modes are still divergent.

It seems likely that the future is blogging *and* journalism *and* […] where each universe, with a continuum in between, contributes to one another and learns from each other about comparative advantages each community has.  I think it’s plain that there are multiple roles to be played between those who are bloggers, those who are both, and those who are journalists.

We need at some point to resolve where the bottom line lies — what the most important things to protect and to achieve are, in the midst of this messy transition.

We need also to realize all this is happening in an environment where it’s unclear that the broad public really wants to spend more time engaging with news, with information, with public life.  What do we make of the 15 minutes a day that we — those who seek attention, or have something to offer, or whatever defines the “us” — get?

4.0 Leaders and Leadership

Some of the leadership may well come from people who participated, one way or another, in this conference. Some of the leaders are people lucky enough to have power today. But the leaders of this changing environment are most likely not people who are yet empowered, or well-known, or conference-goers. The leaders are most likely clacking away on laptops somewhere, editing a wikinews post or launching a blog in the long tail or carrying around a tape recorder somewhere remote, whether paid by the NYT or paid by no one.

I left with a major question: how do we, whomever we are, use our respective positions of privilege in a way as to provide some leadership, to help shape the future in these media?  How can we be, as Jonathan Zittrain puts it, participants in creating platforms that function in a generative way — that launch new and wonderful and creative things?  As JZ puts the question: “How do we create organizations that help to organize people around tasks — to improve upon the news, to make it available to as many people as possible?”

A variety of futures are possible.  I have no better idea than anyone else does.  I am sure only that we ought to try to do something about how it comes out.  And that both traditional journalists, bloggers, podcasters, and players to be determined later have big and lasting roles to play in realizing a brighter future.

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