Monday, January 16, 2006

Leggo my ego!

Jeff Jarvis opens up a much bigger can of worms that I think he intended to over at Buzzmachine with a post about the value of "scoops" in the new media.

Picking up on Business Week reporter Steve Baker's complaint about not being able to share any of the story he was researching with the blogosphere before publication, Jarvis wonders:

Is it better for Steve and Business Week to have held back their story from public view until it was packaged and polished and delivered in print, or to have sought out the best advice on it from an informed public by seeking collaboration via Steve's blog as the story was being formed? Which produces a better product and a better business?

Okay, so far so good. If we've learned anything from open-source endeavors such as Wikipedia, it is that the digital mob has an astonishing capacity for gathering research and checking facts. Last Fall a journalist at Esquire decided to put Wikipedia's abilities to the test by posting the rough draft of an article and asking the community to beat it into shape.

In less than 48 hours the error-laden piece had gone through over four hundred edits, and the end product was in fact an article just as publishable as most anything else out there. Truly the power of collaboration is one that the Internet has only just begun to harness, and Jarvis is right to wonder if we shouldn't be thinking more about transparency and sharing rather than the proprietary opacity of the old guard, although I wonder why he never expands his vision beyond journalism.

(Yes, I know that's what he does for a living, but damn it, the new media is bigger than just the circle of journalists, which is why I've never warmed to Jarvis' term "citizen journalist" for bloggers.)

Then Jeff goes off the deep end:

I just came back from the Online Publishers Association confab, where I spoke at the end, and I said that we waste too much resource and money on ego: on having our own movie critic, though the movies are the same everywhere and the opinions that matter are those of the audience; on having our own golf writer go to the tournament far away, though the score is the same as the one reported hours before on TV; on sending our own political pundits to the political conventions, when nothing happens there.

This statement is objectionable on several counts. First off, it makes the extremely dubious assumption that the only thing out there are "facts" that could just as soon be aggregated and tabulated as reported. But there is a world of difference between a box score and a talented sports columnist, just as there are film critics who can provide insight and political beat writers who can make people care about what goes on in our local, state, and federal government.

To deny that this is so is to pretend that no one's voice is more authoritative or privileged than another's, which even in an ostensibly egalitarian utopia like the blogosphere is just a big crock of shit. Yes, everyone's opinion matters to some degree, but the opinions of people who either know more about what they're talking or have the ability to express themselves well when they do talk are going to matter more, like it or not, whether we're talking about the real of virtual worlds. Plato banged his head up against this same problem in several Socratic dialogues and couldn't find a way around it either, so don't beat yourself up too much about it, Jeff.

The new media may transform the context within which authority and rhetoric operate, but we're a long, long way off from the day when such things won't significantly figure into the equation. What Jarvis derides as "ego" is in fact a core component of any human communication, that of narrative, something we can no more efface from ourselves than our noses or our big toes. True, the blogosphere challenges the one-way nature of the traditional narrative voices which were the hallmark of the old media, but to imagine that the natural outcome of this challenge is a world of metrics and aggregates simply replaces the tyranny of narrative with a tyranny that would deny it. Neither is particularly healthy.

What Jarvis keeps missing, I think, is the fact that the new media needs elements of the old media in order to thrive. Collaboration is well and good, but unless someone steps up and gets the ball rolling in the first place all you have is a room full of people picking at their cuticles and shuffling their feet. Aggregation is swell, but unless you're gathering voices worth listening to in the first place you might as well just be hitting the "NextBlog" button and reading whatever spew you get as a result. Metacommentary is the most useful feature of the new media, but unless it is reacting to and interacting with commentary that somehow rises above the background static then what exactly is the point?

We need both the solitary voice or the "scoop" as well as the collaborative effort in order to avoid becoming a solipsistic echo chamber or one big cacophonous mush. After all, even a Wikipedia entry begins with the work of an individual. The point of the new media is not to eclipse or destroy the ego, but to empower it by allowing it to interact with millions (and perhaps someday billions) of other voices and perhaps find something larger than itself in the process.

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