By Clay Shirky
As print and broadcast give way to the Digital Age, the media are in upheaval. The changes have sparked fascination, confusion and peril—especially when it comes to news, which is so essential in democracies.
We need a media environment that serves us, both as individuals and as a society. Yet turmoil in journalism threatens our ability oversee the people who act on our behalf. Media participation is critical to avoiding this threat: not just to keep politicians in check but also to balance the power of the whole crazy range of people we rely on—police and doctors and energy executives and pharmaceutical researchers and bankers, and all the other people who make decisions that affect us without requiring or allowing our direct input. Solid journalism helps keep those people working on our behalf (and it keeps us honest, when we work on behalf of others).
The turmoil is inspiring large numbers of ideas and experiments from people who know the risks and want to help create a valuable media in this new century. The experiments fascinate me as a writer on media and the Internet, and they fascinate my students at New York University and Harvard. They differ in small and large ways, but most have at least one thing in common: They imagine trying to fix the supply of news, either by vetting or filtering sources in such a way as to preserve the old, relatively passive grazing habits of 20th century news consumers.
Dan Gillmor, as you will see in this book, takes a very different approach. Dan doesn’t make upgrading the sources, or the gatekeepers, or the filters—or any other “them” in the media ecosystem—his only or even primary goal. Dan wants to upgrade us, so we can do our own part. He wants us to encourage media to supply better information by helping us learn to demand better information. And he wants us to participate as creators.
Dan’s proposal for making news useful to us, as citizens and consumers, is the most ambitious one going. He wants us to become mediactive—active users of media—to help us live up to the ideal of literacy. Literacy, in any medium, means not just knowing how to read that medium, but also how to create in it, and to understand the difference between good and bad uses.
Dan’s conception here is extraordinarily broad. Although he is a journalist, and is concerned with journalism and society, he conceives of media and our engagement with it across a broad range of behaviors, attitudes and tools we need to adopt. He offers a framework, first, for thinking of ourselves as active consumers, with the necessary virtues of skepticism and patience with complex stories, and with very practical guidelines for making judgments about the trustworthiness of stories and sources.
His framework then extends to us as producers, offering a simple but informative guide to many of the ways that we can now make our own media and put it out in public, advising each of us to participate on the network and also to have a home base online that we control. He offers advice on making the media we create visible to the people we want to see it (today, visible means findable). And in furthering his commitment to the “active” part of being mediactive, he offers suggestions on how each of us can be a trustworthy source of information, beyond simply vetting others for trustworthiness.
Dan’s framework includes not just individual action but group action. As more and more of our information and opinions about the world are filtered through social networks, the book sets out ideas for being a good community participant, passing along not just links but context to one another—being as good at sharing and interpreting media for one another as we are for ourselves. And it takes group action to the highest order of aggregation: what kind of society we want to be, given our access to these new tools and to their attendant freedoms.
Dan has an extraordinary resume. He was the technology and business columnist for Silicon Valley’s hometown paper, the San Jose Mercury News, both before and during the Internet boom. He was an early blogger, and one of the first to blog as part of his newspapering duties. He wrote a book on citizen media when almost no one had heard of the idea. He’s run an academic program dedicated to treating journalism as an engaged and entrepreneurial field open to innovation, rather than a craft simply practiced by existing institutions. And he’s been a participant in various media startups, as a founder, advisor and investor.
He’s had, in other words, a ringside seat for some of the biggest tech-inflected changes in the journalism world, as an observer, a practitioner and a theorist. He knows what a revolution looks like, he knows the long odds against any revolution actually coming to fruition, and he knows when it’s worth trying anyway, despite the long odds.
The obvious thing to say is that most plans this audacious usually fail. A less obvious but more important thing to say is that “most” is not the same as “all”; a few plans as big as Dan’s do succeed.
The value in trying something like this isn’t just the likelihood of success vs. failure, but that likelihood times the value created if we do indeed succeed. The possibility of making enough citizens mediactive to make journalism good because we demand that it be good, the possibility that a small but passionate group of both producers and users of journalism will become the people to do the work of holding society’s powerful to account—well, that would be something of very great value indeed.
Of the current revolution, Dan says it’s going to be messy, but also exciting. He knows what he’s talking about. We would all do well to listen.
Clay Shirky (shirky.com) is a researcher, teacher and author whose latest book is Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.