From the talking heads to the echo chamber?

By , 27 October, 2008, 4 Comments

I consider myself something of a Web 2.0 moderate. Though I’m bullish about the prospects for technology to expand the reach of news to those who might not otherwise join in public discourse, I don’t believe that populist outcome makes bloggers and tweeters as individuals inherently superior to their New Yorker foes. I find the moralistic tone of netroots commentators decrying the “establishment” pretty repulsive, just as I find the conspiratorial fears among print journos about the insurgent techies to be silly and exaggerated.

Yes, people are tired of a he-said-she-said model of media that often involves going back and forth between talking heads of various ideological poles and winding up with no answers at all. But bloggers are swinging in two equally dangerous directions.

Some, like Jeff Jarvis, have gone postmodern on us: forget answers, they say. Jarvis foresees a digital echo chamber where there aren’t any narratives or accounts or collections of data. Instead, there will just be the “web” in its entirety, with any one blog post having value solely in its connections to every single item out there on the web on a given topic. I’m a big believer in the importance of links, and I see those as one of the web’s main assets, but I see links as helping to deepen a reader’s understanding on any one article or blog post. Just as I have never bought the litcrit argument that it’s impossible to hold and analyze one aspect of a text when it’s the “process of making meaning that matters”, I don’t really buy Jarvis’ argument that Web 2.0 readers will be so wrapped up in the process of following the links that they will no longer want some conclusions about their world. Narrative–and thus some single unit like a story or a blog post–will still matter.

Other techevangelists, like Larry Smith, think the web is going to get more more fractured, more opinionated, with people embracing the spin of the single subset of definitive answers they choose to read, caring as much about the identity of the journalists as they do about the news. As people embrace what Larry calls the “Fifth Estate,” the old media will become irrelevant and slip away. I don’t buy this picture either: just as people still want to walk away from their daily media digest with some coherent narrative, they also still want that narrative to tell some facts. The human impulse for information is as real and enduring as the impulse for interpretation.

People have been predicting since the the 1840s that technologies which allow for the blurring of fact, fiction and opinion would somehow debase the public’s ability to differentiate between these categories. 19th century public intellectuals angsted that readers would be so committed to factual objectivity that they would no longer value worldviews and social institutions. 19th century sociologists worried that readers would be so entranced with the fictional subjectivity of serialized novels that they would cease to care about real events–elections, wars, urban crime on their own street corners. Neither prediction came through; it turned out people wanted both information and interpretation, and the same print technology had to meet these two needs in separate ways. Newspapers, novels and magazine essays each found their place.

Similarly, the narrative/story–with its interpretative value–, the blog post–with its ability to make bias transparent, and the article–with its emphasis on data and figures all have a role in the 21st century. Web journalists will add the narrative and the article to their arsenal of forms, while print writers and analog broadcasters will learn from the web how to be more transparent about bias in their opinion-driven work. Overtime, as every journalist learns the skills of each platform, this dichotomy of established vs. netroots journo communities will evaporate, but not (as Jarvis says) by eliminating the differences between the content and purpose of these various media forms.

In other words, calm down. There will be change, but the sky is not falling.

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