Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine has recently been to the Davos conference and as one of the Net’s leading media commentators he has a fundamental insight into where the world’s movers and shakers – he refers to them as ‘machers‘ which is Yiddish for big shot – are in understanding the Internet.
Perhaps the most important ‘ding’ moment I had at Davos was that the powerful are, no surprise, one step behind in their understanding of the true significance of the Internet: They think it is all about individual action when, in truth, it’s about collective action. And so they don’t yet see that the Internet will shift power even more than they realize.
The powerful at Davos are just starting to talk about the Internet and individual empowerment; we heard that often up in the Alps from media (this has become editors’ cant), leaders in politics (like the U.K.’s Gordon Brown and the EU’s Viviane Reding), business (Bill Gates), and even technology (Gates, again). They are not alone; we have heard this for quite a while back down on earth. And it’s certainly true that the Internet enables each of us to find the information that matters to us, to publish what we think, and do what we want. But that is only a step along the way to the fate of society after the Internet.
The Internet is more about collective action. It is about connections. It gives us the power to find each other, to join together, to coalesce around issues, ideas, products, desires, and activities as never before, leaping over all borders, real and cultural. That is the historic progression of power that we are witnessing. That is what we heard from the people who truly understand this mechanism because they are building it: Caterina Fake and Stuart Butterfield of Flickr, Chad Hurley of YouTube, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook. At Davos, these pioneers didn’t contradicted the machers when they said that the Internet is about individualism; on that plane, they were talking past each other. But as I sat down to make my notes about what I learned at Davos, this is what hit me between the eyes.
First I want to say that it has been my clear impression that our current leaders don’t understand the social, political, or institutional implications of the Internet nearly as well as not just the the young and sexy ‘machers’ of the Net l, but all kinds ordinary people who use the net to get jobs, boyfriends, degrees, and tell the folks back home what it is like to work in Africa or be a soldier in Iraq. The software that aids and abets this kind of interaction on the net even has a name – social software. Today’s big shots don’t understand what McLuhan spent his life trying to point out. That is, that a change in the media environment changes not just what we can see on the surface, but the far less visible structure of our society and institutions. Not just individual empowerment, but the way we take collective action. Think about it a minute – if we all were born with built in wireless connectivity would we bother to build cities and all manner of other ‘centers’?
Put it this way. If I were 20 I’d start looking to buy a nice piece of remote real estate that is beyond were anyone wants to live. I noticed when I was in Kansas City in 2005 it was already happening. Corporate yuppies were filtering into the dying towns of western Kansas from which the local youth have been fleeing because of lack of opportunity for decades. The newcomers bring their opportunities with them because they work on the Net and when they have to meet face to face they take a light plane service, started up by a local man to serve them, into Denver or KC to hook up to the main airline trunk routes. Their house cost very little and their kids go to a drug free school. Yes, the Internet does empower the individual, but it is the connection – the network – that empowers by connecting individuals in a new way. As the man says – its about connections.
Here is another example of the potential for structural change. People can interact on the net and create things. The most famous example is how Linus Torvalds put the beginnings of a clone of the Unix operating system out on the net in the early nineties and asked if anyone was interested. They were, and together they built the Linux operating system as a labor of love. It is now a serious rival to Microsoft in several areas of computing. (I wonder if Torvalds was at Davos!) Now think of accredited bricks and mortar universities which at their core are about providing a place where powerful minds can meet and produce new thinking and pass it on to others. The Internet can do all that too and there is nothing to stop groups of people doing exactly that on the net. They wont get accreditation from established accrediting bodies but they can set up their own accrediting system and if they do a better job at developing ideas and new talent their accredited credentials will become more valuable that conventional university degrees. To the extent that universities become centers of conventional thinking and purveyors of ordinary ideas rather than loci of genuine intellectual ferment and debate they leave themselves open to being outflanked by the Internet.
The Mainstream Media Media – the MSM – is already being outflanked by the blogosphere. In one way I feel sorry for editors and reporters because they have have been trained and acculturated to working in a mass media environment. By their nature the mass media have a few producers and a mass audience. The producers select, shape and package their product to appeal to the greatest number because thier success depends on getting the biggest audience. That is the structure of mass media (few to many) and the structure of the Internet is radically different because it is a network (many to many). All nodes can be both consumers and producers. On the surface it looks like an outbreak of individualism and chaos, but underneath it is about connection. Underneath, its structure is a network.
So power relationship and roles are changing too. Here Jarvis traces the evolution of the relationship between the blogosphere and the MSM.
In media terms, I said at Davos and here on the blog that we have seen a small-scale version of this progression:
1. First, big media let us interact with them, about their stuff.
2. Then big media beg us to give them our stuff.
3. Now we realize that our stuff is ours — not user-generated content for the big guys — and we expect them to come to us.
Big, as Glen Reynolds pointed out in An Army of Davids, it is no longer the trump card it was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As Glenn says – the Internet can create a pack, not a herd. His own Porkbusters campaign against Congressional ‘earmarks’ is a case in point. The hunting pack of a group of American bloggers vehemently opposed to congress weasels slipping outrageous spending on their own districts into unrelated bills has been successfully targeted and the practice, as old as the Republic, is under severe threat. You can’t fight city hall? Well using the Internet sometimes you can – particularly if you hunt in a pack. Its about connections.
I’ll let Jeff close out this piece with his take on the social implications of the Internet:
It’s a distributed world, but I also said at Davos and on the blog that that doesn’t just mean big media can distribute its stuff to us in new ways; it means that all our stuff makes up the corpus of media, that we have the means of creation (bless my Mac and WordPress), marketing (that is, linking), and now distribution (thank you, YouTube). So the wise media macher will figure out how to try to enable people to create and share their stuff, not just big media’s, how to get into the middle of the conversation that’s already occurring– and not just start those conversations, which they still think is their role.