pow•wow noun \pau̇-wau̇\
– a brief discussion about a matter concerning a person or an event.
That people gather to organize, collaborate or simply gossip is nothing new. However, the Internet – or more precisely, Web 2.0 – has fundamentally changed not just the way we connect, but more importantly, what we connect about.
You, me and everyone we know
In his book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky marvels at the “new ease of assembly” that the web has brought about. More specifically, the ability of users to find like-minded people, via applications such as Twitter, Flickr and Facebook, circumvents the need for institutions and traditional organizational hierarchy. Groups can communicate, co-operate and even implement collective action without the need for directives.
This has been enabled by the rise of Web 2.0, which can be characterized by the shift from static web pages to dynamic or user-generated content. In other words, it represents the ability to not just to publish, but to also interact.
There are two key effects.
- The long tail, without a profit motive. The significant decrease in transaction costs allows for issues that are not economically justifiable at an institutional level to be taken up groups on the web – or in more technical terms, activities that previously lay under the Coasean floor are now viable (as was the case with Ivanna’s Sidekick).
- The mass amateurization of the media. In many ways, Web 2.0 has shifted the power to the people – users can create news and influence the content of traditional media.
If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own – Wes Nisker
Perhaps it is prudent to step back and ask ourselves, “Is it always a good outcome that groups – made up of anyone, anywhere – can influence the news?”
The advent of Web 2.0 has clearly lowered the threshold of what might be considered newsworthy, and media outlets are increasingly covering issues that are trending on social media to generate more eyeballs – and more advertising dollars. A fundamental assumption of this filter is that the group mentality is right. However, as history has illustrated, herd mentality can be wrong or even dangerous.
One of my favorite litmus tests is to compare the headlines of my home newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) with that of The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) at the very same moment in time. For example, on Tuesday 9 September 2014 at 23:00 EST, the top articles on the SMH homepage included:
- “Hands on with the new iPhones”
- “Katy Perry’s tweet fuels talk of bad blood with Taylor Swift”
- “The baby signs we missed from William and Kate”
On the WSJ homepage, the top articles were:
- “Almost Two-Thirds Support Attacking Militants”
- “Combat Reversals Pressure Syria’s Assad”
- “Apple Boss Makes His Boldest Bets Yet”
While the World Wide Web has increased access to information, the sheer volume of information is overwhelming, so much so that users often default to a handful of sources. In other words, the fact that the SMH filters out key world events means that this news may not reach many of its readers.
As the relationship between social media and the news grows even more intertwined, the role of the editor becomes even more crucial. In some cases, online activists can bring much needed attention to issues that have been underreported by traditional media, as was the case with Voice of the Faithful, but at the same time, editors and journalists must use their professional judgment to ensure that important world news is not overshadowed by inane but popular stories.
Down the rabbit hole we go
In many ways, the Web is the greatest social experiment of all time. The creators of the most popular applications could not have foreseen how these applications would be used. For example, it is very unlikely that back when Mark Zuckerberg was coding Facebook in his dorm room he could have fathomed that it would be instrumental to multiple uprisings in the Middle East a mere seven years later.
The Web continues to evolve in wonderful, weird and (sometimes) worrisome ways, and there is plenty of talk about the long tail – but what about the head? In the case of news, one thing is clear: “old’ media has to work harder to justify its economic existence when “free” is the alternative. My prediction is that the world of news will bifurcate: users will only pay for high quality, well-curated journalism, and the rest will be free, and it will be the middle – the newspapers that are straddling world news and pop culture – that will suffer.