As Shirky writes: “Social production: people you don’t know making your life better, for free.”
Peer production is itself a subset of a larger body of thought about networks and society. It tends to view a wired society as a fundamentally different one—less hierarchical, more democratic, more collaborative, freer, even more authentic—from those that preceded it. Manuel Castells, an important network theorist, contends that technology will transform nothing less than “the process of formation and exercise of power relationships.” Or as Nicholas Negroponte, currently on leave from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, put it, the Internet is about to “flatten organizations, globalize society, decentralize control, and help harmonize people.”
If some aspects of peer-production theory and its FON offshoot sound familiar—anti-institutionalism; communitarianism laced with libertarianism; a millennial, Age-of-Aquarius vibe; a certain militancy—some scholars have traced its roots to 1960s counterculture. Fred Turner, a Stanford communications theorist and a cautionary voice on the potential of peer production, chronicled the development of a network of 1960s idealists surrounding Stewart Brand, the visionary founder of both the Whole Earth Catalog, the iconic communitarian manual, in 1968, and Wired, a New Economy-era magazine that is still the digital bible, in 1993. These “New Communards,” as Turner calls them, drew from California’s defense-centered research culture as well as the counterculture to become the vanguard of the digital revolution, helping transform the very idea of the computer from a symbol of bureaucracy and control to one of personal and social liberation.
There is a culture gap between the peer-production advocates and professional journalism, it seems safe to say. Where a professional journalist might think “Watergate,” peer-production adherents would think “pre-Iraq War coverage.” Where establishment journalism might fondly recall elegant Wall Street Journal narratives and great regional exposés at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Miami Herald, FON adherents think “pre-financial crisis Wall Street coverage” and “Gannett.” In this, they have a point. What’s more, peer-production advocates have had to face down some predictably defensive and mule-headed responses from segments of the old guard—curmudgeons, J-school handwringers, public-funding types, and the corporate heads who sucked out value from newspaper companies and now complain about strangers running around on their lawn.
What Shirky, a New York University lecturer and consultant, has brought to the newspaper industry, if nothing else, is a salutatory sense of urgency. Essentially: wake the fuck up. In revolutionary times, Shirky reminds us in a widely quoted 2009 essay on newspapers’ predicament, it is the radicals who are rational, while the voices of caution are, in fact, mad:
Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.
Like Jarvis, Shirky is a leading proponent of the idea that we are passing through a watershed, not just for our generation or era, but for all of human history. This is the idea of the “Gutenberg parenthesis,” coined by a Danish scholar, that holds that the Internet has the potential to revolutionize human social life to a degree that we cannot now understand, just as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press paved the way for, eventually, modernity itself.
Shirky argues that our conventional views of work and incentives won’t hold in a new era when the costs of collaboration and sharing are so low. People can, and always have, come together for many reasons. For example, he compares Wikipedia to the Shinto shrine in Ise, Japan, which is periodically torn down and rebuilt by local priests (and whose work, like many Internet toilers, is not recognized by established authority, in this case, UNESCO). “It exists not as an edifice, but as an act of love,” he says. “Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context.”
In some ways, Shirky is the most subtle and careful member of the FON crew. Many of Shirky’s prescriptions for the economics of journalism are commonsensical and even wise. A point I find inarguable is that while some news models have been found to work in some contexts-—The Wall Street Journal’s pay wall, ProPublica’s fund-raising model (basically, one big donor), Talking Points Memo’s online ad-based system—nothing to date is scalable. There is no news business “model” at all. And who can argue with his call for constant experimentation? “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” he asks rhetorically. “The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments. . . .”