And while power in the media may have been dispersed, it remains a rather small world. Jarvis and Rosen (along with Emily Bell of Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism) consult for Paton’s JRC. Shirky wrote the forward to Gillmor’s new book. FON thinkers appear on panels together, etc.
What their writings—particularly those of Jarvis and Shirky—share are a belief in the transformative power of networks, both for journalism and indeed for the world; and a related, but not identical, faith in the wisdom of crowds and citizen journalism, in volunteerism over professionalism, in the “journalism as conversation” over traditional models of one-to-many information delivery. The consensus believes that reporters and editors must enter into deep, if not constant, contact with readers via social media, especially Facebook and Twitter. The consensus favors “iterative” journalism—reporting on the fly, fixing mistakes along the way—versus traditional methods of story organization, fact-checking, and copyediting; it favors spontaneity and informality over formal style and narrative forms.
FON thinking has roots in the non-journalism academy, particularly in the notion of so-called peer production, the participation of citizen-amateurs in professionalized activities. Based on ideas promulgated by prominent legal theorist Yochai Benkler, media scholar Henry Jenkins, and Shirky himself, peer-production theory holds that dramatically lowered costs of organizing, communicating, and sharing will upend many sectors of modern life, journalism very much included. Advocates of peer production (also known as social production) often point to such successful open-source collaborations as the Linux operating system and Wikipedia as harbingers of the networked future.
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.