Now, of course, I believe the triumphalism was premature—not to mention not always very nice—but also in a couple of key ways, it was misguided. It was misguided in that it sought to throw out not just the bad things, but everything. Not just monolithic news organizations, not just Murdoch and Gannett, not just he-said/she said journalism, and horse-race journalism, and bureaucratized, play it down the middle journalism, not quasi-monopolistic business practices, and gouging rates for classified and display ads, and people who didn’t pick up the phone when you called the newsroom, and letters to the editor that went into a black hole, and all that. But everything—Ida Tarbell and Sam McClure and Walter Lippmann, and the great Wall Street Journal editor Barney Kilgore, the Journal leders and A-heds, Bob Greene’s investigations at Newsday and the investigative reporting renaissance that he led, the long-form narrative movement that folks like Roy Peter Clark and Mark Kramer taught and preached.
Now, I don’t think the new vanguard meant to throw all this out. But there was just a lot they didn’t know, a line of tradition that someone needed to trace and to explain. So, we’re supposed to be storytellers. Let’s construct some narratives:
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.
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 of 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.
Clearly, as I’ve written, there is a culture gap between the peer-production advocates and professional journalism, it seems safe to say. Where a professional journalist might think of the glories of “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.