MG: I wish I had a less clichéd answer, but I think the difference comes down to the difference so many things come down to: ideal versus reality. Or, more specifically, theory versus practice. Sure, on the one hand: if we accept that ‘truth’—and even its constituents, facts—are, ultimately, communal and consensual and functions of mass mediation, etc.—then we must also accept that, the greater the number of voices involved in that mediation, the more ‘true’ the results will be. A Wikipedia entry written by 20 million people will be more reality-reflective than an entry written by twenty people.
So, if we follow that logic, then, yes: more participants in the fact-making process means more nuanced mediation means a more reflective, and thus accurate, mass reality. Which is, implicitly, a good thing: democratization has to be good for democracy, right?
But: all that is only logic and assumption. And logic and assumption, generally speaking, don’t account for the human element of the equation. The reality is that, on the Web, more voices don’t necessarily lead to a more rigorously tempered or more accurate sense of truth. Because those voices—and this is the key point—are rarely engaged in direct discourse. Increasingly, they’re not even talking about the same things. Increasingly, they’re operating completely independently of each other, without reference to each other…without, really, any kind of meaningful mutuality.
So it’d be one thing, to return to the Wikipedia example, if those voices were collaborating on a single entry; if that were the case, then we’d end up with a fairly meticulous—which is to say, valid—example of communal information. What’s happening now, though, is that those voices are writing multiple entries for the same topic. Which is—for people trying to learn from those entries, trying to get an accurate picture of the world—a huge problem. One that doesn’t involve mere cognitive dissonance; it involves, rather, cognitive anarchy. Because if you’re presented with differing versions of, ostensibly, the same reality…then how are you supposed to know what to believe? And how are you supposed to have meaningful conversations with other people—with, from the democracy angle, other citizens?
Again, to be clear, none of this is meant as an argument against multiple voices, or against the democratization of information, etc. The new capabilities we have to contribute and, more to the point, to share information with one another make for a shift that is, overall, largely to the good. But: the end goal of all the shifting, ultimately, needs to be discourse. So that we can learn from each other, and—to return to the epistemological aspect of all this for just a sec—so that we can, together, determine a more nuanced and reflective and thus accurate version of our mass-mediated reality. You really can’t have too many cooks in the kitchen on this one.
What I am arguing against, ultimately, is the ghettoization of information. I worry that niche news, to return to the topic at hand, broadly and systematically divides people—rather than bringing them, broadly and systematically, together. I worry that, in some sense, we’re using our tantalizingly democratic new technologies in fundamentally undemocratic ways.
JP: Part of me thinks that the traditional version of “the news” will never completely work online. And that outlets just shouldn’t bother trying to make it work. But, instead, should be trying to come up with something entirely different.
MG: I’m wondering, really, about resources. Because, ultimately, if you’re talking about a news organization, whatever you’re talking about within it—its Web site, its reporters, its payroll administrators, whatever—are all using the same basic resources. Financial, logistical, etc. So isn’t news, in that sense, a zero-sum game? And, by that logic, wouldn’t news-outlet-as-platform-provider take away from news-outlet-as-content-provider?
I’m not talking about the financial-model details, really. But just sort of philosophically, where’s the line between content and carrier?
JP: A couple of thoughts. First, I don’t think it takes all that many extra resources for news organizations to just start thinking differently. To re-envision their online strategies based on the realistic application of common principles.
MG: Of course not. But it does take extra resources to start acting differently. I mean, 99 percent of the time.