The Internet subverts hierarchical structures both in the way it was built and (perhaps as a function of that) in the way it was used. Built as a decentralized system, the network’s architectural informality carried over to usage patterns. In a 1978 paper entitled “Applications of Information Networks,” Licklider and Albert Vezza noted that, “in an ARPANET message, one could write tersely and talk imperfectly, even to an older person in a superior position and even to a person one did not know very well, and the recipient took no offense. The formality and perfection that most people expect in a typed letter did not become associated with network messages, probably because the network was so much faster, so much like the telephone.”
Individuals tend toward informality. That’s why people like the Internet. That’s also why organizations often do not use it well. Especially news organizations. Of late they have struggled, unsure whether they should adapt themselves wholly to the Web, force the Web to adapt to them, or creat some wishy-washy hybrid borne out of confusion about the roles that the news and the net will play in the new digital world.
There is no one clear way. The functions of news are different than the functions of the Web, and news providers should be wary of those who claim that online news must adapt itself completely to the characteristics of the digital medium. While the news is inherently communicative in certain ways, in other ways it is not; and it is a hasty and ill-considered strategy that emphasizes the one at the expense of the other.
But the Internet is communicative, and news organizations, if they are to use the Internet to its greatest potential, need to acknowledge this as they devise their strategies for the years to come. In his manuscript Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet, Michael Hauben quoted one early Internet user as saying: ‘“When access to information is as ubiquitous as access to the phone system, all Hell will break loose. Bet on it.’” But that’s not quite right. When information is understood as a key component of a discursive, social system, the value of which is defined by its use and its users, then all hell will break loose.
Until then, it pays to keep a close eye on the flames.
For a list of suggestions for further reading, click here. For Megan Garber’s companion piece on communal news in a fragmented world, click here. To read a conversation between Garber and Peters on the topics covered in their essays, click here. Thanks to Megan Garber and Josh Young for reading drafts of this essay.