In America Calling, Fischer writes that early telephone entrepreneurs complained about “the transmission of large numbers of communications of the most trivial character,” and that they considered social usage of the telephone to be a frivolous and unnecessary pursuit. But by the mid-1920s, thanks to “new leaders and a half-century’s experience,” most companies had accepted the notion that the telephone was well-suited for social communications.
Individuals tend toward informality. That’s why people like the Internet. That’s also why organizations often do not use it well.
Sociability trumps edification. And in democratic terms, sociability might be just as important as edification, too. All true communications advances are hierarchy-destroyers, helping to level the inequalities that organizational society creates. Feudal manors, modern corporations, the military—societies and groups define themselves by their organizational divisions. The powerful consolidate and exert their power and status by accepting and promoting these divisions. Lord/peasant. Boss/worker. Reporter/reader.
By promoting individual agency and encouraging informality in discourse, communications advances empower individuals, consciously or not, to reject these divisions. The printing press promoted literacy—still the most powerful weapon against the class divisions created and perpetuated by society. Postal correspondence promoted personal contact with individuals outside of one’s immediate geographical orbit. (Perhaps more important, postal mail encouraged individuals to acknowledge and write their own stories, so to speak; to record the circumstances of their own lives and take interest in the lives of others—and, by so doing, to start defining themselves by narratives other than those being imposed upon them by society.) The telephone made it easier than ever to informally contact anyone in the world. (In college, using a number we found in the library, my friends and I would regularly prank call the Duke of Devonshire’s estate.)
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.