Crowd Control

Bouquets and brickbats for the 'electronic mob'
April 28, 2008

Roughly a dozen years ago, when use of the Internet and World Wide Web was first ramping up, I was among a group of journalists to whom media critic and New York University professor Neil Postman delivered an informal talk. To paraphrase his remarks, he contended that we had already solved the problem of access to information and its exchange. What we were now suffering from instead, he said, was a glut of information, engulfing us in quantities we could not possibly assimilate. In an earlier era, we had social institutions, including the media, to filter this information, allowing us to evaluate its provenance and accuracy. When it came to the Web, though, we were on our own. Postman resorted to a biological metaphor, noting that against the free circulation of any virulent allegation on the Internet, we had developed no immune system.

Much has changed, radically and on a mass scale, since Postman made those observations. Witness the advent, since 2004 alone, of Facebook, MySpace (purchased by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation for $580 million), and YouTube (purchased by Google for $1.65 billion). Nielsen ratings of average home Web usage during December 2007 estimate the active U.S. digital media universe to be nearly 154 million strong, spending more than thirty-five hours online in thirty-six sessions, visiting sixty-five domains in the process. No wonder network television is scrambling to get there.

Amid this transformative, quicksilver moment in communications, with “social tools” that theoretically allow for great interconnectivity, are the sorts of questions that Postman raised still relevant? The cultural critic Lee Siegel, in Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob, concludes that they are. His book is an articulate and at times counterintuitive jeremiad against the commercial tide and shopworn stereotypes of Internet culture, one that in its more amusing moments shows traditional media heavyweights cowering before threats from the blogosphere. But Siegel also examines its far more serious threat to journalistic accountability.

Running counter to Siegel’s point of view—mostly through its focus on the Internet’s capacity to allow self-organization of latent groups, but also in its recasting of some basic journalistic precepts—is Clay Shirky’s effusive but thoughtful paean to the Web, Here Comes Everybody. The author teaches in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, and there is a hands-on, media-lab approach inherent in much of what he writes. Flash mobs, anyone?

Perhaps surprisingly, these Janus-faced views of the Internet experience start from the same fundamental assumption. Says Shirky: “We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race. More people can communicate more things to more people than has ever been possible in the past, and the size and speed of this increase…makes the change unprecedented.” Siegel observes, “For the first time in human history, a person can broadcast his opinions, beliefs, and most intimate thoughts—not to mention his face, or any other part of his body—to tens of millions of other people….The Internet is possibly the most radical transformation of private and public life in the history of humankind.”

Siegel’s arguments are bound to bring flamers out of the Webwork, since his points add up to a generalized attack on Web positivism and claims made on behalf of the blogging universe. But for pure shock value to publishers and journalists, Shirky’s contentions are not to be outdone, since he believes that traditional media are not merely doomed but already deceased. Against the Machine and Here Comes Everybody often parallel each other in a topical sense—both discuss Wikipedia, the blogosphere, the nature of connectedness, economic modeling, mass culture—but their perspectives are on a collision course, and it is clear that Siegel disdains much of the worldview that Shirky propounds. Shirky is confident that “the Internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it.” Siegel, meanwhile, insists that “what the Internet hypes as ‘connectivity’ is, in fact, its exact opposite,” which leaves us in a state of interlinked isolation.

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Shirky’s principal focus lies somewhat outside Siegel’s purview, and relates to behavior of the type described by digital maverick Steven Johnson in his book Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities and Software. Yet his underlying theoretical framework—the insight that aggregates (such as crowds) can display orders of behavior or effects that are novel and not predictable by studying the constituent parts—ties in with Siegel’s objection that we have become participants in a numbers-driven culture, and that metrics are the new American idolatry. “More is different” is one of Shirky’s catchphrases. In discussing large-group dynamics, he aligns himself with Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point. And not surprising, given his disdain for the madding crowd, this is the very book that Siegel finds so objectionable. “Once the ‘tipping point’ became an established concept, the easy hijacking of the Internet by commercial interests was almost a foregone conclusion,” Siegel contends. He adds that the Internet’s “premium on popularity as the sole criterion of success gives the lie to its claims of ‘choice,’ ‘access,’ and increased opportunity for individual expression. Intentionally or not, Malcolm Gladwell is one of the great facilitators of those deceptive claims.”

Hanging the fate of the Internet on a single book might give even the credulous reader pause. But Siegel’s bashing of “Internet boosters” also includes Steven Johnson, Stewart Brand (founder of the Whole Earth Catalog and The well, the early online community), Kevin Kelly (a co-founder of Wired magazine), Chris Anderson (author of The Long Tail), Douglas Rushkoff (a writer about participatory media and colleague of Shirky’s at NYU), Lawrence Lessig (a Stanford law professor), Jay Rosen (journalism professor at NYU), Tim O’Reilly (an Internet impresario and publisher, often credited with originating the Web 2.0 concept), and John Battelle (another Wired co-founder and author). Most of these figures are taken to task for furthering the commercial aspects of the Internet. Others are charged with related offenses. Lessig, for example, is scolded for his advocacy of “capturing and sharing” copyrighted material, while Rosen’s crime is soliciting nonprofessional, citizen journalism in the public sphere.

Siegel views the Internet as a stage for the performing, thoroughly packaged self. In his view, today’s technology has accelerated the distillation of trends noted by Christopher Lasch thirty years ago in The Culture of Narcissism. It was Lasch’s conclusion that self-obsession “drove people further into themselves and created an inner emptiness by exalting the self and cutting it off from reality.” Fast-forward to the present, says Siegel, where “the Internet’s vision of ‘consumers’ as ‘producers’ has turned inner life into an advanced type of commodity,” perfecting the world sought by seventies futurist Alvin Toffler.

As in any imaginative cultural interpretation, Siegel swings wide of the mark here and there. In one of his weakest riffs, he blames Method acting for bringing us from popular culture to participatory culture. Still, he advances his ideas boldly, and is unabashed, after belittling what he sees as the Web’s antipathy to other cultural authority, to throw down this gauntlet:

What I’ve been describing is the surreal world of Web 2.0, where the rhetoric of democracy, freedom and access is often a fig leaf for antidemocratic and coercive rhetoric; where commercial ambitions dress up in the sheep’s clothing of humanistic values; and where, ironically, technology has turned back the clock from disinterested enjoyment of high and popular art to a primitive culture of crude, grasping self-interest.

Turning to Shirky’s views, we find that freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose. The dilemma blocking many social goals, he maintains, is that “activities whose costs are higher than the potential value for both firms and markets simply don’t happen.” What’s new is that interactive technology has lowered the costs of coordinating potential group action, altering the very terrain of human effort: “Our electronic networks are enabling novel forms of collective action, enabling the creation of collaborative groups that are larger and more distributed than at any time in history. The scope of work that can be done by noninstitutional groups is a profound challenge to the status quo.”

Crediting principles articulated by economist Ronald Coase and network theory developed by many others, Shirky contends that transaction costs have dropped dramatically when it comes to self-assembling groups. Being voluntary, such collective enterprises can afford to fail many times over in ways that traditional companies or governments cannot. The move from latent to actual groups utilizes the principle behind the development of open-source software, and Shirky applies it to society at large: “It is not an organization, it is an ecosystem, and one that is remarkably tolerant of failure.”

What would this transformation entail? For one thing, mass amateurization of the media, which Shirky accepts as a foregone conclusion. “It’s easy to tell the newspaper people to quit whining,” he notes, “because the writing has been on the wall since the Internet became publicly accessible in the early 1990s.” As he sees it, the old bargain between the media and consumers has ended with the easy replication and distribution of text, image, and audio. “From now on news can break into public consciousness without the traditional press weighing in,” which will also shift the very definition of news away from institutional prerogatives.

This point of view, complete with its triumphalist overtones, is one commonly expressed in the blogosphere. Shirky, however, has a novel response to the question of quality control: we will have to move to a publish-then-filter model, the opposite of today’s “gatekeeper” structure. Evolving toward accuracy and quality through collective effort is the aim, in the same fashion that Wikipedia entries mutate over time. (“A Wikipedia article is a process, not a product,” asserts Shirky.) The potential of such a reversal will strike most journalists as perverse, particularly when one considers, as former Washington Post correspondent Neil Henry does in his American Carnival: Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media, a study of citizen journalist blogs performed by the University of South Carolina in 2004. According to the study, more than half of these blogs obtained their information chiefly from newspapers, a significant number of the remainder simply repeated what they found on other blogs, and nearly 90 percent “opposed the journalistic tradition of using an editor to check postings for accuracy.”

Here Comes Everybody is filled with tales of collaborative efforts by groups that could not have formed without technological interconnectivity. Some are small potatoes—the retrieval of a lost cell phone, for example. But others are politically fraught, such as street protests in Belarus or the Philippines spurred by forwarded text messages. Shirky concedes that “real examples of collective action—where a group acts on behalf of, and with shared consequences for, all of its members—are still relatively rare.” Despite that, throughout his book Shirky sticks a label on us that was coined by Dan Gillmor, a proponent of “grassroots journalism”: the former audience. 

Art Winslow is a former literary and executive editor of The Nation. He writes frequently about books and culture.