Once and for all

As threatened, in my Guardian column this week, I try to catalogue the yes-but contrariness I hear about the internet’s opportunities–and my responses:

It never fails. I’ll be talking with a group about the amazing opportunities of the internet age and inevitably someone will pipe up and say, “Yes, but there are inaccuracies on the internet.” And: “There are no standards there.” Or: “Most people just watch junk.” There the conversation stalls. I take it as personal failure, not keeping everyone’s eyes focused on the future. Suddenly, we’re spinning our wheels in the present or sliding back to the past, missing the chance to explore and exploit our new reality. Once and for all, I’d like to respond to these fears and complaints. They won’t go away. But at least I could, as the prime minister does in question time, refer the honourable curmudgeon to the replies I give here.

There’s junk on the internet. True. There’s junk everywhere (even on bookshop shelves). The mistake is to think that the internet should be packaged and perfected, like media. It’s not media. Blogger Doc Searls, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto, says the web is instead a place where we talk and connect. In his 1996 Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow called it “the new home of the mind.” The internet is life. Life is messy. Get used to it.

Most people watch junk. True. But “most” is a measurement that mattered only in the mass media economy, which is over. In our new mass of niches, we each may seek out and support what we like. Yes, we’ve all watched our silly flaming cat videos (not to mention Big Brother). But we’ve also watched moments of genius made possible by the internet. Why concentrate on the crap when brilliance is only a click away?

Anyone can say anything on the internet. True. And God bless it for that. That cacophony you hear is democracy and the free marketplace of ideas.

There are inaccuracies on the internet. True. But the web enables us to correct our mistakes – because nothing is finished there. With a link or a comment, we can also correct others. And thanks to Google, we can look up facts from many sources in an instant. I’d say the internet has given us a greater respect and facility for facts and has made us as a society more accurate.

Wikipedia has mistakes. True. So does this newspaper. Both are better at making corrections than books and encyclopedias. Wikipedia, like the web, has enabled an unprecedented collection of knowledge, passion, creation, and collaboration.

We need a seal of approval for internet content. False. The last thing we need is a system for certification. For who should have the authority to do it? Who would wield that shield in China, Iran, or Saudi Arabia? The web is not one-size-fits-all. Neither is knowledge.

Bloggers aren’t journalists. True and false. The Pew Internet & American Life survey says only a third of bloggers consider what they do journalism. But today any witness can perform an act of journalism, giving us more eyes on society – which journalists should celebrate.

People are rude on the internet. True. They’re rude in life, but perhaps more so online, thanks to anonymity. But we all know who the idiots are. The smart response is to ignore the stupid.

The internet has no ethics. True. It no more has a moral code than a telephone wire, a car, or a knife. We who use it bring the ethics and laws we live under already.

Now that we have that out of the way, let’s please return to the full half of the glass and examine the many new opportunities the net presents from these challenges. When you see nothing but junk, create quality. Where quality is hard to find, curate it, adding your own seal of approval with a link. When you read inaccuracies and misunderstandings, add facts, corrections, context and journalism. If people on the internet get things wrong, educate them. When you hear the noise of people talking online, listen. I know I come across as the internet triumphalist. Somebody has to. Somebody needs to be the contrarian’s contrarian.

  • http://blogs.journalism.co.uk/editors/ JTownend

    Thank you contrarian’s contrarian. A welcomed piece. When will people get that the internet is a method of communication, albeit a very public one (on the whole) – like the telephone and like conversation? It’s not an edited publication with a set ethical code – it’s publishing technology. And blogs take very different shapes and sizes, in the same way that what’s said on the phone varies from person to person. What needs to be addressed is who should responsibility where, with so many different publishing forms available.

  • http://neil.typepad.com Neil Baker

    Jeff,

    A few points:

    1/ I’m confused. How do you define media in a way that means the internet “is not media”? It is a form of mediated communication. Literally, people use the internet to communicate with other people who are not in the same physical space as them. Therefore, their communication is mediated. Fundamentally, the internet is media, not the same as – but similar to – newspapers, radio, television, etc – even the telephone.

    2/ “That cacophony you hear is democracy and the free marketplace of ideas.” I was always taught that “democracy” actually required a degree of deliberation. People speaking loudly unto their own niches – which we see a great deal on the net – is noise, not democracy.

    3/ “They’re rude in life, but perhaps more so online, thanks to anonymity. But we all know who the idiots are.” I don’t understand. If they are anonymous, how do we know who they are?

    4/ “I know I come across as the internet triumphalist. Somebody has to. Somebody needs to be the contrarian’s contrarian.” Jeff, are you seriously suggesting that you play the role of the internet triumphalist because nobody else is performing that role? Surely discussion about the future development of the internet is full of triumphalists. Its the dominant view. You are not a contrarian – you represent mainstream online opinion.

  • http://www.thepomoblog.com Terry Heaton

    Great post, Jeff. As the mystic Rumi wrote in one of this great poems, “There’s a field on the other side of right and wrong; I’ll meet you there.”

  • Jaap Stronks

    Great posts (together with the one asking for input). That’s pretty similar to what I suggested in an earlier comment, by the way :-)

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  • http://www.questiontechnology.org Kevin Arthur

    @Neil Baker — well said (esp. #4).

    Jeff, one point about question time: They’re called the “honourable opposition,” not the honourable curmudgeons, and they get to keep asking questions — a valuable function. Nobody should want for them to be knocked down “once and for all,” at least not in a democracy. :)

  • http://readg.blogspot.com/2008/09/web-triumph-day.html Will Pollard

    Nobody knocks the opposition once and for all, but is is striking how often the Prime Minister refers to the answer to a previous question.

    I think this post is meeting a definite need, a clear statement that the Web is ok or at least here to stay. The rest of the print Guardian rarely faces up to this and the repeated slurs and questioning are not helping anyone.

  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    Thanks for writing this, Jeff.

    Looking at your list, it strikes me that all the items on it come from comparing the known media world to the unknown one, and expecting the salient features of the newer form to show up via such a comparison.

    In fact the comparison is valid, but the starting point–editorial controls that cover all cases in a closed, one-to-many news system– is not the only starting point. Not necessarily the best or the right one. You could see these ritualized “comebacks” as expressions of frustration when that method of understanding fails. You can compare open systems to closed ones; it gets you only so far. But you can also compare open systems to other open systems,

    The conversation you have been having goes something like this: Jeff starts

    Look, it’s an uncontrolled system:

    But there are no controls!

    That’s why I just said: it’s an uncontrolled system

    That’s chaos!

    No, there’s order to it, but not the one you’re expecting–

    All I see is chaos, and invitations to bad actors.

    That’s not all it is, you’re–

    Don’t get me wrong, I think more voices is GREAT

    and you never get there, do you?

    I tried to wrestle with this in my Kent State talk: If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t. So Let’s Get a Clue. Starts like this:

    1. Because we have the Web, there are now closed and open editorial systems: they are different animals.

    They don’t work the same way, or produce the same goods. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies, either. Ideas that work perfectly well in one—and describe the world in that setting—may not work in understanding the other: they misdescribe the world in a shifted setting…

  • Austin

    @Neil Baker Re: 2/

    You see a whole lot of this very phenomenon in our democracy. How many times do you actually hear a congressman or woman get up to make a speech when *it doesn’t* become clear that what they are saying is really nothing more than code directed at a specific constituency they are trying to motivate one way or the other? No deliberation there and I’d even go so far as to say that some, if not most, of that blather is intended to demonstrate a lack of willingness to deliberate!

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  • http://verbeatblogs.org/bereteando tiagón

    “Where quality is hard to find, curate it, adding your own seal of approval with a link.”

    I’ve translated your article to Portuguese and posted it to my blog, giving you all the credits, of course. Hope is not a problem. Thanks for this enlightening text.

  • http://www.openspectrum.org.au Ellie Rennie

    The internet is not entirely populated by blogging individuals. It is made up of many groups and institutions with different organisational and governance structures. Some of them are dedicated to creating an open and ethical media landscape. Others are just interested in making profits. I’d like to know what kind of organisation I am dealing with, particularly when it comes to posting my creative works and ideas. I’d like to see a labelling system, like fair trade coffee labelling, for groups that are not-for-profit and community governed. That is not the same as ‘trustworthy’ news or journalism codes of conduct.
    In the end, it’s about consumer choice. To make ethical choices we need systems that are identifiable and visible. Call it branding for community media.
    I am organising a symposium to discuss the issue in Melbourne on Oct 17. Check it out at http://www.openspectrum.org.au

  • http://www.ukfree.tv Briantist

    Just for the record, at Prime Ministers Questions, each questioner is technically allowed two questions.

    The first must be revealed to the speaker in advance, with one unknown follow-up. So, to prevent the questions being known to the Speaker and PM in advance, traditionally the first question is “can the Prime Minster tell us his schedule for today”.

    For this reason, until Blair changed it, the first answer was always the “I refer you to the answer I gave a moment ago” as all the first questions were the same.

  • http://www.circlesofuncertainty.blogspot.com John Selwyn Gilbert

    “But we’ve also watched moments of genius made possible by the internet.”

    Like, where precisely? Please tell me. I find the internet generally extremely disappointing. A good reference library is much more useful and so is a good debating society – or even a gathering of really articulate friends.

    The internet is flooded with un-thought out and mediocre material. Even shopping can be a clumsy and disappointingly inefficient process. I love the concept of it – I would not be without it. But it is startlingly imperfect and very very wasteful at the moment (and probably, by its nature, needs to continue to be so.) Something is growing before our very eyes (and beneath our feet). But whether it is a morass of wastefulness or a sea of contentmnet remains to be seen!

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    I refer the honourable curmudgeon to my previous replies.

  • Andy Freeman

    > The internet is not entirely populated by blogging individuals. It is made up of many groups and institutions with different organisational and governance structures. Some of them are dedicated to creating an open and ethical media landscape. Others are just interested in making profits. I’d like to know what kind of organisation I am dealing with, particularly when it comes to posting my creative works and ideas. I’d like to see a labelling system, like fair trade coffee labelling, for groups that are not-for-profit and community governed.

    Apart from the opening sentence, nothing in that is internet-specific.

    And, if you think that “profit” is the only source of corruption, bias, and evil, you clearly don’t have much experience with actual humans. Money is actually the smallest and least effective source of corruption. True-believers are far worse.)

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  • http://neil.typepad.com Neil Baker

    “I refer the honourable curmudgeon to my previous replies.”

    Jeff, given that the House of Commons, and PMQ in particular, is widely regarded as a petulant, childish, and evasive form of “debate”, it’s rather depressing to see you – the evangelist for this great new form of discourse (i.e. blogging) – adopt its rhetoric.

  • http://www.openspectrum.org.au Ellie Rennie

    Ethics is not about ‘true believers’. It is about informed decision-making. It is very difficult to make informed decisions without a clear labelling system. For profit media can do good stuff, just as not-for-profit media can do crap stuff. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be explicit about what kind of service we are dealing with. If charities and for-profit service providers were not clearly identified then we would all be very pissed off when we went to make donations or volunteer our time.

    Why do internet enthusiasts always see the internet as an exclusive place that is free from social norms and the normal governance measures? It exists in the world, remember…

  • Andy Freeman

    > Ethics is not about ‘true believers’.

    I didn’t say that it was. I said that profit has very little to do with corruption and unethical behavior.

    > Why do internet enthusiasts always see the internet as an exclusive place that is free from social norms and the normal governance measures?

    Who said that it was? In fact, I pointed out that none of the stated concerns were actually internet specific.

  • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

    Neil,

    Have thee no humour?

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  • http://neil.typepad.com Neil Baker

    @ Jeff, verily I have, though also tiredness and irritability.

  • John Selwyn Gilbert

    As the curmudgeon in question, I don’t mind the rhetoric or the attempt at humour but where are the previous answers? I don’t see anything that relates to my enquiry. Flashes of genius on the internet. Please refer me to some ….

  • Jon Kay

    Er, not to be negative, but what problem, Ellie, are you trying to solve with your labeling idea? Think about it a bit – do you feel like this blog is some mystery that needs labeling? amazon.com? nytimes.com?

    Let me try saying what Andy was saying a different way. You have certain internal notions of whom to trust, both on the Internet and in the real world, and shadings of distrust to use with people you don’t know well. Those same shadings work to the same degree online as offline, once you get used to it. We even call cops when we see crime or fraud, although the things they’re good at getting are different than in the physical world.

    You expect your supermarket to have labels on food, but not saying “This is a commercial, medium-chain supermarket,” right, as you can probably figure it out from the big brand name sign and the people with shopping carts in the parking lot. I can figure out usually figure out what kind of site I’m at quickly, too, from labeling, top content and context.

    “Flooded with un-thought out and mediocre material,” Mr. Gilbert? You make it sound as bad as a newsstand!

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  • http://blog.cjwriting.com Calvin Jones

    Hi Jeff,

    Great post — put me in mind of a piece written way back in 1999 by the venerable Douglas adams — way ahead of his time, as usual.

    I think more people “get” it now… but we still have a way to go before everyone’s on board. I live and work in West Cork, Ireland. You’d be amazed how many people struggle with e-mail here… and even more amazed by how many haven’t even reached the “struggling” stage.

    I’ve been trying to introduce local small business owners to social media through a a local business networking blog, but it’s hard to get past the scepticism.

    Things are changing, yes, but resistance to change is a very strong human trait… it takes time.

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