[This is my presentation for the Media140 Sydney panel “Do Journos Do it Better? Journalists in SocMedia Communities”. This is being posted here automatically, at 5pm, just as the panel is scheduled to start. Given that sessions earlier in the day may cover similar ground, I may well re-word things as I go.]
“Do journos do it better?” Do journos do what better? I think this is actually the more interesting question: What is it that journalists actually do in our society?
Or, to stick with the question, what do they do in “social media communities” — although as I’ll explain, all communities are “social media communities”?
Now if I were presenting an Oscar I’d start by quoting the dictionary. “The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘journalist’ as ‘someone engaged in journalism’.”
However “journalism” in turn is glossed as “the occupation of writing for, editing, and producing newspapers and other periodicals, and television and radio shows”.
So the question as stated is meaningless. Of course journalists are better at “It” — journalism — because they’re the ones doing it. If you’re not a journalist you’re not doing journalism, therefore you’re not merely bad at it, you’re not even doing it at all!
This is why I think the whole bloggers versus journalists debate was and still is so incredibly stupid. Both sets of people are doing much the same thing — creating words and pictures, probably about current events, maybe for money, maybe for the love of it or for professional status. Maybe they’re doing it well, maybe they’re doing it badly.
But during the Industrial Age, journalism with a capital “J” ended up meaning, specifically, the employees of industrial mass-media factories — especially newspapers. Employees whose jobs were to create the specific widgets of news needed by a production line — a five-paragraph story, a 30-second radio news item or whatever.
Or, with respect to my friends at the MEAA, “journalist” meant membership of a certain trade union.
Now, coming back to that word “social” in “social media”…
Humans are social critters. We’re inquisitive. We’re hard-wired to look for ways of understanding the world, to find out what others are up to, and slot it all into a coherent narrative. Society provides mechanisms to meet that demand.
At one end of the spectrum there’s a folk craft called “gossip” — and as anthropologist Robin Dunbar has pointed out, gossip is central to keeping societies running smoothly.
Up the other end we’ve got big institutions like the Church, Science and The Media constructing narratives they call, respectively, Belief, Knowledge and News. All of them, when threatened, refer to their narratives as “The Truth”.
Between them, folk practitioners and professionals and everyone in between manufacture enough news to fill our recommended daily intake. All choose from thousands of events those that support the narrative they want to construct — for whatever ultimate goal.
In the Industrial Age, only the big end of town was visible, with its cathedrals and newsagents. Everything else happened in small groups — socially! — and was ephemeral. We heard some juicy gossip, we laughed and smirked and, later, we exchanged knowing winks, but it wasn’t written down anywhere.
That’s changed. In the digital age, all that folk media — which I say again, has always been there — is now visible. Public. Permanent. Searchable. And pretty much everyone has, or soon will have, the tools for creating those permanent forms of media.
Eric S Raymond is one of the giants of open source software development. In 1997 he presented a paper called The Cathedral and the Bazaar which contrasted the traditional closed-shop process of developing software — the cathedral, where each release was packaged up with a big red ribbon before the public saw it — to the seemingly chaotic process of open source development, where everything happens in public, warts and all.
Until now, journalism — the making of news — has worked on that cathedral model. Journalists beaver away in their media factories and The Story is bestowed upon the grateful citizenry. You were told what the narrative was.
Now, though, the citizens are using new, cheap tools to figure out the narrative for themselves. In the eyes of an old-fashioned journalist it looks messy, “unprofessional”. The term “citizen journalist” grates. This is not journalism, they think — because it isn’t. It isn’t how they, as employees of media factories, do things.
An example to illustrate my point: the dust storm of 23 September. What was the journalists’ role in developing that narrative?
Well for a start, the dust storm actually started the day before in places like Broken Hill. But because industrial-scale news travels east to west in this country, it wasn’t officially a story until it hit the Sydney-based media factories.
On that morning, everyone woke up to an orange sky and started talking about it. Through their own conversations they soon worked out the extent of the storm, and through their own photos they created a shared cultural experience.
Like ants mapping out food trails, people did this by passing signals to each other — interesting photos and factoids and emotional responses — without central control. And because they knew the people they passed them to, these messages had plenty of personal resonance.
When the industrial media factories creaked into action, maybe only minutes or an hour later, what were they adding to that process? Were they just packaging that collective narrative for the folks who aren’t yet connected to the live global hive mind?
When everyone is connected, what does the capital-J journalist do that’s worth charging money for?