Joichi Ito’s paper on emergent democracy, along with some other recent developments, have gotten me thinking about whether we’re ever going to see all the changes happening in the communications sector ever have an effect on our broken political system. For a long time, I was sure that the answer was “no”. After all, we’ve been through almost three presidential terms since the Internet tidal wave first broke, and there’s no sign of anyone getting shoved against the wall by the Revolution yet (though there are heartening rumbles, such as Tara Sue Grubb’s showing in North Carolina and the beating Trent Lott took from bloggers everywhere).
However, lately I’ve been rethinking my position on this. I’m now starting to think that maybe we will see a revolution — just not the revolution we were expecting. That’s because it’ll be a revolution that happens in ones and twos across the country, rather than all at once. It will be a revolution by degrees — a revolution built from the ground up, inch by inch, that nobody will notice going up until it has completely replaced the old edifices of power.
It will, in short, be a micro-revolution — and what it will leave behind is a new kind of micro-politics.
Consider for a moment how The Establishment ™ works. There are three legs holding up their table, all mutually supporting. Government is one leg; think of this as officeholders everywhere, from President to dogcatcher, and all the appointed officials that support them. Finance is another leg; in many ways today global financial markets make more decisions about how a country will be run than its elected officials do. Media is the third leg, propagating memes throughout the population based on the “issues of the day” (often, the issues of the day for upper middle class white people in New York or L.A.).
Each of these sectors is powerful in its own way, and each has its power deployed primarily by elites — a narrow slice of the population that wield enormous power in their field. Those elites, however, hold on to their positions of power because they are supported by the elites in the other two legs of the table. Politicians can’t get elected today without copious amounts of money and media. Financial institutions require friendly regulators and a docile public to get the best return on their investments. Modern mass media are almost completely owned by corporate interests, and have become markedly less critical of government of late.
Well, I hear you thinking, none of that’s news. Why hash over that stuff again?
The answer is that it’s important to remember that those elites are just that — elite. Underneath them are millions of nameless folk, toiling away. And lately we’ve seen those nameless folk begin to seize the spotlight for themselves, grabbing the power offered them by new media to reach out to each other in new and exciting ways. They are forging new bonds with people next door and half a world away.
The elite are perched on top of icebergs… and the icebergs are starting to melt.
This is most clear in two of the three legs. The most obvious one is media. The much-ballyhooed Media Revolution of the 1990s never quite came off (just ask AOL/Time Warner or the Industry Standard!). However, the rise of blogs has created a new kind of alternative journalism that has been described as “microjournalism” — reportage not from a monolithic news agency posing as completely objective, but instead narrowly focused and with a personal, human voice. Instead of fleeing from bias, microjournalism embraces it.
Traditional journalism, to be credible, has to be bland — to purge itself of a point of view — because in traditional journalism there’s nowhere else to go. You get “All the News That’s Fit to Print” every morning with your coffee, and if it ain’t there, if the Grey Lady doesn’t see fit to tell you about it, it must not be worth knowing about. This means that the Times has to strain to avoid offending its readers, because in a world of monolithic publications offense draws unwelcome attention from regulators and government. Microjournalism has no such constraint: no single source is canonical, so each outlet can present news from its point of view, trusting its readers to be smart enough to sift through multiple accounts and make up their own minds. To microjournalists, the answer to biased speech is more speech, not less. The early American republic was like this; newspapers were printed by the score in every city, and each had an editorial line that suffused everything they printed. The result was a thriving journalistic sphere that could support publication of long, complex pieces such as the Federalist Papers. Can you imagine something like that running in USA Today?
The other engine driving the growth of microjournalism is simple economics. A local newspaper or TV broadcast can hope at best to reach a couple of million people, and a national broadcast can reach hundreds of millions, but it’s so expensive to distribute content in these formats that it’s rare anyone does anything innovative with them. (The last truly innovative newspaper venture, remember was USA Today, almost twenty-five years ago — and it was dedicated to softening news, not hardening it.) In old media, success brings marginal profit but failure can create huge losses, so the incentives are all aligned towards minimizing risk. The economics of old media drive publications towards the lowest common denominator, towards soft human-interest stories, puffball celebrity “news”, and other bland fare that is guaranteed not to offend anyone. In microjournalism the incentives are reversed; it costs practically nothing (less than $100 in almost all cases), so the break-even point on the enterprise is absurdly low. If you can attract a regular audience of 1,000 like-minded souls who are passionate about your publication, the economics get quite positive indeed. This means that the microjournalists’ goal is not to diffuse their coverage, but to focus it: to provide sharp, smart coverage of a niche that appeals to people who care most about that niche.
You may think that microjournalism is a populist pipe dream. To that I’d respond that it’s already here. I learned more about the recent political crises in Venezuela by reading local bloggers who united for Venezuela Liberty Blog Day than I did from every American print publication I read put together. To an editor in Washington, a street protest in Caracas is a back-of-the-paper story; to someone who lives in Caracas, it’s front-page news. So who’s going to tell me more about what’s going on? Who’s going to give me the feel for what things are like on the street there?
Think about this: Francisco Toro, a stringer for the New York Times, actually quit the paper when they asked him to to choose between publishing his blog and writing for the paper. Combine that with the increasingly large numbers of traditional journalists who are either blogging full-time these days or who have dipped a toe in the waters, and you can see the beginnings of a trend emerging.
Will microjournalism completely replace traditional journalism? Of course not; there will always be a place for comprehensive news overviews in people’s lives. However, those overviews are going to have to learn to give up some mindshare to compellingly written, narrowly-focused microjournalistic enterprises — which means a power shift in the world of media. And that could provide the kick that destabilizes the first leg of our table.
The next installment in this series, “Part II: Microfinance”, is now available.Posted by Jason Lefkowitz at March 12, 2003
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