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MEDIA THREAT

Social media, user-generated content, digital egalitarianism … big media has a big problem

By Adario Strange

In 1993, computer scientist Vernor Vinge published an essay titled “The Coming Technological Singularity.” It detailed a time, in the relatively near future, when the exponential growth of computing power and disparate technologies would coalesce, leading to a single moment of sudden technological evolution that would fundamentally change the fabric of reality for humanity and usher in the “post-human” era. While famed scientist/inventor Ray Kurzweil predicts this singularity won’t occur until sometime in 2045, this week may very well go down in history as the moment when the Internet hit a “singularity moment” that accelerated the evolution of the Web in such rapid fashion as to move the space into heretofore unknown territory. Quietly, nearly unnoticed—as are many of history’s major events—two recent announcements that could dictate the very future of media slipped into the news stream amid the din of billion-dollar digital Internet deals and print media buyouts.

First, the 109th Congress closed last Saturday without sanctioning the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006, a bill designed to redesign the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in a manner that would ultimately allow Internet service providers like Verizon, BellSouth, Comcast and AT&T to charge websites and companies for faster Internet access—essentially stratifying the Web into a fast lane business class and a slower, digital ghetto for those unable to pay a premium. 

In the wake of the announcement, lobby group Save The Internet celebrated, stating on its site, “The fate of Net Neutrality has now been passed to what appears to be a more Web-friendly Congress. Our Coalition pledges to work with new Members to craft policies that ensure all Americans can access the Internet and enjoy the unlimited choices it has to offer. The end of this Congress—and death of Sen. Ted Stevens’ bad bill—gives us the chance to have a long overdue public conversation about what the future of the Internet should look like. This will not only include ensuring Net Neutrality, but make the Internet faster, more affordable and accessible.”

Armed with YouTube videos admonishing big business and promoting the ideals of net neutrality (the notion that networks should provide access to all users equally), Save The Internet is still expecting a fight in 2007 when the bill is likely to be introduced again in some modified form. But, for the time being, the golden age of an open Internet remains.

The second tectonic shift that rocked the Internet in recent days came from Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that allows visitors to create and edit roughly 1.5 million entries in over 35 languages. The site’s name stems from old school programmer Ward Cunningham’s invention of the first wiki, which originally drew its name from the Hawaiian word “wiki,” which means quick. In the case of Wikipedia, this refers to the site’s facilitation of quick collaboration between users in the creation of informational pages. On Monday, Wales unveiled a new, free-hosting service called OpenServing, a site that will offer free hosting and use of the powerful Wikia software to anyone interested in creating a community site. The kicker: Wales intends to make this all available while permitting users to keep 100 percent of any advertising revenue they earn on their site from ad networks such as Google Adsense. To say that this is a disruptive occurrence in Web content would be an understatement.

For the last few years, traditional publishers have slowly withered under the unrelenting wave of independent bloggers fighting for space in the newly fractured attention economy of reviews, news stories and commentary. Until now, the only true barriers to competition were programming expertise (now a non-issue using the Wikia software platform) and the ability to absorb hosting fees once significant traffic was attained. Wales has, in one sweeping motion, eliminated those barriers for the legions of independent publishers who have harbored various traditional-model-breaking ideas but lacked the tech savvy and hosting war chest necessary once heavy traffic arrives.

Perhaps most interesting is Wales’ decision to include within the free software package a component quite similar to that of Digg.com, a site where users vote on news stories (found on other sites) to determine which stories get pushed to the front page of the website. Although Digg clone software is readily available free-of-charge on the Internet, there is a certain level of programming acumen necessary to get the code to do exactly what you want it to do. With OpenServing, the coding comes pre-packaged and you need but add the content. What this does to a service such as Ning, a similar company that charges monthly fees for its service, is render it, in short order, obsolete. As for Digg itself (recently rumored to have turned down an acquisition offer by News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch for $100,000,000), the emergence of OpenServing’s Digg-like functionality—further buttressed by pervasive RSS (Really Simple Syndication) feeds—immediately starts the clock ticking on Digg’s unique moment in the sun as the top social news website.

But this constant interchange of players is par for the course in the new landscape of what has come to be known as Web 2.0, a term loosely used to describe websites driven primarily by user-interaction and user-generated content. Pushed forward by what increasingly appears to be the beginnings of a geographically non-specific sort of hive mind, the hype around Web 2.0 sites has already begun to work interchangeably for some as a euphemism meaning Dot Com Bubble 2.0, harkening back to the days (just a few years ago) when a five-page business plan and a cute URL could easily garner venture capital investments in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

The difference this time is that this new crop of innovative websites is largely unfunded by large investors. Because most Web 2.0 companies operate in a space where marketing dollars are replaced by tags, sharing and recommendations—and instead of paying staffers to generate fresh content most material is either visitor created or simply referential links to another site’s content (usually a site that does pay to create its content). The highest functioning Web 2.0 properties efficiently thrive on their own mobius strip feedback loop of information and interaction where nothing is wasted and every miniscule bit of data is assigned value.

Currently, the rock stars of this new version of the Internet could almost be called The Holy Trinity of Web 2.0, with Wales as The Father (Wikipedia), Digg’s Kevin Rose as The Son (as he has been largely responsible for the mainstreaming of social news and Web 2.0 ethics) and, of course, Craig Newmark of Craigslist, as the barebones spirit permeating the entire space and defining, on a very elementary level, the central idea behind digital destinations fueled solely by visitors.
But not everyone is buying into the pie-in-the-digital-sky. Referring to Wikipedia’s new Web dynamic as “digital Maoism,” virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier wrote, “The hive mind should be thought of as a tool. Empowering the collective does not empower individuals—just the reverse is true. There can be useful feedback loops set up between individuals and the hive mind, but the hive mind is too chaotic to be fed back into itself.” 

Lanier’s divergent opinion speaks to the bifurcated camp of Internet experts alternately pushing for the wisdom of the crowd or arguing for the classic model of users shepherded by a team of editors. When serial entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, creator of AOL’s Weblogs Inc., embarked on an effort to lure Digg users to Netscape’s new social news format with the promise of payments based on the quality/amount of posts—essentially breaking the Tao of Digital Maoism—Digg loyalists cried foul, and Digg founder Kevin Rose sneered nervously at the move on his video podcast. Calling the paid users “Navigators,” Netscape also introduced a team of “Anchors” charged with the duty of removing post spam and generally functioning as defacto editors. Apparently, some thought the introduction of for-pay posts would somehow dilute the “free love” aesthetics of social media, and so the debate rages on even today.

Although the jury is still out on the Netscape experiment, a new site called Pay Per Post has further muddied the waters by actually paying users to post advertiser-sponsored posts on social media websites like Digg, thus blurring the line between expression and commercial advocacy. Such commercial efforts to “game the system” are not only frowned upon within social media circles, but are almost treated like viruses effectively inviting hordes of users to gather, like white blood cells, to expunge the offending organism and restore order to the hive mind.

All the while, watching from the sidelines, is the mainstream media. Media companies that once feigned disinterest and dismissed the Internet as a niche phenomenon are today scrambling desperately to make sense of and establish a foothold on the shifting sand that is sucking print and broadcast advertising dollars inexorably into the maw of the Internet’s army of content creators and aggregators. For many media channels, the passage of the COPE Act would have been a Hail Mary save, swiftly protecting, at the last minute, their media turf and once again raising the hurdle for widespread content distribution to a level attainable only by the largest corporations. But that didn’t happen. And now, at least for the moment, mainstream media appear to be bowing to the independent community of the Internet.

On the same day that Wales announced OpenServing’s imminent explosion of traditional media, The New York Times kissed the ring of the social media community by announcing the addition of Digg, Newsvine and Facebook voting links to its website. Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of NYTimes.com said, “We’re very excited about offering our readers a new tool to share their favorite New York Times content. This new capability extends the Web-based conversation while encouraging new communities of readers to share and discuss a wide range of interests, whether by linking to an article about politics from their homepage or adding coverage of world news to their blogs.” So sang the trumpet of the Old Gray Lady’s inevitable surrender.

Although it’s clear that The New York Times made the right move, the fact is the news organization had few viable alternatives. And while independent social media sites like Digg and Wikipedia need sites like The New York Times for reference material to link to, this will not always be the case as the tools for reporting become cheaper and bloggers continue to recruit each other as localized correspondents linked by common themes. The question social media is creeping up on, and the mainstream media is avoiding, is: What happens when the independent social media hive mind stops linking to old media and starts creating its own new media? 

Clearly, Wales wants to be the one to answer that question. Two months ago, in an impassioned message to the Wikipedia community, Wales tipped his hand and said, “I would like to gather from the community some examples of works you would like to see made free, works that we are not doing a good job of generating free replacements for, works that could in theory be purchased and freed. Dream big. Imagine there existed a budget of $100 million to purchase copyrights to be made available under a free license. What would you like to see purchased and released under a free license? Be bold, be specific, be general, brainstorm, have fun with it.” In a time when venomous cynicism and smirking irony has been raised to a high art, online and off, it may seem unrealistic that the Web 2.0 generation of applications, websites and services may actually represent an authentic return to the unselfish idealism of the ’60s—this time technologically enabled. Nevertheless, it’s hard not to take Wales’ idealism seriously when he says, “Wikipedia is based on a very radical idea, the realization of the dreams most of us have always had for what the Internet can and should become … We’re already taking back the Internet. With your help, we can take back the world.” 
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