A recent blog post by Andrew Keen has finally prompted me to write a post dedicated to the idea that Big Thing in social media is the shift from institutions to processes as a source of trusted information. I have referred to this many times in previous posts, but when I get to say “as I have said many times before” I realise I haven’t actually got one place purely dedicated to the saying of it. Well no more.
Also, the fact that Andrew Keen, of all people, has identified what he calls the emergence of a new inchoate discource and is writing a post about media streams and agreeing with the likes of Clay Shirky about the essential ‘differentness’ of what may replace traditional media has also shown it is time to pull my finger out on this one.
(For those who don’t know Andrew, he is the author of the Cult of the Amateur – a polemic that advances the idea that the adoption of social media is broadly damaging to society on account of the threat it poses to our traditional cultural gatekeepers and mediators of information. Paradoxically enough, Andrew is also an active user of social media techniques to promote his ideas).
To start, some history. Ever since the invention of the printing press, the distribution of information in our society has been institutionalised. This is because while Gutenberg gave us the tools of mass communication, these tools have always been expensive or difficult to use and thus only available to institutions rather than individuals, except where an individual can co-opt the support of an institution such as a publisher. This fact, something I call the Gutenberg principle, has been a hidden hand that has shaped the development of societies since the Renaissance. Almost every institution, from the media to government, banking or the corporation has been either created in the first instance or been otherwise shaped by the Gutenberg principle. This, at least, I have already written about, albeit in rather lengthy post/ article (blessay I believe Stephen Fry has called these), available here for those with the staying power to read it in its entirety.
The world of institutionalised information (the Gutenberg world) has two basic rules:
- Firstly, the nature of information is controlled and shaped by its means of distribution – and therefore shapedby, and judged according to, its need to secure mass appeal. (For example, after Gutenberg, narrative shifted from the spoken to the written word because printing required written words. The means of distribution was shaping the content – or as McLuhan famously put it, the medium is the message).
- Secondly, the only way to trust information is to trust the (institutionalised) source that provides it.
For something so influential, the Gutenberg principle has been curiously invisible. This is because there has been no alternative. A world where information can be divorced from a dedicated means of distribution, because the means of distribution have become easily available to everyone, has never before existed. It is a classic example of a black swan.
However, social media is that black swan because the tools of social media make the ability to distribute information available to everyone and breaks the monopoly previously held by institutions. This changes everything. This isn’t simply an evolutionary step – a shift from one source of institutionalized mass media to another, such as occurred when radio changed the game for print, or when TV changed the game for radio (or, for that matter with the first iteration of the internet in the 1990s). This is a shift on a par with Gutenberg’s original invention.
I am not going to go into the myriad ways this shift changes things, my previous tome covers this pretty extensively. Instead I want to focus on two things – the shift away from institutionalized trust to process based trust but also an associated form of institutionalized blindness to this shift occasioned the invisibility of the Gutenberg principle in the first instance. This blindness, call it Gutenberg blindness, is what lies at the heart of organizations’ and individuals’ inability to fully grasp and therefore adapt to what is happening. It is what causes the media to believe that the problem is free content, rather than free distribution and what causes people to dismiss social media as gossip, or amateur, or in other ways not worthy of the sanctity of publication. It is what lies at the heart of the traditional media’s attempt to label the process of information sharing within social media as Citizen Journalism, despite the fact that individual citizen journalists do not exist. It is also the same blindness that afflicts those signed-up members of the social media crowd who none-the-less adhere to the belief that, as in the Gutenberg world, influence is attached to place rather than space.
This blindness is where the real threat from social media lies, rather than in the factors that Keen and others identify. It prevents organizations adapting to the post-Gutenberg world, encouraging instead a mindset of stubborn and futile resistance (witness Rupert Murdoch’s recent rear-guard action to rally the troops around the standard of charging for information which is already available for free – a last hurrah if ever there was one).
I call this a blindness because it stems from a way of looking at something without actually seeing it. It is essentially an inability to see the world except through the lens of the rules which applied to institutionalized information. I have found the best way to illustrate this is to consider the example of the contents of someone’s head – preferably the head of someone who considers social media to be largely nonsense, gossip, amateur or ill-informed. Shall we take, therefore, the head of Andrew Keen?
We can consider the contents of the head of Andrew Keen in two ways. If we look at it as though it were an institution, i.e. in the way we are accustomed to looking at institutionalized media, the content of Andrew’s head would appear as disparate, fragmentary and dare we say puerile as the content of the blogosphere (or YouTube, or Twitter) which he and many others in the traditional institutionalized information elites take such pleasure in deriding. Fortunately for Andrew, we don’t asses the value of his head according to an assessment of the worth of the individual pieces of information stored on his mental shelves. Rather we judge him according to how he connects this information to produce intelligence – we judge his head as a process. Look at one thing with your institutional specs on and it looks very different from the same thing viewed through your process specs.
Social media is about process and connectivity. It is the connections between people previously seen as a passive audience or body of consumers, rather than the sum of their individual outputs, that gives it its power. It is about collective output rather than individual contribution. Wikipedia is the classic example. Here the collective output is almost always better than the contributions of the individuals involved in constructing an individual entry. This is obviously important when your contributors include teenagers from the mid-west. Critics of Wikipedia will hold up the ‘teenagers in bedrooms’ examples as a reason to doubt the value of Wikipedia. Supporters of Wikipedia will hold up the same as examples as an indication of strength of the process given the proven quality of the collective output. One takes a traditional institutionalized perspective and therefore mocks the process, the other realizes that Wikipedia is a process and celebrates the outcome. Critically, the trust you place in an individual Wikipedia entry rests in the visibility of the process that produces it. Even if you don’t choose to investigate the underlying editorial thread, the fact that you can do this if you wish and also that you know that someone is doing it – essentially on your behalf – gives you trust. It is trust in a process, rather than an institution.
The same applies even to blogging, one of the earliest forms of social media and one which, as a result, retains many residual features of the Gutenberg world. Here, the most successful blogs are often the ones that perform the most useful role in linking together and sharing information in other blogs. Individual blogs may be highly opinionated, but there is a recognition that truth in blogging isn’t found in individual blogs, but rather through the process of reviewing a range of blogs. Truth is crystalised through the process of reception of information rather than in the process of publication of information. Indeed the boundaries between production and consumption are becoming merged into a single process. Clay Shirky has described this as the shift from a model of filter then publish to a model of publish then filter.
Twitter is the classic example of a medium that can only really be understood as a process. Twitter is the most conversational of all social media platforms and conversations are processes. A statement taken in isolation from a conversation rarely makes any sense, likewise it is no use looking for any widespread value in individual tweets – either because without their conversational context they are meaningless or because they are only designed to be of relevance to a very small group of already connected people. The only tweets that have widescale currency in and of themselves are generally those that distribute, connect to or share other bits of information – i.e. are fulfilling a process role.
Twitter is also fascinating from another perspective. It is the first example of a form of information that is almost entirely divorced from it means or place of publication. A twitter tagspace for example, exists only in search – i.e. the act of discovery rather than the act of publication. It is therefore an example of what I call the emerging third wave of digital information – the first wave being that which was locked in a website, the second being that (such as blog posts) which has a home that shapes it but is none-the-less highly mobile. The third wave is thus information that has a life totally independent of its place of publication, such as a tag. A tag will live forever, irrespective of the means by which people publish information to that tag. This is why Twitter is not a fad, but also why it is facing a hard time working out a business model. All currently available business models essentially rely on rental of real estate – having a place that can be made commercially available to promoters of products and services. Twitter doesn’t exist in a place, thus it has no real estate to rent.
Processes of connection and collaboration are, of course, completely alien to the world of institutionalized information. This is essentially a competitive world, with individual sources competing for primacy of trust. The idea that a Daily Telegraph could link to an article in the Guardian or the Times with all three publications essentially collaborating in the process of sharing and discussing information, is un-thinkable. Even outside of the media, ownership and control of an information channel is seen as a source of competitive advantage – the success of P&G for example is firmly rooted in its position as the world largest advertiser.
The closest we have come to process based truth in the Gutenberg world lies in the field of science and academia, where there has always been a well established process component inherent in publication. To be credible a scientific paper has to be peer reviewed and also be seen to be informed by, and connected to, the wider body of work within its field. In fact, scientific papers are close to the concept of information that is not shaped by a specific means of distribution. Remember that the worldwide web itself came out of science and was born by the need to connect and share information more efficiently. In essence the worldwide web was always designed to facilitate process.
It is the fundamental difference between the world of institutionalized trust and a world where trust lies in process that lies at the heart of Gutenberg blindness. This is compounded of course by the fact that almost all of the institutions in our society, not just the media, are shaped by the Gutenberg principle. Embracing a process world may also mean embracing considerable change, possibly even terminal change. Change is difficult and usually fiercely resisted, especially so when change will involve having less influence, less money, less scale.
Blindness to the process model is therefore often a cultivated blindness. As Nelson may have said, “I see no blogs”. It generally afflicts more severely those who have benefited the most from the institutionalized mediation of information – the information elite if you will. They look at individual blogs and cannot see anything which matches what they perceive the quality of their own output to be – possibly rightly so. But they don’t realize that it is not individual blogs that will ever replace them, rather it is the process of blogging and the other forms of information connectivity inherent in social media that is already replacing them as sources of trusted information.
So – in summary. For the last 600 years, information has been institutionalized because information distribution was expensive. Distribution is now free and this is causing trust in information to shift to processes in which all can participate thus breaking the monopoly held by institutions. This is not a difficult concept to understand – the evidence is all around – however it is a difficult concept for institutions to embrace. As a result, many are seeking refuge in a form of collective blindness that takes the form of a refusal to see social media for what it is (a process) preferring instead to judge it as though it were another form of institutionalized information provision.