Thinking the Unthinkable: Clay Shirky may be wrong (slightly)

Despite being one of the leading gurus on social media, Clay Shirky has only just started publishing his articles via a blog – and a very minimalist and basic blog it is too.  I might venture to say this illustrates my point that social media is about space rather than place – Shirky doesn’t need a fancy blog (place), all he needs is a launch pad to create and contribute to conversations (spaces).

He doesn’t publish stuff often – twitter is his tool of choice – but I still have his feed on my Netvibes tab designed to detect anything new in the social media conversation space.  This is because, when he does publish, it is always essential reading.  It was therefore with some excitement that I spotted a new post a week or so ago – and a very good post it was too.  Called “Rescuing The Reporters” Its basic premise  was that the essential functions of journalism within newspapers are actually carried out by a very small group of people – and therefore saving this function may not entail saving the whole institution, just the people.  He characterised the problem as being journalism trapped in a burning business model.  I thought this was such a good analogy that I immediately nicked it for the conclusion of a post I was writing on stories – since I think that the social media revolution is going to set fire to many business models and many organisations are going to need similar rescue operations with stories being a possible fire escape.

But as I though more about it, I wondered if Shirky was perhaps missing the point – and falling for the classic mistake  of looking at the future through the lens of the past.  Specifically, was this an example of the institution versus process confusion.  One of my ‘things’ about social media is the shift from institutions to processes – specifically the fact that trust is shifting from institutions to processes.  For sure, journalism is an essential function.  But journalism is a process.  Shirky has shown that this is a process than can be delivered outside of the institution of a for-profit newspaper – but his suggested solution to doing this is based on preserving journalists.  But a journalist is an institution – just a very small, self-contained one.  A journalist is  as much an institutionalised expression of the process of journalism as is a newspaper.  Becoming a journalist means becoming wedded to a host of tools, techniques and practices based entirely on the form of distribution that is a newspaper (or a tv or radio programme).  After all we tend to classify journalists as being “newspaper” journalist, or “TV” journalist.  But social media is doing away with the institutionalised form of information distribution.  It is separating information from a particular means of distribution and setting information free.  That’s why it is a revolution.  It is not just newspapers that are being made irrelevant – it is also journalists.  The move from ‘ist’ to ‘ism’ is what it is all about – the shift from institution to process.

Thus – preserving journalism isn’t about saving journalists from burning business models.  The journalists themselves are also on fire.

The challenge needs to be framed through the lens of seeing journalism as a process completely separated from any institutionalised form which shapes its content.  There may still be an institutionalised role associated with journalism, but critically, this can’t or won’t set the house rules for content in the way that the demands of print, TV or radio currently do.  This isn’t about citizen journalists – because as I have said before – citizen journalists don’t exist.  This is just a label which journalists attach to people who happen to be in the place they would like to be, witnessing something they would like to witness, but now with a means to record and publish what they are witnessing.

Might it be unthinkable to suggest that the Big Old Question is therefore how to save journalism if we save neither newspapers nor journalists?

So – Shirky may be slightly off the mark on this one.  But it is only slightly off the mark, and the “trapped within a burning business model” analogy is a great one which I will continue to borrow.  And his article Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable is still one of the best examinations of the problems facing not just the media but any organisation or society facing revolutionary change.

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