A quick guide to the maxims of new media

We journalism/new media nerds like to think of ourselves as being pretty open, but we can be a bit clannish at times: We close ranks to defend a few core principles, we have our own hierarchy of gurus and we use our own set of words and phrases. When I dove into the future-of-journalism world, I quickly found that a few of these phrases function as shorthand for big, fundamental ideas. They often get traded without explanation and sometimes without links, leaving the uninitiated pretty confused and possibly a little turned off, too.

Consider this your dictionary for those phrases. If you’ve got any more suggestions, by all means, let me know in the comments. This guide is very expandable. (And if you have a correction, please let me know, too.)

“Do what you do best and link to the rest.”

Where it came from: This is the signature phrase of Jeff Jarvis, the Entertainment Weekly/TV Guide/San Francisco Examiner veteran, CUNY journalism prof and author of “What Would Google Do?” Jarvis first wrote it in a Feb. 22, 2007, post at his popular media-watching blog, BuzzMachine.

What it means: Your best bet is simply to read that initial post — Jarvis explains the concept pretty well there. The short version: Rather than duplicating what bunches of other news organizations are producing just so your outlet can have its own version of the story, just ask yourself, as Jarvis says, “‘can we do it better?’ If not, then link. And devote your time to what you can do better.” For another illuminating angle on what this phrase signifies, see in particular the second-to-last paragraph of Megan Garber’s Columbia Journalism Review article from November 2009 on the Fort Hood and Twitter lists.

“If the news is important, it will find me.”

Where it came from: An unlikely source — an unnamed college student in an anecdote in a March 27, 2008, New York Times article by Brian Stelter on how young people share political news. (The actual quote is, “If the news is that important …” but it seems to have been compressed.)

What it means: The idea quickly became an apt summary of the way news is consumed online — by linking, sharing, reading one bit whether even seeing the whole or even the original source. In the other words, a long, long ways from reading the newspaper front-to-back every day. The news organization’s role as an authoritative arbiter of news value is diminished in this philosophy; the user creates her own news agenda, and her most trusted sources are her social networks. (Here’s The Huffington Post’s Josh Young, web entrepreneur Mark Cuban, Canadian journalist Mathew Ingram and the aforementioned Jarvis on this phrase.)

“Information wants to be free.”

Where it came from: Our first recorded use was back in 1984, when writer Stewart Brand said this (as he recalled it 13 years later): ”On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it’s so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.” That was eventually compressed into “Information wants to be free. Information also wants to be expensive.” Not surprisingly, the ‘free’ part was a lot more appealing to us than the ‘expensive’ one, so that’s the part of the quote that stuck. (Roger Clarke and Wikipedia are good sources for this information, both on its origins and meaning.)

What it means: This part is pretty fluid — and controversial. Critics of a free-based Internet economy often take it as an economic statement, as in, “Information wants to cost $0.” While Brand seemed to have been talking about cost and economics when he first uttered the phrase, many Internet thinkers after him have defined it to mean a broader freedom to access, distribute, and adapt information, especially online. The phrase became central in the struggles of free content and copyright — a rallying cry for those on one side and a rather pejorative label for the other. Of course, some pro-free people, like Wired’s Chris Anderson, still use the phrase in its dollars-and-cents sense.

“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.”

Where it comes from: It was the title of a keynote speech given by NYU professor and new media guru Clay Shirky on Sept. 18, 2008, at the Web 2.0 Expo in New York. The phrase has been quoted by others (and Shirky himself) in various forms, including “Information overload is filter failure,” and “There’s no such thing as information overload; there’s only filter failure.”

What it means: To get the fullest idea, watch the speech. Shirky gives a hasty, Cliff’s Notes version in this interview with The Columbia Journalism Review, in which he argues that information overload has been around for centuries, and the reason it seems so problematic on the web is that we haven’t developed the proper filters for all that information. The idea has been tied to several concepts on the web, including social filters and sharing, and curation and aggregation of news.

“Our readers know more than we do.”

Where it came from: This phrase is former San Jose Mercury News columnist and citizen journalism pioneer Dan Gillmor’s, first uttered in 2004. It seems the phrase was initially coined as “My readers know more than I do,” and you’ll still find it in either form. (Jay Rosen has a link to what may be Gillmor’s first use of it, but the link is dead now. The phrase also figures prominently in Gillmor’s 2004 book “We the Media.” )

What it means: Look no further than Jay Rosen’s December 2004 piece, which refers to the idea simply as “Open Source journalism.” As Rosen describes it, it’s the concept that any journalist’s (or media outlet’s) audience knows more than that journalist, and the web allows them to communicate that knowledge with each other and the professional journalist. It’s a way of drawing on “the wisdom of the crowd” — another favorite web phrase — within a journalistic framework.

“The people formerly known as the audience”

Where it came from: The phrase is NYU professor Jay Rosen’s, first written and defined in his June 27, 2006, post of the same title. Rosen acknowledges that it’s partly derived from Dan Gillmor’s phrase, “the former audience,” outlined in his 2004 book, “We the Media.” In January 2010, Rosen called the post “easily my most quoted piece of writing and the best meme of the decade just ended. … Nothing else comes close.”

What it means: I can’t do you much better than simply reading Rosen’s initial post, plus his notes and after matter. It’s related to the idea behind “Our readers know more than we do,” referring to, as Rosen puts it, “The writing readers. The viewers who picked up a camera. The formerly atomized listeners who with modest effort can connect with each other and gain the means to speak— to the world, as it were.”

“The sources go direct.”

Where it came from: The newest phrase on the list. This one comes from blogging and RSS pioneer Dave Winer, who seems to have officially coined it in the March 19, 2009, post “The reboot of journalism.” Now, Winer commonly refers to it as simply “Sources go direct.” It’s helped formed the ideological backbone of Winer and Jay Rosen’s weekly podcast, Rebooting the News.

What it means: It stands for the idea that the “sources” who used to have their message mediated through the traditional media can go bypass those channels and communicate directly with their listeners. Winer provides plenty of examples in that initial post, and if you listen to most any episode of Rebooting the News, you’ll probably hear him expound on the idea.

“Transparency is the new objectivity.”

Where it came from: The phrase was originated by technology philosopher David Weinberger, who first said it in a lecture in Toronto on Oct. 23, 2008. He further defined the idea and put the phrase to writing in a July 19, 2009, post at his blog.

What it means: When Weinberger first said the phrase, he followed it with the statement, “We are not going to trust objectivity unless we can see the discussion that lead to it.” In his July post, Weinberger fleshed this idea out further, arguing that transparency is the modus operandi in a linked medium like the web, where we can easily see (and expect to see) someone’s connections, sources and influences. Transparency, he said, has subsumed objectivity: “Anyone who claims objectivity should be willing to back that assertion up by letting us look at sources, disagreements, and the personal assumptions and values supposedly bracketed out of the report.” The phrase picked up quite a bit of use in fall 2009 as a principle in the discussions over news media outlets’ social media policies.

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30. January 2010 by Mark
Categories: citizen journalism, social media, theory | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 34 comments