The journalists are restless

A couple of articles caught my eye on digg recently. It was those sort of articles that have really interesting title/summaries such as ‘The “Snakes on a Plane” Problem‘ and ‘The Mystery of the Online Community‘, yet that is sometimes where the interest stops and boiling antagonism starts. Sure, some really excellent points made by both writers, yet I couldn’t help thinking that the ideas were, well, a little under-developed.

First from Chuck Klosterman on The “Snakes on a Plane” Problem

When it comes to mass media, it’s useless to ask people what they want; nobody knows what they want until they have it. If studios start to view the blogosphere as some kind of massive focus group, two things will happen: The first is that the movies will become idiotic and impersonal

I agree that in the most part that is true, indeed if studios simply ask people to respond without aggregating those comments (ala Wisdom of Crowds – aggregation of information in groups, resulting in decisions that are often better than could have been made by any single member of the group) will ofcourse lead to utter crap. Yet by harnessing the community’s power studios now have the opportunity to define exactly what people what and deliver it to them. And I really don’t agree that I don’t know what I want until I have it, sure I don’t exactly have an image in my mind of what I want when I go out for food, clothes, movies etc. but I do go to certain places that I know will offer a certain type of service that is analogous with my mood/taste/state of being.

As I said in the most part I do agree with Chuck Klosterman, yet I feel that he misses an important part. He assumes that…

participatory, choose-your-own-adventure filmmaking is going to become a model. And that model will be terrible for at least two reasons.

Yet why is there this feeling that if you turn the asylum over to the inmates then everything will go very very wrong. Exactly how much worse could things get? We are bombarded each day by hundreds of marketing messages offering us life choices we either can’t, don’t or won’t have. Our populist media actively destroys people because apparently we want it and that’s what sells. Film offerings from mainstream movie studios are so turgid as to be almost non-existent in scope, message and diversity. Newspapers follow political agendas driven by small groups of men in suits. Obliviously there is lots of good as well, but its far from a perfect model. So how about it, let us nutters have a go?

Also why is there this pervasive idea in (mostly) mainstream media that we are about to enter Dante’s seventh ring of hell if the end users have some form of say in what they pay for and consume. Now let me think????? Could it be that the roll of journalists, editors, film companies, tv channels is diminished (note, diminished not obsolete, as aggregators of information they have a massive role to play)? As Jeff Jarvis notes in his article ‘The bloggers and journalists are comrades-at-keyboards

The war is over. No, not that war. Or that one. I mean the supposed battle between mainstream media and bloggers. The last shot, a dud, was fired by Nicholas Lemann, dean of Columbia University’s School of Journalism, when he issued an encyclical in the New Yorker this month defending professionalism and decreeing that citizens’ media is just “journalism without journalists”. It was met online with an exasperated yawn from bloggers and (in Roy Greenslade’s term) hackademics, who said there never really was a fight. Bloggers don’t think they’ll replace reporters, they want to work in symbiotic bliss, amateur alongside professional, complementing each other’s skills to expand the reach of the news. I call this networked journalism and I am seeing more examples of the two tribes coming together not to clash but to conspire.

I guess that’s the point it is still seen by many as a war, between two groups, us (the amateur consumers) and them (the ‘proffessional’ creators) and that god forbid the great un-washed having a say in what is put out to, er, the great un-washed. So even if Jeff Jarvis believes the war is over, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t still a few people metaphorically fighting on pacific islands.

One such fighter appears to be John C. Dvorak in his article on ‘The Mystery of the Online Community

At best, what you have are loose associations that are tenuous, fickle, and probably self-destructive. These sorts of artificial communities are houses of cards in most instances. They are fake.

Because it was online, numerous people fictionalised themselves because they could do it so easily.

So within any online community, a certain percentage of the participants are out-and-out fakes. I would argue that within some communities the number is higher than 50 percent. The interpersonal dishonesty and fantasizing do not make for any sort of real community. Most of the destructive force within any online community comes from this large group of fakes who see the community as something of a video-arcade adventure game where the user can go in and stir up trouble, then leave.

I’m leaving readers with an open question: Is there any way to establish and maintain an online community with no fakes and vandals ruining it for everyone? Or is the problem just a reflection of society that we must live with?

Incase you wasn’t sure, he was taking about online communities, although the first thing that struck me was that this kind of resembles many offline communities. I am not sure what circles John moves in but the idea that all offline social interaction is non-fake, honest, concise and solid is somewhat hard to believe. I live in London and getting a smile out of my neighbours (or fellow community member) is rather akin to asking for a cup of shit.

Further I feel this is viewing the online experience in isolation from its offline counterpart. One needs to study what community and social networks mean.

For example, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s take on society:

Society’s negative influence on otherwise virtuous men centres, in Rousseau’s philosophy, on its transformation of amour de soi, a positive self-love, into amour-propre, or pride. Amour de soi represents the instinctive human desire for self preservation, combined with the human power of reason. In contrast, amour-propre is not natural but artificial and forces man to compare himself to others, thus creating unwarranted fear and allowing men to take pleasure in the pain or weakness of others. Rousseau was not the first to make this distinction; it had been invoked by, among others, Vauvenargues.

Not a ringing endorsement to start with. One could even say that fictionalisation of one-self protects to a certain extent this issue over comparison?

Or how about this from Conceptualising Community (Palgrave Macmillan 2005)

For community is never a fixed state, rightly it should be considered a verb not a noun, and it is always the outcome of sociality as an action – be that action or speech – and it is therefore impossible to perform
without the presence of other people. As such the intersections of our multiple histories occur in a space which we can never entirely control. And because it is an outcome of a series of actions community is never an abstraction like ‘history’ or ‘mankind’. Without action and sociality, community cannot exist – it has no ‘laws’ or buildings as the state does, it relies on action and speech. So when I sit at my desk and think about community, I am not actually a member of a community. I am only a member of a community when I am engaging in social action – sociality.

Disillusioned we have come increasingly to confine our emotions, our human and social being-ness to our private lives, to our friends, to the apparent honesty and integrity of our own psyches. As a result the private prism of our own personalities, our own fragmented concerns and our own subjective ‘truths’, has become everything, for it is all we have left to judge anything. As Arendt said in 1958, without an agreed public reality there is only perspectivism, and a fragmented, individualized reality. Now in 2005 our public life at every level is increasingly distinguished by an alienating, empty, legalised formality, while our sociality is contained within the narrow, fragmented dictates of our own desires and the contrived sociality of the market and consumer choice. Relationships of any sort are increasingly mediated, defined and expressed solely through the instrumental reasoning of rewards and personal satisfactions. As a result our relations with others, especially strangers, have become defined by fear and anxiety. Raucous laughter at night makes us uneasy, for even our most immediate world has become an unknown place, and while crime in most categories remains stable or declines, fear of crime escalates in a never-ending spiral.

Seems to me as if we have never needed online communities more, indeed they are ‘fragmented, individualized reality’ yet maybe they are the best we have (for now). As with most arguments over offline vs online, and as Jeff Jarvis notes in his article, they can both exist at once. Online as a companion to offline, online communities enhancing offline ones, blogging enhancing print journalism. Studio audiences getting involved with the making of a film, readers getting involved with the writing of a book……etc…..

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