A few weeks ago, as I was consuming my nearly constant dose of news from the Web, I ran across a fascinating story that demonstrates just how different today’s communications environment has become. It also brought home many of the points raised by We the Media (available for free here). On May 16th, the Washington Times ran an article highlighting how John McCain has begun a series of weekly conference calls with influential political bloggers. The story explains how the McCain campaign is using this kind of an outreach as a way to “reach millions of readers” online. A decade ago, would this kind of sustained, personal outreach to citizen journalists by a Presidential candidate from a major political party have been conceivable? Probably not. Clearly, the emergence of online citizen / grassroots journalism is forcing something big to happen in the world of media and politics. In We the Media, Dan Gillmor explains what’s going on.
In the book, Gillmor walks us through the historic communications revolution that is taking place within our lifetime. Gillmor makes a compelling case that powerful institutions and media conglomerates (what the author calls “Big Media”) are losing their ability to command and control the flow of our news and information. This is happening because new online communication tools are allowing the flow of information and news to become increasingly democratized. Thanks to the arrival of new democratic and participatory Internet technologies like blogs, wikis, RSS feeds, and Internet broadcasting, traditional media hierarchies have begun to crumple under the weight of legions of citizens who are their own publishers, editors and reporters. Indeed, Gillmor’s most important point in this text is that we are now in a new era – a time in which new online communications tools are quickly shifting power away from powerful institutions and toward individuals. If institutions are to continue to be relevant and effective, they must adapt to meet the realities of the read/write Web.
Gillmor’s explanation of the democratization of the communications industry isn’t a rhetorical exercise. In the book, Gillmor presents numerous real examples of how this new communications regime has changed our political and commercial reality. For example, Gillmor cites the resignation of Trent Lott as majority due to the pressure of outraged bloggers. He also presents us with examples of how powerful institutions like Microsoft, Dallas Mavericks CEO Mark Cuban, and the Department of Defense have been able to successfully adapt to the new realities of participatory media by embracing the Web and using it as a medium that spurs a spirit of openness, trust, accountability and transparency with the outside world.
If I have one criticism of the book it would only be that it failed to anticipate the enormous impact that new social media platforms like YouTube and Facebook have made on media and politics. Surely, if We the Media had been published even just a year or two later, Gillmor would have noted how these new tools have further broken down the walls of old media systems.
One last item related to We the Media and Cluetrain Manifesto: I just came across a a great overview by Shel Holtz of the past 20 years of the Web over on Geoff Livingston’s Buzz Bin blog (Geoff’s a fellow Hoya, by the way). Here’s the video: