We the Media – Part II

            While I am hopeful about the power of the internet and its promise to level the playing field of knowledge, I am also a bit skeptical about it in some regards.  My skepticism lies in the tremendous amount of useless information sharing and time-wasting that blogs, messaging, and other such technologies have spawned.  (These, at least, are relatively benign negatives.  There are of course other more harmful and malicious by-products as well, from the prevalence of internet porn to the facilitation of child predation to the incredible breach of privacy that impacts pretty much everyone – internet users and non-users alike.  But that’s a whole other topic.)

            Of course the benefits of productive information sharing and of empowering citizen journalism probably far outweigh the costs, and I am encouraged to see the positive and productive effects that are possible.  Politics is an obvious example.  George Allen may not be as impressed by the power of internet technology as some others, but his opponents were certainly happy to capitalize on it after his “macaca” comment during a Senate campaign stop in August 2006, in what Rolling Stone called  “the first YouTube election.”  His comments to a Webb staffer of Indian descent who was videotaping him were quickly posted on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r90z0PMnKwI), and the topic spread like wildfire through the blog world (http://news.cnet.com/8301-10784_3-6107987-7.html, http://www.politicstv.com/blog/?p=1239, http://www.brendan-nyhan.com/blog/2006/08/new_postmacaca_.html), forcing an initially reluctant big media to pick up the story as well.  Thus ended Allen’s hopes not only for the Virginia Senate race, but for a possible presidential run in 2008.  On the flipside, of course, an understanding of new web and media technologies and effective utilization of them were a key factor in Barack Obama’s success in his 2008 presidential run.  Though relatively unknown at the beginning of the race, in a field of heavy-hitter candidates – among whom Hillary Clinton was presumed to be the automatic front-runner – Obama managed to connect with voters, get out his message, and raise funds in a way that his opponents simply couldn’t compete with.

            Perhaps the most impressive grassroots effort I’m aware of that owes its success to the use of digital media was the “No Más FARC” movement in early 2008.  Four young Colombians came up with the idea to stage a protest march against the terrorist guerrilla group FARC to show, despite FARC claims of representing the people, that the people of Colombia do NOT support the FARC.  Within a month of creating their Facebook page for “Un Millón de Voces Contra Las FARC” (“A Million Voices Against FARC”), they had signed up hundreds of thousands of members around the world, leading to successful public rallies in cities across the planet.  Estimates of turnout ranged as high as 10,000,000 in Colombia alone (roughly a quarter of the country’s total population!).

            One of the more useful topics that Gillmor discusses in We the Media is the wiki phenomenon.  Of course most regular internet users are familiar with Wikipedia, but the WikiTravel site was a new one to me and one that I found to be surprisingly useful.  I checked its content on traveling to Colombia (where I lived and worked for two years and thus had some inside perspective) and found it to be much more useful and insightful than the average travel guide one might find in a bookstore.  It truly reflected the knowledge of people who are familiar with the country more deeply than simply as tourists.

            As for the issue of sifting through the glut of useless information on the web to get to what’s really valuable, I think the most promising potential lies in the refinement of tools like RSS, aggregators, and newsreaders, as well as the development and refinement of recommendation and reputation tools, as Gillmor discusses, to assist in judging the value of any particular web content and the like, that will help (impatient) people (like me) to separate the wheat from the chaff.

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