By Clay Shirky
If you were in the news business in the 20th century, you worked in a kind of pipeline, where reporters and editors would gather facts and observations and turn them into stories, which were then committed to ink on paper or waves in the air, and finally consumed, at the far end of those various modes of transport, by the audience.
A pipeline is the simplest metaphor for that process, whether distribution of news was organized around the printing press or the broadcast tower. Part of the conceptual simplicity of traditional media came from the near-total division of the roles between professionals and amateurs, and the subsequent clarity that division provided. Reporters and editors (and producers and engineers) worked “upstream,” which is to say as the source of the news. They created and refined the product, decided when it was ready for consumption, and sent it out when it was, to readers or listeners or viewers.
Meanwhile, we, the audience, were “downstream.” We were the recipients of this product, seeing it only in its final, packaged form. We could consume it, of course (our principal job), and we could talk about it around the dinner table or the water cooler, but little more. News was something we got, not something we used. If we wanted to put our own observations out in public, we needed permission from the pros, who had to be convinced to print our letters to the editor, or to give us a few moments of airtime on a call-in show.
That pipeline model still shapes the self-conception of working professionals in the news business (at least working professionals of a certain age), but the gap between that model and the real world has grown large and is growing larger, because the formerly separate worlds of the professionals and the amateurs are intersecting more dramatically, and more unpredictably, by the day.
Here’s a 21st century question: What is Wikipedia made of? Or another: What is Flickr, with its billions of photos, made of? Or WordPress, the open-source blogging platform: What is WordPress made of?
The shallow answer is that Wikipedia is made of words and Flickr is made of pictures and WordPress is made of code. That’s true enough, of course, but we had words and pictures and code in the 20th century, and we didn’t get Wikipedia, or anything else that relied on a large pool of amateur contributors.
The deeper answer, the answer that’s true of all those projects and countless more, is that they are made of coordinated voluntary participation. The participation part comes from a medium that is implicitly two-way and group-oriented, a medium that makes everyone who connects to it a potential producer of bits and not just a consumer of them.
The voluntary part comes from the staggering volume of free time available in the developed world (trillions of hours a year), coupled with human desires to do things that make us happy, not just things that pay us money.
And the coordination comes from entrepreneurs of generosity, people like the founders of Wikipedia or Flickr or WordPress who offer us opportunities to pool our free time, using this group-oriented medium, to make ourselves feel happy or engaged or satisfied by creating things together we couldn’t create on our own.
Taken together, this coordinated voluntary participation is a new resource, a cognitive surplus that allows us to treat the connected world’s free time and talents in aggregate, as something which, used right, can change the very idea of news — what it is, how it is created and experienced and shared.
How participation has changed news
Here are a few surprises in the news business in our little corner of the 21st century, courtesy of the ability of amateurs, working alone and together, to participate and not just consume:
In 2002, after Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott praised Strom Thurmond’s segregationist 1948 campaign, the man that did Lott in was Ed Sebesta, an amateur historian who had been tracking racist statements made by American politicians to segregationist groups. Shortly after Lott said his praise had been an uncharacteristic slip, Sebesta contacted Josh Micah Marshall, who ran the blog Talking Points Memo, to share recorded comments made by Lott dating back to the 1980s.
These comments helped destroy Lott’s ability to characterize his comments as a slip, and led to his losing his leadership position. Sebesta had built the database of racist speech on his own, without institutional support; Marshall was an amateur blogger (not yet having incorporated); and the source contacted the news outlet, 1,500 miles away, rather than vice-versa. No professionals anywhere in sight.
In 2005, the London transit system was bombed. Sir Ian Blair, the head of London’s Metropolitan police, went on radio and TV to announce that the cause had been an electrical failure in the underground. Within minutes of Blair’s statements, people began posting and analyzing pictures of a bombed double-decker bus in Tavistock Square, and in less than two hours, there were hundreds of blog posts analyzing this evidence and explicitly contradicting Blair’s interpretation.
Seeing this, and overriding the advice of his own communications staff, Blair went on air again less than two hours later to say that it had indeed been a bombing, that the police didn’t have all the answers yet, and that he would continue reporting as they knew more. When he spoke to the public, Blair had the power of all the traditional media behind him, but it was clear that merely having a consistent message on every broadcast channel in existence was no longer the same as having control.
In 2006, Kate Hanni was stuck, for eight hours, on a flight that landed in Dallas during a lightning storm, while the airline refused to allow passengers off the plane. She was as furious as all the other passengers who’ve ever experienced such a thing, but she decided to do something about it. She founded a pressure group agitating for an air passengers bill or rights, and then she set about recruiting members by finding online newspaper accounts of flight delays, and posting about her nascent group in the comments of those articles.
Hanni realized that on the Web, news outlets could act not just as a source of information, but as a site of coordination, finding the people who cared about a particular story and helping them take action together. The US airline industry had successfully fought off pressure to create any new rights for passengers for decades, but within three years of the launch of Hanni’s group, first New York State and then the US Congress passed a Passengers Bill of Rights, largely because Hanni had used the press to turn an unorganized group of angry passengers into an organized group of angry passengers.
On and on this list goes: Tehrani protestors using their camera phones to document the Green Uprising, or the chemical company Trafigura’s inability to preserve the press injunction of their pollution off the Ivory Coast, once Twitter users got on the case.
The cognitive surplus of the former audience is increasingly driving hybrid professional-amateur models that would have been both unthinkable and unworkable even 10 years ago: ProPublica covering every Iowa caucus in 2008 with citizen journalists, a feat that would have bankrupted them had they done it with stringers; the reshaping of Korean presidential politics by Ohmynews, a pro-am journalism site; the Guardian’s crowd-sourcing its tracking of the expenses of UK Members of Parliament, because the job, done by employees, would not just have cost too much but taken too long.
Now journalists have always used tip lines and man-in-the-street interviews, and consumers have always clipped and forwarded favorite articles. What’s new here isn’t the possibility of occasional citizen involvement. What’s new is the speed and scale and leverage of that involvement, the possibility of persistent, dramatic amounts of citizen involvement. What’s new is that making public statements no longer requires professional outlets, that citizens now have tools that enable them to assemble around causes they care about without needing to live near each other.
This is a change in degree so large, in other words, that it amounts to a change in kind. As Steven Levy observed, writing about the iPod, when you make something 10 percent better, you’ve created an improvement, but when you make something 10 times better, you’ve made a new thing.
So it is with the harnessing our cognitive surplus. Tip lines only worked in geographically local areas, but Ed Sebesta was able to find Josh Micah Marshall halfway across the country. Man-in-the-street interviews are random, because the professionals controlled the mode and tempo of public utterances, but with Flickr and weblogs, British bloggers could discuss the London bombings in public, at will, and with no professionals anywhere in sight. One person can clip one newspaper column and mail it to one other person, but to catalyze mass action takes something likes Kate Hanni’s use of the Web.
What’s going away, from the pipeline model, isn’t the importance of news, or the importance of dedicated professionals. What’s going away is the linearity of the process, and the passivity of the audience. What’s going away is a world where the news was only made by professionals, and consumed by amateurs who couldn’t do much to produce news on their own, or to distribute it, or to act on it en masse.
We are living through a shock of inclusion, where the former audience is becoming increasingly intertwined with all aspects of news, as sources who can go public on their own, as groups that can both create and comb through data in ways the professionals can’t, as disseminators and syndicators and users of the news.
This shock of inclusion is coming from the outside in, driven not by the professionals formerly in charge, but by the former audience. It is also being driven by new news entrepreneurs, the men and women who want to build new kinds of sites and services that assume, rather than ignore, the free time and talents of the public.
This a change so varied and robust that we need to consider retiring the word “consumer” altogether, and treat consumption as simply one behavior of many that citizens can now engage in. The kinds of changes that are coming will dwarf those we’ve already seen, as citizen involvement stops being a set of special cases, and becomes a core to our conception of how news can be, and should be, part of the fabric of society.
Clay Shirky teaches and writes on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is the Edward R. Murrow Lecturer at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media and Public Policy and a Fellow at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society. Shirky is the author of “Here Comes Everybody” and “Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age.”
This essay was originally published in September as part of the International Press Institute’s report, “Brave News Worlds: Navigating the New Media Landscape.”
CORRECTION: This post originally stated that Trent Lott was Speaker of the House when he made his comments about Strom Thurmond in 2002. Lott was actually Senate Minority Leader.