How much do we really want the average person to contribute to the news gathering process, to politics and to the culture itself? It depends on whom you ask.
"If we keep up this pace, there will be over five hundred million blogs by 2010, collectively corrupting and confusing popular opinion about everything from politics to commerce, to arts and culture," writes Andrew Keen, author of the forthcoming book The Cult of the Amateur: How the Democratization of the Digital World Is Assaulting Our Economy, Our Culture and Our Values. The book is expected to be out June 5.
Keen, a moderator at the iHollywood Forum in Hollywood this week, is no doubt spot-on with his prediction that hundreds of millions of blogs, many written by rank amateurs, lie in our future. Consider that there were just 10,000 Web sites back in 1994. Today, it's estimated that there are more than 100 million. It's likely that Keen is similarly accurate in stating that the vast collection of online opinions will profoundly influence on many areas of life.
A recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal captured this sense in arguing that the impact of blogs on politics suggests it's unclear who is running the Democratic Party: the candidates themselves "or the blogosphere with [its] pitchforks." The piece was referring to a decision by the Democratic Party of Nevada to pull its planned debate on Fox News, which is generally considered a rightward-leaning operation.
But I disagree that the influence will corrupt the process, the news or the information any more than it already has. This was the defense put forth by me, and Leonard Brody, CEO and co-founder of NowPublic, a site that allows people anywhere to report a story, upload a photo or offer comment about what they feel is news. Its volunteers are, in a sense, eyewitnesses who can add value in the formation of a story.
Brody and I, as well as FeedBurner's vice president, Don Loeb, were panelists on a discussion titled "Confronting the Citizen Journalist" at the iHollywood Forum. We were asked by Keen and another attendee to support our views about why bringing outside voices to the news gathering process, absent the traditional vetting of information, was not corrupting the system of truth gathering.
My response was a simple one: For years, we were all led to believe what scientists -- presumably learned or at least smarter than the average Joe -- said about Pluto, which is that it was a planet. Now, we're told that it's not true. Pluto is a "dwarf planet."
There are plentiful examples in which the experts have miscalculated or misled or, in a famous recent case at the New York Times, failed to sufficiently oversee the fact-checking process. Brody offered an eloquent response -- similar to what you'd read in the book "The Wisdom of Crowds" -- about why he would trust information viewed and vetted by more people than a few editors.
In the process of collaborating, people are accountable to one another, he said. If an editor gets a story wrong, he's disciplined internally. If someone in a collaborative process gets a story wrong, he's publicly humiliated, Brody said. Moderator Michael Stroud, a co-founder of the iHollywood Forum, ended that discussion by saying that perhaps it's not flawed facts that citizen journalists would provide but different information. Indeed, it's different, but that doesn't mean it's false. It's just a different perspective. And, at the end of the day, people are voting for this type of journalism.
A recent study conducted by Piper Jaffray and comScore showed that 31% of traffic in October 2006 went to sites built around user-generated content, such as MySpace, operated by News Corp. (NASDAQ:NWS); Facebook; Metacafe; and Google's (NASDAQ:GOOG) YouTube. That was up from just 3% in April 2005.
Now, whether that percentage will continue to rise is unknown. It does seem that many attractive new ideas are quickly embraced by adherents, but people often lose interest. We cannot extrapolate that traffic growth -- certainly not at its 2005-06 pace -- because one contributor to the increased popularity is curiosity, not true demand or need.
Additionally, the fusion of user-generated content and traditional content makes it difficult for anyone to know what users are going after. It's likely a bit of both. Nonetheless, I believe that we'll see more of it in journalism and across the Web. The Web has become an archipelago of tiny villages tied together not by proximity but by interests. In the old-style town square, passionate, informed people came together to debate and share news and create dialogue. Today the Web is that square. Traditional media have lost their monopoly on journalism, most people agree. And more and more, everyday citizens will be plying the trade -- once they find the village they want to be part of.