Everyday Semiotics

Monday, November 06, 2006

Crowdsourcing

This report, of the latest metasticization of the information age, is utterly fascinating: Gannett abolishes newsrooms in favor of 'Information Centers'.

In summary, this corporation, which publishes USA Today and 90 other papers, is looking beyond its reporters to gather news, produce features and mount investigations by "crowdsourcing."

The term, coined by the author of the article a bit earlier this year, is doubtless meant to convey the same derogatory and slightly jingoistic or xenophobic undertones that "outsourcing" does. American jobs have been lost to India; now journalists' jobs stand to be lost to John Q. Public.

One thing that's immediately striking about this (at least in the context of that silly essay I'm trying to write) is the complete disruption of the dynamic between Spider Jerusalem, the reporter's reporter, and his readers. It's a relationship in which a singular voice of authority simultaneously draws upon, defends and reviles the population at large.

Not to mention the fact that, more than ever before, this is an incursion of the ancient tradition of narrative, which included no concept of "the author" or of any authority contained within a single body. Instead, it's almost like a movement back toward the oral tradition, where legends are passed from storyteller to storyteller, with no regard for whatever claims of artistic integrity a modern author might make.

Plenty of newspapers have embraced Web sites and now even blogs; but here it's not just a mimicry of format, it's an absorbtion of the means of production of what I'll call the countermedia -- the blogging, newsgathering, muckraking public, as opposed to the (only slightly) more exclusive newsmedia.

Come to think of it, exclusivity remains the hallmark of both milieux. Anyone can publish a blog, just as anyone with access to a photocopier can produce a "journal." But there is still a reliance on authority, an expection that the news is being captured and interpreted and spread by someone or some entity that has some business doing so. This relies entirely on reputation, which is generated by satisfying the expectations of certain readerships. The rule is the same for newspapers as for any blog that aspires to be more than a diary made public. One turns to BoingBoing because its writers have their fingers on all the right pulses. One turns to Language Log because its writers have published a book (a tangible one with paper and ink) and because they're professors (or something).

Crowdsourcing may or may not be an adequate term to describe the model. The "crowd" here is not the man on the street by any means. It is made up of people who (a) have access to computers and the Internet, (b) regularly consume news and (c) feel inclined to contribute to the generation of news. To be sure, we are not yet at the point of Satelite 5 in "The Long Game" (Doctor Who, season 29, episode 7), where human brains are interlinked processors gathering and disseminating news in a bizarre, technoritualistic manner.

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