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July 2, 2010, noon

Papering over the bumps: Is the online media ecosystem really flat?

[Matthew Battles is one of my favorite thinkers about how we read, consume, and learn. He’s reading and reacting to Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows. Over the next several weeks, we’ll be running Matthew’s ongoing twin review; here are parts one, two, and three. — Josh]

In Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky adopts the mode of a police procedural, analyzing the means, motives, and opportunities we have to use our cumulative free time in creative and generous ways. It’s a strange move, treating a notional good as the object of criminal activity, but it affords Shirky with a simple structure for his book.

Beginning with a chapter on “means,” then, Shirky looks at the tools we now have at our disposal for the sharing of stories, images, and ideas. He doesn’t immediately turn to the usual suspects — Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere — but instead looks at outpourings of shared concern and interest that have erupted in surprising places. His first example is the explosive outbreak of protest that occurred in South Korea when US-produced beef was reintroduced to markets in Spring 2008. South Korea had banned American meat during the bovine spongiform encephelopathy or “mad cow disease” scare in 2003, later reopening its market in a quiet agreement between the two countries’ governments. Protests against this move began among followers of the popular Korean boy band Dong Ban Shin Ki. Exchanging messages in the decidedly non-political forum of the bulletin boards on DBSK’s web site, they ignited a nationwide furor and nearly brought down the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak.

As Shirky describes it, the fluid and soluble nature of the new media helped to leverage the power of the protests. “[M]edia stopped being just a source of information and became a locus of coordination as well,” Shirky writes, as protesters used not only the DBSK web site but “a host of other conversational online spaces. They were also sending images and text via their mobile phones, not just to disseminate information and opinion but to act on it.”

When I read such stories of burgeoning viral foment, I think of Arthur Machen, a British author of ghost stories writing at the time of the First World War. During the run-up to the bloody campaign of the Somme, Machen published a short story called “The Bowmen,” in which he imagined soldiers who died five hundred years earlier at the Battle of Agincourt, led by Saint George, riding out of the sky to rescue an outgunned British force at the Battle of Mons. The story appeared in the London Evening News in September 1914. In the months that followed, parish magazines throughout Britain reprinted the story; and soon, fragments of the tale began to circulate, virally as it were, in the form of rumor and testimony from the combatants themselves. The story grew: Dead German soldiers had been found transfixed by arrows; Saint George and Agincourt’s band of brothers had been joined by winged angels and Joan of Arc. Although Machen sought to publicize the fictional origins of the tale, it had gone viral thanks to the flattened transmedia of newspapers and church gossip.

We’re in Walter Lippmann territory here. In World War I and the World Wide Web alike, we come to the public sphere with a kit of reflexes and assumptions. Of course, unlike angels on the battlefield, mad cow disease is real. The extent of its threat to public health, however, may have more in common with the supernatural dangers faced by German soldiers in 1914; the ways the two stories engage our reflex-kit have much in common. From history, we can take comfort in the knowledge that public opinion could be infected with viral memes before the emergence of the Internet. Can history also help us to cope with the shocks and tremors such rumors induce? Are they the signs of a healthy public sphere, or symptoms of a viral disease? Shirky would proclaim the former; Nicholas Carr likely inclines to the latter diagnosis. But both sides lack a necessary degree of richness and complexity.

The flattening of the media — the Internet’s ability to break down barriers between broadcast and print, between advocacy and information — is recognizable to us all. But it’s worth questioning how truly flat it all has become. Shirky extolls the liberating frisson that comes from clicking the “publish now” button familiar to casual bloggers — but he fails to mention that invariably a few of those buttons are hooked up to more pipes than others. He talks about the end of scarcity: the resource-driven economics of print (and even the limits of the electromagnetic spectrum, in the case of broadcast media) are a thing of the past, he observes, and the opportunity to publish is now abundant. But we must recognize that on the Internet, large audiences remain a scarce resource — and they’re largely still in the hands of transmedia conglomerates busy leveraging their powers in the old media of scarcity to dominate traffic.

Is the notion of flatness truly descriptive, or does it merely paper over the bumps? Real differences in the power of platforms exist throughout the digitial media, as they did among the analog; the new political economy of communication is largely about shifting those differences around. The bumps used to lie before the doors of access, making it difficult to get published in the first place. Those bumps have been flattened out — but as with an oversized carpet, they’ve popped up elsewhere, in front of the audiences. Sure, you can “publish now.” But who will know that you have published? On the Internet, no one may know that you’re a dog, but they can tell from your traffic and your follower counts whether you’re a celebrity or a major media outlet lurking in the social media. When CBS News has a Facebook account and you can follow CNN on Twitter, there’s little point in pretending that the means of communication have truly been flattened.

But flatland is extending itself everywhere, according to Shirky. “Now that computers and increasingly computerlike phones have been broadly adopted, the whole notion of cyberspace is fading. Our social media tools aren’t an alternative to real life, they are part of it.” No doubt this is true — cyberspace and meatspace are everywhere meeting and interpenetrating. But just as in the “real life” of old, the tools are not created equal. Some still have more leverage than others.

“Ideology addresses very real problems,” Slavov Žižek has said with unaccustomed clarity, “but in a way that mystifies them.” Flatness in the media is an ideology. It mystifies the bumps and valleys of the real which, as ever, are composed of talent, power, and liberty.

What then is the answer? Carr’s mandarin approach — to leave great thoughts to the great thinkers, to preserve the fiction of another dominant style — isn’t so much idealistic as it is impossible. For the phenomenon that Shirky calls our cognitive surplus has proven (if proof were needed) that curiosity and ingenuity are widely dispersed throughout the population. And without a doubt, technologies that offer a means to furthering those qualities are worth promoting. But an ideology of flatness isn’t the way to promote them. We need to engage the new media tools as if our actions and ideas have real power in the world. The ethical implications of such a stance may be debatable, but they cannot be trivial.

POSTED     July 2, 2010, noon
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