Wikileaks is definitely a controversial organization, questionable for the legitimacy of its mission raising numerous concerns about the digital future of information on a broader spectrum. In a Utopian world, the idea of mutual contribution to the wealth of human knowledge without any restraints or filtering, would be a noble safeguarded privilege. The scenario though differs significantly when an individual or organization uses this uncensored power to threat, control or even destroy another entity. The debates between open and closed governance, regulation and deregulation, ownership and pluralism apply on this issue making it extremely complicated to approach.
Few of the courses I have taken in grad school allow students to undertake projects with real value. One of these is the Media, Politics and Power in the Digital Age at the Kennedy School. The Professor, Nicco Mele, gave us the option to choose between a research paper, a policy memo and a Wikipedia contribution for our final project. Taking into account the utility of all those upon my personal advancement and their potential application to my master thesis made this decision hard.
My thesis is an academic research exploring the notion of participation and how governments as well as corporations are looking to encourage citizen or employee participation in decision-making via on line platforms. Currently I am working on the development of a new participation classification model, and considering how this would become a useful tool to make both governments and corporations more participatory.
Clay Shirky in his blog post Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, refers to the history of press to explain the digital evolution of journalism and what we are to expect. According to his argument, we do not know what exactly to expect as we witness this transitional gap, because as Shirky repeatedly notes, things break before they are replaced. Nevertheless, he points out that regardless of what the newspapers’ future is going to be, people need journalism; and though it might take a while until journalism finds its definition and place in the digital era, it will happen because people want it to.
Interestingly, this article reminds me of my first camera and love for photography. When I was about 5 years old, my father gave me his first camera which he got back in the 70s at a much older age than me. Kodak instamatic cameras were at the same time as simple and complicated as “point-and-shoot.” Fascinating! I was able to capture in click everything I thought interesting or worthy of remembering. However I had to be cautious since I could take 12 photos per film and those were expensive to develop into prints. Few years later digital cameras entered the market. Ground breaking innovation, but at the same time too expensive for a teenager to afford. I bought a Kodak Advantix instead and couldn’t be happier. Finally I had a zoom lens, I could choose settings, select the size of my photos and film was easier to replace compared to regular cameras. Despite the fact that the cost of prints remained high, I recall thinking that this camera may not be digital but will certainly meet my needs equally. Little did I know. Thanks to technology, today, my passion for photography is not limited to a device or by how many rolls of film I have in my bag, for I can take as many pictures as I like using my digital camera, phone, ipad or pc. I can edit my pictures, store and track them easier, produce them much cheaper, post them on-line and share them with my network and beyond. Kodak filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in January 2012, but caused little effect in the market, even for its loyal customers, because people do not need Kodak, people just want to take pictures.
This story is not that different from the history of press Shirky is illustrating. He makes a valid argument for I see the camera and pictures case to be similar to newspapers and journalism. Both describe the relationship between a platform and a product, cameras and newspapers are platforms and photography and journalism are products. Technology is undeniably changing the dynamics of life and consequently the relationship between platforms and products as those adapt to the rapidly changing technology status quo, and one innovation gives its place to the next big thing.
Based on the recent innovation and progress encountered in photography business, starting from my father not having a camera as a child to my generation’s ability to experience a new photography era; we can assume the future of newspapers and journalism. Similarly with cameras, newspapers will not stop being produced, they will just change format as the press has evolved throughout time. Considering Web 2.0 as a platform for journalism, clearly the Internet is empowering people by increasing the number of channels they can use to voice their opinion, access information and interact with each other at a minimum cost. If journalism is about reporting news and conveying different points of view to the world, then on-line journalism is the evolution of paper, which allows reach to a wider audience giving Internet users the opportunity to interact with the author, create content and shape news. Optimizing communication tools encourage the notion of participatory media. Now everyone, regardless of their professional capacity, can freely express views or share news but no one is forced to read it, unless people choose to. We experience a new journalism era. As we transition to open media, traditional one-way communication newspapers will eventually stop being produced as hard copies but will not disappear, they will evolve to match the Internet momentum. This transformation has already started, given that new agencies migrated on-line and constantly modify their layout to increase interaction with their audience.
Like Anne Marie Slaughter said in her talk on “Open v. Closed: Media, Government and Social Organizations in the Information Age” at the Harvard Kennedy School, on October 10th, 2012; blogs, twitter and the like, give individuals the opportunity to write their own ideas and views, but this does not replace the quality of professional journalism. Therefore it is up to the news agencies to innovate and adapt or object the media transformation and follow the road of Kodak. Because as David Cage rightfully pointed, industries die if they fail to innovate…
In their book “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives,” Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, discuss the impact of social networks. More specifically in chapter 8 “Hyperconnected,” they begin the discussion on social networks with a reference to the popular Internet game “World of Warcraft” and illustrate how a game modification by its programmers to challenge the advanced players, had unexpected consequences that resembled such of real life. Scientist of all kinds studied the incident to draw conclusions on the relation between a virtual world and reality.
The authors argue that regardless of the rapid advancement of communication technologies, from a letter to an email to inhibiting a virtual world on the premises of on-line gaming; humanity does not strive away from its past and its tendency to form traditional relationships but rather moves closer to it. On the other hand, when virtual reality becomes a case study to understand human behavior, could this be true?
Sherry Turkle, in her recent TED talk: Connected, but alone? argues that technology evolution and in particular the multiple communication ways via the Internet and advanced telephone devices, do not only change the way we contact one another but also change who we are and how we relate to others. When people log in their social media profiles or simply sent a text, they substitute their loneliness and feel connected in the absence of actual human interaction. The current connection patterns allow individuals to chose who they want to be “friends” with, what to say or even how they wish to be portrayed.
Christakis and Fowler argue that virtual worlds differ from reality because in a game you can customize everything. Players seem to create virtual lives quite similar to their real ones, but in the new space they can choose how they look, who they relate to or where they want to be instantly, knowing that even if they lose and die, they can start over from the comfort of their virtual home. Not so many years back, one would argue that such case scenario would be impossible in real life, but this is no longer true. The “World of Warcraft” and its customizing options is not that different from how people manage their on-line presence after all.
Internet users nowadays consume enormous amounts of time managing their on-line pages and several studies have indicated that people project the image they would like to have rather than who they are and tend to share personal information to the extent digital privacy issues occur more frequently than ever before. People initiate strong and weak ties with a number of individuals rapidly changing their eigenvector value but in most cases without really increasing or decreasing their actual social value.
According to the theory of Stanley Milgram, everyone can connect to anyone through someone they know in less than 6 steps. The question rising is why would one make the effort to overcome the 6 degrees of separation to reach one person when it is possible to connect to anyone they wish in a virtual world. This brings us back to the debate between Shirky and Gladwell, on whether or not technology really matters. Do social networks create a useless virtual structures that isolate their users in their own reality or do they set the foundation for a holistic move that it is easier for individuals to initiate and manage?
Probably both apply. Technology most certainly facilitates both virtual and real relationships either by eliminating the distance by degrees of separation or by kilometers. How individuals choose to use technological tools is totally objective and thus conclusions on each side the two scholars’ debate or the arguments Christakis and Fowler make in their book, cannot be generalized but rather questioned.