Wapping comes to Wall Street

This morning’s Observer column.

You might think this is all a storm in an online teacup, but in fact it's a revealing case study of how our media ecosystem has changed. What happened is that reporters on a major newspaper got something wrong. Nothing unusual about that – and the concept of "network neutrality" is a slippery one if you're not a geek or a communications regulator. But within minutes of the article's publication, it was being picked up and critically dissected by bloggers all over the world. And much of the dissection was done soberly and intelligently, with commentators painstakingly explaining why Google's move into content-caching did not automatically signal a shift in the company's attitude to network neutrality. Lessig was able instantly to rebut the views attributed to him in the article.

Watching the discussion unfold online was like eavesdropping on a civilised and enlightening conversation. Browsing through it I thought: this is what the internet is like at its best – a powerful extension of what J├╝rgen Habermas once called "the public sphere".

And the Journal’s response? A snide little “roundup” on its website about critical responses to the article which – it observed – “has certainly gotten a rise out of the blogosphere”. Instead of an apology for a seriously flawed piece of journalism, it produced only a celebration of the outrage its errors had generated. Verily, the Sun has come to Wall Street.

Because my Observer column is limited to about 800 words, there’s a lot more I’d like to have said about this episode. It would have been nice, for example, to have been able to point to some of the more illuminating commentaries on the WSJ story. For example:

  • Google’s response
  • Scott Rosenberg’s comments
  • Larry Lessig’s scathing remarks on how he was misrepresented
  • Siva Vaidhyanathan’s observations
  • Timoth Lee’s comments in Freedom to Tinker
  • John Timmer’s ArsTechnica post
  • Tim Wu’s observations

    I could go on, but you will get the point. This was about as far as you can get from the LiveJournal-OMG-my-cat-has-just-been-sick media stereotyping of blogging. It was an illustration of something that has always been true — that the world is full of clever, thoughtful, well-informed people. What has changed is that we now have a medium in which they can talk to one another — and to newspaper reporters, of only the latter are prepared to participate in the conversation.

    I’m searching for metaphors to capture what has happened. One image that comes to mind is that of a vast auditorium or sports arena which is packed to the rafters. In the centre is a stage with a very powerful public address system capable of generating tremendous amplification. Only a few people are allowed onto the stage to speak. When they do, everyone in the stadium can hear them. But they can’t hear the audience; or if they can it’s only as an undifferentiated roar. The performers cannot hear any individual voice.

    That’s how it was when newspapers and broadcasters were in their prime. As someone who was first invited onto the stage in 1987 (and has been performing on it continuously ever since), I always felt that it was a privileged position, which carried with it commensurate responsibilities. No doubt many other journalists and columnists felt like that too. But as a group we took our privileged position for granted, and most of us didn’t notice that our technological advantage — the amplification provided by the mass-media publication machine — was eroding. Nor did many journalists notice that network technology — the ‘generative Internet’ in Jonathan Zittrain’s phrase — was busily providing members of the audience with their own global publishing machine. So suddenly we find ourselves in an arena where our amplifiers are losing power, and individual members of the audience can not only talk to one another, they can shout back at us.

    But actually, most of the time they don’t want to shout. They want to talk. They think we’re wrong about something that they know about. Or they feel we haven’t done a subject justice, or maybe have missed a trick or even the point. The challenge for mainstream journalism now is whether its practitioners want to participate in the conversation that’s now possible. My complaint about the WSJ’s reaction to the blogosphere’s reaction is that it evinced a refusal to participate. The errors made by its reporters were serious but for the most part understandable; journalism is the rushed first draft of history and we all make mistakes. The tragedy was that the Journal saw the blogosphere’s criticism as a problem, when it fact it was an opportunity.