MIT Communications Forum – News, Information and the Wealth of Networks – 9.21

The second of three panels addressing the topic, “Will Newspapers Survive?” was much larger and more theoretical than the first. It featured two panelists: Yoachi Benkler of Yale and Henry Jenkins or MIT.Benkler teaches communication and information law and is the author of The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom. Jenkins is co-director of comparative media studies and the Peter de Florez Professor of humanities. He is also the author of Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Intersect.

Following introductions by David Thornburn and William Uricchio (both of MIT), the two speakers addressed the issue of media, societal change and the dangers of the status quo. The notes below are only my attempt to capture the spirit of the discussion, and aren’t direct quotes from and of the participants. A podcast and vidcast of the event will eventually be made available at

Benkler began the conversation by looking back at the growth of the newspaper business in the mid-nineteenth century and how the establishment of a capital-intensive media industry created a split between professional (commercial) producers and passive consumers. He then fast-forwarded to today to point out that the availability of computing power – and its distribution – have changed the status quo.

He illustrated this point by showing the relative computational power of various super computers and then comparing it with the pooled computational power being provided by the SETI@home project. For him, this illustrates the radical decentralization of capitalization and the power of pooled peer resources. These same factors are also allowing more people to engage in the process of creating communication through computation.

This has led to the to commons-based production that has no limits on the inputs, outputs or the individual – and without interference from commercial media; individuals now have both the ability and the authority to act.

Another outgrowth of this is peer production – large scale, largely unmanaged cooperation. A few examples that he offered included open source software (and in particular, Mars clickworkers and the Wikipedia.

The traditional media recognize the threat and reality presented by peer production and are actively seeking new content based on social production. They know that social production is a fact and not a fad, that it can be more efficient at producing information that existing models and that it is a threat. That is the economic reality of the wealth of networks.

Benkler next turned his attention to the political issues surrounding the topic.

How we produce information and decide what to produce are critical choices. He used the 2000 elections and its aftermath as an example.

To try to make sure the ballot questions raised by 2000 didn’t occur again, there was a move in 2002 – especially in California – to move to electronic voting. These were proprietary systems and everyone was essentially told by the manufacturer (Diebold), “trust us.” Not everyone did and one person managed to get their hands on the source code for these machines. This person posted the code and links to tools for accessing and analyzing it. People around the world helped out and they found issues.The story made its way to Wired; but, according to Benkler, Wired missed the point (that there were problems with the code) and focused on the fact that Diebold’s software had been leaked. Diebold cracked down and tried to stop the story. But it was too late. Students at Swathmore began looking at the software and posting what they found. Diebold cracked down again and the information was removed. But now it was really too late. The information had spread throughout the entire Web. Eventually, the issues with the Diebold voting machines made their way into the California courts and many were decertified by the state based on the issues identified by pooled peers from around the world.

The choice to question the closed and proprietary software, the decision to use pooled production for the analysis and the ultimate decertification of the machines illustrated the political capabilities of the power of the network.

It also highlights the importance of creating a more critical culture, one that wants to link, to point and to see for themselves.

This recapitulation doesn’t capture the full scope of Benkler’s comments but it does provide, I hope, a sense of his view of things and of the critical importance of the social production. His book is available at

Henry Jenkins then spoke on the convergence of fan culture and the mass media and how the two were leading to a social media.

His first example was a photograph of someone dressed as a Star Wars stormtrooper shopping for Star Wars toys. It was taken by friends of the fellow in costume with a camera phone and posted to Flickr. The media got a hold of it and it appeared in dozens of papers across the country. This kind of think is scary for traditional media producers because the don’t have control of the content or context. Jenkins expected that Lucas Arts probably had little trouble with it but that wasn’t his point.

His next example was from and featured an image of Burt with Osama bin Ladin. He then showed an image of a poster featuring images of bin Laden being used in a demonstration in Afghanistan. One of the images included Burt. PBS was not happy and would have liked to sue someone.

These are both examples of the interplay between top-down and bottom-up media. Content comes from the top, is reinterpreted and redistributed from the bottom. Results like the proceeding examples shake up both world. One for its sudden lack of power and the other for its apparent power. It is also creating real challenges for intellectual property attorneys and it defines the idea of converged culture.

It is not based on technology but rather on a cultural process enabled by technology. Cultural convergence is here. Stories and content will now appear through the maximum number of platforms and media, legally or illegally, from the top down and from the bottom up. It is trans-media, participatory and experimental.

It requires and taps into the collective intelligence (the ad-hocracy according to Jenkins) as more and more people can share and pool information. This collective intelligence also allows for the faster processing of information. And more and more people are pooling and participating in the growing ad-hocracy:

57% of teens are media producers
33% share what they make with others
22% have own homepages
19% blogs
19% remix content

(from Pew)

Mass media provides the content – collective intelligence creates the new content.

How does this touch news?

People are learning how to do civic media. The fan culture learned to create and manipulate content for recreation. Those skills though are being applied in other areas, creating new sources of information, commentary and activism.

As examples, Jenkins showed images of the London subway bombing taken by people on the trains and Photoshopped images of President Bush in New Orleans. He also pointed to examples of content aggregation and analysis using photographs and captions from hurricane Katrina.

The mix of information and entertainment is becoming a force in shaping serious conversations and they are now appearing across the converged culture.

His comments led into several videos that illustrated his points, but also the larger issues of the evolutions of the network-based converged culture based on pooled production. Following the videos, there were a period for Q&A.

What needs to happen for people to effectively contribute to civic media? Is it just transferring the current media rules or is something else needed? What do we need to teach them?

Benkler: who are “we” and who are we teaching – that is part of the challenge here – it is easier when you have a fixed production class that can define what the training and skills need to be to participate; we are seeing the beginning of critical reading – in a universe with multiple inputs the traditional bearers of authority have been shown to be wrong often – now we are beginning to see more about building the skills of observation and intelligence gathering vs responding to signals sent by authority. Now we must look at multiple inputs and apply critical thinking in order to reach a provisional judgment.

Jenkins: we aren’t learning from someone, we are learning from each other through the process of collective intelligence. There is still a participation gap that is different from the digital divide. Most people have access, but not all have access to the skills and experience to use this technology to participate in civic media. DOPA (the defeat of online predators act) would further limit access.

While the population can learn the skills needed for civic media, can the incumbent media learn them too; can’t the be co-opted by the power elite? The skills can come from the bottom up, but it can also be pushed from the top down.

Benkler: It’s important not to be Utopian, this isn’t a bad thing. Are systems like this susceptible to attack? Yes. What are the defenses? In mass media, there are small number of targets that can be targeted, spun or controlled; this is harder to do with civic media.

Jenkins: It says something that large organizations feel and recognize the need to create false grass-roots movements. That they feel the need to adopt the methods of the powerless to communicate their messages.

What about the argument civic media creates cohorts but doesn’t join them?

Benkler: What we can observe through patterns of use isthat we’re not too fragmented and not too unified; we’re not quite “just right” but getting there. Some may say that what is happening in civic media isn’t democratization but just concentration – millions link to a few sites while millions of sites get few visitors. The reality is that sites begin to cluster around topics and issues that matter to specific communities; and then you see hundreds of sites linking across one another that synthesize what matters to the group.

Jenkins: In the past, social critics worried about the hegemony created by the mass media; now critics are worried about the fragmentation of civic media . . . we need to be careful of listening to closely to critics . . . Participation is very complex – it ranges from the pop culture to produced culture but can ignore all of the civic media in the middle.

How do peer produced models work when it comes to scientific issues? How can civic communications help on this front?

Jenkins: this is a tricky area; there is always room for experts in any model; experts play vital roles in interpreting and directing communication.

Benkler: it is important not to look at utopia but at the baseline of the mass media; if you look at the scientific community and its publications, there is no question regarding the reality and cause of global warming; if you look in the mass media – it looks like the experts are split 50/50. Something like Wikipedia can make a broad range of views accessible on this topic.

What are the deal breakers for creating the civic media? This has all been a positive discussion but what could put a stop to this kind of participation?

Benkler: increasingly, there don’t seem to be any major deal breakers – but here are some – the creation of “trusted machines” that limit the use of systems to prevent them to be used for non-specified purposes or to access non-authorized content. This is being driven by Hollywood based on the failure of DRM, etc. It could lead to unequal access and usage of content. Another could be control imposed by companies; but mesh networks may prevent this from happening. Software patents could also be a problem; but too many companies are seeing too much revenue to stop open source at this point. Lack of access to the technology and peer communities could also be distorting.

What can be done? Create, share, adopt creative commons licensing – encourage open and open the closed; make IP a political issue – we are starting to see this happening

More and more people and groups are taking steps to prevent the incumbents from succeeding in attacking civic media.

Jenkins: participatory culture is here to stay; the scale and scope are still in questions and how it relates to the mainstream media remains to be seen. The biggest threat comes from Hollywood and its enemies – liberal democrats – which are both working to limit participation: Hollywood by controlling access and rights to content and liberals by trying to control access to peer communities through legislation like DOPA.

One deal breaker is that if the laws don’t change the people will be impotent – will the law ever become a bottom-up process?

Benkler: this is a deep question in terms of legal theory; is the legal system a progressive one or a regressive one? It gets to the source of law – where does it come from and how does it change? He did not feel that there would be a bottom-up process for creating law.

What are the implications of this empowerment culture for the traditional world of news gathering and news consumption? What is the future of the newspaper?

Jenkins: as someone trained as a journalist, he is concerned for papers; participatory media vs. the newspapers is an interesting issue. One interesting thing to look at and consider is that the blogosphere can viewed as a response to what is not being reported by the traditional media. Traditional media ought to look at the issues being raised by participatory media and than amplifying them through their channels.

Citizen journalists will not replace professional journalists; the categories of news that exist do not reflect the diversities of our culture; the new media is, and will continue to be, a corrective measure.

Benkler: traditional media play an important role, but they are vehiles for the elite (including us) and they are top-down; we value expertise and elites – they serve a role as a platform for elites to share ideas – that function doesn’t go away.

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