Digital Frontiers: One Book You Should Read This Year

by , Aug 23, 2004, 12:00 AM
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I am a prolific reader, on and offline, but have rarely read a business/industry book that has made a memorable impact. Biographies and case studies are valuable exceptions, but I'm not a big fan of "10 Easy Steps to This," "Eight Ways to That."

The ups and downs of the Internet world have brought out a particularly bland, hyperbolic litany of poorly written polemics. In the media world, these range from how the Internet will (still) kill everything we know and love, to the Internet is more hype than substance. Out of the ashes of this cacophony, comes Dan Gillmor's "We the Media - Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People" (O'Reilly Press, with a companion Web site at http://wethermedia.oreilly.com.) Gillmor is one of the most respected journalists and thinkers about new media, has long written for the San Jose Mercury News and keeps his own provocative blog. It is, therefore, no surprise that he has written the most important book about how the media world is changing - not tomorrow, but right now.

So let's pause a moment and take a brief quiz. How many of you can accurately identify the following terms:Blogs, Wikis, InstaPundit.com, Creative Commons Copyright, Feedster, RSS, Reed's Law, Slashdot, Ohmynews.

I bet you're batting less than 1,000. And these are only a fraction of the issues changing our landscapes that Gillmor addresses at length. For anyone in the news and information world, for anyone who cares about and needs information in their daily lives, this book is for you

The ways traditional media is being battered are legion, but perhaps the greatest force of all goes to the essence of what most media companies are: aggregators. The Internet has forever changed the need for aggregation - not eliminated it outright, but changed it significantly.

Go to any section, any subsection, of a newspaper and there are dozens of online competitors building destinations for those areas only. How many people, five years from now, will buy record "albums?" If you own an iPod you know the answer. If you had a choice, would you buy basic cable as packaged by others, or choose the stations - choose the PROGRAMS - that you want when you want them? If you have a TiVo you know the answer as well.

People want what they want when and how they want it. And, as importantly, people want to be heard - and to hear from each other. Experts and editors have their place, but only ONE place in the media world not of the future, but of right now. And in no place is this change more apparent, and more significant, than in journalism and other content generation.

Gillmor refers to this as an extension of the open source philosophy that has become so powerful in software development. Opinion and expertise flourishes in a thousand places, and "the first article may be only the beginning of the conversation in which we enlighten each other. We can correct our mistakes. We can add new facts and context."

Gillmor offers a crystal clear tour of the news and information world of today. With useful historical context, he describes the rise of blogs and their impact. He describes the constituencies of news gatherers and news makers in a world where every citizen has access to a platform of reporting. He explains the technologies that enable greater and faster information distribution. He outlines the entrenched reactions and protective machinations of traditional media, and where they are inevitably doomed to fail. He hits all assumptions on privacy protection with a two-by-four.

The stories are as amusing as they are provocative. Bloggers at an investors conference instantly reported background they found online about Quest's Joe Nachio while he was presenting, instantly raising issues countering his presentation. President Bush had an "off the record" meeting with local constituents, one of whom happened to also keep a blog afterwards. Gillmor's artistry is in writing in a language that the digerati will find technical enough, but will never lose us regular civilians. There is little or no hyperbole here, few talk of "revolutions." With his keen reporter's eye, but with no polemic, there is a clear description of worlds that are playing out with inevitable ramifications to the future of news and information and elsewhere. (e.g., how CEOs can communicate with the market and their employees, how children will learn and interact, how communities are and will mobilize politically.)

If I had one criticism of the book, it is that it contains only scant discussion of the business models in the worlds as they play out. This was likely intentional, but does tend to leave the 800-pound gorilla of how traditional or ANY media organization will pay for all this content and interaction.

There are, of course, also downsides to "citizen journalism." Who to trust in the cacophony of the Web remains an interesting question. And, there is still a place - and Gillmor argues a primary place - for the quality reporting and expertise that makes great journalism of increased importance in our fast-changing world.

But there is nothing in this book that makes us in traditional media or journalism comfortable, which is why everyone in this business - from content creation to advertisers trying to find ways to reach these audiences - should pay careful attention. We have entered a world where the individual matters most. If, as Gillmor raises, "a scarcity of airwaves ... turns out to be an artifact of history and outmoded technology," that anyone can soon download or upload whatever they want when and how they want it, all bets are on the table.

For publishers, for citizens, and for marketers.

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