Great minds think
Writer, artist and designer, theorist and community builder.
Businessweek describes Rheingold as "among the first wave of creative thinkers who saw, in computers and then in the Internet, a way to form powerful new communities. His 2002 book Smart Mobs, which presaged Web 2.0 in predicting collaborative ventures like Wikipedia, was the outgrowth of decades spent studying and living life online."
Q: What are the key oversights on the part of mainstream journalism as the digital shift has taken hold?
That non-journalists would have anything of any use to say to each other. If you look at Digitizing the News by Pablo Boczkowski, you'll learn that not only did journalistic organizations—from CBS to Knight-Ridder to Time-Warner—have decades to anticipate digital media, they wasted billions of dollars on "videotext." The idea was that people would get news on TV screens and customize their content by using touch-tone phones as remote controls. The French did the same thing with Minitel. They did not anticipate that networks would afford many-to-many communication, not just act as a more efficient channel for few-to-many broadcast.
Q: Help us sift through the hyperbole regarding the demise of newspapers and the instability of journalism.
Why weren't people panicking in the pre-digital era of consolidation when thousands of small papers were gobbled up by giant chains and the number of different political perspectives available narrowed? The radical loss of diversity in news sources in the 1960s and 1970s was, and remains, a matter of concern.
The problems of the newspaper business ought to be of concern to the public sphere. Real questions remain about how long-form investigative journalism will be supported. But I think we need to separate the newspaper business from the function of journalism. In many ways, journalism has deteriorated in the era of Amusing Ourselves to Death, in the words of Neil Postman. "If it bleeds, it leads." Royal weddings trump genocide because infotainment makes more money. Journalists are multiplying in the digital ecosystem. New forms of journalism are arising. A great deal of experimentation is occurring. I'm neither a knee-jerk pessimist nor a digital utopian. We need to remain concerned in many ways over the health of the public sphere.
Q: The phrase, "the future of journalism," brings to mind what for you?
Coalitions and networks of freelancers, perhaps crowd-funded, perhaps employed by virtual organizations. People who do what journalists do, but do it with the fire-hose of reports coming in from 5 billion mobile phones—try to verify reports, look for multiple viewpoints and quote good spokespeople, situate and contextualize events in narratives that people can understand.
Q: What is motivating your focus on "new media literacies" and especially "credibility assessment?"
The good news about the Internet is the same as the bad news about the Internet: Anybody can publish. In the olden days, it was wise to not believe everything you read in the newspaper. But for the most part, if it was reported by a reputable newspaper or you read it in a book that had been edited, published, and selected by a library, you could trust the authority of the text. Somebody probably fact-checked it. Now, if you enter a term in a search engine, it is up to you, the consumer of the information, to make the determination that the information is good or bad, information or disinformation or misinformation. I don't believe that we can or should regulate the information that is published online—if we had done that 20 years ago, there would be no Web. But what we can do is educate the people who consume information to be more critical consumers.
Q: Some good examples of digital-age journalism?
Luminous beauty and the delight of discovery in a photo essay by Susan Middleton '70.
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