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Here comes everybody, there go the pros: The collective wisdom of the Web.

2009 October 14

This week I had the distinct honor to interview longtime investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. His office was a love story to journalism of days past. It was filled with piles of boxes, papers, files, notebooks, awards, and books written by him. He even had an old typewriter on top of a filing cabinet. He takes all his notes by hand and only types on the computer when the story is final. No database of contacts, just scribbles on the backs of yellow legal pads.

Newspapers are closing. Does this mean an end to quality information? Not if you believe Clay Shirkys Here Comes Everybody

Newspapers are closing. Does this mean an end to quality information? Not if you believe Clay Shirky's "Here Comes Everybody"

Unsurprisingly, he had a very negative view on the future of the profession to which he has dedicated more than 30 years.

But I’m not so sure I agree with Hersh’s pessimism.

I truly value quality journalism (and in the interest of full disclosure, I am paid to say that). But I’m not so sure that professional journalists are the only ones that can give us quality news. And with dropping circulationsshuttered newspapers, and a widely-held business model going up in flames, we may all be stuck relying on online collaboration to do journalists’ dirty work of keeping politicians honest, businessmen ethical, and communities connected.

Clay Shirky spends 344 pages illustrating what will happen when the masses organize without formal corporations in Here Comes Everybody. Shirky points out that social media is based on very different principles than large organizations.

For one, in social media, collaboration is king.

The most successful social tools are the ones that started small and relied on a community. Through trial and error, and by incredible collaboration, they grew incrementally bigger. Take Linux, which now runs on some 40 percent of the world’s servers. The brainchild of Linus Torvalds, Linux began with an unassuming note on a discussion group. All along the way, Torvalds sought help from a community of developers and promised to implement the best ideas. This collaboration proved to be one of his keys to success.

Stephen Colbert interviews Craig Newmark

Steven Colbert teases Craig Newmark for destroying the American newspaper then asks him how he comes up with the idea. Craig's answer is true to Shirky's definition of success for social organization: He put collaboration front and center.

Now, apply that to journalism.

Many analysts blame the rise of with the decline of the newspaper industry. Craig Newmark started Craigslist with much of the same humble community awareness that went into Linux. He saw people using the Internet as a way to help eachother out, and decided to do the same. Newspapers missed the boat. They put brand and tradition ahead of the community’s needs, and as a result they missed an opportunity to provide a useful tool that could have, in turn, raised their popularity–and their profits.

New Ways to Produce the News

In the new era of social collaboration, Shirky says, quality content can be produced by hundreds of tiny contributions.

Take Wikipedia, a community-created and maintained encyclopedia. Since 2001, this collaborative Web site has been a growing source of information on every topic from asphalt to astrophysics.

An excerpt from the 7 July 2005 London Bombings entry on Wikipedia -- an example of collaborative news-gathering creating a high-quality and timely product.
An excerpt from the 7 July 2005 London Bombings entry on Wikipedia — an example of collaborative news-gathering creating a high-quality and timely product.

And it has the news.

Minutes after the 2005 London bombings, there was a Wikipedia page with a few sentences of what had happened. In the first five hours of the page’s existence, Shirky says, more than a thousand edits were made. Members of the Wikipedia community linked to traditional news outlets, and to phone numbers for people trying to track down loved ones. The page that was never touched by a professional journalist was a hub for vital information. Oh: And it didn’t cost a penny to produce that information or share it with the public.

Powerful Forces

The forces of social media have proven to bring real results. In May of 1992, the Boston Globe published more than 50 cases detailing abusive behavior by Catholic priests, specifically Reverend James R. Porter, who was accused of sexually abusing children in three different Boston parishes. The stories produced outrage, and the church criticized the media coverage as unfair. Despite the scandal, no priests resigned and no legal action resulted.

This online community formed in response to newspaper articles regarding scandal in the Catholic church. Their organized outrage brought real results.

This online community formed in response to newspaper articles regarding scandal in the Catholic church. Their organized outrage brought real results.

Compare that with a similar scandal in 2002.

Same city. Same newspaper. Same appalling behavior by religious leaders (this time it was Father John Geoghan, a Catholic priest who had abused children at parishes over a 35-year period). The difference? Technology enabled outraged readers to organize and demand action.

When the story broke in the Boston Globe, blogs, e-mail and discussion forums allowed readers to forward the information on to their own networks of friends, parents, and colleagues. An organization of concerned Catholics formed to demand change. And they brought results: about one year after the formation of the group, Cardinal Bernard F. Law, then archbishop of the Boston Diocese, resigned.

In ten years, the technology was developed for communities of like-minded individuals to unite forces. So instead of a newspaper article creating a wave that eventually died away, it created a tidal wave of action around the world. And it brought a powerful institution to its knees.

If online organizations can produce those kinds of results, I wonder:

Could it be that creative collaboration online could produce collective wisdom surpassing that of the professional news industry?

Time will tell.

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