The internet is the great equalizer, with anybody having access to it being able to obtain a world of information and participate in the worldwide conversation.
As the internet evolves, society evolves with it, in fields ranging from journalism to science. With the shrinkage or outright demise of more and more daily newspapers, the debate over the use of the internet for news has intensified. It's clear that the printed newspaper, with its cost burden of paper, ink, trucks, cars, and gasoline, can't compete over the long term with the internet as a delivery mechanism.
Newspapers will eventually have to find a new niche, just as radio found a niche after television assumed the place radio once had. Many bloggers and other new media types celebrate the misfortunes of the old media. But they'll need to do a better job emulating the investigative and fact-checking techniques employed by traditional journalists if internet journalism is to reach its potential.
Journalism, whether online of offline, needs to fulfill its "fourth estate" role of reporting abuses in both the public and private sectors to protect democracy and promote the common good.
Bloggers, in general, write from a personal perspective about issues they feel strongly about. They're not known for double-checking their information, relying on readers to correct them. Journalists use expert sources, typically multiple ones, to report information that needs to be reported, whether they have a personal interest in it or not, and they're typically overseen by editors and supported by fact-checkers.
The internet is all about speed-this can be both a strength and a weakness of internet news. The rush to "out scoop" the competition has always been a part of journalism, but the internet has accelerated this. An incident last year involving a CNN iReport (www.ireport.com) sheds light on this.
iReport bills itself as "Unedited. Unfiltered. News." In October, a poster at the site reported that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had suffered a severe heart attack. The report was false. The SEC then launched an investigation to determine whether the posting was intended to depress the company's stock price. Concern about the health of Jobs (who had previously been treated for pancreatic cancer) had precipitated a significant drop in the stock's value earlier in the year. In the meantime, this past January, Jobs took a 6-month leave of absence from Apple to focus on his health.
Along with speed, another strength of the blogosphere is in its numbers. Bloggers can simply be in more places than journalists, reporting on more breaking events from a gripping firsthand perspective. U.S. soldiers who blog about the Iraq war demonstrate the benefits of this kind of citizen journalism.
Another power-from-the-people benefit of the internet, which has implications beyond internet journalism, is sometimes referred to as "crowdsourcing." This term, coined by Jeff Howe in a June 2006 Wired magazine article, refers to distributed problem solving.
With journalism, it can mean querying readers of a website or an independent online discussion group about their experiences or opinions and using this as part of your research.
Another example of this power is wikis, informative websites in which anyone can contribute or edit articles. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia (www.wikipedia.org) is the largest and best-known wiki.
Open source software is yet another example. With open source, anyone interested and with the right technical skills can participate in creating or improving computer programs.
Crowdsourcing also extends to the worlds of marketing, consumer affairs, and science. Companies have long employed advertising agencies to organize focus groups consisting of ordinary people as a way of better gauging the strengths and weaknesses of their products and marketing pitches.
Reading user ratings from Zagat Survey for restaurant reviews and Netflix for movie reviews is a way to tap into the collective wisdom in pursuing entertainment options. Science Cheerleader (www.sciencecheerleader.com) is a website that matches scientific projects with volunteers. InnoCentive (www.innocentive.com) helps biomedical and pharmaceutical companies find ordinary people for research and development.
As with any trend, the democratization of journalism, product development, product evaluation, scientific experimentation, and other fields brought on by the internet has negatives as well as positives. On the one hand, it can transcend the limitations of specialization and the trap of group think, ushering in more creative solutions. On the other hand, it can lower standards, lead to sloppiness and waste, and make projects more susceptible to sabotage.
How we, individually and collectively, handle the power of the internet to extend our reach will, to a large extent, determine where we go as a society.
Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.