But what of the cacophony of voices? If everyone is shouting, can anyone be heard? This is not an insignificant problem. The level of Internet discourse can be quite low, and it’s a challenge to weed out the consequential from the irrelevant. Yet this problem is not insurmountable. For one thing, judging the relative credibility of various websites and blogs is not all that different from deciding that the New York Times does a better job than the New York Post. News and political websites and bloggers must earn trust by doing good, reliable work over time, just like mainstream-media organizations.
The Internet, though, offers tools that empower the community to make those judgments in ways that just weren’t possible with traditional media. Tim O’Reilly, in his 2005 essay “What Is Web 2.0,” is far from alone in putting this in terms of “collective intelligence.” And, indeed, the tools that have come to be associated with Web 2.0 — tagging content so others can easily find it; sharing it on social-media sites like MySpace, Facebook, and Digg; mass rewriting and editing, as with Wikipedia; or group blogging (with the “best” posts being sent to the top of the heap by the community), as with Daily Kos and a number of other political sites — allow for a certain rough consensus that gathers the judgments of many people.
Moreover, the very notion of mass media and mass audiences is giving way to small, specialized sites, to niches within niches within niches. The pioneering blogger David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto (1999), which anticipated much of this movement, has put it this way: “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 people.” Most of the Internet — and certainly that part of it devoted to political activism, blogging, and independent journalism — exists somewhere in “the long tail,” a phrase popularized by Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson to describe the vast majority of products, such as books and CDs, that sell in too little numbers to warrant being stocked by, say, Wal-Mart, but that can easily justify their existence in a virtual world without warehouses and inventory.
Anderson’s description sounds a lot like the new media landscape that is starting to slip into view. “You can think of the Long Tail starting as a traditional monetary economy at the head and ending in a nonmonetary economy at the tail,” he writes in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business Is Selling Less of More (2006). “In between the two, it’s a mixture of both.”
Until recently, the news media were all head, no tail. Now the head is shrinking, but the tail is lengthening. Before it stopped posting a McDonald’s-style tally on its home page earlier this year, Technorati, a search engine for blogs, had claimed that there were as many as 70 million blogs in existence. And in between the head and the tail, as Anderson observes, is the mix of paid and unpaid content — the NewAssignment.Net experiment in “pro/am” journalism, or Josh Marshall’s reader-driven investigation of the Justice Department, or the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit that led an investigation into congressional earmarks last year built mainly on an online appeal to readers to contact their congressional representatives, ask some tough questions, and e-mail the results.