Confidence Game

Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

Like Jarvis, Shirky is a leading proponent of the idea that we are passing through a watershed, not just for our generation or era, but for all of human history. This is the idea of the “Gutenberg parenthesis,” coined by a Danish scholar, that holds that the Internet has the potential to revolutionize human social life to a degree that we cannot now understand, just as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press paved the way for, eventually, modernity itself.

Shirky argues that our conventional views of work and incentives won’t hold in a new era when the costs of collaboration and sharing are so low. People can, and always have, come together for many reasons. For example, he compares Wikipedia to the Shinto shrine in Ise, Japan, which is periodically torn down and rebuilt by local priests (and whose work, like many Internet toilers, is not recognized by established authority, in this case, UNESCO). “It exists not as an edifice, but as an act of love,” he says. “Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context.”

In some ways, Shirky is the most subtle and careful member of the FON crew. Many of Shirky’s prescriptions for the economics of journalism are commonsensical and even wise. A point I find inarguable is that while some news models have been found to work in some contexts-—The Wall Street Journal’s pay wall, ProPublica’s fund-raising model (basically, one big donor), Talking Points Memo’s online ad-based system—nothing to date is scalable. There is no news business “model” at all. And who can argue with his call for constant experimentation? “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” he asks rhetorically. “The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments. . . .”

If that last bit sounds a bit pat, another aspect of the FON debate is that ideas—even a lack of certainty—are expressed with absolute certitude. In 2010, Shirky discussed the confidence factor in a post mulling whether women “have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.” He recalls a turning point in his own youth when he bluffed about his drafting skills to the head of a graduate design program he was applying to: “That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face.”

Of course we know what he means, and it’s not about lying. But in FON debates, a little confidence goes a long way.

Which brings us to Jarvis. The head of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, Jarvis leads by example. Like other FON thinkers, he lives the contradiction of extolling peer production and volunteerism from the security of an institution. It is doubly jarring in Jarvis’s case; an opponent of publicly funded journalism, his journalistic entrepreneurialism is, in fact, publicly subsidized. The “C” in CUNY stands for “City.”

Entrepreneurialism, certainly, is manifest in his many consulting gigs (The Guardian Media Group, The New York Times Company), speaking engagements (Edelman, Hearst, Hill & Knowlton), and self-promotional flair. He is a master of the buzzword—“googlejuice,” “generation G”—and the catchphrase—“customers are now in charge . . . the mass market is dead, replaced by the mass of niches . . . we have shifted from an economy based on scarcity to one based on abundance… small is the new big.”

Indeed, Jarvis presents himself as a walking experiment in social media, from his copious and profane tweets (“Asshole behind me on the Acela is using her phone as a speaker phone. A new frontier of train phone rudeness”[June 9, 2011]; “Hey, T-mobile, fuck your courtesy calls. Give me courtesy service” [February 19]) to providing public updates about his treatment for prostate cancer (“I’m about to see a Sloan-Kettering doctor about my dick; That makes this the most humble day of my life” [July 29, in a joking reference to Rupert Murdoch’s testimony before Parliament]). Jarvis created a spasm of buzz during this summer’s debt ceiling debate when he launched a Twitter protest campaign under the hash tag #fuckyouwashington.

His What Would Google Do? is almost a caricature of network theory, hailing the search company and Internet culture as ushering in new forms of capitalism and society (emphasis mine):

We no longer need companies, institutions, or government to organize us. We now have the tools to organize ourselves. We can find each other and coalesce around political causes or bad companies or talent or business or ideas. We can share and sort our knowledge and behavior. We can communicate and come together in an instant. We also have new ethics and attitudes that spring from this new organization and change society in ways we cannot yet see, with openness, generosity, collaboration, efficiency. We are using the internet’s connective tissue to leap over borders—whether they surround countries or companies or demographics. We are reorganizing society. This is Google’s—and Facebook’s and Craigslist’s—new world order.

This kind of rhetoric reminds us that, when it comes to the future of news, we’re dealing with an issue that is defined by its uncertainty and does not—to say the least—lend itself to empirical analysis. Journalists like facts, data. Here, there aren’t any. We’re in the realm of beliefs (see confidence factor, above).

While much of Jarvis’s journalism advice is less messianic and can be frequently commonsensical (“do what you do best, link to the rest,” etc.), he is, if anything, even more emphatic than Shirky that the old must make way for the new. What the new is is not yet clear, but it will involve technology, networks, entrepreneurialism, iterative journalism, conversations between users, and new forms of disseminating information. In this view, going “digital first,” a phrase gaining currency across journalism, means a radical revision of what news organizations do (my emphasis):

Digital first resets the journalistic relationship with the community, making the news organization less a producer and more an open platform for the public to share what it knows. It is to that process that the journalist adds value. She may do so in many forms—reporting, curating people and their information, providing applications and tools, gathering data, organizing effort, educating participants . . . and writing articles.

The emphasis shifts from fact-gathering and storytelling to other things, like mediating, facilitating, curating. As Jarvis wrote in a 2009 blog post that he said he’d like to have delivered as a speech to a gathering of news executives:

You blew it. . . . So now, for many of you, there isn’t time. It’s simply too late. The best thing some of you can do is get out of the way and make room for the next generation of net natives who understand this new economy and society and care about news and will reinvent it, building what comes after you from the ground up. There’s huge opportunity there, for them.

Old elites must give way to “people”—or at least, “the next generation” of “net natives.” This is Jarvis’s “we,” the “people,” who, in all probability, are not “you.” As he writes in WWGD? with a whiff of menace: “People can find each other anywhere and coalesce around you—or against you.”


To the extent that FON thinkers mau-mau the news business—that’s a good thing. The problem is that FON thinkers (but not Rosen, as we’ll see) sometimes let slip a light regard for journalism itself, that is to say, what journalists actually do.

    • Dean Starkman
    • Dean Starkman is an award-winning journalist and media critic.  An editor of the Columbia Journalism Review and the magazine's Kingsford Capital Fellow, he is the author of "The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: the Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism," a sweeping critique of business news and i...

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