It occurs to me that history is written by journalists.
That seems a bit obvious now that I read it in black and white, so let me backtrack a second and explain the train of thought that lead me to that “epiphany.”
The etymology of the word “journalism,” it turns out, goes back to the fourteenth century, when the word “jurnal” was used in Anglo-French to refer to a “book of church services.” The French, sometime in the 1560s, enlarged the word to also encompass a daily record of transactions.
It wasn’t until 1600 that the word “journal” was found to be applied to personal diarists’ tome of writings.
Somehow, in the ensuing ninety years, the term “journalist” grew in it’s scope, including not only those who kept personal diaries, but “one whose work is to write or edit public journals or newspapers.”
If you haven’t read the book yet, you probably don’t recognize the style of writing in this post thus far – the style is a
blatant rip off of homage to Bill Bryson. The influencing book in question is At Home: A Short History of Private Life, a book I’ve been reading in bits and pieces over the last few months.
According to my Kindle’s progress bar, I’m about halfway through the book, and it’s taken me up to this point to grasp the utter invaluable nature of historic personal diaries to the end of understanding history. You grow up in school and colleges, and the way history, society and culture is taught, you’d think that our history books were written by, well, history book writers.
As it turns out, a great deal of our history is only known to us by the existence of personal diaries that were read for the first time sometimes hundreds of years after they were penned.
Take this example that Bryson catalogues on the origins of teatime …
In the summer of 1662, Samuel Pepys, then a rising young figure in the British Navy Office, invited his boss, Naval Commissioner Peter Pett, to dinner at his home on Seething Lane, near the Tower of London. Pepys was twenty-nine years old and presumably hoped to impress his superior. Instead, to his horror and dismay, he discovered that when his plate of sturgeon was set before him it had within it “many little worms creeping.”
Finding one’s food in an advanced state of animation was not a commonplace event even in Pepys’ day – he was truly mortified – but being at least a little uncertain about the freshness and integrity of food was a fairly usual condition. If it wasn’t rapidly decomposing from inadequate preservation, there was every chance it was colored or bulked out with some dangerous and unappealing substances.
Two years before his unhappy adventure with “many worms creeping,” Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary a rather more prosaic milestone in his life. On September 25, 1660, he tried a new hot beverage for the first time, recording in his diary: “And afterwards I did send for a cup of tee (a China drink), of which I never had drank before.” Whether he liked it or not Pepys didn’t say, which is a shame, as it is the first mention we have in English of anyone’s drinking a cup of tea.
A century and a half later, in 1812, a Scottish historian named David Macpherson, in a dry piece of work called The History of the European Commerce with India, quoted the tea-drinking passage from Pepys’s diary. That was a very surprising thing to do because in 1812 Pepys’s diaries were supposedly still unknown. Although they resided in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, and so were available for inspection, no one had ever looked into them – so it was thought – because they were written in a private code that had yet to be deciphered. How Macpherson managed to find and translate the relevant passage in six volumes of dense and secret scribblings, not to mention what gave him the inspiration to look there in the first place, are mysteries that are some distance beyond being answerable.
By chance, an Oxford scholar, the Reverend George Neville, master of Magdalen College, saw Macpherson’s passing reference to Pepys’s diaries and grew intrigued to know what else might be in them. Pepys after all had lived through momentous times – through the restoration of the monarchy, the last great plague epidemic, the Great Fire of London of 1666 – so their content was bound to be of interest.
He commissioned a clever but penurious student named John Smith to see if he could crack the code and transcribe the diaries. The work took Smith three years. The result of course was the most celebrated diary in the English language. Had Pepys not had that cup of tea, Macpherson not mentioned it in a dull history, Neville been less curious and young Smith less dogged and intelligent, the name Samuel Pepys would mean nothing to anyone but naval historians, and a very considerable part of what we know about how people lived in the second half of the seventeenth century would in fact be unknown. So it was a good thing that he had that cup of tea.
Bryson goes on to explain the evolution of British coffee drinking to tea drinking, tea drinking to teatime, and all the interesting side trails that go along with that narrative for another few chapters. My point is that Bryson’s book is rife with examples throughout history in which personal diaries played an integral role in recording what we now call history.
The Parallels to the Digital Age are Blindingly Obvious
I know what you’re thinking, and I’ll get to activity streams and social networks in a minute …
When I first started blogging here on rizzn.com, it was the mid-90’s, it wasn’t called blogging, and there wasn’t a content management system involved. It was mostly me taking a few minutes of my night to pour out some hopelessly embarrassing teenage emotional blather. It wasn’t a coordinated effort, but there were dozens of other such outpourings around the web from others at the time.
A few years later – I’m going to call it 1998 or so, without looking at my logs for exact date verification – services like Diaryland sprang up and gave host to hundreds, and later thousands, of personal online diarists.
And that was where blogging started.
If you want a history of the technology, there’s Wikipedia for that. Culturally, though, it was a symbiotic community of voyeurists and exhibitionists (and the two roles weren’t mutually exclusive).
There wasn’t journalistic intent, in the modern sense of the word. Occasionally folks would talk about the sort of stuff that you’d find in the newspapers at the time. Several times during my efforts to write down my personal thoughts about life, I devoted entire months of entries to a single subject. For instance, I was very diligent about chronicling what happened during the Atlanta bombing in 1996 – so much so that WBAP in Dallas turned to me to bring them breaking news in the first few days after the explosion. Yahoo’s directory of news sources for the bombing listed me above CNN and NandoNet (strong competitor at the time). More than a few times, I was able to bring them news the wires couldn’t yet provide.
I belabor this point only to drive home this: neither blogging online nor journalism itself have historically long standing associations with the “protected class of speech” we all afford it in the modern age.
What is this Protected Class You Speak Of?
In case you haven’t been reading this blog a lot lately (don’t worry, you haven’t missed much), I’ve been writing a bit about Julian Assange and Wikileaks. Any time you tie into that discussion, it isn’t long before you’re entangled into a conversation on the nature of journalism, the specifics of how they’re protected from certain forms of legal recourse, and why it is they’re protected.
How they’re protected is a fairly boring topic. The why of it is slightly less so.
The why basically comes down to the fact that journalists are the standard-bearers for free speech (something most Western nations put a premium on), and in many cases niche journalists are the only people on the planet not only qualified to write about certain topics, but afforded enough free time to do so. The unspoken assumption is that they remain unbiased, or at the very least, uncorrupted and with the interests of their intended audience on their hearts.
If you talk to Heritage Media outlets, and indeed the vast majority of New Media outlets (not to mention the FTC), the best way to accomplish this state of pristine viewpoint is to have a strong firewall in place between the editorial side of a news organization and whatever sales mechanisms exist in the company. In fact, there is no shortage of individuals who will tell you “you’re doing it wrong” unless your news organization fits this exact structure.
It doesn’t take a genius, at this point in history, to understand why that is an ultimately doomed business plan. Audiences are becoming increasingly difficult to aggregate into groups large enough to be called mainstream. This is why most of the world’s newspapers are going out of business, and it is why, eventually, radio and television will follow suit. There are very few things that the majority of the world cares about that can bring together large swaths of viewers, readers or listeners.
As the cost to create media drops closer and closer to nothing, the amount of competition for existing outlets increases at the same rate.
It’s not all about economic costs, either – it’s about attention costs.
The reason that there are more news bloggers than online diarists isn’t because it costs more to maintain a personal diary. Outside the writing class, there’s not only decreased financial incentive to maintain a personal diary online, there’s a barrier to entry in terms of the ability to write (or at least write well enough that anyone else will want to read it).
In short, the reason that all modern blogging doesn’t fit the formula of what you see on Livejournal, Xanga and Diaryland is the same reason why there are more users on the Internet today than the age when these services were the dominant forms of user-generated content: it takes a certain kind of person to write (just as it takes a certain type of nerd to want to use the Internet in the 1990’s).
That’s why we have services like Twitter and Facebook. You’ll never see a product like Livejournal achieve the levels of mass adoption Facebook has – there simply aren’t that many people in the world who want to read Twilight fanfiction, let alone write it.
Conversely, everyone in the world is willing to chronicle their life, even if they have an audience of two or three at best, so long as the process is painless from an attention standpoint. It costs me virtually nothing to snap photos of my boys opening their presents on Christmas morning – and then either immediately or at a later time upload them to Facebook or Twitter. It costs me nothing to talk about the quality of the meal I just consumed, assuming I’ve got access to a smartphone while I’m feeling sated (or ill, depending on how “animated” my meal was).
We’re all journalists now…
… whether we like it or not.
But where does that leave us?
I started off by saying that “history is written by journalists.” Here is the sub-text of my epiphany:
- Journalism, in its modern form, is a new concept by historical standards.
- Journalism, in its modern form, is dying. I don’t mean newspapers, TV, blogs, or any other media type specifically – I’m referring to modern, protected class, capital-J Journalism..
- Journalism may go back to, within the next decade or two, being the word we use to describe personal diarists. Or maybe it won’t – but we’ll certainly be getting our journalism from personal diarists more than what we now call journalists.
- In the near term evolution of New Media, human curation will be the next most important role in “Capital-J Journalism,” during the expansion of the activity stream “writing class.” Human curation will be defined as folks who can look at the mess which is activity streams and not only discern what is signal, but find the right audience to deliver that signal to.
- In the long term evolution of New Media, machine curation will take over, and the human curators will be mathematicians and computer scientists (because, at least for now, algorithms don’t write themselves).
I initially imagined this to be a 500 word post that I’d shoot off in the middle of the night – and now it’s become something substantially more. My initial goal was to share a thought I had and elicit some thoughts from folks who might care. The more I write out this post, the harder I’m finding it to not talk about the work we’re doing internally at SiliconANGLE. It’s 4:30 in the morning, so I may as well stop before I say something that’ll have John Furrier calling me about on my day off tomorrow…
… Except I’ll say this: We’ve been working a lot in our media lab over the last few months on some really cool things (a combination of machine and human curation) but it’s led us to the same point we’ve been circling since John and I started writing at SiliconANGLE.
That point is this: both he and I agreed in the first few weeks of the company’s existence that it’s impossible to get a truly valid valuation from the current marketplace that exists for monetizing content. We set out to find our own path for monetization, and over the course of 2010, we found it.
Some folks may say we’re doing it wrong (most of those types of folks either work for or have their roots in Heritage Media). I think we’re not only doing it right, but we’re doing it the only way that’ll be viable fifty years from now.
Perhaps SiliconANGLE will amass a truly mainstream audience – or perhaps it won’t. The business model we’ve built doesn’t need a mainstream audience – the business model we’ve built simply relies on reaching the right audience. That we’re still in business proves that we know how to do that.
I’ve always known, throughout it all, that activity streams are the future of journalism. It’s just nice to see some historical validation for that.