Journalists and Scribes

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Reading Liberally Page Turner
by Amanda Milstein, Living Liberally

I was being interviewed by a radio station about a snarky article I’d written for a paper-and-ink (and also online) magazine, and they referred to me as “journalist Amanda Milstein.” This struck me as clearly false (although far be it from me to argue with them, given it sounds better than “part-time job-holding, part-time interning, soon-to-be grad student Amanda Milstein”) - and it looks like I'm not the only one who thinks so. One of the arguments made by Clay Shirkey in his new book Here Comes Everybody (which Matt mentioned here yesterday ) is that the title “journalist” is increasingly meaningless when anyone can write a blog post about an issue and publish it — and even if they are blogging about an issue as trivial as a lost phone, it is possible for them to get a large audience.

Shirky begins by describing a Gutenberg-era pamphlet written in defense of scribes, whose jobs were being taken over by the printing press. The pro-scribe argument was printed off on a printing press for maximum efficiency — it’s always bad if your chief defender can’t even be bothered to use your services. All much like how my childhood best friend’s instant messenger screenname was something like luddite77; if you’re bothering to have a screenname, you’re clearly not devoting yourself to smashing machines.

Shirky takes this prologue as a launching-pad to deal with multiple aspects of the internet community-building revolution, from the efforts of Wikipedians and lay-run online groups to help people navigate software, to the the power of informal online photo-sharing in areas where important news events are occurring. To hear Shirky extend the metaphor, as the masses are storming communication, those now called "journalists" may well soon be the scribes of our era. The ways we meet people, communicate with friends, form community and many other facets of our lives will dramatically change as well.

While I found the book a bit tedious to read, it was clearly well-researched, and had much to say that will help people understand the new dissemination of information we are witnessing in our society. If you're interested in a nibble of Shirky's ideas before you commit to the many-course meal of his book, check out his blog first.

Sometimes I wish I could cast off modern technology and just go hang out with people in the park, and potluck in my spare time. And then I run off to send those I will soon be picnicking with a frantic g-chat message to make sure that someone knows to bring plates, check my friends' blogs to make sure I am updated on the key events of their lives — and still kind of wish I could communicate via loud drum. But, as Shirky points out, the technological and communication revolution is irreversibly upon us, and we just need to figure out how to adjust to the huge new swaths of information that are now available. I personally plan on configuring my google reader to scream at me to go outside instead of keeping up on my friends' blogs — right after I change my screenname to luddite88.