***First things first: While I am posting this as a customer discussion, it is in response to an assignment in an Internet, Law, and Politics course at Harvard Law School. We were asked to compare/contrast the conception of the citizen in the new media world, as expressed by Yochai Benkler in chapters 6-7 of The Wealth of Networks, and Dan Gillmor in chapters 1-2, and 7 of We the Media. Within this posting, you will notice hints and outright statements of my personal opinion concerning the theories of both authors. Admittedly, the short discussion here does not do justice to the well-researched depth of either theory. I welcome responses and discussion from the authors and other readers (dare I say "citizens").***
The Common Ground
Early in Gillmor's book, he admits that he and Benkler have had several long conversations concerning this topic. These conversations, no doubt, are responsible for the many similarities between Benkler's and Gillmor's conception of the "new media" citizen (NMC). Both speak of the important role of the Net in allowing NMCs to bypass mass media when the citizen finds news coverage lacking. Benkler and Gillmor each spend time stressing the importance of local political development and coverage through interest "clusters" or groups. In addition, both agree that the NMC is capable of performing mass media's traditional watchdog function. Gillmor even mentions that in a world with NMCs, nothing remains "off-the-record."
While the author's citizens' share numerous commonalities, significant distinctions make me slightly favor Gillmor's citizen over Benkler's. Benkler's definition of the NMC is like a call to arms that requires, yea, demands action and activism by anyone who wants to carry the name of citizen. Maybe it is because I am nearing the end of my law school career and have intense senioritis, but I prefer Gillmor's definition of the NMC. Gillmor allows me to bear that name without ardent activism. He allows me to have more choices in my consumption and only act if something moves me so much that I am compelled to post or investigate. While he hopes that I will become a "grassroots" journalist, he is content that I change my consumption. The brief discussion below supports my preference, but acknowledges that there is much power in either NMC.
Differences in the Definition
Benkler's citizen seems inherently politically active. He views mass media's need to attract large audiences through lowest common denominator programming as detracting from "real" political debate. Therefore, the new media should be founded on a non-advertising based peer-production model responsible for intake, relevance filtering, and accreditation. This conception sets the price of citizenship in the new media at participation beyond mere consumption, with one caveat. If your consumption is based on a preference for "real" politics, then that may be enough to qualify you as a citizen. The challenge is that this preference must be expressed to determine whether or not it is "real." To prove your preferences it seems like you must be actively involved in the accreditation through linking or some other "see for yourself" activity. Hence, Benkler goes on in these chapters to laud the work of NMCs in the Sinclair boycott and Diebold expose. He lifts up these participants as the "ideal" NMCs and, beyond a few sentences, leaves the dormant consumer as a footnote in his conception. By his own admission, his public sphere is narrow and his conception NMC matches this view.
Gillmor's conception of the NMC focuses more on the role of the actual technology in transforming a lay observer into a discriminating consumer and possible activists. He seems much more concerned with the quality of journalism as measured by: fairness, accuracy and thoroughness. This journalistic coverage does not necessarily have to be of an activist nature. It will qualify as journalism as long as it fair, accurate, and thorough. A Gillmor NMC may merely subscribe to an RSS feed, showing a customized consumption unavailable in the former mass media. The posters of an informational wiki, or the 9/11 "I'm ok" blogs would also qualify as NMCs. These posters may barely qualify as Benkler NMCs because they are not actively affecting change. In contrast, they are shining stars in the Gillmor new media citizenry. In line with his focus on making everyone a journalist, Gillmor is also more accepting of mainstream reporters as NMCs on level ground with the rest of society. Although Benkler acknowledges that mainstream media may increase the salience of new media discussions, he downplays the role of mainstream reporters in the scheme of the distributed networks. Thus, Gillmor's public sphere is broader and encompasses more individuals in his conception of the NMC.
Money makes the world go round?
Gillmor and Benkler also differ on the role of money. Both agree that money is not as effective in garnering attention as it was before the new media. Benkler goes one step further by advocating that NMCs should be free from the "eyeball getting" pressure of advertising. Gillmor does not go so far. He actually supports the idea of NMCs using their new found power to make a modest living through advertising and sponsorship. Being a creature of capitalism, I lean toward an NMC that can be more profitable.
The Power of the NMC
Either definition acknowledges the truth of new media: Citizenry is being redefined. Our capabilities for participation have been increased exponentially. The question becomes: What will we do with this new found voice? Will we merely customize our consumption to become a Gillmor NMC? Or, will we answer Benkler's "Call to Arms" and take on the powers that be?