Cal panel about the Internet

· The Power of Many

I attended two panel discussions this morning at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. This is the first-ever meeting of the fellows of the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism; today and tomorrow they will continue as a conference on China’s digital future.

First, this morning, Revisiting Virtual Communities: The Internet’s Impact on Society and Politics. Panelists:

About 50 people present, about 10 of them women; most white and my age (early 40s) or older, half a dozen Asians; 6 to 10 laptops open at any moment. (Mernit typed through most of the others’ comments and I see that she was blogging live.)

Grabowicz starts by noting that last night’s panel made reference to several notable instances of the impact of the Internet on politics—South Korea, Indonesia, even the Soviet Union—without mentioning the U.S.

Mernit: Stories are a great way to look at how people behave and the value thereof, so she talks about first getting online around the time of Tienanmen. She finds three main reasons for going online:

  • The need to discover – to find information
  • The need to share – express commonalities
  • Entertainment

Of course these overlap and merge; thus eBay is both a trading market and a trading community. “The best virtual communities always translate back to a place in the real world,” whether you meet FTF then continue online, or vice versa. A lot of Bowling Alone-type warnings are off the mark, because these systems do come back to real life.

Newmark: grew up as a nerd, now a movie. … craigslist.org is pretty mundane—just classifieds and categories—yet people feel connected, which is “as good a definition as I can find of community.” It’s about the most basic human stuff: finding a place to live, getting a date. [Meta note: Newmark uses “the deal is,” as a frequent lead-in—in Longacre’s terminology, a discourse marker.]

Although initially “socially retarded,” after running customer service 60 hours/week for years, “you learn something about people […] People are fundamentally OK.” … The blogosphere has collectively managed to reach only a few million people, which is very limited. … Working on 311 for city services: empower line workers. … When you grow up a nerd, you know what it’s like to be left out. If you’re smart, you don’t forget that when you grow up. … The Internet flattens out the importance of who you know.

Pincus: serial entrepreneur. “I’ve been hoping for a long time—well, Craig showed me his AARP card, so I haven’t been hoping for as long as he has, but I think everything is ‘set up’ to keep us fragmented.” Not deliberately, but in modern structures “the only way we could have a voice was to join an established one.” The Internet today is “the revolution of the ants;” we can pick a voice that’s true to us—not one or two but one of a million.

Tribes lets people organize themselves in ways that matter to them, then use that to get things done (even if the ‘do’ is just to talk to each other). … Matt Gonzalez (Green S.F. mayor candidate) had no hope, was outspent 11-to-1 by the S.F. establishment’s anointed candidate, yet only finished 6000 votes behind, because small like-minded groups got energized online.

“The Internet today is more about lead generation,” whether traditional business leads or dates. But all leads are not alike; 100,000 search results are no help. So whether through blogs or AOL or a YASNS profile, we’re opening ourselves more to others, to get something back. The network will be the database: we’ll tell the network who we are and what we want. The more we do, the better the results will be for us.

Mentioned eparty attempt (failed where MoveOn succeeded). “Dean, MoveOn, and others are all part of the same movement; we just haven’t named it yet.” [Hmm: “living web,” perhaps?]

Kos: MoveOn and blogs complement: some audiences don’t want to participate, they want to find someplace that tells them a position and then join up. MoveOn isn’t growing much any more (getting big $ in big chunks from few people) but Daily Kos and other blogs are (getting big $ in little bits from many people). [Check our Joan Blades interview; didn’t she say this wasn’t the case?]

Just as 10% of people are movie “influencers”—the ones the rest of us go to for a trusted opinion—blogs can be the “influencers” in politics.

Audience Q: What’s next given that Trippi/Dean didn’t succeed? Newmark: “The Dean campaign succeeded: we’re still talking about it.” Q: The definition of a successful campaign is whether your candidate wins. Kos: When Dean started, blogs were 10% of what they are today. The first two blog/political efforts are insufficient to judge by. Also look at the lower levels (Congress, state races). Mernit: People who give or talk online do get and stay more involved, but it’s early: we don’t know yet what the lifecycle of that involvement will be.

Q: What makes virtual communities run? What’s new? Mernit: Many more people feel more comfortable putting personal info online. Social identity—just as I have a cell phone number where people can find me, why can’t I have a digital identity? After many aborted/abandoned online profiles and a myriad of networks, people are saying, “I’m going to build that myself and keep it somewhere.” They’re making their online social identity [despite kludgy tools] in their way.

Q: What about local/global? All nod toward effect of local issues on online, but Kos notes he’s a Cubs fan despite moving away. Grabowicz is a Red Sox fan (“the loser end of the table?”).

Q: People are going to sites that share their opinions. Will blogs reinforce or diversify? Several examples cited but all agree we have conflicting impulses to reach out beyond our views and to align by affinity.

Q: Are there no business models? Pincus: People we polled said they loved craigslist because “there are no ads”—but it’s entirely ads! It’s just that they’re ads from individuals (not conglomerates) and in appropriate places. “Entertainment media” tries to hit you when you’ve come for something else (commercials preceding theater movies); we’re splitting off “utility media” where you only get what you came for.

Newmark: “If you want to tell people the truth, you gotta make ’em laugh.”