Clay Shirky, well-known 'Internet Guru' and New York University professor, believes that both journalism and democracy in general have much to gain from the "cognitive surplus" that the new media world is giving us. Technological developments mean that journalism has the potential to be at its best, if it can find a way to support itself. Shirky was speaking at an event organised by Microsoft's Regard sur le numérique (Eye on digital) project in Paris.
The idea behind the Cognitive Surplus - the title of Shirky's 2010 book - is that as we switch from passive television watchers to online content creators, there is so much content in all its different forms being generated at all times that we should be able to make this valuable, particularly in light of our interconnectedness.
The public is no longer simply consuming information supplied by those with authority, but is generating it and the way in which it comes together can actually make a difference. Shirky brought up the example of Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing platform which allows anybody to contribute reports that are then marked on a maps - on post-election violence or rigging, for example, or on storm damage - and hence creates a useful resource out of scattered pieces of information.
Another example of this kind of 'citizen as sensor' process, or "coordinated voluntary participation" is something like SeeClickFix, a US-based website which encourages the public to point out problems in their local area, such as pot holes or burnt out street lights, and this can then provide local governments with information about where they need to take action.
Recent events in the Middle East have shown how by sharing and spreading information, groups can coordinate amongst themselves to take action without the involvement of any formal organisation. Libya has banned football games, Shirky said, out of a fear that such a gathering of people could spark protests of the sort seen in Egypt and Tunisia.
This idea of the importance of the individual and the community doesn't mean that this is the end of professional journalism, Shirky said. Referring to the current uprisings in the Middle East, where social media and blogs have been hailed as both a catalyst and a useful source of information about the protests, Shirky recalled the impressive coverage by Al Jazeera (so impressive, in fact, that the Egyptian government has taken it off the air and shut down its bureau) which exemplifies the need for professional coverage of events.
But professional media can use this willingness to supply information and content to their advantage. "Sometimes the crowd knows best," Shirky said, and indeed, news organisations can often gather abundant photographs and eyewitness accounts from their readers to supplement their reports. Since the steps taken by the Egyptian government, Al Jazeera has urged bloggers and others in the country to contribute eyewitness reports of the uprisings.
The opportunities that the active, social web and the resulting cognitive surplus provide make this a "golden age of journalism," Shirky said, "except for the money."
With regards to this crucial issue - how to fund high-quality professional journalism - Shirky said that at the moment, we cannot rely on the market to provide a sufficient amount of journalism; there must be some kind of subsidy. A functioning democracy requires more journalism than citizens are prepared to pay for, he continued.
Information has always been something which people are happier to share freely with others and upon which they put less monetary value than on an object or a service. Shirky said that fighting illegal music sharing will be a relatively fruitless mission because online music has now effectively become information, and people are now willing to share it. Copyright has more impact when applied to an object.
What does this mean for news? For years, people have been happy to buy newspapers (objects), and now seem pretty happy to buy mobile applications, as these are in a sense objects also, or at the very least services. But they are unlikely to buy pure information online, in an intangible format. So in order to persuade people to pay for news, should news organisations focus on presenting their stories in the form of an object? What is the best way to do this in a rapidly evolving digital age?
Or will some kind of subsidy, be this from other services or products offered, donations or government assistance, continue to be necessary to support journalism?