The overarching theme in the readings and lecture this week is a simple idea, but a crucial one in an age of online communication: the power of the crowd. Not only is this power crucial to advance an individual’s campaign or spread news, but as discussed by Shirky, the more profound consideration is the power of the crowd to effect change. And this is a power that is largely still a developing concept in modern society. Spurred exponentially by the existence of the Internet, collective crowd effort is still a fairly new cultural phenomenon–one that is really only beginning to demonstrate its profound effects.
We’re abundantly aware that collective effort can create societal change. History’s evidence of this is plentiful. But as Shirky details in the account of the “Voice of the Faithful” (VOTF) group which organized in the face of scandal in the Catholic Church, this collective momentum is an altogether new phenomenon in the Internet age. When groups previously had to rely on word-of-mouth or time-consuming and costly mail campaigns or if they could even aspire to some sort of media attention for their cause to help get their word out, contemporary group organization is now as simple as turning on one’s computer. This is how the VOTF was capable of growing from a fledgling group into a massive organization that prompted changes in the leadership of the Church—and in only six months.
It’s easy to see that the quick and profound growth of the VOTF impacted the Catholic Church in short order. But that wasn’t the only outcome. As Shirky points out, the Boston Globe (the newspaper which initially reported the story of Geoghan’s alleged crimes against children) noted an increase in its general readership as a result of VOTF activity. Further, the hearty online discourse about the accusations against Geoghan and VOTF activity prompted a wide range of other discourses. Lay member activity across geographical boundaries, previously frowned upon by the church, became a new possibility and prompted more strength in numbers for the Catholic congregation. Organizations formed for the sole intent of tracking priestly abuse. The whole ordeal turned into a real headache for the Church—one that it would’ve never faced had the means to quickly coalesce large numbers of interested people via the internet had not been an option.
This scenario provides insight for general consideration. Because, as Shirky points out, the Internet removes “locality of information and barriers to group reaction,” (p. 153), collective effort and action is now quick and easy and can be expansive. And the results can often be formidable and even damning for churches, businesses or governments against whom the public has a grievance. This ease of forming group momentum has indeed changed the way society operates. A distinct example is the so-called Arab Spring, a social movement that was essentially and almost single-handedly birthed through Twitter. This type of social coalescence and organization can largely be a private endeavor, one fairly unnoticeable to governmental intervention. This lends an entirely new meaning to the term ‘freedom of the press,’ wherein this freedom has always been reserved for those who own the press. With internet access, everyone who utilizes it is now a publisher. There are almost no restrictions (other than Internet access) for the general public to make its voice heard, and to communicate that voice to others of the same mind and form collective movements around that voice.
Collective effort is not limited to church or government demise, however. A crucial tool in developing an online audience and capitalizing on the audience’s resources, the concept can be a powerful tool for journalists as we attempt to navigate the new news landscape online and disseminate the news. Also called crowdsourcing, the endeavor seeks to draw off the knowledge and experience of the audience. Journalistic organizations such as ProPublica and CNN’S iReport are prime examples of utilizing consumer/public input to further the cause of news dissemination. Applying in business settings as well, the concept is a derivative of the idea of free labor. When there is such an urge for information and products in today’s society, keeping up with demand can require substantial resources. By crowdsourcing, much of the resource investment that would be required is allayed due to drawing off the public’s collective knowledge, insights and general access to information.
Indeed, in a world where there are many voices competing for attention in the online realm and with an ever-increasing need to establish integrity and accountability among those voices, crowdsourcing is a powerful tool to aid in the effort to be heard and noticed. The idea is has become so important that there are now even websites and blogs devoted to discussing best practices at how to be most effective at crowdsourcing. Essentially, establishing and maintain community engagement requires straight-forwardness and ease of participation, as well as constantly maintaining communication with those who will engage.
With my own developing “beat” blog for Social Media Theory, I’m abundantly aware of how crowdsourcing will be crucial to that blog’s development. As I have chosen to survey the stereotypical portrayal of gay men on television and its effects on the gay audience, I will inevitably rely on individual input from as many in the community as I can secure. But also because there is much evidence to analyze in the broad range of television shows that depict gay men both past and present, to undertake that evaluation on my own is too big a task. I will have to rely on the analyses of others to complement my blog content. Affiliating with and engaging with as many others who have a mutual interest in the topic to draw off of their knowledge is incumbent.
Through the power of crowdsourcing and with the limited amount of perspective about gay male stereotyping I have so far been able to encounter online, I hope my developing blog will be able to effect some change. I don’t anticipate that my efforts will be as notable as prompting administration change in the Catholic Church. But with the right participation and savvy capitalization on collective effort, maybe I can eventually garner at least some attention from the television ‘powers that be.’ And in that proposed instance, I’ll truly be able to claim a personal witness for the power of the crowd.