Friday, May 27, 2005

Peercasting as the New Western Frontier

I hope that somewhere along your educational path you were exposed to the seminal work of historian Frederick Jackson Turner. Perhaps to refresh your memory, in 1893 he presented his view that the key component to the unique American character of democracy was the settlement of the American West. That is, the availability of vast stretches of free land away from the initial settlements of the East Coast provided a safety value for those who were dissatisfied with their circumstances. The expansive western frontier offered anyone an opportunity to build a farm and become an independent member of society. Free land thus tended to relieve poverty in the Eastern cities while on the frontier it fostered greater economic equality.

What does this have to do with the media? Here’s what: Though it may be a tad premature to know with certainty, in the equally unlimited expanses of information available through the Internet and its related ecosystem I see the makings of a similar safety value for expression and communication. Today it is Blogs, Live365 streaming radio and Podcasts. Tomorrow it is likely to be the video version of streaming radio and Vodcasting. Better than a soapbox at Hyde Park Corner, reaching farther than leaflets handed out in Times Square, more user-controlled than letters to the editor, may be for the Information Age what free land was for the late Agricultural/early Industrial Age.

While large media companies may continue to provide us with the entertainment and high production value news that they do so well — and that so many people choose to use – bubbling from below is what may be viewed as a revolution in peer communication. There are, according to multiple sources, perhaps 10 million blogs. One service alone claims more than 5000 Internet radiocasters. Apple is adding a Podcast facility to its popular iTunes service while broadcast and Google and similar services .

We’ve already seen how the old Newsgroups and Listservs helped aggregate and invigorate communities of interests. Peercasting takes this a liberating leap further, removing the structure and limiting format of those tools. What inevitably happens is that no matter what the cause, what the rant, what the subject, someone—or many ones—will sooner or later write a comment or send an e-mail to the blogger that says “Hey, yeah. I agree.” Or, “Yeah, I have the same problem. Let’s talk.” Soon there is a community of five or 19 or 3000 people from around the world exchanging bits. In most cases that alone will be satisfying to the bloggers/xcasters. They will have hard evidence that someone is listening.

In a very few instances the bloggers' community may actually evolve into a larger organized group or association. Their message might get the attention of first more mainstream Web sites and bloggers and, in rare cases, the mainstream media. (Of course, “rare” might be 0.1%, but out of 10 million that would be 10,000 “breakout” sites). Even that need not happen for my “safety value” hypothesis to be validated. Most Americans did not head West, though all knew that they could. The free land of the American West enabled those who were most motivated and most dissatisfied with the opportunities where they were to have hope. They did not see themselves as being stuck. Nor did every city slicker who headed West prosper. But it was the opportunity that helped shape them and the spirit of this country for over two centuries. And today’s dissatified or motivated peercasters are learning that, for the first time, they too will be heard.

Blogging and podding and vodding or whatever else these formats might be called should not be viewed as a veneer or a Potemkin Village of phantom access to the world stage. The move to the Western frontier was real. Similarly this digital outlet that gives voice to the leafleteer, corner orator or anyone with a point of view or a story to be told is real and meaningful. We saw in Howard Dean’s meteoric rise the power of the Internet is getting the word out and in raising money. It happened for the most part under the radar of the mainstream media.

In the next decades peercasting will be become the norm to one degree or another. It will not replace traditional mass media but will add a significant dimension to what and how the media is viewed. And, I believe, peercasting will have an overall positive effect on the American -- and no reason why not the rest of the world’s – experience with the expanded boundaries of this new frontier. I think that’s how Frederick Jackson Turner would describe it.

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