Dialogue vs. Monologue: Six New-Media Principles, No. 1

As I wrote in yesterday’s post, over the next six days I will be discussing six new-media principles, adapted from my forthcoming e-book, the New-Media Survival Guide. Today’s principle is based on the importance and power of conversation, reflecting new media’s emphasis on dialogue rather than monologue.

Photo by Shel Israel: Doc Searls and David Weinberger

Doc Searls and David Weinberger: "Markets are conversations"

In 1999, when Doc Searls and David Weinberger wrote in The Cluetrain Manifesto that “markets are conversations,” it was a fresh, radically new idea. Today, for anyone who’s thought much about social media, it verges dangerously on being trite. But however obvious the idea may seem, it remains a powerful, foundational concept for new media. We ignore it at our peril.

Searls and Weinberger were addressing their comments above all to public relations and marketing people. In the beginning of their chapter, in fact, they point to magazines as a “form of market conversation.” But the publishing industry’s advantage is only relative; it too has tended either to ignore or to dominate the conversation.

Before the Internet, journalism was largely a one-way form of communication. Publishers talked to their readers, but few readers could talk back, and in only limited ways. Digital technologies have dramatically changed the balance. Now, readers can easily and immediately comment on stories by commenting on blogs. What’s more, they can now be publishers themselves, whether through their own blogs, Twitter, Facebook, or other forms of social media. Not only can they talk back to publications, but they can also compete against those publications by talking to other readers directly.

This change means that traditional distinctions between the journalist, the reader, and the news source are breaking down.  Journalists can no longer rely on the idea of professionalism as separating them in a meaningful way from “amateur” bloggers and other kinds of citizen journalists. Now, as Storyful’s David Clinch told Mashable, “journalists must be able to pivot quickly between the idea of using the community as a source of news and as the audience for news, because they are both.”

As a result, the nature of journalistic discourse is transforming. It is no longer a one-way speech, but a two-way exchange. The journalist’s role is no longer to dominate or control the conversation, but to participate in the conversation, support it, and help a variety of other voices to be heard.

(SImilarly, the publisher’s role is no longer to dominate or control the journalist. Despite the ongoing efforts of organizations like the Associated Press to control when and how their employees speak, journalists now have the same power as everyone else to speak directly to their audience.)

As I say, all this is old hat for anyone even slightly familiar with new media. But that’s the challenge. We tend to forget that a conversation is not simply one person talking, then the other. For any participant in a communication, the most important elements are first, truly listening to what others say, and then meaningfully responding to them. As their use of a social-media platform like Twitter shows, even today journalists tend to think of their primary media role as talking. But true dialogue demands an equal emphasis on those other conversational skills: listening and responding.

Tomorrow: Collaboration vs. control.