Dan Gillmor thinks that distributed journalism, or a bunch of independent people working on the same or similar issue or story, is not only the future of journalism but a new kind of citizenship, a way for ordinary folks to mobilize their energy and have an impact. He's probably right about the future of journalism--all the current msm attention to blogs, including the Pew Blog Survey, seem to point in this direction. What concerns me is the underlying presumption regarding the participation: namely, the sort of citizenship is currently practiced in the US and likely to practiced in the forseeable future. Is there a community or possibility of commonality? Or, are we in a condition of extreme division that is likely to be furthered through the division of information and commentary into increasingly narrow spheres, into spheres of agreement?I think there is a community or possibility of commonality," but not in the way the questions suggest.
The commonality is based on interest. Those who are interested will participate in distributive journalism; those who aren't won't, even if they've been made aware of the inherent possibilities.
"Are we in a condition of extreme division that is likely to be furthered through the division of information and commentary into increasingly narrow spheres, into spheres of agreement?"
Those spheres already exist, and have been evident for decades. It can be seen in commentary and divisions generated as a result of the U.S. Civil War, Reconstruction, the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, Watergate and our presidential elections since 1980, which have highlighted the division in the U.S. like no other event in recent years.
Despite these divisions, citizen participation in journalism has always been there. Money and a lack of interest kept most people out of the news-producing end. However, they participated by reading newspapers and magazines and writing letters to the editor. But thanks to the Internet, one does not have to write a letter to editor. Just create a blog and bring it to the attention of the local newspaper editor or TV producer. They will pay attention if they are conscious about serving their communities.
The point is that participation may not be as great as some observers would want but the possibilities are there. Money or press ownership is no longer an insurmountable barrier.
Finally, if most Americans prefer not to be distributed journalists, and I suspect they won't, "information and commentary" will continue to be "divided into increasingly narrow spheres." People of common interest, who have coalesced to offer ideas that others can follow or reject, will inhabit those “narrow spheres”. In reality, only a few people ever lead anything. The rest of us follow.