Web 2.0 and social media are messy. Tweets are rarely grammatically correct. Blog posts are neither as polished nor as tight as an edited article in a newspaper or magazine that went through multiple drafts. The sheer volume of traffic and content makes the sort of editorial oversight that print media came to expect before the advent of online content impossible. The issue of control is particularly important here. A publisher has complete control over what goes into print. Even letters to the editor and op-ed articles are screened, selected and often edited so that what their readership sees is known, consistent and approved prior to publication.
Social media is the opposite of control. Anyone with internet access can have a voice. It is chaos. But it is not without its shape and form. Already, the innumerable voices on the web have mostly coalesced into a sort of white background noise. It is there, and a lot of it is inane. But even search engines are getting better at sorting through it for real and meaningful content. And ultimately, the combination of reputation, prestige and what one is interested in helps groups of participants coalesce and interact.
This blog is what it is because of those who comment, who hold everyone and everything on the blog to a higher standard, call people out when writing gets sloppy and will under no circumstances tolerate sloppy reasoning or sloppy thinking. It is also a place where those who comment bring enormous expertise to the table and enrich the discussion. It is in a very real sense a forum – a forum that the founders of this Institute may not have been able to conceive of but would probably be pretty impressed with.
And that’s the thing about Web 2.0 and social media. For the first hundred and twenty years or so of the Institute, ‘forum’ meant a print periodical. Reading and contributing to Proceedings was the limit of communication technology in terms of intellectual interaction for a large, dispersed group. But the mission of the Institute is to provide a forum and to disseminate and advance knowledge — not publish a magazine.
The Mission of the Institute is to provide an independent forum for those who dare to read, think, speak, and write in order to advance the professional, literary, and scientific understanding of sea power and other issues critical to national defense. [emphasis added]
This isn’t to knock Proceedings and it should continue to be the flagship publication of the Institute. It has earned its reputation. But a monthly periodical isn’t going to cut it as a forum in the 21st century, particularly for the very individuals that are supposed to be at the heart of the Institute’s ‘tribe’ — active, serving young Naval, Marine and Coast Guard officers and enlisted. We’re going to have to do much better and make some tough choices if we hope to live up to the spirit of the mission statement we have all so ardently defended.
The last decade has seen the most phenomenal explosion of means of interactivity. For an institution that was the product of interaction and founded explicitly to provide a forum, this should be not a time of crisis or decay but a time of enormous excitement and possibility. For the first time in the history of the Institute, the means available to fulfill the mission of providing a forum have not just grown; they have exploded.
Society and industry are still grappling with what, if anything, phenomena like Twitter might actually be useful for. This is the dawn of a new era, not one in its maturity. It should be a time of experimentation (and experimentation entails failures – the trick is designing the experiment to teach you something while not over-committing resources to it until it has proven viable) to understand which elements of this explosion might have applicability and add value to our ongoing endeavor to live up to the mission set out before us. But the success of this blog should be seen as a proof of concept and as an example of what is possible.
The Institute has limited resources, and the sacrifices employees of the Institute have made are a testament to that. But efforts to build on the success of this blog warrant more priority, focus and resources. More young, information technology and social media expertise is required to formulate experiments, identify promising avenues and push efforts forward. This will not be free (though, like the blog, much can be achieved once the right structures and oversight are in place), and will require sacrifices, compromises and some reallocation of resources.
But we are behind the curve and our young active duty membership deserves and demands better.