Humans are social and tribal animals and we have always collectively contemplated the meaning and potential responses to issues and events. In the past tribes gathered around fires and villagers gathered in taverns, cafes, and community halls to consider contemporary developments.
Individual engagement and participation in discussion were the norm, with some reliance on leaders and those who held the history and wisdom of the community.
Lifestyle changes in the 19th and 20th century society created mass society and reduced time and opportunities for collective contemplation. It was replaced by a form of representative contemplation and a greater reliance on expert and professional commentators. The effect was primarily to produce communications telling members of communities what to think and do.
Contemporary communication technologies are dramatically altering that situation and supporting a return to collective contemplation. While not producing face-to-face discussion, blogs and technology-assisted social networking have increased opportunities for discussion and interaction. Individuals are gaining greater opportunities to share their opinions and views, to inform each other, and to respond to and engage in conversation that has been impossible for many years.
Concurrently, technologies are beginning to allow effective meta analyses of buzz, blogs and social networking that gather topics and some sense of opinions being expressed. These information technologies allow us to aggregate the views of millions in ways not previously possible.
Where such technologies will take us in unclear, but the contemporary engagement and contemplation by millions of people online is far better for society than the disenfranchisement that mass society previously encouraged.
Media organizations will have to wrestle with how this collective contemplation is altering the roles and functions of editorial writers, op-ed authors, and columnists. They will have to increasingly engage with the public and see their roles as provoking conversation, not merely telling people what to think.