Why are these forums so powerful? They are not just about what's going on in the world, but about interpretation. What should we think about this? What is right and wrong, and who should we root for?
Opinion pages were long considered one of the most read sections of a traditional newspaper; they still generate the vast majority of letters to the editor at The New York Times and The Hartford Courant. As traditional media move online, readership is more trackable: On any given day, opinion essays are among the top 10 most-read articles at the largest papers.
Perhaps even more striking is what is happening with social media. According to a Yahoo study, the most common stories shared via social media are opinion pieces. The most shared story in March 2010 was The Wall Street Journal's "Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior," by Amy Chua, with 347,000 likes (which translates into an estimated 34,700,000 page views).
All of this — and especially the new media technology landscape — has created an interesting opportunity to change the demographics of who gets heard.
Until about 10 years ago — or even five — thought leaders and ideas were mostly anointed/curated by all-powerful media gatekeepers. There were relatively few high-impact outlets where voices could shape policy and public opinion on a mass scale. The gatekeepers who controlled access to the most prestigious of them pretty much decided which ideas would be big — which would shape the great conversations of our age (and attract funding, drive policy, etc.) — and which people would rise in visibility and influence.
Since space in traditional print media was limited, very few voices shared the limelight. Most people didn't think of themselves as someone who could have a public voice, let alone a voice that could change the world.
Today almost anyone can have a public voice. All you need is an Internet connection. This corresponds with the rise of numerous commons — such as The Huffington Post — where people can share their ideas, and be exposed to an exponentially wider range of unvetted ideas.
Paradoxically, the technology that gave so many of us a bigger voice can also make us tone deaf: We now have the ability to curate for ourselves the opinions we hear (or read) — creating, in essence, our personal echo chambers.
But that isn't a given. If we want, we can also read a wider range of stuff, often weirder stuff, from a broader range of people than we did even a few years ago. This makes for much richer reading possibilities — and potentially a much richer world conversation.
However, there is a caveat. Anyone can now publish her ideas, but that does not mean those ideas are any good — or will have readers. Today, the scarce commodity is not space on a printed page, but our attention. For that reason, traditional gatekeepers are still very important as curators; and now we also have crowd-sourced curating, where the most shared, or forwarded, or "liked" opinions rise to the top.
Not just opinions — also people. We crowd-source credibility by rating authors.
If we want to be influential and have a big audience, we can reach out to readers directly. But we have to be compelling, trustworthy, newsworthy and entertaining, and we have to build our credibility and visibility one reader at a time.
More people now have a voice — which is good — but citizen journalism, a citizen commentariat, and crowd-sourcing present a problem: How do we maintain standards and ensure quality? How do we ensure misinformation and diatribe don't triumph? How do we ensure that the new world conversation doesn't simply replicate the old?
The answer is, we should be sharing knowledge and best practices of thought leadership beyond the tiny cadre of pundits who have historically held the reins. Having a voice, and knowing how to use it powerfully and responsibly, are now part of being a regular citizen — or should be.
Katie Orenstein is founder and director of The OpEd Project in New York, which is an initiative to diversify public debate, by expanding the range of voices and especially the number of female experts in key thought leadership forums.