Monday, January 30, 2006

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What is it that blogs do?

There's been another spasm of output on whether the blogosphere does anything better or different than the mediasphere.

Arnold Kiling believes that blogs function well as a distributor of information across the ideological spectrum:

Certain information is more valuable to me than it is to others. We can represent this concept by thinking of everyone as being located at different points on a circle. The points closest to you in the circle are people with similar interests. They might be workers in nearby cubicles, or they could be people located at a great physical distance but working in the same field.

I live in the economics neighborhood of the circle. My neighbor to the left is Brad, and my neighbor to the right is Virginia. All communication is via blog.

Every day, each of us receives new information. Think of this as news, or as a flash of inspiration. I post my new information to my blog. This information has value that consists of two random components. One component is its general value--which is equal for everyone on the circle. The other component is local value, which means that the farther it gets from me, the lower its value becomes. However, I only observe the total value of a piece of information to me. It is impossible for me to distinguish between the two components, so I do not know who else might be interested in the information.

I also read my neighbor's blogs. I evaluate each piece of information that I find on Virginia's blog. If its value to me exceeds some threshold value, then I link to it, which makes it available to Brad. If its value does not exceed the threshold, then I do not link to it. In this way, I act as a filter of information moving from right to left. I also do the same thing with information moving from left to right.

This filtering process makes all of us more efficient.

Meanwhile, Henry Farrell thinks the importance of blogs is not just as a provider of information, but as part of a conversation -- a fact that journalists have yet to comprehend:
The point is that they have very different – and clashing – notions of where authority and responsibility come from. Each newspaper article has the form of a discrete statement, which is supposed to be as authoritative as possible on its own ground. Each blogpost has the form of an intervention in an ongoing conversation – the blogger’s authority rests in part on her willingness to respond to others and engage in argument with them. A blogger who doesn’t respond to good counter-arguments is being irresponsible (of course many bloggers are irresponsible in this way; there isn’t much in the way of formal policing of this norm). These forms of authority are difficult to reconcile with each other, because the latter in large part undermines the former. If journalists start systematically responding to their critics, and getting drawn into conversations about whether or not they were right when they made a particular claim, then they’re effectively admitting that the articles they have written aren’t all that authoritative in the first place. They’re subject to debate and to revision. Thus, in part, the tendency for journalists like Jack Shafer to dismiss criticism from bloggers and their commenters as “organized riots” and lynch mobs. It’s a fundamental threat to their notions of where journalistic authority comes from.
Shafer, meanwhile, has a column in Slate suggesting that while journalists might not get the conversational aspect of bloggers, they do recognize the existential threat posed by the blogosphere:
Like the long-gone typesetters, today's newspaper guild members believe that their job is somehow their "property," and that no amateur can step in to perform their difficult and arduous tasks. On one level, they're right. John Q. Blogger can't fly to Baghdad or Bosnia and do the work of a John F. Burns. But what a lot of guild members miss is that not everybody wants to read John F. Burns, not everybody who wants to read about Baghdad is going to demand coverage of the quality he produces, and not everybody wants Baghdad coverage, period. If you loosely define journalism as words and graphics about current events deliverable on tight deadline to a mass audience, the price of entry into the craft has dropped to a few hundred dollars. Hell, I can remember renting an IBM Selectric for $100 a month in the late 1970s just to make my freelance articles look more "professional" to my editors.

So, when newspaper reporters bellyache about shoot-from-the-hip bloggers who don't fully investigate the paper trail before writing a story or double-check their facts before posting, they're telling a valuable truth. Bad bloggers are almost as bad as bad journalists. But the prospect of a million amateurs doing something akin to their job unsettles the guild, making it feel like Maytag's factory rats whose jobs were poached by low-paid Chinese labor.

It's not just the best of the blogosphere drawing away big audiences that the guild need worry about. If Chris Anderson's Long Tail intuitions are right, the worst of the blogosphere—if it's big enough—presents just as much (or more) competition. Michael Kinsley made me laugh a decade ago when he argued against Web populists replacing professional writers, saying that when he goes to a restaurant, he wants the chef to cook his entree, not the guy sitting at the next table. I'm not laughing anymore: When there are millions of aspiring chefs in the room willing to make your dinner for free, a least a hundred of them are likely to deal a good meal. Mainstream publishers no longer have a lock on the means of production, making the future of reading and viewing anybody's game. To submit a tortured analogy, it's like the Roman Catholic Church after Gutenberg. Soon, everyone starts thinking he's a priest.

posted by Dan on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM


Maybe Weblogs are the modern public square allowing community dialogue at a national level a function that would not be possible otherwise.

posted by: nels on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

Chris Anderson's point is one I hadn't really focused on. Maybe I should.

I suspect I'm not alone in ignoring blogs I consider of inferior quality. If something shows up on LGF or Kos, I will find out about it if Drezner or Marshall or (sometimes) Reynolds link to it. I've got only so much time and have been observing the blogoshpere long enough to have formed firm ideas of where the chaff to wheat ratio is high enough that a given blog does not deserve my regular attention.

Are most blog readers like that? Probably not. LGF's readership, let alone Kos's, is a lot bigger than Dan's. If these blogs post things that are wrong, or arguments that are foolish or worse, they may still matter, and of course to journalists who get their living from the written word they must matter that much more.

posted by: Zathras on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

I think it's difficult for people to recognize that there isn't really a single national dialog going on. The subjects at hand may be the same but there are multiple threads taking place which are not really connected.

What blogs do is aggregated a multiplicity of people who are looking for a particular angle, even if that angle is 'better reporting than MSM'. The whole tie-in to journalism is only tangential to what blogging is because the most prominent bloggers (and those who sustain the meme) have had that general gripe since day one. So I believe that just as journalism has a false objectivity, those who consider the blogosphere as a corrective to that are just another loud minority.

In fact almost nobody reads their entire blogroll. I say there are multiple long tails instead of just one, and those long tails are not quite so long and inclusive as people have convinced themselves.

posted by: Cobb on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

> So, when newspaper reporters bellyache about
> shoot-from-the-hip bloggers who don't fully
> investigate the paper trail before writing a story
> or double-check their facts before posting,

Oops - lost my train of thought - does this refer to the traditional media describing bloggers, or bloggers describing the traditional media, or just plain old readers out here in flyover country describing the big-dollar traditional media newspapers? The ones who hyped the work of Judith Miller, left Bob Woodward alone to "hunker down", etc?


posted by: Cranky Observer on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

The blogosphere doesn't qualify as an 'existential' threat to MSM.

posted by: John on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

> The blogosphere doesn't qualify as an
> 'existential' threat to MSM.

Respectfully, I have to disagree. Newspaper readership is declining by the day. Most political magazines have declining readership and are only supported by sugar daddies (much as I despise what "TNR" has become, when Peretz finally gets tired of it it will probably fold). Even the traditional TV news outlets are losing viewership fast.

Meanwhile, 20- and 30-something news and political consumers are turning to the net for news snippets and to blogs for political commentary. Yes, those news snippets come from traditional media - but no traditional media outlet other than the WSJ is making money from them. And what should be more worrisome for traditional outlets: fledgling news/politics junkies of ages 11-18 (6th grade through 12th grade in the US, when political habits are formed) are engaged almost entirely on the net. Of even the most politically aware high-schoolers I know, very very few read newspapers. That has _not_ been the case since the invention of the broadsheet and marks a serious change.

Are blogs "killing" traditional media? No, of course not. Are they one of the hyeanas biting at the achilles tendons? Yes, absolutely.


posted by: Cranky Observer on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

I think blogs do several things. First it gives major media new ideas and opinions on issues. Even though those ideas may not be politically correct.

Secondly it gives people an outlet for their frustrations with the major media and our system of government.

I post on quite a few blogs and I can tell you that I feel much better after I've gotten my particular view point down in writing. I know few people will actually read my view point but I'll probably live longer by finding a way to "vent".

posted by: scalpmed on 01.30.06 at 09:24 AM [permalink]

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