Monday, June 26, 2006

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The blogosphere, R.I.P.--- wait, this sounds familiar

Less than six months ago I observed that many media outlets seemed to be burying the blogosphere. Maybe it's a cyclical thing, but blogs are being buried... again.

There was the whole TNR-Kos debate, but that's so last week. As an bizarre offshoot of that dogpile, there is Lee Siegel's badly written and badly reasoned rant over at TNR. Siegel says in his first post that "The blogosphere's fanaticism is, in many ways, the triumph of a lack of focus." Er, in my book, the one thing fanatics don't lack is focus. That's without trying to deconstruct the "fascism with a Microsoft face" metaphor. Siegel doesn't help matters in his follow-up post.

A more interesting critique comes from Alan Jacobs in Christianity Today:

Whatever one thinks about the structure of the internet as a whole, it is becoming increasingly clear that the particular architecture of the blogosphere is the chief impediment to its becoming a place where new ideas can be deployed, tested, and developed. Take, for instance, the problem of comments.

The industry-standard blog architecture calls for something like this: a main area on the page where the blogger's own posts are presented, with the newest post at the top of the page; then, at the left or right or both, various supplements: links to other sites, personal information about the blogger, and so on. At the bottom of each post will be the hyperlinked word "comments," usually followed by a parenthesis indicating the number of responses to the post: click on the word and you get to see all those comments. That's where the real conversation is supposed to take place. And sometimes it does; but often it doesn't—or rather, the conversation just gets started and then peters out before it can really become productive. And this happens not because of inertia, but largely because the anatomy of a blog makes a serious conversation all but impossible....

Architecture is of course not everything here; human nature is at work too. I think first of the extraordinary anger that seems to be more present in the blogosphere than in everyday life. Debate after debate—on almost every site I visit, including the ones devoted to Christianity—either escalates from rational discourse into sneering and name-calling or just bypasses reason altogether and starts with the abuse.

Partly this derives from the anonymity of blog comments: people rarely identify themselves by their real names, and the email addresses that they sometimes provide rarely give clues about their identity: a person who is safe from substantive reprisals is probably more easily tempted to express rage. Also—and this is a problem especially on the political blogs—commenters can find themselves confronted with very different beliefs than the ones they encounter in everyday life, where they often are able to select their own society. A right-winger wandering into a comment thread on is likely to get a serious douse of vitriol for his or her trouble; ditto a liberal who plunges into the icy waters of No Left Turns. And the anonymous habitués of a given site are unlikely to show much courtesy to the uninvited guest....

Blogs remain great for news: political, technological, artistic, whatever. And they provide a very rich environment in which news (or rather "news") can be tested and evaluated and revised, as we have seen repeatedly, from cnn's firing of Eason Jordan to the discrediting of Dan Rather's story on President Bush's National Guard service. But as vehicles for the development of ideas they are woefully deficient and will necessarily remain so unless they develop an architecture that is less bound by the demands of urgency—or unless more smart people refuse the dominant architecture. Even on a site with the brainpower of Crooked Timber, what happens more often than not—indeed, what happens so often that I've taken the site from my rss reader and only check it once or twice a month—is the conversion of really good scholars into really lousy journalists. With few exceptions, posts at the "academic" or "intellectual" blogs I used to frequent have become the brief and cursory announcement of opinions, not the free explorations of new and dynamic thinking.

Jacobs has a point about the architecture -- though I would say that the spammers have feasted on the architecture much more than the trolls.

On the development of ideas, Jacobs is both right and wrong. Of course blogs are imperfect vehicles for the long-form development of ideas. However, they are a great place for the germination of ideas. Most of them might be bad ideas, but occasionally I'll come up with something in a blog post that ripens into something even better in a different format.

A final point, before I undoubtedly have to dredge up this topic six months from now. It it just me, or does much of the critical curdling towards the blogosphere evoke how intellectuals of the fifties turned against television? Elite critics went from praising the educational possibilities of the medium to complaining about the "vast wasteland" of television. Perhaps blogs, like TV, will never live up to the hype that was churned out in its technological infancy. However, no one today would think of bashing television as a medium when the variety of programming is so diverse.

Why, then, do critics fall into this trap when they talk about blogs?

posted by Dan on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM


"Even on a site with the brainpower of Crooked Timber, what happens more often than not—indeed, what happens so often that I've taken the site from my rss reader and only check it once or twice a month—is the conversion of really good scholars into really lousy journalists."

From an academic perspective, lets just keep blogging in perspective, no one (that I know of) is arguing that it somehow replaces rigorous peer-reviewed research, nor do the CT folks or academics want to become journalists(!), but I don't think there is any question blogging is becoming an important new medium for disseminating ideas (admittedly in rough form at times) and providing an interactive forum for dialogue and interaction (I think the dialogue is much better than Alan Jacobs cares to admit). Take Crooked Timber - I am guessing that the link between the real world and academia is narrowing given these types of blogging efforts (see most recent posts highlighting interesting sociology research). I even believe that research will get better as a result. Sure, there are meanderings into soccer (most recently), academic commiseration etc etc- though on the whole I think blogging is here to stay and will be far more than just a news outlet

posted by: teppof on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

I just wrote Prof. Jacobs (no comments section on the article) to point out Teresa Nielsen Hayden's words of wisdom on virtual conversations.

The most important one:

"1. There can be no ongoing discourse without some degree of moderation, if only to kill off the hardcore trolls. It takes rather more moderation than that to create a complex, nuanced, civil discourse. If you want that to happen, you have to give of yourself. Providing the space but not tending the conversation is like expecting that your front yard will automatically turn itself into a garden."

posted by: Doug on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

We are all greatly indebted to mister Seigel for reminding us that shabby, bathos-filled reasoning is not limited to text rendered by electrons.

posted by: mac on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

I find myself agreeing with this Jonah Goldberg column, his point being that blogs -- well, the activist ones, at any rate -- represent a return to partisanship that will probably, in the end, benefit us all.

American newspapers were never as unapologetically and uniformly partisan as European ones were (and still are), but they were still mostly creatures of specific political biases. There were Republican and Democratic newspapers, populist and communist newspapers, union and anti-union newspapers. These publications served as vehicles for partisan education and crusading personalities, in much the same way leading blogs do today.

Take another look at the most flagrantly partisan websites today: the liberal Daily Kos and its conservative doppelganger, Red State. What you see are media outlets trying to serve the same function as newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Of course, I wonder where the Daniel Drezners, the Valves or the Crooked Timbers would fit in in this partisan scheme.

posted by: shreeharsh on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Michael Shermer in his Skeptic column at Scientific American for July has an interesting piece on brain imaging while the subjects analyze politicians that is relevant.
Wonder what they'd see if they ran the experiment on bloggers/commenters?

posted by: Bill Harshaw on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Cause they don't like 'em? Seems a no-brainer to me. If the big A-list blogs make it through the 2006 election cycle intact and start ramping up for 2008 they will essentially put the big-name traditional-media pundits out of business. I don't think they like that ;-)


posted by: Cranky Observer on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Let me speak up for Jacobs, on two points.

First, the structure or architecture of comment sections of blogs using common platforms like Movable Type does tend to encourage lower-quality posters and discourage the better ones. This is because discussions are archived, and accessible only by accessing the original main post. Commenters' posts are accessible only in this way, so individual posters have no way to build a record they and others can use as a reference. People just looking to vent or score debating points would have no need for a MBTU feature, but it is a nice thing to offer people who put time and effort into a thoughtful post only to see it disappear into the depths of the blog within a couple of days.

Slate, of course, does have MBTU in its Fray (actually, as more than one person has observed, Slate's platform is better suited to support weblogs than it is to the "TNR-lite" format Mike Kinsley and Jacob Weisberg have insisted on). That didn't keep the Fray from deteriorating badly beginning several years ago, victim of the same problem most blogs have. Blog proprietors do a lousy job of moderating comment sections. They don't like deleting posts or banning posters; they think researching and writing posts is quite enough work; some of the best ones --Kevin Drum is an example -- barely even read their comment sections anymore.

No question moderating comment sections is a thankless job (and unlike Slate, few bloggers can afford to pay someone to do it for them). But the quality of the discussion in loosely moderated, let alone unmoderated comment sections will always deteriorate sooner or later, as low quality posts that require little thought or time to write swamp higher quality material from posters who eventually decide the whole thing is not worth the bother.

posted by: Zathras on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

A while back there was a comment thread on this site about American public diplomacy and the US's image in the world. I had just seen Dan on TVO out of Toronto and decided to check out his site.

in comments the point was made that the Bush's Administration's habit of threatening to punish countries, like Canada, who declined to support the invasion of Iraq wasn't doing the US's international reputation any good. Regardless of the justness of invading Iraq, or whether the US was getting a fair shake or not, the Bush Administration had managed to construct an almost totally negative image of itself for the outside world.

For writing this the commentator was shouted down. Sort of the same way, I thought, the Bush Administration dealt with criticism.

Fair enough.

Though it hardly seems the comment threads on this site were then able to accept criticism.

posted by: wsam on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Just a quick correction - Jacobs' article is in "Books and Culture", not CT (though CT does publish B&C).

posted by: Michael Simpson on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

The real discussions happen not in the comments, but between two bloggers.

Bloggers tend to form cliques. Billmon reads Kos, Kos reads Billmon. Just as a circle of friends might ostracise a troll, blogger-cliques do the same by simply not reading troll blogs. So the same sort of "moderated" discussions take place in this blogger-to-blogger medium as might take place between friends in a living room. In this blogger-to-blogger medium, it is indeed possible to have very deep, substantive conversations on very subtle topics.

To join into such a conversation, though, you have to earn enough respect to be able to get some other blogger to read your blog. That's a good thing.

posted by: Josh Yelon on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

Allow me to bash television as a medium.

It lulls the brain, lowers analytical ability, creates a false sense of intimacy with people and characters who appear on it, elevates the visual over everything else, fills up vast amounts of time if you're not careful, and chooses newscasters who are pretty and winsome rather than knowledgeable.

I used to watch a lot. Now I watch none. I, for one, am better off with print, the web and the radio.

posted by: Hal Grossman on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

I've never understood the focus on comments pages and their associated vitriol as a the be-all and end-all of blogging. Over and over, I see some pundit take a look at blogs, note that, gee, those comment threads sure get nasty, and conclude that rational discourse is beyond the reach of blogs. And sure, that's one place a conversation can take place in blogging, but to my mind it's hardly the only, the best, or the most important form of blog conversation. Are these writers just not getting the fact that blogging's conversation and idea-bouncing is really mostly going on *between bloggers,* in posts responsive to each other, where, in my experience, the level of civility from the bloggers I follow is actually quite high? That comments can perhaps provide some marginal increase in the overall pool of thought, but that the critical thing that sets blogging apart isn't how easy it is to get involved in a comment thread (and subsequent comment war), but how easy it is to write or read a blog from anywhere, for little or no cost?

posted by: NK on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

I'll bash TV. It is hypnotic and passive. The Czechs have the best slang for it: casozrout, the 'time-chewer.'

posted by: Dave on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

NK, in my experience all the truest, wisest, and most eloquent things I've ever read on blog sites have been posted in the comment threads, except for a few weeks last year and once a couple of months ago when Pejman Yousefzadeh went on vacation.

posted by: Zathras on 06.26.06 at 11:11 PM [permalink]

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