Dave Pollard's chronicle of civilization's collapse, creative works and essays on our culture.
A trail of crumbs, runes and exclamations along my path in search of a better way to live and make a living, and a better understanding of how the world really works.



January 16, 2005

THE TEN MOST IMPORTANT IDEAS OF 2004: BLOGS AND THE INTERNET

Filed under: Using Weblogs and Technology — Dave Pollard @ 18:55
InfoFlows1. The Blog is a Journal, and Online Journalism is Our Game: ‘Journal’ is a very inclusive term, and broadly means ‘daily writings’, and journalists are therefore those who write (or photograph) daily. A diary is a journal, and so is a distinguished medical publication (though the latter is often a monthly, and hence more accurately an anthology or review). So everyone from the author of minutiae of a teenager’s life written for a handful of friends, to a prolific daily poster of articles read by thousands, is an online journalist. That’s what blogging is, and to attempt to categorize it or restrict it or define it more narrowly is to miss the point. Our tradition goes back centuries, from the writers of regular letters to the poets who wrote from the bunkers of wars to the pamphleteers whose work was critical to the emergence of democracy around the world, we are all journalists, pure and simple daily writers. The fact that our writing is online makes it more accessible but that is all. It is no new phenomenon or quantum leap, merely the rediscovery by many of the joy of composing paragraphs of fact and fiction and sharing them with others.

2. We Are Our Own Content Providers, and
3. Content Has Value Only in Use:
The Mainstream Media (which some writers are now calling the ‘legacy media‘ have this arrogant view (reinforced in a recent Atlantic Magazine article, ironically available only to print subscribers) that they are the font of all news, and that the blogosphere would ‘have nothing to talk about’ if it weren’t for them. Such a luddite perception of the entire online community (not just bloggers) explains why these media are losing audience, making ‘Rather’ unnecessary mistakes, and failing to partner with online journalists and researchers. My diagram above illustrates their strange POV. In reality, legacy and online journalists both use a combination of information sourced outside and their own primary and secondary research and analysis, both write stories based on those content sources, and both use a mechanism to add value to the content called ‘journalism’ of varying degrees of quality. And online journalists go two better: Unlike the legacy media, they can use The Power of Many to quickly add to, clarify, and when necessary correct mistakes (Britt Blaser calls this recursive journalism). And unlike the legacy media, online journalists have the numbers and front-line perspective to provide a much more personal context than more remote reporters. That’s important because news only has value if it’s useful, not just merely entertaining. News and other ‘information’ that is unactionable, which has no impact on what we do with our lives, is merely distraction. Bloggers are just beginning to learn that by providing unique local content (facts and perspectives) they can help the citizen-reader answer the question that the legacy media can’t, or won’t: What do we do about this?

4. The Content Management Challenge: For all of us on this side of the digital divide, organizing and finding information on our own hard drives and on our blogs is a growing and momentous challenge. For the hard drive, Google Desktop and its imitators are a new, first step. For many bloggers, their posts are ephemeral, and neither they nor their readers really care whether they’re lost in the ether, or whether they’re even available once they drop into the archives. But an increasing number of bloggers are adding original content or perspective with enduring value, and both they and their readers want it to stick around and be easy to find. Google searches are hit-and-miss. Tagging, assigning your own keywords to content using your own taxonomy, may be an improvement. But ultimately bloggers will face the same challenge as mainstream journalists, librarians, archivists, and anyone with a filing cabinet or a MyDocuments folder: How do I index, sort, organize and present all this stuff in a way in which I, and others I trust, can both browse it and search it? Even non-bloggers, who have taken to using shareable ‘social bookmarking’ tools like del.icio.us are now facing this content management problem.

5. It’s All About What The Big Media Aren’t Talking About: All information has spin. The 2004 elections in the US and elsewhere made it clear that the mainstream media, and bloggers, all have a bias in what they present, and, more importantly, what they don’t present. It is no coincidence that when citizens are asked what the most important issues of the time are, they mostly parrot what the mainstream media are reporting on. For those on the other side of the digital divide, they don’t really have a choice — other than person-to-person conversations, they have no way to get information on the things that are important to them personally that the mainstream media don’t cover. In fact they often don’t even think about these as political issues. When Gallup gives people the ten choices of issues to pick the ‘most important’ from, citizens tend to pick the one on the list that they relate to most personally — with unemployment, health care and education usually topping the list. But even in the very rare cases when issues like the environment, peace and civil liberties are raised in these surveys, they are described using these abstract and impersonal terms, rather than terms like ‘clean air, water and food’, ‘resolving conflicts peacefully’, ‘workplace safety’, ‘safe, affordable quality schools’ and ‘protecting privacy & other personal freedoms’. So because these hard-to-capture-on-video issues aren’t mentioned in surveys of the masses, the mainstream media are vindicated for continuing to ignore them, and the vicious cycle of ignorance is complete. This, of course, is where bloggers come in, to fill the void. Maybe that’s why the mainstream media are trying to pre-discredit us as ‘a million guys in pajamas‘.

6. Blogs’ as Echo Chambers, or Not: The failure of the left side of the blogosphere to see that Dean would lose the primary, and that Kerry would lose the election, led many to see the blogosphere as an echo chamber, where like minds (falsely) reassured like minds. But guys like Dave Weinberger disagree, and point out that compared to the mainstream media, or the cloister that filters news for the US Presnit, blogs are pretty open-minded. Does the blogosphere open up people to new ideas or solidify what they already believe and close them off from other points of view? I’ve argued that people tend to make up their minds once on each issue, and then look for reassurance and only change their initial opinion when they directly experience first-hand conflicting evidence. So blogs can be helpful in allowing people to make up their minds in the first place, and, as long as they are critical thinkers, giving them reassurance that supports those views. Nothing wrong with that. And just because blogs aren’t likely to change many minds (written material rarely does by itself) and may allow non-critical thinkers to go on believing foolish things (kinda like Fox News), doesn’t invalidate their benefits.

7. Bloggers’ Need to Get Out and Investigate More: The most important kind of journalism, the kind that brings real change, is investigative journalism. Blogging is perfectly suited to this challenge, because it requires people out in the community to invest significant personal time and energy in things they care about (since it incurs risks, and pays poorly). The mainstream media have curtained investigative journalism for that reason (libel suits and expensive research budgets don’t impress media conglomerates’ shareholders). There are some fledgling groups trying to organize bloggers as investigative journalists. They are not cowed by the harrowing experiences of the courageous journalists in Into the Buzzsaw. But in order to provide this value, bloggers need to get away from their comfortable computers and do some things that, to many, will be very uncomfortable: Getting first-hand accounts and taking photos of unpleasant things in unpleasant places, writing up exposes that will incite the wrath of the rich and powerful (and their lawyers), doggedly pursuing the truth in the face of lies, evasion, and bureaucracy. It’s a lot harder than sitting and writing about things second-hand, but if we are to be credible, it’s vital.

8. Information Is Still Trying to be Free, and Keeping Journalists Poor: Marshall McLuhan’s deliberately ambiguous statement “Information is always trying to be free” is great news for the consumers of content, but bad news for those who try to make a living from it. Freelance journalists have been starving for generations, and blogging has created thousands of online journalists with a secret desire to make a living from writing. It’s a classical case of a business with low entrance barriers and not even Shirky’s Power Law, which would suggest A-list bloggers with a wildly disproportionate share of readers should be able to make a buck from writing, has made it easier. Several recent articles have suggested that blogging is poised to make a breakthrough to profitability, but I’m skeptical — with so much information available for free, why would anyone in their right mind pay for it? And the argument that advertising will make the difference, that companies will pay for eyeballs, especially if they’re in their ‘target demographic’ are equally uncompelling, because ‘broadcast’ advertising is anathema to the whole idea of the Internet where everything is customized and one-to-one. If bloggers really want to make money, they’re going to have to do it face-to-face with people who are impressed with their writing, and follow the advice of successful consultants: Give content (ideas, surveys, stories) away free, and charge for the add-ons, for effectively implementing them for the customer. As Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell can tell you, that’s where the value is.

9. The Silence of the Web as Negative Assurance: Dave Weinberger explains why, in the absence of much positive evidence, he’s inclined to believe that Bush was wired for the first debate with Kerry because despite everyone talking about the story on the blogosphere there were no plausible other explanations for the bulge. It’s the same logic that led intelligent people to ‘know’ the unknowable — that there were no WMD in Iraq. In professional auditing circles it’s called ‘negative assurance’, and it means that sometimes you believe what you do in the absence of any compelling evidence to the contrary, if a lot of people have had the opportunity to proffer such contrary evidence. Auditors send out letters of ‘negative confirmation’ of account balances to their clients’ customers with the request that they be returned with corrections only if they’re incorrect. This is not as comforting as ‘positive confirmations’ where a written, signed response is required of each customer, but it’s much better than nothing, and usually very effective. So the vast blogosphere provides negative assurance of facts and declarations made by politicians and other vested interests, in the absence of any compelling contrary evidence from bloggers who would be positively disposed to tabling such information if it existed. Further evidence of the Wisdom of Crowds, and comforting in places where the media tend to treat press conferences and press releases as ‘facts’ needing no corroboration, question or inquiry.

10. The Ultimate Utility of Blogging: Last, but certainly not least, is this remarkable statement from blogger Rob Paterson on the utility of blogging: “The utility of blogging to me is that it is recreating the lost world of a humanity that is connected to itself and hence to everything.” Rob and I and a group of bloggers have been working on a compendium of our best and most important work, and we’ve been exchanging ideas on a theme or shared vision for the book. I suggested that, if it’s going to sell, the book needs to have utility to the reader, especially the reader who barely knows what a blog (or online journalism) is. Rob identified three ‘values’ of blogging to him personally: Finding one’s voice; Noticing what gives and what drains one’s energy; Redefining the meaning of work as a function of community and fellowship instead of wage slavery. So he’s saying, and I agree with him, that blogging (the participation in the conversation as both a journal reader and writer) re-centres you, frees you from being like, and seeing the world like, everyone else, and allows you to see the world and yourself differently, more profoundly (for better and for worse), and hence to liberate yourself and take charge of your own life. Self-awareness, self-reliance, and the personal liberation that comes from deep knowledge. Could there possibly be a higher utility for anything?

Coming up later this month: My Ten Most Important Ideas lists for politics & economics, and for business.

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