Conference on World Affairs: Seven Million Bloggers Can’t Be Wrong?

I’m here at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, Colorado, and am attending a session called Seven Million
Bloggers Can’t Be Wrong
but it’s sure the case that the
five panelists can miss the importance of their panel subject.

The panelists for this session are Matt Richtel who writes for the New York Times, Martha Baer, a freelance
writer who previously worked for WIRED, Craig Newmark, creator of Craigslist, and
Andy Ihnatko, Chicago Sun-Times technology columnist and
Mac pundit. The moderator is David Parker, online editor for the Daily Camera,
a local newspaper. What do these panelists all have in common? With the exception of Andy (who not only has been blogging since ’95, but wrote his own blogging software), none of them are serious
bloggers. They all identify something else as their reason for being on the panel and almost all of them have what I felt was an overt pro-journalism bias.

As I tried to record the discussion, I also added my own two cents, observations and analysis. In this article, my thoughts are represented in italics and should not be construed as the words of any particular panelist.

Predictably, the first question everyone addressed was the
de rigeur question “What’s a blog?”

First up, though, the audience was asked to respond to the question of “what’s a blog?” and we got the typical bland, uninspired answers about diaries and journals, with the exception
of my friend and fellow blogger Amy Gahran, who recognizes the bigger
picture, stating that “blogs are content management systems and can be used to present anything you desire.”

My thought: a number of people in the room — including a few panelists — could expand their horizons by attending my upcoming Blog Smart! business blogging workshop. But that’s another link entirely.

Matt Richtel: “A blog is a Web page” that “lets you easily add content to a site”. A
“personal publishing tool that lets people automate information”.

Matt quoted blog stats from recently published Pew research, but didn’t question the validity of the research, whether the numbers (“7% of 120 mil Internet users have created a blog” and “20% of Internet users read blogs”) make sense, or offer any sort of context for the information. Recent reports about the millions of people who have been listening to podcasts (downloadable audio files, typically mini-radio programs or monologues, easily listened to on iPod and other MP3 players), based on research from the same research organization, have proven to be embarrassingly misconstrued, for example.

Blogs are creating more “white noise” than we already have. The
Internet and Blogs aren’t “just white noise”, but the mainstream
media is already creating white noise.

Craig Newmark: “a blog is just a little web site” but they “often have a more personal sense or attitude”. The real value of a blog is that you can write a few paragraphs, “hit a submit key and ‘you’re published'”

But what does “published” mean in this context, Craig?

“Ten years ago we thought that the Internet would be eveeryone’s
printing press. But now, with good blogging tools, the Internet *is*
everyone’s printing press. People are beginning to talk about things
and to do fact checking and research that we haven’t seen before outside of the professional press.”

“If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh or they’ll
kill you” (quoted from Oscar Wilde)

“I hestitate to use the phrase ‘paradigm shift’ but this *is* a
paradigm shift. Amateur and professional journalism is going to merge. Much of what’s published on the Web is crap.” “There’s no substitute
for professional editing and professional fact checking, for the
most part.”

I really liked the equivocation of “for the most part” on that comment, but it was the first appearance of a theme that ran through all of the speakers, that fact checking and professional editing was what fundamentally differentiated “professional journalists” from bloggers. I’m also reminded of GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz, who notes in his GM FastLane blog that ” In the age of the Internet, anyone can be a journalist.”

Craig says that some amateur journalists are aspiring to reach the
standards of professional journalists (but in fact it seems to be
more that professional journalists are sliding down to the amateur
level of the blogging world. Ask Dan Rather and his news team about
this, for example, or Blair at the New York Times)

Martha Baer continued the discussion by “mapping out where the crucial tensions are in terms of where this is all going”. “Something’s really changing” with blogging, which
creates a ‘charge’ and the change “replicates or mirrors the
changes that have happened through the Internet. We’re seeing
a democratizing force, a lot of people getting a soap box, accumulating
a certain amount of power, out of the control of previously consolidated
power centers”. Drawing a historical context, Martha suggested that this change is “not very different from when people in the halls of
power said ‘we can’t really let the poor read'”.

Fear of mass chaos, excitement about proliferating the number of
sources from which we can gain information.

Other aspect: what is journalism? Or “are bloggers journalists”?
which means “are they held to the same standards and should they
be protected in the same way that journalists are?” Many bloggers
are fighting for the same protections that journalists have for the
protection of their sources.

Bloggers are saying what they want, and there’s a lot of ‘mouthing
off’ and ‘defamation’ that’s potentially damaging. Victims of this
want some compensation / to shut things down. Presented the Apple
case “Apple want to protect ‘what they call trade secrets'”…

That was the kicker for me at this panel, a lovely example of how presentation of information can be biased
and bring your audience into your own perspective in a subtle,
nuanced way. It wasn’t “Apple wanting to protect its trade secrets”, which seems like a reasonable thing for a company to do, but “Apple wanting to protect ‘what they call trade secrets'”, which of course shows exactly what Martha thinks about the situation.

“Journalists have significant standards, and there are libel
laws. Journalists aren’t allowed to lie and destroy people.” “Bloggers
are at a disadvantage because they don’t have any money to go to
court. Bloggers will be subject to significant libel suits and will
learn that they can’t actually just ‘do whatever they want'”

Andy Ihnatko: “All a weblog is is a web page, with a bunch of postings that are timestamped,
which makes it easy to identify which is what’s most recently posted.”

Andy then tried to explain what a newsreader is, but while he did a better
job than Craig’s disjointed and woefully brief explanation of RSS (Really Simple Syndication), he still missed the mark and never stated the simple fact that Web sites change far more often than we visit them. An aggregator is simply a tool that watches your favorite sites and weblogs, and lets you read just what’s new, when it’s new, without lots of surfing. None of the panelists actually conveyed the value or
importance of RSS feeds and news aggregators. Disappointing,
because I believe that it’s the combination of Weblogs and RSS aggregators that are harbingers of the new wave in personal newspapers, vox populari information dissemination, etc.

People get “fired on general principal” in addition to specific
violation of corporate confidentiality. Even the most generic of
postings about corporate life can cause trouble and ‘land you in
HR for a very stern talk’

“Everyone in this room can benefit from having their own weblog” and
you can ‘start blogging from this conference, right now.’ Even if you
don’t like the idea of writing stuff you can use a service like flickr
and publish photographs.”

But does anyone care? This ended up being more of an advertisement for flickr and blogging in general, at least the
superficial ‘diary’ or ‘journal’ style blog, without the context, the meaning, the long term value (or not) of
having a weblog or web site at all.

A typical comment, from Andy: “If there’s been a recent world event, or recent movie”… downplaying
the importance and value of weblogs entirely. What about people
thinking about stuff?

The problem is that weblogs let you become fairly incestuous, which isn’t
a bad idea, but it’s bad when, for example, someone thinks that there’s a huge right wing
conspiracy so “I’m going to get the real news” while one
click away there’s someone saying “I’m tired of the left controlling the
media” and they bookmark and read an entirely different set of news
sources.

“You can’t consider these real journalists and it real news until it
appears in a print media, like the Chicago Sun-Times or the New York
Times”.

That was another startling comment. I think this is phenomenally clueless. Being picked up by a print publication
can hardly be considered The Key Criterion for whether something
is real news. It’s such a strong bias that it colored everything else that Andy said during the panel, and is reminiscent of how so many journalists are rationalizing away the sea change in news and information dissemination. It wasn’t newspapers that made the Swift Boat story important during the last election, however, it was bloggers, just as one overt example.

A blog is a place where you can show a public face for yourself, your
views, your opinions.

Q from the audience: Do you consider the Drudge Report a blog?

Andy Ihnatko: It’s just a guy posting from a web site. He got famous by
breaking a news story but his track record since then has been poor, worse than a regular journalist.

Martha Baer: Drudge is an interesting case because he has a very strong political
bent, he’s a real gossip-monger, and he’s audacious about publishing
information as soon as he gets it. His site is a good example of why blogs are controversial.
He has been the subject of a lawsuit from Sidney Blumenthal (see techlaw journal) and
Sidney took Drudge to court, but Drudge won the case because he wasn’t
held to certain journalistic standards because he was an online writer.

If a blogger who gets 10 hits/day and everyone knows is a right-wing
militia and says something hurtful he’s not going to ruin anyone’s
reputation. The general public has a pretty good idea of who Drudge
is, because the standard is “is he really going to ruin someone’s
reputation”?

Andy Ihnatko: Everyone can be a writer, but not everyone can be a journalist
because you have to learn what comprises a news story and how to do
research.

Given that most modern journalism is about as historically aware as the utterances of my 5yo, it’s hard to understand what Andy is talking about here.

Q: How do I get more hits to my weblog?

Andy Ihnatko: You can maintain a list of other blogs that you like (a blogroll,
but he didn’t use that name, which is probably a good thing) and
you should ask others to list you.

Martha Baer: A brief history of time: cave drawings, printing press, radio,
TV, and now it’s a combination of these things and basically people are
getting to ‘see your cave drawings’. But what happens to our view of
human nature when we get to see everyone’s naked drawings?

Craig Newmark: we should have talked more about the historical context. 5 or 6 hundred
years ago, Gutenberg invented “or reinvented” publishing and changed
the nature of communication. With blogging, you can make big, positive
changes and I’m foolish enough to be very optimistic.”

David Parker: What’s next for blogging?

Martha Baer: We’re going to stop talking about them. Remember the ‘zine? Remember
cordless phones? We’ll be referring to them as individuals not as “the
bloggers”. In terms of personal representation, we’re all going there.

The thoughtful and prescient remarks by tech wizard Bill Joy, who has said for years that “privacy is dead. Get over it.”, flashed into my head at this point.

Andy Ihnatko: We’re no longer talking about specific technologies, but about
the solutions of the … sidetracked to talk about Yahoo 360 and
its attempt to be all things to all people.

I have a Yahoo 360
account
(it’s still in beta) and it’s not anywhere near as important
or impressive as Andy presents, in my opinion.

It’ll let you create a public face
for yourself. A web presence is going to be another articulation of
who you are.

Craig Newmark: Your blog can be an expression of your personal identity. It may not
matter to millions of people, but it will matter to your family and
friends. It may be the hub of your “online reputation” and may be linked
to and from the logs of your friends and family. Creates webs of trust.
Based on “who do you trust, who do you know?”

Kudos to Craig for that particularly insightful comment!

Martha Baer: It’ll break down into personal and professional. People will have
a diary, video and audio, and a whole bunch of people will put that all
out there. Then there’ll be a split; half will say ‘that’s neat’ and the
other half will say ‘that’s disgusting and goes against the “divine
order of things”.

On the professional level we are going to see a change
in the nature of journalism. We’re going to see a whole bunch of smaller people who are going to be
‘chiming in’ with their own views, changing the nature of journalism and
newpapers. A change that will change the ‘inherent bias’ of media.

Q: It’s the point at which the access to a larger audience changes, and
now any of us in this room can reach thousands of new people. But the
flip side is that journalists aren’t fact checking and we now get front
page stories in the NYT that are clear lies. It’s the degredation of
professional journalism that’s created the opportunity for bloggers.

I gotta say, that question was a weak argument, at best. Bloggers weren’t ‘given a chance’ because of ‘shoddy journalism’: journalists just aren’t that important.

Martha Baer: You’re making a valid point. Blogs have put journalists feet ot the
fire, but I also think that there are good and bad newpapers, TV news, etc.
As someone said elsewhere: “let a thousand flowers bloom”. If the mainstream
press gets better, the bloggers will have less to do.

Again, that same bias. That bloggers exist simply to fact check and pick on journalists. Not as a peer relationship, or as a new way for the voice of the populace to disseminate, but as a group in a perpetually inferior position. I, for one, don’t buy it.

Q: Journalists are not the rarified elite — the fact checking just does
not happen because there’s no time or budget. Libel laws apply to individuals
and organizations alike. My question: what *is* credibility these days
and who gets to define it?

Martha Baer: Credibility is something that you earn. One of the interesting things
about blogs is that, even though there are lots of journalists who are crying
out that real journalists have staff, editors, etc., but real journalists
work for companies that sell advertising. These will erode as signifiers
of credibility.

A “rogue blogger” will learn how to fact check and really change things.

Craig Newmark: credibility is trust. Two groups will determine it: everyone and professional fact checkers.

Matt Richtel: One interesting thing that’s going to happen is that because the
advertising revenue is being split up, we’re going to see a period of time
where entities will become MORE sensational. Over time, that’s going to
change and people will learn to pay for credibility. One argument that the
NYT made was that if you keep doing what you’re doing and remain credible,
once all the’white noise’ ends, people will gravitate towards the most
credible.

That was where the discussion and questions ran out of steam, which worked out well because we also ran out of time at this point. My conclusion was that for a group of journalists and writers who seemed to share the bias that professional journalists were more able to draw a historical context, fact check and have professional editing, their presentations were remarkably shallow and superficial. Important and profound questions were skirted or touched on in passing, and the institutional bias of the mainstream media was just accepted without any protest or suggestion that it might be a hoary antique, destined for the dustbin of time.

Having the panel address the topic of “Blogging versus Journalists” or similar would have been a better focus, but even then, the lack of serious bloggers significantly hampered the discussion and limited the value of the discourse for the attendees.

Yet there’s a built-in roadblock to the Conference on World Affairs creating more relevant and exciting panels: by the rules of the event, panels can only be comprised of out-of-state panelists and there are no honoraria or travel expenses paid. A self-selecting small subset of pundits. Which is too bad, because the potential of this event is phenomenal…

2 comments on “Conference on World Affairs: Seven Million Bloggers Can’t Be Wrong?

  1. OK, I was the nefarious co-conspirator sitting next to Dave at this conference. Some photographer snapped a photo of Dave being geeky. I’ll be in it too — although I don’t know where the photographer was from.
    Anyway…
    In this session, the panel kept coming back to the theme of “real journalists” as if this perceived class comprised a separate and distinct species. They kept hammering home the claim that “real journalists” possess special fact-checking skills and the fine discrimination to withhold unproven information.
    Bearing that in mind…
    Dave’s quote of Martha Baer’s description of the Drudge/Blumenthal decision (“Drudge won the case because he wasn’t held to certain journalistic standards because he was an online writer.”) is accurate, I heard it too.
    Baer was wrong about this in a crucial way that belies the prejudice within journalism. Here are the facts, according to Tech Law Journal.
    – Blumenthal sued AOL (which published Drudge) and Drudge himself.
    – The suit against AOL was dismissed in 1998. because section 230 of the 1996 Telecom Act indicated AOL was not liable (it bars claims against “interactive computer services” (such as AOL) for “information provided by another content provider” such as Drudge).
    – Blumenthal finally dropped the case in 2001. So Drudge didn’t actually “win” anything, and there was nothing in this dismissal about whether Drudge or any online writer was or was not to be held to “certain journalistic standards.” (Washington Post)
    …So much for the fact-checking acumen and discretion of “real journalists.”
    – Amy Gahran
    Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  2. You hit the nail precisely on the head when you wrote “None of the panelists actually conveyed the value or importance of RSS feeds and news aggregators. Disappointing, because I believe that it’s the combination of Weblogs and RSS aggregators that are harbingers of the new wave in personal newspapers, vox populari information dissemination, etc.” People talk about “blogging”, but publishing and promoting get little real attention.
    Simply registering your feed with a bunch of RSS search engines and directories is only the first step in promotion. In fact, it’s hardly even a step at all.
    Even if you directly communicate the existence of your blog to each member of your intended audience, it does little good if they are already “information overloaded” and haven’t yet established skills at “blog reading” using aggregation tools. Getting people up to speed on aggregation tools may actually have greater value than your blog content itself, if for no other reason than that you’re opening up a whole new world of streamlined information access to them.
    And that still leaves the massive audience that you would like to get to but don’t yet have direct contact with. Sure, writing interesting content is essential for reaching those people, but it’s far from sufficient.
    — Jack Krupansky

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