A Blog Around The Clock

The New Scientist, The Open Laboratory, the journos who just don’t get it….those things make me want to write something on this blog!

Slow blogging…like slow food. These days, if something cannot wait, I put it on Twitter – from which it automatically goes to FriendFeed and Facebook where I may or may not get feedback. But blog posts – those take some thinking. It may take days, or weeks (or never) for the idea to crystallize enough to deserve a blog post (and for me to find time to sit down and write it). So, I am coming back to this discussion now although all the other players have moved on a week ago or more. But it is an interesting topic (to me, at least). So I hope you don’t find this stale.

It all started when Jay Rosen, at Netroots Nation, gave a hyperbrief interview:

We asked Rosen what he thought of the term “blogger” and how there is not a word to distinguish a journalist who blogs and a numbnut who blogs.

“Blogger will become such a broad term it will lose all meaning,” he told FBLA.

So in five years will “blogger” be synonymous with “writer?” Will telling someone you’re a blogger need the same follow up question as there is for when you tell someone you’re a writer?

Jay Rosen seems to think so.

Dunno about “writer” – blog is a software that is quite versatile, i.e., it is not just “writing” that a blog can be used for: images, audio, video, imported feed & tweets, etc. can also go there – it’s all “journalism” in a broader sense of the word. I am also not happy with the original question: what is a word that distinguishes a good journalist from a numbnut journalist, and does it matter if one or the other uses a blog as a tool?

Matt Yglesias immediately responded to that interview:

That seems about right. One thing you see even within the smaller universe of the “netroots” is that at each annual Yearly Kos / Netroots Nation convention there’s larger and larger amounts of divergence between what people are doing. Some of the folks who are newer to the game don’t totally appreciate this dynamic, but I recall how back in 2002-2003 there was a pretty undifferentiated mush of “liberal bloggers” that’s become a much more elaborated ecology of people and institutions doing pretty different things.

Sure, some blogs written initially by individual bloggers grew into huge blogging communities (e.g., DailyKos), some joined forces in group blogs (e.g., Firedoglake), some turned ‘pro’ and are now blogging for MSM (e.g., Ezra Klein), and some turned their blogs into online journalistic endeavors (e.g., Talking Points Memo). And some moved largely away from politics and continue blogging about the things they really know, their area of expertise (including science, like I did).

To all of this, Jay, on Twitter, adds:

We don’t say “Emailer James Fallows,” even though he uses email. Eventually, it will be the same with the term “blogger.”

I agree with this clarification. Blog is just one of many technical ways to convey information. I think the phrase “Blogger Jones” will go away. But sometimes it is important to state how one got the information. So, one may say “Jones blogged it”, or “I got this from Sally via e-mail”, or “as Neal wrote in his 1996 book”, or “Anne told me over dinner last night”, or “in Jim’s op-ed in WaPo yesterday”, or “via Dave on Twitter”, or “Elizabeth texted me”, or “Bill posted on Facebook”, or “Chris told me over the phone a minute ago”. All of those media channels are useful for various purposes.

No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other. You can overhear a perfectly True statement in a coffee shop and you can read a whole bunch of lies in a newspaper. Whatever the medium, you need to learn how to figure out who to trust. After all, if you live in NY City, how did you figure out as a kid that NY Times is more trustworthy than NY Post? Parents, neighbors, friends told you, and then you read a few issues of each yourself, right? That is exactly how you figure out that you can trust Shakesville and not trust Powerline – see who your friends trust, mistrust or recommend, then see for yourself over a period of time or dig through the archives. Use your brain, as well as your trusted friends, to help you make up your mind.

Don’t forget that NYT brought us Jayson Blair, Science Magazine the stem cell fraud, The New Republic Stephen Glass and the mainstream historians Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose engaged in plagiarism. On the other hand here is a list of a few most notable examples of bloggers doing spectacular investigative journalism.

Or, as Douglas Adams wrote back in 1999:

Because the Internet is so new we still don’t really understand what it is. We mistake it for a type of publishing or broadcasting, because that’s what we’re used to. So people complain that there’s a lot of rubbish online, or that it’s dominated by Americans, or that you can’t necessarily trust what you read on the web. Imagine trying to apply any of those criticisms to what you hear on the telephone. Of course you can’t ‘trust’ what people tell you on the web anymore than you can ‘trust’ what people tell you on megaphones, postcards or in restaurants. Working out the social politics of who you can trust and why is, quite literally, what a very large part of our brain has evolved to do. For some batty reason we turn off this natural scepticism when we see things in any medium which require a lot of work or resources to work in, or in which we can’t easily answer back – like newspapers, television or granite. Hence ‘carved in stone.’* What should concern us is not that we can’t take what we read on the internet on trust – of course you can’t, it’s just people talking – but that we ever got into the dangerous habit of believing what we read in the newspapers or saw on the TV – a mistake that no one who has met an actual journalist would ever make. One of the most important things you learn from the internet is that there is no ‘them’ out there. It’s just an awful lot of ‘us’.

On the other hand, Scott Rosenberg is not so sure the word ‘blogger’ is going to go away so easily:

“Blogger” confuses us today because we’ve conflated two different meanings of “blogging.” There is the formal definition: personal website, reverse chronological order, lots of links. Then there is what I would call the ideological definition: a bundle of associations many observers made with blogs in their formative years, having to do with DIY authenticity, amateur self-expression, defiant “disintermediation” (cutting out the media middleman), and so on.

I do not think that “personal website” is a part of the formal definition. It’s software. It just so happened that some of the most popular early blogs were personal, but that is not formal, it’s coincident, a historical artifact or contingency. Also, “observers … in their formative years” were mostly clueless journalists in the mold of Andrew Keen, scared shitless of what they perceived as competition (or deadly sunshine – they for the first time could not get away with lazily winging it and had to start checking their facts lest they are checked by bloggers and found wanting).

Scott continues:

Today professional journalism has embraced the blog form, since it is a versatile and effective Web-native format for posting news. But once you have dozens of bloggers at the New York Times, or entire media companies built around blogs, the ideological trappings of blogging are only going to cause confusion.

Still — wary as I am of taking issue with Rosen, whose prescience is formidable — I don’t think we will see the term “blogger” fade away any time soon. There’s a difference between a term that’s so broad it’s lost all meaning and a term that has a couple of useful meanings that may conflict with each other.

After all, we still use the word “journalist,” even though it has cracked in two (“journalist” as professional label vs. “journalist” as descriptor of an activity). This is where human language (what programmers call “natural language”) differs from computer languages: our usage of individual words changes as it records our experience with their evolving meanings.

In other words, the multiple meanings of the word “blogger” may bedevil us, but they also tell a story.

I agree. The term will not disappear (at least for a while) – not because it’s useful but because there are people who find it useful for their own nefarious purposes. And so sayeth Glenn Greenwald who really nails it on why corporate journalists like to use the term:

The word “blogger” — not unlike the word “liberal,” actually — means so many different things to so many different people that it is almost impossible now to understand what it denotes. I’d love to hear how I’m a “blogger” in a way that, say, Time’s Joe Klein and Michael Scherer or Politico’s Ben Smith or The New York Times’ Paul Krugman (or even Huckabee himself) are not. There are meaningful distinctions that I think still exist — in terms of self-perceived function, insider/outsider status, and tone, among other things — but they have eroded to the point where the term is almost entirely impoverished of any meaning.

Despite that, I doubt that the frequent and casual use of the label will cease any time soon. Its true function — enforcing perceived hierarchies and slothfully demonizing arguments and people — are too valuable to too many media figures. It’s still the case that for many media stars and their friends (to say nothing of right-wing politicians), being able to attribute criticisms to “bloggers” or “liberal bloggers” is to render the criticism inherently invalid for that reason alone. [my bold] As long as that’s the case, the term will be tossed around recklessly and constantly, regardless of whether it has any real meaning.

Yes. By saying “this argument comes from a blogger”, one can dismiss the argument entirely and not ever have to answer to it – no matter how correct it may be. An easy – and dishonest – way out of being called out on saying a lie, isn’t it? And this is how corporate journalists actively protect all sorts of liars, from Republicans to Creationists to Global Warming denialists to anti-vaccinationists to, of course, everyone who points out how media lies to us all the time. A nifty little trick, ain’t it? Just sneer at “dirty, hippy bloggers”, chuckle, and keep on lying.

Which is why more and more people distrust the media – bloggers, especially bloggers with real expertise that journalists don’t have, have opened their eyes to the lying of the press:

I automatically do NOT believe anything coming from corporate media. I check blogs to see what they say if I catch some news on MSM first (rarely these days). Some blogs can be trusted 100% of the time, some 90%, some occasionally, some never. It takes time and effort to figure out who is who, but that effort is worth it – you get immunized from MSM lies. You also learn the skills of critically reading between the lines of MSM and evaluating their “news” for accuracy and validity yourself.

And you always check a multitude of trusted bloggers, never just one, no matter how trusted. So, why should people trust a single MSM source? Beats me! I don’t even trust the multitudes.

And I am not the only one with this attitude. The idea that the corporate media is trustworthy has been steadily falling from about 58% in 1988 to merely 38% in 2004. I am afraid to ask what the number is today, five years later, as so many more people had their eyes opened in the meantime….

But the word ‘blogger’, apart from the formal “whoever is using blogging software” also has cultural connotations which are important for this discussion:

Dave Winer, one of the founders of blogging, says a blog is not defined by the software or features in the format (like comments) but by a person talking: “one voice, unedited, not determined by group-think.” Blogging, he says, is “writing without a safety net” and taking personal responsibility for the words.

To trust a blogger is to trust in a person, talking to you, who is working without the safety net of an institution.

Which is why ‘Journalists vs. Blogs’ is bad framing:

When you say “newspapers will (or will not) be replaced by blogs”, you invoke two demonstrably erroneous frames in readers’ minds:

a) that “newspapers = journalism”, and
b) that “blogs = inane chatter”.

Journalism is medium-neutral. Not just in newspapers. Journalism can and does happen on paper, over radio waves, on TV and online. A lot of other stuff also has its place on all those communication channels as well.

The phrase also elicits the ‘opposition’ frame of mind – there are two terms and they are presented as mutually exclusive and opposite from each other. In other words, journalism is presented as exact opposite and fierce competitor of blogs and vice versa.

This ‘opposition’ frame, by defining newspapers as equating journalism, then leaves only the non-journalistic stuff to the term “blogs”. Thus, the word “blog” in the phrase automatically reminds people of inane navel-gazing, teenage angst, copy-and-paste news and LOLcats found on so many blogs.

But, remember that a blog is software, not a style. Thus the first thought upon hearing the word “blog” in the context of journalism should be TPM, HuffPo, Firedoglake, etc., not Cute Overload.

Guess who planted that framing? The journalistic curmudgeons like Keen, Henry, Mulshine at al, in their endless Luddite op-eds railing against the internet.

Now, you may remember that Jay Rosen has written a famous post Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over (yes, all the way back on January 21, 2005):

Chris Willis, co-author of a key report, We Media, said in a recent interview with a Spanish journalist: “What is the most unsettling thing for media professionals is not change but how the change is happening and where it is coming from. Change is not coming from traditional competitors but from the audience they serve. What could be more frightening?”

And some of that fear had crept into bloggers vs. journalists, making it a cartoon dialogue.

The thing is, there is no such thing as ‘bloggers’ except as a bogeyman for journalists – we are all The People Formerly Known as the Audience:

The people formerly known as the audience wish to inform media people of our existence, and of a shift in power that goes with the platform shift you’ve all heard about.

Think of passengers on your ship who got a boat of their own. The writing readers. The viewers who picked up a camera. The formerly atomized listeners who with modest effort can connect with each other and gain the means to speak– to the world, as it were.

———————

You don’t own the eyeballs. You don’t own the press, which is now divided into pro and amateur zones. You don’t control production on the new platform, which isn’t one-way. There’s a new balance of power between you and us.

The people formerly known as the audience are simply the public made realer, less fictional, more able, less predictable. You should welcome that, media people. But whether you do or not we want you to know we’re here.

Here is Douglas Adams in 1999 again:

For instance, ‘interactivity’ is one of those neologisms that Mr Humphrys likes to dangle between a pair of verbal tweezers, but the reason we suddenly need such a word is that during this century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport – the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

I expect that history will show ‘normal’ mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. ‘Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn’t do anything? Didn’t everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?’

‘Yes, child, that’s why they all went mad. Before the Restoration.’

‘What was the Restoration again, please, miss?’

‘The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back.’

The usual dichotomy one hears about is ‘Journalists vs. Bloggers’. But if bloggers are people formerly known as audience, then it can also be re-stated as ‘Journalists vs. Audience”, right? Getting pitted against their own audience makes journalists very uncomfortable. A nice way out, or a way to resolve cognitive dissonance, is to relegate bloggers to the status of The Other – those dirty, hippy loudmouths who just yesterday landed here from Mars and have no idea what they are talking about.

Which is how Michael Le Page sees it:

My review was not aimed at bloggers at all, it was aimed at readers of New Scientist’s print magazine.

A? Say that again? Let me try to translate that:

“My review was not aimed at the audience that talks back, it was aimed at audience that stays pleasantly silent.”

or

“My review was not aimed at people whose criticisms hurt my fragile ego, it was aimed at the quiet ones who I will imagine, in order to feel good about myself, agree with me.”

or

“Eh, where are the good old days when I could write whatever nonsense I wanted without ever hearing back from anybody about it?”

(BTW, what is it about The New Scientist – are they the worst popular science magazine in the history of the Universe and a cesspool of sensationalism and EvoPsych because they are run by the most Web-ignorant science journalists in the world, or is it the other way round – the magazine being so bad that the good guys won’t work there so the place became a refuge for the losers? A chicken-and-egg question.)

This is probably one of the most blatant examples of clearly stated ignorance and arrogance. The world is neatly divided into “audience” and “Martians”. He loves the “audience” and hates “Martians” because he can talk down to the former while the latter make him squirm. He will not understand – it must hurt too much – that those two artificial categories of people are one and the same. The Martians were here all along. The only difference is that today, it is easy to talk back.

But there is another layer of this. The assumption that the silent audience agrees with him is unwarranted. They are probably nodding along and agreeing with the Bloggers. Remember that 1% are bloggers, 9% are commenters and 90% are silent readers.

If he writes an article and 5 bloggers slam him on their blogs, he is not being criticized by only five individuals he could dismiss. Those five bloggers are (self-appointed, but approved by their readers) spokesmen for thousands, perhaps millions of readers who rewards those bloggers with traffic, subscriptions, comments and incoming links every day. All those people may not criticize you directly, but they criticize you indirectly by supporting the bloggers who do it in their name and do it well. Very few people have the mental constitution (or pathology) to keep reading and rewarding bloggers they disagree with. Even fewer will support bad bloggers. So if a blogger with big traffic criticizes you (or a number of smaller bloggers are saying pretty much the same thing), this means that you are criticized by a very large number of people who agree with him/her – numbers that are hard to dismiss because they are probably bigger than your print-edition audience put together. By dissing “some bloggers” you are dissing your entire audience plus many more people who could be your potential audience – and you lose them forever by the act of snidely dismissing them.

You see, when he says:

I’m sure a few New Scientist readers are bloggers, but certainly only a small minority.

it is obvious he does not get the above. A small minority talks back. The others support them and laugh along. They are all bloggers, regardless if they write their own blogs or not. As we agreed at the beginning of the post, the word “bloggers” is meaningless – it is the audience whose representatives talk back. Only by using it in a derisive fashion, implicating them as The Other, can journalists keep imagining that most of their audience still looks up to them and admires their wisdom.

And when Michael continues with:

…that the overall effect of blogging is negative, that it has helped spread myths and lies…

…he is clearly not seeing the big picture: the media lies, or allows others (e.g., politicians) to lie. Bloggers (and their readers and commenters) come in and debunk the lies. Some liars also use the blogging software to spread lies. But other bloggers, those who debunk lies, will do it with zeal and they are bigger and more numerous than the lying ones. When PZ Myers links to me, my Sitemeter goes berserk. When a Creationist blog links to me, I can hardly detect it – there is barely any traffic coming in from any of their sites. They may be loud, but they are in the minority and their Google Fu is miserably low. Truth wins out in the end. It may take some time on some issues, but it will prevail eventually.

Finally, a little bit about the psychology of commenting. Let’s say you publish an article that is full of crap. The commenting is difficult and may require a tortuous registration process. And you get 10 comments, all slamming you. What does that mean? That 10 lunatics wrote comments while thousands of your readers actually agree with you? No, the activation energy for commenting is very high. In order to post a comment, one has to be highly motivated. More wrong you are, more likely it is that some of the people will be motivated to set you straight. And they do. What happens next? The other readers see those 10 comments, agree with them, note that all bases are covered, and now their motivation is not sufficient to overcome the activation energy needed to add yet another comment that would just rehash what the first 10 already said. So they just chuckle and move on. The only person who may be motivated to comment at this point is someone who agrees with you and disagrees with the first 10 commenters and wants to chime in. Did you get a comment like that? No? Really? So, you may think that only 10 lunatics disagree with you, while in fact everybody disagrees with you. It’s just that 90% of the people do not post comments – they only check in to see if their representatives – those you call “bloggers” – have done it well in their name.

————————————

* But, see what my SciBling Kim said on Twitter the other day:

As a geologist, I find “set in stone” to be a very odd metaphor for permanence.

Comments

  1. #1 Nemo
    August 30, 2009

    We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.

    Damned unicranials.

  2. #2 Comrade PhysioProf
    August 30, 2009

    No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other.

    The great thing about blogs in this regard is that the entire historical output is right there in one place and easily available for review. This allows one to much more easily make a credibility/trust assessment with blog content than with most other forms of publishing written work product.

  3. #3 Blake Stacey
    August 30, 2009

    Le Page said,

    My review was not aimed at bloggers at all, it was aimed at readers of New Scientist’s print magazine.

    If he were writing for people who didn’t care about science blogs at all, why didn’t he treat OpenLab like any other heap of science writing between two covers? Surely there’s enough to talk about within the book itself, instead of wasting valuable column inches on the Weblog Awards and other irrelevant crap.

    I understand this is an emotive issue for Zickovic, but I suggest he reads my comments on the Neurotopia and Laelaps entries he links to before making further claims that bear no relation to the facts.

    So, a review in a print magazine wasn’t enough to express what he wanted to say. For that, we have to turn to the Blogohedron. Interesting.

    The point I made in the review is that for every RealClimate there’s a Watt’s Up or three. For every Bad Science, there’s a nutty HIV denialism or vaccines-cause-autism blog.

    So my suggestion is, what you look at the big picture, at all blogs not just those you or I would call science blogs, that the overall effect of blogging is negative, that it has helped spread myths and lies.

    For every Demon-Haunted World, there are at least a dozen paperbacks by Sylvia Browne and her fellow charlatans, all of them spreading myths and lies. Is the overall effect of book technology negative?

  4. #4 Walter Jessen
    August 30, 2009

    Excellent article Bora. I really appreciate the idea that “everyone is a blogger.” It’s all about the analysis, presentation and dissemination of information, isn’t it? With New Media, I can comment on a news article, write about it myself (using blog software), or share it with others using a variety of different microblogging services. The net effect is that each of us is an active participant in the media process instead of simply passive consumers.

  5. #5 Gerardo Marti
    August 30, 2009

    Great post, thoughtful and so accurate. Sending it out by twitter!

  6. #6 William Jacobs
    August 31, 2009

    I’m curious where these numbers “1% are bloggers, 9% are commenters and 90% are silent readers” come from. Are they specifically for the science-blogging community? They certainly don’t seem right in the food-blogging community or comic-book-blogging community which, if I’m any judge, vary in different directions.

    I’m also skeptical that they can be applied when multiplying posts about blogging where a higher percentage of those interested enough in the topic to have an opinion are not the silent sort.

  7. #7 BAllanJ
    August 31, 2009

    Good thing the activation energy to get me commenting here is low, so I can say… “Great Post!”

    And yeah, all of us are bloggers…. just some of us only do it in other blogger’s comments sections.

  8. #8 Dan C.
    September 2, 2009

    No medium has a higher coefficient of trustworthiness than any other.

    This is generally a true statement. I think the next challenge for the info-geeks on the leading edge of our culture is to render it obsolete. The analog trust mechanism you describe (you kinda look at a source over time, and you kinda listen to your friends, and you kinda…) is inefficient, imprecise and falls short of the demands of an information society. Don’t settle for it.

    The next trust mechanism must be digital, transparent, open-source and deeply informatic in structure. It must give readers general indications of trustworthiness at a glance, but also link back endlessly to source material. It must be historical, giving us the track record of sources and information providers, but it must also have features that relate to predictive accuracy.

    Journalism will still denote both a profession and an activity. Blogging will still have more connotations than definitions. Leave that be.

    But one you build a digital indictator of credibility, you change the game. Everything else will move in its direction. Let’s do THAT.

  9. #9 Michael Le Page
    September 3, 2009

    What I see here is not an effort to uncover the truth but mutual reinforcement: you’re right. Yes, you’re right too. It’s much more fun to read blogs you agree with than those that challenge your beliefs.

    Anyway, I challenge all those who agree with the above to go to:

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn13620-evolution-24-myths-and-misconceptions.html

    or

    http://www.newscientist.com/article/dn11462-climate-change-a-guide-for-the-perplexed.html

    Take a look at the comments on some of the stories. Has the truth won out, as is claimed should be the case above?

  10. #10 Coturnix
    September 8, 2009

    Ha! Don’t show us comments on media sites – corporate media has been always idiotic about NOT moderating comments and thus just baiting the idiots to comment there. Of course the creationists and GW denialists crowd your comment section – you are inviting them there.

    Also, do not conflate blog posts with comments – journos love to do that, as they do not see the difference between bloggers (experts) and commenters (sometimes trolls, which smart bloggers delete).

  11. #11 Coturnix
    September 8, 2009

    Also see this

  12. #12 Coturnix
    April 4, 2010

    @ William Jacobs:

    see: http://www.90-9-1.com/

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