The New Gatekeepers: The Corrections

Media | Access/Network
Last spring, I spent several weeks, and many hours at a time, putting together an essay which ultimately comprised eight parts and 14,000 words, titled The New Gatekeepers. One of the main themes was analyzing the architecture of the blogosphere, which I observed had stressed “immediacy over thoroughness.” I developed the argument that if we wanted a system to promote different values– favoring throughness over immediacy– we would have develop a different technology to do that. I had hoped to start that here on Civilities. Unfortunately, my argument has been undermined by my having rushed the writing and editing of some of the series. There are five glaring problems which I wish to address.

Some had stuck in mind. They also stuck in the mind of Walt Crawford, who once again has devoted a good portion of the November issue of Cites and Insights newsletter for the library science community, to this essay. The November issue was published this past Friday, and Seth Finkelstein kindly brought it to my attention. Walt had a dozen or so critiques; these are last three items below. I regret the errors, and I regret taking so long to clarify what I meant.

1. In the Introduction (part I), I referred to a private letter from Wall Street Journal reporter Farnaz Farsahi about covering Iraq that was circulated on the Internet. The frightened tone of the letter departed noticeably from her newspaper reporting. Blog boosters had seized on it for being more true and evidence of duplicity in media– that the real truth is shrouded by editorial convention. I wrote that her letter’s “dire predictions about the upcoming January elections– a position shared amongst the war’s critics (myself included)– turned out to be wrong.” Approaching this next round of elections (which appear to be going well), I fret that my point here hangs on the balance of what happens to Iraqi democracy. I’m not going to take away this point, but I would have preferred to say that the letter had no special veracity over ordinary reporting.

2. Part 5 (The Problem of Crowds) is three thousand words, and is, relatively speaking, the minefield of the series. First, I mentioned letters to a Sophie Maxwell of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. I said that one such letter began “Dead Herr Maxwell”– you might have missed spelling error there, as I did and my spell-checker did. Anybody who followed the link would see that the letter started with “Dear Herr Maxwell.” I clean up words from time to time without comment, but this changed the meaning.

3. Also in part 5, what I titled “Garfunkel’s hypothesis” remains a hypothesis, and a weak one at that. Not to long ago, I had tried to remember how I had worded that hypothesis. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “People who blog have a much greater tendency to pass along incomplete quick impressions than balanced analyses written later, by a ratio of greater than seven to one.” Of the three datapoints I used, the one involving “wendy” and “finger” was awfully weak. Walt pointed this out. I had been trying to make sense out of what were bad numbers to being with (search terms). The other data points were about measuring the popularity of particular URL’s. I can’t say for certain that those numbers reflect beliefs held by the population. Still, I do still wish to maintain a hypothesis that people are stubborn to let go of first impressions, and that the blogosphere as it is architected today does not work to counter mistaken first impressions.

4. Lastly in part 5, I began a sentence: “If you’ve followed along from the beginning, you should now be ready to correct a mistake I’ve made.” That’s always a bad sign, and two sentences later I introduce a big one: “The difference is that the old gatekeepers do so by restricting information. The new gatekeepers do so by manipulating information cascades.” One of my readers, journalism professor Doug Fisher had actually quoted this without making specific comment, so I regret to retract it, but I must. This is not how I meant to phrase it. Manipulating is too strong a word. What I meant was: If we fear that the old gatekeepers can be restricting information, than we should also have reason to fear that the new gatekeepers can be amplifying selective information.

5. In Part 8 (The Future), the fifth-to-last sentence reads: “The system today rewards good writers and editors, who now are getting introduced to the better writers editors.” If I had taken the time to re-read that sentence, I would have not only noticed that extraneous last word, but that it was the opposite point of what I wanted to make. The previous sentence already made the point that “the system rewards the stars.” I can’t really do much with the problem sentence. I would prefer to strike it, and possibly re-work that paragraph even.

Overall, the essay might underwhelm expectations by being too theoretical. If the blogosphere is designed to benefit certain stars, is that really a problem for democracy in the U.S.? Can we conclude that the public is less informed than they would be otherwise? I can’t say. What I wanted to accomplish with the essay was to illustrate that a certain set of values and assumptions had brought us to a point today. As I do more programming– which, for time reasons, is also still theoretical– I want to establish that I was making a clean break from the past paradigms.

The bloggers choose the value of immediacy simply out of deference to sanity– and also, as part of a sense that if they don’t get it right, someone else will. I have chosen a different path because I want to produce original thought, and I want to get it right myself; but I have to square that with the fact that I can only pursue this in my limited spare time. So I will be using my limited spare time to correct these mistakes in the series. The originals will be preserved using Drupal’s versioning.