The New Gatekeepers, Part 3: Their Values

Third in the series on The New Gatekeepers.


There are a number of values associated with, and celebrated in, the blogosphere: Freedom. Anonymity. Immediacy. Talking. Breadth. Ego. Involvement. Serendipity. But we may view them in different light when we consider what values they displace:

  • Freedom over responsibility
  • Anonymity over traceability
  • Immediacy over thoroughness
  • Talking over listening
  • Breadth over depth
  • Ego over deference
  • Involvement over detachment
  • Serendipity over coherence

I must make two observations first. The values favored above are not necessarily bad. Without question the balance of favor towards these values is a positive force in closed societies. And secondly, no one should take this to mean that the latter values do not exist anywhere on the web. But can readily find defenses for the values in bold. When David Weinberger gave a speech to influential bloggers and journalists after dinner at the Harvard Faculty Club, he drew a circle around his definition of blogs, and excluded more polished types of writing. One can always find advice about “How to get more readers for your blog,” as technology consultant Susan Mernit posted a couple of weeks ago. And they align neatly with the values above: Post frequently, post what interests you (as opposed to your audience). Susan did ask bloggers to listen more. But so did Esther Dyson, and no one listened to her.

The first four of these values all point in one direction: Quantity over quality. There is more information being posted in a given subject area than any one person can handle. Once again, I quote Seth, who’s been saying for years now, it’s a matter of simple mathematics. We need to have have different gatekeepers to sort out the information. There is too much information of varying quality.

Another thing has to trouble us. The values that are apparently in favor are exactly the same ones which have been the ire of press critics! In his 1996 book Breaking the News, James Fallows pointed to the introduction to television in the early 1980’s of the24-hour news station CNN and The MacLaughlin Group (which always appeared to be on 24 hours a day when portrayed in movies) for promoting the “talkfest” style of programming. As a magazine reporter crafting long pieces for the Atlantic Monthly and other publications, Fallows had a natural distrust of the instant-punditry of the time. Fallows even found fault with NBC’s Meet the Press for falling prey to the style of snap judgments and punchy rhetoric. (Last Easter Sunday’s roundtable discussion on religion in America, with one commercial break over the hour, was one noteworthy exception). It wasn’t just the adversarial nature of the shows (which linguist Deborah Tannen mined in her contemporaneous book The Argument Culture); it was the whole business of pushing journalists to get face time on TV, in order to promote themselves as a brand. This business was so good that during the same year the book was published, MSNBC and Fox News joined the stable all-news channels. “Buckraking,” became the order of the day, as contrasted with the storied “muckraking” investigative reporting of a century ago.

Rather than countering the values inherent in 24-hour all-news media, the bloggers are exacerbating them: immediacy, talking, ego. The main contribution of blogs, at least in the political arena, appears to have been the amplification of news scandals. Many blogs and community-publishing sites fall into the temptation of trying explode the next scandal. Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor of interactive media at NYU, took note of a couple of apparent scandals (typically, where blogging is apparently threatened in some corner of America): “The pressure to give things a dramatic headline, online or off, is tremendous, because if you don’t get readers with the headline, you won’t get them at all.” Shirky was expanding on an observation by web developer Phil Gyford, who two days before had faulted the weblog BoingBoing for not being more responsible, given its sheer influence as the most popularly cited weblog. In the over fifty comments that followed, a good number of the readers of BoingBoing felt that it wasn’t even that the site was not responsible to the truth. It was that it was failing in its mission to be responsible to its readers, no longer consistently being a “directory of wonderful things” as its motto goes.

“I’d love to attract more historians, philosophers and essayists who think in long paragraphs and thousand-word themes,” radio personality Christopher Lydon wrote in signing off from his foray into blogging. Instead, the ego takes the driver’s seat, describing the life on the conference circuit and recycling the same huzzahs about the blog revolution over and over.

This wasn’t supposed to be how journalism was saved. A decade ago, one of the reactions to its decline was called Public Journalism– shepharded by none other than Jay Rosen at NYU. It rightly called for journalists to be more responsible and more listening. It was based on recognizing that journalists are actors in the public sphere, and thus journalists should not ignore the health of the community-at-large while pursuing deadlines and buck-raking. It was this last point where public journalism ran into the most resistence from editors and reporters. Rosen has since evolved his thinking to embrace the online models. In tandem, new crop of online “citizen journalists” have picked up the ball to, if not fully practice the journalism part, fulfill the citizen part. Curiously, a good number of them don’t consider themselves bloggers, and mostly reject the values of blogging listed above (this is the focus of a forthcoming Civilities essay).

So how did the blogosphere get to these values? It brings to mind a public service commercial from the late 1980’s where a father confronts his son after discovering pot in his room, and demands to know who taught him about drugs. “I learned it from you, Dad! I learned it from watching you!” There are plenty of wingers in the blogosphere, perhaps proportionally a very small group, who nonetheless attract the popular attention by aping the clone-drones of political punditry. Their latest episode was harping on the provenance a Senate “talking points” memo regarding Terri Schiavo; conservative bloggers could not believe was really written by a Republican– until the Washington Post reported that it, well, was. Salon’s media writer Eric Boehlart concluded: “Despite that dismal record, on Thursday bloggers showed very little appetite for self-reflection. In fact, scanning the blogs involved in the memo story, readers found few corrections or references to lessons learned.”

Surely these values did not come from the leaders; Dan Gillmor approvingly cited an email comment from David Weinberger in a column 18 months ago: “It’s as if the Internet is not only self-correcting about matters of fact but also morally self-correcting: A bad turn is corrected by several good ones.”

Dan, David, Jay, Jeff. I’ve met them and they’re all nice people. They’re attentive, and they’re passionate about spreading open societies through a revolution in media. With the exception of Rosen, they blog several times a day, and if you don’t catch them fast enough, they’re on to the next conversation. Thus they leave too many thoughts unfinished– what I’ve called the unbearable lightness of blogging.

My best explanation: the format of blogs induces these values. It’s not that the architecture forces a blogger to behave in a certain way, it just strongly reinforces certain publishing patterns. Not every publishing communicates to the publisher and the readers what the latest comments were, so conversations are left unfinished. With blogs, there’s a monolithic stream of content. The story that draws the reader’s attention can only be located on top, and that by convention is the most recent piece. Thus a post that is comparatively original or important or one which the readers most want to discuss can get pushed down the page by a more recent post of any content– a trivial observation, a link to another story, a picture of one’s cat, etc. This is hastened by the popular notion that bloggers should more frequently. Choosing a headlined format, as Civilities provides, keeps multiple articles visible to the reader.

There’s not even consensus on what a “blog post” should be. The original conception of blogs was for linking to other stories with, with minimal commentary added: this is the preferred style of Dave Winer popularized and Glenn Reynolds followed with. In 2000, journalists such as Andrew Sullivan and Josh Marshall started writing longer-lengthed posts, usually none more than a few hundred words. After all, if they could write 800 words, they’d get it published somewhere. (It should be noted that Marshall has been without peer among all online political writers in doggedly pursuing stories, whether digging out the past of Trent Lott, and now handling the debate over Social Security.) Other writers who wanted to write such a long piece and publish on their own had to get the software to cooperate by putting it on its own page. The architecture of blogs as short-posts is still reinforced culturally. The lure of posting very short posts consisting of links still exists, since it’s considered each link is a vote— both to one’s friends, and to rating services like Google and Technorati. The short post, without reflection or comment, may just reflect the wrong values.

While there is open-source software like Drupal as this site uses for group collaborative publishing, the common blog software is targeted for individuals. Thus the norm of blogging is in pursuit of individual values. Very little work was done over the last year in necessary areas, like facilitating better online conversations (which this site humbly pursued). If the values guide the development, we shouldn’t be surprised that the architectures for blogging software continues to promote values of individuals and mass expression.

And not that there’s anything wrong with that! It’s a fun world, this blogosphere, full of diverse characters and opinions. But the challenge we have laid out for ourselves is how to get some deserving opinions to catch on without depending on the influential "few." I am not referring here to the few names I had mentioned in the area of social media, but the "few" in Gladwell’s sense, a small group of social connectors in a particular interest area.

It’s not like those values displaced by the blog format are completely lost; many supplied by the wiki format: throughness, deference, coherence, detachment. Wiki enables distributed users to author documents online together. Over the last few years, Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia, has brought thousands of contributors to write million and a half entries in over a hundred languages. It could well be the most selfless display of distributed authorship since the Bible. The Wikipedia sure has helped promote the wiki format into organizations. Some have decided it best to adopt both blogs and wikis but this is merely a cheap way to bring disparate values together. We should pick the values first and then design the software to meet those values. And the software, if designed best, should allow the user to be able to choose the right value levels for their needs.

Even techniques in the paper format can induce different values how ideas are communicated. In Jay Rosen’s 1999 summation of his lessons from public journalism, What are Journalists For?, he discussed a number of experiments in format by newspapers. One example of a novel type of campaign coverage cited was Buzz Merritt’s Wichita Eagle, which regularly published a grid of candidates and positions, printing both the candidates’ stated positions, as well as whether anything had changed. In a related case, a newspaper asked a candidate for his position on a certain issue. The candidate demurred, insisting he was planning to announce his position on his own schedule, later in the race. The paper responded by leaving the grid entry blank. The candidate got the message– and thus one of the rare occasions in American journalism when silence by the media was put to productive use.

Where we’ve started going with these two structures above is that the personality, and influence, of the individual writer is muted. And this suggests that we may not perhaps need any influential gatekeepers at all, new or old. In the next part we’ll look at a technical solution which can bypass the gatekeepers altogether.

Talking over listening by Boris Mann
Teasing this out by Jon Garfunkel
values by Allison_Nevitt
I’ll try to answer that… by Jon Garfunkel

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