The unbearable lightness of blogging

Media | Language/Structure
Friday night at the Harvard Faculty Club, after the amuse-bouche ordered a bottle of wine outside the house selection, we played spin the bottle. The way you play it blogger-style is you spin the bottle, and find out which of the rotating definitions of blogs should be embraced. David Weinberger was the designated spinner for the evening, and delivered a half-hour talk over dessert. By the last third of it, he started speaking from the heart, and got to the core of what he felt blogging was all about.

The following section comes at 23:35 into the talk:

My weblog is my web presence. It is who I am on the web. It's NOT, it is not my journal. I've written a journal, I still write a newsletter, it's different. My weblog is ME— that's why I care about it! It's all anybody knows about me on the web. It's not me expressing myself, it's ME on the web, it's myself. I'm writing myself into existence, as you all are, who are bloggers, everyday. And you do it over time. And I get to know the people I'm reading because I'm reading them writing themselves into existence over time.

A really important (I think) thing to keep in mind is that we're writing ourselves into existence, but we're writing badly. (Now, many of us are good writers; that's not what I'm trying to say. What I'm trying to say is) we write so quickly– because that's another part of weblogging, is you do it once a day, or you do it ten times a day. If you do it once a week, it's only a borderline… it's not a good example of a weblog. (That's all I'll say.)

We're writing quickly. And if you're the type of person who needs to have yourself in public be so perfected, so re-written, that you can't let it go until it's been not only spell-checked, but edited, and sent through the fact-checkers and then re-written and perfected the way that we like to do in print (and I certainly do.) If that's the type of person you are on your weblog, you can't write a weblog!

You can't do it! You can post some stuff, sure, but you're not you're not going to be able to engage in the conversations because it's going to pass you by. You're going to be revising the revision of your revision, and it will be three weeks later! You can't participate in the 'life' of the blogosphere, which is one of conversation, of back and forth.

After the talk, I did a little reality-check with Jim Kennedy of the Associated Press. Are you able to write completed articles overnight? Yes. Do these launch conversations? Yes. Now that I read back through Weinberger's comments, I see that blogging is primarily good for… the blogosphere. After the whole hullabaloo on Friday about blogging and journalism needing to work together, it seems that blogging is content to live in its own sphere.

What's most troubling about his argument is the anthropomorphism: "if you're the type of person who needs to have yourself in public be so perfected, so re-written." Our web writings cannot be perfect, because they are us (apparently), and obviously, we are only human and imperfect. Perhaps, in some metaphysical way, no document is ever perfect: even our Constitution, the very stable document upon which our nation rests, has been amended before, and can be amended in the future. Yet, our nation can rest on it because of its stability. In fact, vast segments of our civil society– law, science, policy, medicine– depend on permanent yet changeable documents. We expect perfection from our documents even if their authors are not. After all, documents last; people don't.

Seeking Completeness

Certainly, there is a great value in voicing incomplete thoughts. I tend to do mine over a glass of wine (or three, as the case was that evening). Or I just do it in an email, or, if I want to do it publicly, I go do it on the mailing list or forum or blog where a conversation has started. I have no angst about the fact that some of my online presence may exist on David Weinberger's blog, or on the Personal Democracy Forum, or on the Massachusetts Democratic Future mailing list.

But I need a place to show off my completed work. I collect facts, I research; I find quotes, and I try to check them. I listen and re-listen to an audiofile to do the very first transcription. I visit the library to find offline books and old newspapers, I scan in images that have no online presence of themselves. I'm not writing myself into an online existence, but other things, facts and totems which have no power of themselves to join into something greater: this is what goes into almost every piece on Civilities.

Seeking Permanence

Immediately before delivering the passage on the value of incompleteness, Weinberger had delivered a short paean about permanence: "Blogs matter because they have a URL, a permanent web address." (22:54) Blogs are hardly alone, or even first, in providing unique and permanent URLs for each piece of content. Granted, it is more likely that a given blog will feature permanent document locations more than a newspaper does. But the permanence of things is a double-edged sword, particularly when there are a lot of rough drafts and incomplete thoughts around. Let's hold that thought for a moment.

David likes to speak about a "ethos of forgiveness." The forgiveness, we've learned, does not extend much beyond spelling errors and certainly does not encompass personal attacks. So instead it's an ethos of sloppiness. Consider how I tracked the audio file down. David had originally posted a link on Saturday to his talk the previous night; this is where we had a brief back-and-forth. Two days and two feet of snow later, the pointer to the talk was added here. The old post is still there, with the old link. On the official Berkman site, the link to the audio file was outdated, so I went in and posted the link to his site for the new one.

I suppose I can forgive him for that. But there are larger transgressions– when ideas are at stake. Jay Rosen's conference paper announced that objectivity had collapsed. By the conclusion of the conference he changed his tune upon learning of the Neutral Point of View forged by the multi-author Wikipedia: "The surprising thing to me is the emergence of a community passionate about neutrality." Now, he took care to note that he did not say objectivity, but I don't know whether he still stands by the ideas expressed in his original paper regarding objectivity. Rosen, while a cheerleader for blogging, actually escapes Weinberger's definition. At the last Berkman conference, when I introduced myself to Jay by telling him that I didn't blog because I spent too long on my pieces. "Me too," he said. And it shows. His original essay was 5,000 words; the response was 1,800. He writes essays pieces and invites comments from the community, and it's a terrific model for other academics to follow.

But let's consider different types of permanence:

Academics and journalists publish articles, and are paid for each one, generally [either per piece for a general interest periodical, or as part of the job expectation.] They honor the sanctity of a published document. They don't retouch it when it's done (Rosen has the good sense to add an addendum summarizing the readers' comments). Still, the economics of being an academic or journalist encourages them to regularly publish– even recycling the same ideas over and over again.

On the other hand, lawmakers and engineers author write code— legal code, software code, or technical schematics– Lawrence Lessig famously equated them in his book of that name, Code and other laws of Cyberspace. Code cannot be ambiguous. By and large, lawmakers and engineers find themselves re-writing, and overwriting, the old code to retool it so it works better. The old code is necessarily archived, of course, but only the current code is operative.

A blogger more authentic (according to Weinberger's appeal for rapidity), who also wrote about the end of objectivity in advance of the conference, is Dan Gillmor. Formerly a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News, and now blogging on his own, Gillmor had experience with the code paradigm. He even took to subtitling his post "(Version 0.90)" and explained off the bat that he hoped to revise it into a better document over time. In recognition of that admission, I saw his premise had stated that objectivity in journalism was a result of media consolidation in the recent era. I wrote a comment, with citation, pointing out that the development of objectivity had come much earlier than that, at the turn of the century. The next evening Gillmor had updated his piece to "Version 0.91," though he skipped incorporating my suggestion. In the subsequent four days he wrote 16 new blog posts (including one giving a pointer to me), totalling 4,000 words. Who knows when, or if, he would get to updating it, or even declare it inoperative in favor of a later piece.

Seeking Corrections

I can trouble to send Gillmor a note, but that's besides the point. The systematic problem is that blogging software, and search engine technology, does not have a standard to universally acknowledge when content is deemed invalid by its original author. I have proposed the Hearsay Network as a way to directly counter misinformation.

There's more fallacies in play. If one has a truly original scoop or unique insight, it doesn't matter how long it takes them to write their piece. Consider a recent example which made its way to a blog– the reason that the Dean campaign to hire Kos (Markos Moulitsas) had stayed within a few people for about eighteen months. There was plenty of time to get the story straight and to check out to minimize the damage. Zephyr Teachout threw the story up in a blog post which she knew was incomplete. She damaged Jerome Armstrong's reputation by her mistake. And then defenders of Armstrong and Kos shot back at Zephyr, at the Berkman Center, each buoyed by the culture of "hit and run" which is engendered by the blogs.

This was the tendency I wanted to avoid, when I devised the concept of constructive media— it's an engineer's way of building ideas. The implementation is throuh this Civilities site. Like an encyclopedia (or Wikipedia), each idea has its own page, and thus its own URL. The ideal is that each and every page remains operative; after all, it may be discovered by some user via Google. I have at times gone back to amend and append documents based on new information (the Drupal publishing software which this runs on supports revisions).

I have only 150 pieces to review over the last year. By comparison, Glenn Reynolds, the blogger of InstaPundit writes 150 blog posts each week. The leading bloggers are also post on the order of ten times a day. If Reynolds can't defend the value in each and every post, what's the value of reading his site? Henry Farrell noted in brief analysis The Blogging Two-Step, that Reynolds, when challenged, drops back to the shallow defense that "it's just a blog." Others posted comments to the effect that he had done it before. Since, as Weinberger defined, blogging doesn't ever, and shouldn't ever, have to represent complete thoughts. Tell that to hundreds of thousands of people who read Instapundit. Most of the bloggers, if they were to ever look back at their immediate reactions (such as the tsunami catastrophe) they'd probably find a lot of things they'd want to take back.

Seeking Clarity

Which brings us back to David Weinberger. One of the previous times I had contributed in the comments of his blog was about the definition of blogs. Back on May 11th he had occasioned to write this brief post on it:

George Packer of the New Yorker is on the NPR talk show, The Connection, complaining about blogs because, first, they're addictive, and second, they're frequently written quickly and contain shallow ideas. He assumes blogs are like second-string columnists and misses entirely the role of millions of blogs as as social phenomenon.

The very aspect that Weinberger celebrates in January, he had frowned on in May. I simply don't know where he stands. Whenever I explain the independence of Civilities from the definition of blog, most listeners welcome my explanation; not so with Weinberger. Upon meeting for the first time at the DNC and hearing my introduction (I was wearing a baseball cap with "not a blog" on the back), he said, "You're a blogger!" It's game of spin-the-bottle, wherein the definition of blogs and blogging and bloggers embraces whichever audience it faces.

We are all in agreement that we are in the midst of a revolution, not just in publishing and journalism, but in the very science of how ideas are generated, shared, stored. There is an important need to get documents available online, to build conversations around them, to understand what they mean, and to recognize when ideas get invalidated by new evidence. The blogging priests continue to do a disservice to– the technology, though not to ourselves– by playing fast and loose with the terminology.

Whether blogs are the best technology for this remains to be seen. In picking a technology to represent our online selves, more people will soon realize that the lightness of blogging is unbearable, and unfit, for something so important.

Update: January 26, 10pm. This wasn't perfect when this went out this morning. It's a little more perfect now, after I fixed the typos and tightened up some of the grammar. Only about a dozen people have read it so far. Now it's tagged for webcred.