May 09, 2004

Interviewed for "Blogging of a Thesis About Blogging"

Daniel Kreiss, who is doing "Blogging of a Thesis About Blogging", wrote an interview with me:

Seth Finkelstein interview

In the spirit of blogging, here's my partipatory journalism regarding it:

Crashing Back Down to (a Realistic) Earth

Had a long chat with Seth Finkelstein last night. He has some fascinating insights/arguments into blogging, and why it's a myth that the journalistic gatekeepers are gone. ...

It's quite good, but I'm biased :-)

The discussion ranges over my ideas of gatekeepers of production being replaced with gatekeepers of audience, to power laws to the "complete and utter nonsense to say that blogging will herald a new era of "participatory democracy" or communication where everyone has a voice" (I did indeed say that).

In looking at the evidence, like the theory of power law, Finkelstein (who uses terms like "calculated" when discussing theoretical arguments; ...

Yup. That comes from my Math/Physics background. Many of these discussions strike me as very much like errors one can make in similar calculations. "What's the (electrical) power necessary to run this motor?" isn't too far from "What's the (political) power necessary to run this candidate?". Complete with the contingent that wants to assume a spherical cow.

Now, there's a part of the interview where I disagree or would comment:

I tend to agree that power law is a good description of how users are reading the web, but I also have a sense that this model does not adequately amount to a theory of digital communication. Communication also has a tendency to percolate back up (trickling perhaps, but it is happening none the less) to the gatekeepers of audience, or beyond that into other social relationships.

This where I'd start thinking/asking, "What do you mean by "has a tendency", that is, how much"? Even in the most totalitarian dictatorship, there's some sort of "communication" between the elites and the population at large. Any smart ruler knows you have to listen to the masses to some extent, if only to keep track of who is a potential threat to imprison or kill. Getting too out-of-touch that way is a recipe for overthrow. But the elites and the dissidents sure aren't equal in communication.

For instance, my own newbie gestures at blogging at the time of this post have resulted in a grand total of two citations! Does that mean I am not heard, that I do not have a voice?

Yes. It means you don't have a voice if, say, you're concerned that a "Slashdot editor" with access to 250,000 readers may domain-hijack your website, for example. You couldn't fight back (unless those two readers happen to be very powerful themselves, what I call "The President And The Pope" argument).

Perhaps. But this might not be the end all measure of communication. This is not meant as a grand gesture here, but perhaps my ideas or reporting influenced someone's thinking, which then got passed onto their own blog, with or without the citation, and then around from there both off and online in their dealings with other people. My communication would then implicitly have an audience and power to it, even though I might have no idea or concept of the boundaries of that audience.

Audience (and used here as a proxy for power) is a variable. It can be measured and compared.

First person: "I'm heard by 250,000 people".
Second person: "Well, I'm heard by 250 people, does that mean I have no voice?"

Basic mathematics is that, all other things being equal, as a first approximation, the second person has 1/1000, one one-thousandth, of the voice of the first person, that the first person has ONE THOUSAND times the power of the second.

The amount of noise devoted to denying and obscuring the implications of this very simple little fact is amazing. On and on: Maybe audience isn't everything (right, it isn't, but it's not nothing either), maybe the first approximation isn't accurate (sometimes, but it's still useful overall), maybe the writer is happy to just stand on a streetcorner and rant to whomever passes by (which wasn't the point).

But the vast inequality in power this implies, replicated in Big Bloggerdom as much as other Big Media, is very ideologically unpalatable.

So regardless of the gatekeepers of audience, all communication has the potential to be implicitly powerful in how it is spread; and we do not have a good means for tracking this.

What is "implicitly powerful"? This sounds a lot to me like saying every lottery ticket has the "implicit power" to be a winning ticket. It does. But we also know that the probability is quite measurable.

True, some people are the social entrepreneurs in network theory, but there is always a dialectic at the micro level of communication (and this also does not account for the mere fact that people writing consistently, about anything, has implications in and of itself.)

"True, some people are super-rich, but even poor people have some money, and this does not account for the fact that having some money at all has implications in and of itself". See the problem? That is, saying almost all people have at least a little money, is typically not very useful to examining the divide between wealth and poverty.

There is a danger however, and Finkelstein is right to forcibly point this out. When people blow bubbles there is a distortion that occurs inside the bubble and whether that is traced through the stock market, the Dean campaign, or by ignoring the very real sites of social, economic, and political power, the promise of technology needs to be realistically combined with the cold hard historical reasoning that tells us there will never be a purely technological fix for what ails us.

Thus, we should advocate, and as strongly as ever, for the structural changes (like public subsidies for media outlets) that will create a more responsive, and responsible, media in this country.

I completely agree with the above. The problem, however, is that too many of the bubble-blowers think blogging in itself is that structural change. And I believe in this regard, they are: 1) deluding themselves 2) being cruel to the have-nots 3) aiding to ensconce the exact same gatekeeper hierarchy, by refusing to grapple with its emergent existence.

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather , infothought | on May 09, 2004 06:13 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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Monday, May 10, 2004
How We Know What We Know--Part I:
Why is ewe pronounced "yoo," and not "e-wee"?
Primary conclusion from On Certainty: if you are a true scientific positivist, and you base all of your knowledge claims on direct experience alone (empirical evidence)--on that which allows for empirical verification only--you cannot definitively prove that the world existed before you became aware of it. "Blogito, ergo sum."

Posted by: bw at May 10, 2004 08:55 PM