January 27, 2005

Bloggers vs. Journalists Has Just Begun

Jay Rosen is unhappy about a Slate editor's anti-blog-triumphalism reaction to the Harvard WebCred conference:

Besides being lazy, Jack Shafer's suggestion that the conference theme was blogs will triumph over the traditional news media... and you guys are toast! (I paraphrase) is intellectually dishonest. That's a few doors up from lying, but the same general neighborhood.

I started to write something about the various specific claims, then I thought better of it, and gave up. Instead, I offer the following:

Nobody cares about the truth.

This is both a cliche and an insight. It's a cliche, as it's an old observation. But it's an insight as to why blogging is much closer to mainstream media than is often thought.

Is the dispute above being settled - or at least profoundly affected - by continued reference to primary sources such as transcript? That is, will anyone not already convinced and using parts to reinforce their belief, examine what was said? (If so, how many?) Has the presence of a transcript causes the discussion to approach a truth at all?

More relevantly, what might happen to me, a puny Z-listish (barely read) blogger, if I went to the trouble of writing up an evaluation based on reference to the transcript, and my conclusions displeased an A-list blogger (i.e. one with a much larger audience)? I'd get to be told by blog evangelists how wonderful it is that I can write a diary to a small circle of friends regarding how I was smeared to a huge number of people. The implications here are in fact profound.

If there is no difference between what is true and what you believe, then we are only talking about minor variations in an overall genre of writing.

[Update: link to Jay's comments fixed]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in webcred | on January 27, 2005 11:44 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
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I think "Nobody cares about the truth" goes too far. In public debates today, being right gives you a 10% advantage. All else (eloquence, debating skills, persistence, size of megaphone) being equal, that's enough to win. When all else isn't equal, you'll still accomplish more than you would have if you were lying.

Posted by: Ed Felten at January 28, 2005 06:39 AM

There was a certain amount of poetic license there. The more precise version is "Very, very few people care about the truth".

More deeply, the truth doesn't matter much - as in, the conference transcript is not a fundamental basis for people's determining whether the competing claims are correct. Rather, it's what they feel about blog trumphalism which is driving the debate.

That's a prosaic observation, but I thought it was significant because it's being demonstrated in this example, and it refutes some of the ideas being put forth about what creates credibility.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at January 29, 2005 12:52 AM

I suggest that we can regard this as a kind of litmus test. When a discourse has such little regard for the truth, we immediately know that it's of little value to us. Once the circus has moved on, a more honest and truthful discourse should eventually emerge.

(This can take a very long time indeed in tech debates, where the gnostic belief that more knowledge == truth seems to be axiomatic.)

This isn't to say that what Schafer writes about is entirely without merit. There may be some therapeutic value in blog conferences for the participants, but such events really have more in common with a torchlit rally than rational discourse. There are plenty of examples of this in the irc transcript.

I think Schafer's written a landmark piece. He's pointed out that people care very deeply about the _quality_ of news, much more than how it's delivered. Which is simply a process issue ;-)

Technologists get very hung up on this. If you have good, clean processes (or if the process has magical properties), then what comes out must be good, too, OK?

(There's alos a fascinating parallel with how modern marketing uses process as a mark of authenticity, much as the weblog-evangelists do. In England last year I noticed almost every packaged item of food now uses this technique: the chicken chips are "applewood roasted", the salt is "air-dried". And this paragraph was soaked in blog goodness, before being delivered to you. Remind you of anyone?)

Posted by: Andrew at January 30, 2005 09:57 PM