June 30, 2007

Mother Jones, Politics 2.0: "... conned by a bunch of smooth-talking geeks?"

Link-love: Mother Jones - Politics 2.0

Are we entering a new era of digital democracy--or just being conned by a bunch of smooth-talking geeks?

That's easy - Just being conned by a bunch of smooth-talking marketers (not really geeks, with a few almost accidental exceptions, or only using the term in a very expansive sense). Next question?

It's been depressing to watch the classic bogospheric scenario play out over this. Somebody writes an article with some debunking overall. A-list reaction follows predictable themes and personal attack: Old Media, Doesn't Get It, accusations of various and sundry sins, lots of potkettleblack. The targets go around in comments trying to get people to think about what they actually wrote, rather than what was ranted against. But it's ultimately a fool's errand. Because for all the hype of the power of links and original sources, the ability of a tiny oligarchy of gatekeepers to direct attention insures that their statements dominate the discussion. I can't think of a more recursive disproof of blog-evangelism :-(.

In the actual stories (and 27 interviews with various bloggers, politicos, and digerati) we/they say there's a lot to be excited about in terms of the political applications of 2.0 technology, and the larger philosophical promise: that old school political hacks might be forced to give up on top-down messaging. However, we also say that some in the netroots have gotten a little drunk with power, and that some of the technological applications have yet to prove that they can have a real impact on electoral politics, fun as they might be.

Putting aside the big issue of "electoral politics" for the moment, try even having a real impact on so-called discussions. And no, I don't consider it thrilling to connect-with-people in comment threads or Z-list blogs that almost nobody reads, and will be ignored if doing so serves someone's interest.

Bonus link: Kent Newsome - From Creation to Abandonment: the 5 Stages of Blogging

Stage 4 Alienation

After the blogger's capacity for frustration is exceeded, he does an about face and, instead of seeking inclusion in the conversations, he rejects the entire process completely. At this point, the tailspin towards abandonment has begun. ... Some blogs exist in a near perpetual state of alienation. Eventually, the alienation gives way to abandonment.

[Any similarity to this post is completely intentional]

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in cyberblather | on June 30, 2007 11:58 PM (Infothought permalink)
Seth Finkelstein's Infothought blog (Wikipedia, Google, censorware, and an inside view of net-politics) - Syndicate site (subscribe, RSS)

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There's another path besides Alienation. I read Kent's post too, but I think there's another way for the political candidate or pundit to head.

Take a look at: From Creation to Achivement: the other 5 Stages of Blogging


Posted by: Jeremiah Owyang at July 1, 2007 11:05 AM

Jeremiah, the problem with your diagram is that focus and passion don't counteract mathematics. That is, we all can't stand out from the crowd - somebody has to be the crowd. So there is a lottery-like nature which produces huge inequality, even per-topic. A problem is that marketers tend to react to this by preaching Try-Harder!, and berating and exhorting everyone to keep buying lottery tickets and think happy thoughts. And there's a very dark side to that, because since everyone can't win, the explanation of the evangelist tends to drift to telling the alienated that they must have had unhappy thoughts, so that's the reason they didn't win.

If you respond, please address the mathematical argument. Almost by definition, a competition for attention beyond a few readers is going to have a lot of people working their hearts out and ending up with very little return.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 1, 2007 12:39 PM

I've been checking out the links you posted on the comments thread of the our Blogger Hubris post (your "fools errand" link above), and here. Really great, thoughtful stuff that we should all be reading and discussing. I'd added in the main text of the hubris post that people should read this stuff.

Posted by: Josh Harkinson at July 1, 2007 04:36 PM

Josh, thank you. Unfortunately, very very few people actually will read or discuss it :-(.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 2, 2007 08:26 AM

Harkinson's reference to you lent the MoJo stuff the thinnest veneer of credibility... but in the end it was as I have said elsewhere, a typical Mother Jones magazine melange that comes out looking like Parade Magazine tries to do Fast Company... lightweight, or perhaps I should say "heavy on the fluff."

Posted by: fp at July 2, 2007 05:22 PM


I took a look at the discussion thread on Jeremiah's blog, and added a comment, but for two links it's stuck in moderation for now. I think there's a confusion here between people who use blogging for sales/marketing (where marginal customer wins mean business) and the sort of idea development that some of us do (which tend to need mass acceptance).

What I can add is that it's a new world where both fit under the same umbrella as the same sort of activity.

BTW, if focus is a key to success, I don't see the readership making any complaint when a blogger wanders into off-topic fields like the particulars of the iPhone or the Vice President.

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at July 2, 2007 09:42 PM

Yeah, well I read it. I thought Jon Garfunkel's "gatekeepers" piece was the best analysis of online discouse that I've ever seen from someone who is not an academic or some other professional pundit/expert. FP--ye of the Parade/Fast Company slight--have you read Jon's piece? Once I got to the end of it, I was left wondering, how many of Jon's technology suggestions have been implemented and what what's the potential these days for those that haven't been? I immediately thought of Digg, which I'm not sure was around in 2005 when he wrote that piece. Jon: to what degree do you think Digg has solved, or could solve, some of the problems you've pointed out?

Posted by: Josh Harkinson at July 2, 2007 10:20 PM

I've been wandering off into the Cheney regency and the iPhone and didn't take the time to read Jon's piece. I'll take a look, but have to admit to an experience with Jon's perspectives being tendentious and largely orthogonal to my own, and/or tediously detailed explications of the obvious.

I'll reserve judgment until I've read what you published.

Posted by: fp at July 2, 2007 11:25 PM

Josh, thanks, I appreciate your taking the time to read it. Glad to hear that it's still relevant after two years.

Since I wrote about the new gatekeepers, I got to meet Bob Fuller, the developer of a concept called rankism. "It's not that rank counts; it's that it counts twice." So I try to use that as a metric in trying to get a sense of how much gatekeeping (or more precisely "directed influence") is going on.

Indeed, my conclusion basically suggested that you have to choose between the gatekeepers and ratekeepers, and it seems natural to think of Digg (which I hadn't know about at the time) as the prime example of a rating service.

I haven't looked at Digg as much as I'd liked. So I did now. Here's Digg's top users. Is this a mathematical power law? I can't say. But I can say that this list is as obscure as the list of the top Wikipedians. It's not as if people are using their top rank in Digg to pontificate, show up at conferences, politically organize, etc. If diggers had any bias or any conflict of interest, would anybody ever know?

Also, I'll add that the new new gatekeepers of the tech arena, like TechCrunch, ValleyWag, and Read/WriteWeb, all have editorial staffs and business staffs. I had somewhat argued that in the last part that this would happen, but I don't believe I was clear enough in explaining that. Still, none of them have made their tip submission process completely transparent.

I also might add that it's pretty coincidental that the Times yesterday had an Op-Ed by Nora Ephron titled "The Six Stages of E-Mail." It looks like it was written ten years ago-- and somebody found it when the Times moved from West 43rd Street last month. And it seemed fitter to print than the Five Stages of Blogging by a comparative nobody. :-|

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at July 3, 2007 12:32 AM

Okay, I re-read large parts of the Garfunkel 2005 piece this morning and I found it hadn't changed much from two years ago. I think it's navel gazing at best, and it could use a good fisking.

Posted by: fp at July 3, 2007 06:49 AM

Fuller's rankism stuff definitely seems to apply to Digg. Of course, rank there stems from how much time you put in more than anything else (big difference from blogs there), so it's kind of a meritocracy. But then, people who have that much time also tend to be people with enough money and education to sit in front of a computer all day, so I do think there is an elitism.
And the conflict of interest point is, I think, huge. I suppose it becomes less important the more people participate, but especially when the ranking group is smallish, a few people can really throw it off, as we've seen on Digg with coverage of Ron Paul.
How would transparent tip submission work viz confidential sources and other publications poaching the tips? Could there be two tracks, so people could choose whether they want it to be transparent?
Finally, regarding FP: What, FP, is navel gazing in the piece and what needs fisking exactly?

Posted by: Josh Harkinson at July 3, 2007 01:37 PM

The problem here is that WAY to many people are WAY to sensitive about practically every aspect of this discussion. And most seem to want to position every argument as an extreme. Whether it was the tagline used by MoJo or the idea that there are no gatekeepers or by Josh Harkinson calling Alan Rosenblatt a "fucking dumbass".

Arguments going back and forth...no one listenting or trying to effectively make their point. It's the same as offline.

Posted by: Jonathan Trenn at July 3, 2007 02:03 PM


Sometimes tedious explications of the obvious are just what's needed.

But why not fisk away if you think it's needed?

Posted by: Jonathan Trenn at July 3, 2007 03:56 PM

Jonathan: I haven't found where Harkinson used that term to describe Rosenblatt. I thought I now read all the online dialogue so far. This comment from Harkinson is the closest thing: "Thank you, Alan, for helping me understand why blog discourse often reduces to phrases such as '[copulating stupid mule].'"

Posted by: Jon Garfunkel at July 3, 2007 05:12 PM

Hey Seth, I've now made yet another trip to your blog and found it filled with posts I don't care about and 'woe is me, I'm not an A-lister'-type comments. You always have interesting comments when you post at Paul Kedrosky's blog, why can't you more fully address those topics here? The only rule for writing is to write something that you or others will want to read, not the stupid blogging rules that some people have promulgated like:

- blog regularly: Almost nobody has something interesting to say regularly so this is just a recipe for self-indulgent fluff. Instead, the rule should be 'blog when you have something to say, especially when nobody else is saying it'.

- pick a hot topic and post your thoughts: While this may get you listed on crappy filtering sites like memeorandum or whatever, it is a horrible way to produce something people want to read. People want to read something original and that provides a new perspective: everybody posting on the new 'hot topic du jour' just leads to a lot of blather as every possible angle gets covered, leaving you no angle on the story that has not been covered elsewhere. Also, these hot topics are invariably fluff or non-issues that have been drummed up by someone.

The truth is that most people don't have much to say. In the past, they could blame the gatekeepers at publishing houses who, being human, might have rightly or wrongly decided that a book or article wasn't worth publishing. Well, the internet has changed a big piece of that puzzle in that distribution is now affordable to everyone, but at the same time creates the converse problem that we're now afloat in a sea of text. Ways to filter that text become even more important now and people resort to new gatekeepers who have a good track record of bringing them what they want to read. It's a very inefficient system as it's still in its early stages but, with appropriate automation, it will become pretty efficient over time.

Ultimately, the product behind any blog is the blogger. If he or she is the type of person that has interesting viewpoints and can articulate them (note: most people aren't), they will win readers. It may not be a large audience but it may at least be a group of other interesting people (and the influence of interesting people eventually filters down to the masses). I think Seth has interesting things to say, but only based on the comments he makes at other blogs. Based on the material posted on the front page of your blog today (who cares about wikipedia biography pages or ranting about A-listers?), I cannot bookmark your blog so that I will come back and read it later. I hope that you start to write about those topics (your views on the bubble, past and present, capitalism as it's practiced today, etc.) so that the next time I visit your blog, I decide to bookmark it because I find your writing interesting.

Posted by: Ajay at July 4, 2007 09:46 PM

Ajay: You must have missed the part where I left a comment linking to "I must have missed the part where I was put under any sort of obligation towards you whatsoever."

Posted by: Seth Gordon at July 5, 2007 12:55 PM

Jon correctly points out that I never called Alan a F-ing dumbass. I was trying to get at the idea that blogs often breed extreme rhetoric due to the fact that they are posted half-baked, as Alan's was. And yes, the irony of the language was intended. Whether it was wise or well-executed is another question altogether.
As for the questions about blogs/MSM as gatekeepers, I'd like to direct people to our interview with the founder of Digg, which is up on our main page today. I think Digg raises an interesting question. Bloggers and Journos can go back and forth over who is a gatekeeper, but Digg may render that discussion somewhat irrelevant by becoming the new place people go to figure out what to read. Interview is here:

Posted by: Josh Harkinson at July 5, 2007 01:07 PM