June 18, 2005

Cites & Insights June 2005, Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference

Walt Crawford's publication Cites & Insights 5:8, June 2005 issue has been out for a while now. I had intended to write about one portion earlier, but I needed to track down some material. There's good stuff about the Broadcast Flag, Wiki's, RSS, and more. But I think I can add particular value to the following portion:

What really happened at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference? I've read notes and comments from several participants, most of which leave me more confused than ever -- particularly regarding the only reasons I care about the question. That is, why was ALA a cosponsor of this conference, how much did it cost ALA, and what did my professional association get out of it?

What happened at the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference? A bunch of Harvard Berkman Center people, and A-listers, burnished their credentials as Experts On The Hot Topic (and in the run-up, some others got hurt). Very simple. I suspect ALA cosponsored to get a piece of the action. Why not? But further:

Jon Garfunkel posted his thoughts at his Civilities weblog on January 28, 2005 and before (civilities.net). The January 28 posting deals with inclusiveness at the conference (at which Garfunkel was an observer). It's an interesting post, beginning with Garfunkel's assumptions: "[T]he conference was meant to affect only the people that wanted to be affected by it..." "[F]unctional proxies may be more important to diversity than identity proxies. A black woman may not be expected to be able to speak for all black women, but a librarian who speaks for library users should be seen as...credible for that is her job." "[W]hile there are many strands [of] diversity to aim for, some...are more critical than others for [a] given situation." Right up front, I wonder about the example given for the second assumption. Only one librarian/weblogger was at the conference--and she no longer works in a library. Is it truly the job of one librarian to "speak for [all] library users"? Does a journalist speak for all newspaper readers? (Garfunkel's ""Gatekeepers" series has concluded; more on that in a future issue.)

I think the point there was to move away from a certain crudeness in identity politics ("a black woman"), when that is in reality an expression of some desired functionality. It's not that a librarian speaks for library users in an elected-representative sense. But rather that the job of a librarian has advocacy for library users in a certain professional sense. Being e.g. "a black woman", or any political-power minority, is often unfairly loaded with some sort of group interest advocacy, and that's a longstanding political problem.

As to why it's needed:

Mostly, the conference was dominated by bloggers: "What was missing mostly was outsiders -- skeptics of blogs, cultural critics, community activists -- who could consistently and reliably respond to some of the myths and assertions being made." That's the sense I've picked up from all the coverage I've seen. Thus Seth Finkelstein: "I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker's list, overall, doesn't seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility." The "dominant woman," Rebecca Mackinnon, excerpted some comments for a piece in The Nation on March 17, 2005 (www.thenation.com). Reading those comments, I see little to intrigue or interest me, with the possible exception of Karen Schneider's sensible note that many people can't be expected to "recalibrate their BS detectors" for the blog world, as Dan Gillmor presumes they should. Summing up -- I don't know what really happened; ALA hasn't told me why it was worth their sponsorship or money; but I'm sure the privileged few who were invited enjoyed themselves. Good for them.

Well, I can't speak for ALA, but I can try to answer that question - Karen Schneider's rebuttal, live during the conference, was definitely worthwhile. I don't know if I could put a dollar value on it, but in one sense, it was priceless. And showed the value of having outside-the-bubble attendees. Per the WebCred transcript:

I love Dan Gillmor and he talked about today the audience is going to have to do a lot more of the work and it's funny because I come from a lot - from a profession where code of ethics is that the user should have to do a lot less of the work. ...

If I, as a librarian, could assign any homework for today it would be that you go to the Digital Divide Network and read some of what Andy Carvin had to say because I think it's a great reality check to remind yourselves that most people are still not very well-connected, not very well-educated about the internet. As my sister says "What are these globs you keep talking about?" [laughter]

Note those words, "reality check". Something I've said many A-list conference attendees desperately could use. And "the user should have to do a lot less of the work" could be a rallying-cry. And note how it was framed - a profession where [the] code of ethics is. That is, the advocacy here comes out of the profession's ethics, not the circumstances of race or sex.

Perhaps the above was a trivial occurrence. But Z-listers have to settle for small victories.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 06:06 PM | Comments (1)
January 30, 2005

Andrew Orlowski comment on BloJoCred

Andrew Orlowski graced my blog with a comment about the the WebCred Harvard conference, which I thought deserved rescue from obscurity (I hope he'll forgive me :-)):

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 also 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 Seth Finkelstein at 11:56 PM | Followups
January 28, 2005

What the little people said, about BloJoCred

Jon Garfunkel has an extensive post at Civilities.net collecting and summarizing what several "smallwigs" thought about the WebCred Harvard conference.

Inclusiveness at the Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility conference

There have been a few summaries about the Blogging, Journalism and Credibility Conference, co-sponsored by the Berkman Center and Shorenstein Center at Harvard, along with the American Library Association. Most of them focused on what the insiders have said -- Jay Rosen even titled his summary "Big Wigs Confer." I thought I'd take a separate angle, and look at what some of the little people said. This includes the little voices around the big table; the voices of the observers in the room, and even people on the Internet-- bloggers and others who care about the future of ideas -- who felt excluded from the conversation in the first place. And I thought I'd do this using the framework of inclusiveness.

I'm quoted a few times, e.g. for my earlier "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" post:

"I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker's list, overall, doesn't seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility." -- Seth Finkelstein


Some had the credentials of blogging. Some had the credentials of academics. Having credentials confers an automatic credibility. ...
If you're a diligent blogger who wants to gain a reputation as a stringer, you have a real struggle ahead of you, as Finkelstein points out.

Of course, we're all squeaking down in the long tail, compared to the favored few.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:58 PM | Comments (7)
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]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:44 PM | Comments (3) | Followups
January 23, 2005

Stealth Positive Result of (metaphorical) Conference Cuddle Party

I spent much more time than was good for me, listening to the "Webcred" Harvard conference. Anyway, as an item which seems under-reported, in fairness let it be noted that amidst all the A-list mutual reputation enhancement, at almost stealth level there does appear to have been a useful practical result. High-ranking people seem to have a greater acceptance and understanding of the value, both social and business, of releasing newspaper story archives from the current setup of having such archives under a pay-per-articles system. That is, currently, when many newspaper articles are archived, they are unlinkable, unsearchable, and can only be viewed by paying a fee. This barrier is often regarded as a bad thing in many ways.

Of course, anyone can proclaim "They shouldn't do this! They shouldn't! I say so!". But that doesn't change anything. It's just a nethead ranting off in a corner. However, when people who can make the change happen, hear it from other people who are deemed to have, err, "cred", that may accomplish something. From the transcript (my emphasis):

I came in[to journalism] with the view that archives were the primary source of revenue for these firms...
at least that was true of a few major companies.
but the more I hear about the social discussion here, for instance the desire for advertisers to lock in ad space on old pages for high-traffic news stories...
I think if there were some way to recognize this traffic, we could change this before it becomes so difficult
I think old stories would have a huge appeal if they didn't have to be paid for, and they would then pay for themselves in advertising...
and i think it would have a huge impact, then everyone would do it it would do things that papers desperately want; it would bring people!
I know they make a little money with this archive business, but if they could draw people to their site... that would be a tremendous value to them, an increase in their authority...
In our case, we *do* have enlightened management about this; we're just stuck on technologies...
we're moving an old telegraph model to a database model... links between all that stuff. will it all be free, and cost nothing? no.
but will it be free and open? yes, and it will be that way within... two years.

So, it must be recognized that there can be benefits to having a (metaphorical) cuddle party. Even if it's almost an unintended consequence. smiley image

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 10:07 AM
January 21, 2005

"WebCred" Conference comments, or Love For The Linklorn

As the "Webcred" "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" Harvard conference begins, let me make the the probably futile effort of attempting to draw attention to some valuable perspectives. Here are some gems buried in the comments:

If this conference were a news article, I think it would be fair game to point out that it's full of sources and quotes talking about a third party, without including any quotes from that third party. In that situation, I think we'd be within our rights to question that news article's credibility. Given that this conference is about blogging, journalism, and (yes) credibility, I'd like to think the organizers might find that troubling.

("The One True b!X", who actually does unpaid, I mean "citizen's", journalism, at the underattentioned Portland Communique)

How come everybody talks about bloggers in pajamas when all I keep finding are corporate lawyers with ties to Republican Administrations and big, fat corporate clients?

What's going on here?

(Richard Succer, regarding that many A-list right-wing bloggers are not exactly proletarian)

: The ethic of pomposity: We believe in speaking for persons other than ourselves.

: The ethic of narcissism: We love to hear ourselves speak. We can't get enough of ourselves.

: The ethic of humanity: We repeat ourselves, endlessly.

: The ethic of the wank: We believe in linking to people who kiss our ass. Everyone else can kiss our ass.

: The ethic of correction: We believe it is vital to correct errors when we can't weasel out of it. And then we bitch about everyone who mentions our error, and pout.

: The ethic of idiocy: We accuse others of placing peoples' lives in danger by mentioning things we mentioned long ago. We have no shame.

("Jar Jar Vinks", parodying a certain A-lister)

the problem here is that "news" (at least the credible kind) and "business" are mutually exclusive. We can turn news into a "conversation", make it transparent, etc...but we won't unless the delivery of news is separated from the profit motive.

And that ain't happening.

In reality, the changes in the "business model" for news delivery will result not in a conversation with the news consumer, but will be a mirror of the consumer's own prejudices. [...]

This "tailored news" will be the model, because it will provide the business of "news" with an enormous amount of information that the "business" can use to sell advertising that is just as personalized and directed as your news feed.

That's why this conference (and your questions) are really just a bad joke. The war is already over, even if the combatants don't know it yet.... and "democratic government based on an informed citizenry" lost to "corporate profits"

(Paul Lukasiak, GLCQ)

See also:

Shelley Powers' post Give Unto Harvard that which is Harvard's

Paul Lukasiak: Open Letter to WebCred Conference


Frank Paynter's compilation Web Cred Conference Player Scorecard

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:59 AM | Followups
January 20, 2005

"WebCred" Conference, and why it matters

The issues surrounding the "Webcred" Harvard conference continue to ferment (see also my earlier "Blogging, Journalism, Credibility" post, and to be fair, a conference FAQ).

One of my enduring frustrations in dealing with many people at the Berkman Center. is that they operate within an extremely insular bubble of enormous privilege, protection, and power. They just don't seem to take into account the damage the "H-bomb" (Harvard) can do to civilians, and how people can get hurt by their actions. Even if it wasn't malicious, even if it was just careless, or alternately do-what-you-have-to-do, that's small comfort to those on the receiving end of maltreatment. (disclosure/disclaimer: See the story of the Mike Godwin / Greplaw attacks for reasons I speak from experience here).

I've seen an amazing amount of cluelessness, including wonder that anyone could worry about negative aspects, as well as not do backflips that there's boy-oh-boy an IRC channel and a webcast (aren't you super-excited right there? You can follow along with the performers, and they might even acknowledge questions from the audience, if it's something they find worthy, wow wow, are we interactive yet?).

Consider: This is how Zephyr Teachout starts her infamous blog post discussing the Howard Dean campaign's arrangement with consultants who also had blogs (my emphasis):

"[Note: this post was written in anticipation of a conference next week on ethics, blogging, and journalism]"

That post created a significant political story. And the Webcred conference's publicity for it was the source of the eventual mass-media smears, per Ed Cone (my emphasis):

And over at Kos, they're wondering how the WSJ found out about this story in the first place, and they manage to trace it to my link to Zephyr and links from Instapundit and Jarvis. But they miss the first step: I read it on the Harvard conference blog.

Jerome Armstrong really got smeared by this whole thing, and he's pissed. I should have been clearer on his role in my original link to Zephyr's post, and I apologize for not doing it right.

Note, to forestall a distraction, the effect does not necessarily require saying "This is true". Rather, it's in an implication "This is worthwhile, this is important, this should be given your attention, etc.". However, in context, that's very, very close to "This is true", (though not absolutely identical) and the differences are much smaller than the overall connection. The issue is the power to focus attention on a statement, to give it a platform where it will be widely echoed and heard.

After the role the Harvard conference just played in getting those activists very widely and publicly smeared, the "little people" shouldn't have to explain over and over why it matters. It's a testament to the strength of the bubble that this point will not be grasped.

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 09:19 AM | Followups
January 09, 2005

"Blogging, Journalism & Credibility"

"Blogging, Journalism & Credibility" is a conference, well, I'll quote:

... an invitation-only conference to be held on January 21st and 22nd, 2005 entitled "Blogging, Journalism and Credibility: Battleground and Common Ground." The conference, which will bring together a select group of thoughtful bloggers and journalists, is being organized by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at the Harvard Law School, the American Library Association's Office of Information Technology and the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.


To both journalism and blogging, credibility is essential. What are the areas of common ground shared by these very different approaches to handling news and information? Can journalists who also blog do their work without conflicting standards? Might bloggers adopt standards and a transparency that will elevate their credibility? Our purpose is to bring together a small group of smart and thoughtful people to ponder these and other related issues, which will result in a published report and - we hope - will mark the beginning of an on-going and very important dialogue.

The subject matter of the conference has been, err, "controversial", given the issues of "credibility", and the background of the participants. I summarized the problem in the following well-received comment:

It was all about cats
and their habitats
But they only invited
the dogs and the rats

[Not original with me, I read it somewhere]

I think the issue which some critics are exploring is that the speaker's list, overall, doesn't seem to have anyone who has to struggle for credibility. All names which I recognize are well-ensconced "club members", the sort of people who already have institutional validation as academics and/or journalists. They *are already considered* "credible", in a professional sense. This doesn't mean their reflections on the topic are wrong, but it might make the collective exploration somewhat limited, as a factual matter.

If the purpose is to puff the participants resumes, well, *shrug*, I suppose that's not a bad thing in itself, and there's not a whole lot for anyone else to say beyond pointing it out.

[Disclosure/disclaimer - although the suggestion that I should have an affiliation with the Berkman Center is sometimes raised by uninformed or well-intentioned people, realistically the chance of that happening these days is zero.]

Posted by Seth Finkelstein at 11:59 PM | Followups