January 23rd, 2006
The quality of analytic thinking in the blogosphere is too often marred by sloppy reasoning, lack of cogency, groupthink, unreasoned orthodoxy, and just plain laziness. I’m no master of analytic precision myself, but it’s something I care about and something I wish the blogosphere would care more about.
In fact, I think the poor quality of thought and analysis in consumer-generated media is such an important issue that I’m going to take it on even though I will probably come off as being pedantic — I’m willing to take that risk (and a great deal of heat, I’m sure) if there’s a chance I can raise consciousness (even a little).
The problem became apparent to me after several of my posts reached top spots on tech.memeorandum and garnered a lot of attention, which gave me a chance to examine a wide range of responses. While most of these responses we’re thoughtful, and some quite insightful, many of them fell into one of two categories:
1. People who thought I was right because I was being iconoclastic, but who didn’t respond to the substance of my argument. I’m always wary when someone agrees with me completely — I can’t possibly be that right. (A related category is people who agreed with the iconoclasm, but then proceeded to argue the conventional wisdom.)
2. People who argued I was wrong by repeating conventional wisdom or insistent refrains that, again, did not seem to respond to the substance of what I was saying. For example:
- You’re defending Old Media
- Old Media doesn’t want to change
- Bloggers are changing media for the better
- New Media is a completely open system
- There are no gatekeepers
- RSS is a great technology
- Don’t make the application easier, make people work harder
- You’re trying too hard to be contrarian (whatever that means)
I’m being reductive and generalizing, of course, but I too often found myself saying, “that’s not what I said” or “how can you make that argument, it makes no sense.” Lack of clarity on my part is aways a problem, but so much of what I heard was, on the face of it, either entirely facile, misconstruing the argument, or poorly reasoned (or all of the above).
Some of the problem can be attribed to laziness, which I suspect stems from the effort required to both consume and create media (something I struggle with) — I’ve gotten responses that made me awfully suspicious that the responder didn’t read the whole post. (Yeah, I know mine are long, but there are plenty of blogs that publish sound bites).
Karp carps about the terminology, as if using ’subscribing’ instead of ’syndicating’ would solve the real broken parts of the whole RSS mess. Paul does a better job enumerating real problems, which can be summarized as feed overload.
So the problem is not RSS, which should be just a low-level protocol that tools rely on. The problem is the amazingly static and non-innovative way we are using RSS.
I don’t know if Stowe read my entire post, but I clearly stated:
HereÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s the real problem Ã¢â‚¬â€ RSS feeds are still static media, just in a different package. The New Media revolution will come when content is completely atomized and fully tagged, so that it can be remixed into perfectly tailored packages to suit every taste, i.e. truly what I want (when I want it).
It’s fine for Stowe to argue that the static nature of RSS is a larger problem (I think he’s right), but I never said that changing the terminology would fix that problem. I said it would fix the problem of no one knowing what “RSS” means (which I still think is a major root cause of slow adoption). But Stowe didn’t address the issue of whether poor awareness of RSS is a “real problem” (i.e. it doesn’t matter that no knows what RSS means BECAUSE…) or, if it is a real problem, what a better solution might be. Instead, he argued that changing terminology would not fix the static media problem. Well, of course not — it wasn’t put forth as a solution to that problem. He’s also conflating the role of the technology (it is “just a protocol”) with the issue of how we identify the function to the user (calling it “RSS”).
A more cogent approach would be to look at each discrete problem and evaluate possible solutions, rather than conflating problems and solutions — and just because a problem is less serious, doesn’t mean it doesn’t require a solution. Minimizing a problem doesn’t solve it and doesn’t make it go away.
Here’s another response to my RSS post:
IF it ain’t broken…
don’t fix it.
Fran may be right that RSS isn’t broken, but I haven’t a clue as to why he thinks so.
I was also struck by the responses to my post about the new media gatekeepers, which prompted many people to stand up and argue that there are no gatekeepers. I could probably write this off as a quibble over semantics, but it strikes me as an example of flawed logical reasoning. I’m going to pick on Stowe again only because he offers another ready example, not out of any disrespect (and he’s probably upset with me already anyway).
Here’s his response to my post:
In the perfect world, the answer would be that each person should be their own gatekeeper. The reality is that we are unequipped — we do not have the time or resources. So we are thrown back onto one of four (potentially complementary or competitive) approaches to dealing with this conundrum:
1. Institutional authority — If you agree with the editorial stance of a particular group or company, then you allow them to decide what’s important, how many words to devote to it, and your life is easy.
2. Individual authority — If you like what Doc Searls has to say about open source or the future of media, put his RSS feed in your reader, and ta-da, life is good.
3. Emergent authority — If you trust in the wisdom of the crowd, then Slashdot, digg, the Always-On-Network, or del.cio.us/popular will be a good choice, as they rely on collective decision making about what is interesting and what is not.
4. Machine authority — Various software approaches to determining what is important, like Google, Blogpulse, tech.memeorandum.com, or Technorati, mine the social gestures that people leave behind, like links and traffic, and pass it through an algorithmic blender, to yeild a metadata-based approach to what is most important.
So, the answer is: there is no gate. There are many waypoints, many street signs, and many ways to go, but no one is barring the gate, or deciding who is let in. This is confusing if we try to apply the old map to the new territory, but not if we try to perceive the new media universe as it is.
How can Stowe argue that “there is no gate” after having done such a great job identifying the four types of gates? Technorati tracks 20 MILLION blogs — not all of them get attention from the blogosphere. Why? Because there are both human and technology-based gatekeepers that determine what gets attention. A completely open system makes no sense, because we’re not living in state of information entropy (although media proliferation often makes it feel that way) — when I go online, some things get my attention and others don’t. Why? Because someone is “barring the gate.” I think the term “gatekeepers” just offends bloggers’ liberatarian sensibilities, but regardless, the existence of gatekeepers in a structured information system is axiomatic.
Amy Gahran has a fantastic article on problems with blogging, which get at some of the root causes of the problems I’m describing: 10 Reasons Why Blogs Are an Awkward Conversation Tool.
I would add to Amy’s observations that blogging is a big ego-fest (again, I’m guilty), which often substitutes “my thought” for “sound thought.”
So enough about the problem, onto solutions — a step that is missed in too much blog commentary. I’m going to offer some suggestions (again, at the risk of pedantry) for how we can improve the quality of thinking and analysis in consumer-created media:
1. Respond directly
Before responding, read the whole post and all comments. Understand what the original post said and the chain of conversation up to that point. Introducing new ideas, perspectives, or counterarguments can often advance the thinking, but not if they’re entirely disconnected from the run of argument.
2. Support your argument
Disagreement makes for great debate, and can be the key to advancing the thinking on an issue, but an argument without support is like a table without legs — it falls down and is not particularly useful to anyone.
3. Pressure test thinking
Be wary of anything that sounds like orthodoxy, especially when discussing innovation or purported revolutions. Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right, but it can also get stuck in neutral. Above all, pressure test your own thinking. We all have our preconceived notions and pet theories. And we may very well be right in some instances — but not just because we insist that we’re right.
4. Look beyond your own experience
Not everyone sees or experiences the world in the same way. Many active participants in the blogosphere are several standard deviations away from the mean. If it works for you or makes sense to you, that doesn’t make it so for everyone else.
5. Value quality over quantity
Read more. Think more. And if necessary, post less. Some blogs do a tremendous service by following the latest developments, but not every blog can or should be newsworthy (or gossip-worthy). The problem of information proliferation is growing exponentially. Try as much as possible to increase the signal-to-noise ratio.
6. Think before you post
Blogging has made it too easy to publish without thinking (maybe those pesky editors were good for something). Try rereading everything at least once, if not several times, before posting it.
I don’t claim to be a sterling example of any of these suggestions, but we all need something to aspire to. As micropublishers, bloggers are liberated from many of the constraints of Old Media — but that doesn’t mean we should be liberated from intellectual standards. Many in Old Media, as well as many media consumers, are wary of blogging because they think it lacks standards, and to a large degree, they’re right. Blogging is dynamic, liberating, and self-empowering, but with that freedom comes responsibility. If consumer-generated media is the wave of the future, then we need to hold it to the highest standard.
(NOTE: The first draft of this post was unfocused and poorly argued, and I re-wrote it several times. I may not have improved it in re-writing it, but at least I tried.)