January 23rd, 2006

Blogging to a Higher Standard


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).

For example, Stowe Boyd responded to my post about fixing RSS by saying:

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:

Here’s the real problem — 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…

RSS rant

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.

And then…

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.)

  • Scott,

    Glad you asked about the women in media thing! You know, I have a speculation, but not sure it's a bona fide or proveable answer. Some of it has to do with the discussions that went around during the Michael Kinsley/Susan Estrich nastiness, where Estrich raised the fact that there are so few women in high editorial positions in newspapers (although Estrich shot herself in the foot during the whole thing by bringing up Kinsley's health--was a low blow and probably blew it for a lot of women).

    But she was right: there are few women on editorial pages and few justifiable reasons for the lack. And, it's not that we don't want to be--but that, IMO, we don't get the chance. There are some glass ceilings still out there, and this is one of them. Why this remains? I don't know. Could be newsroom attitude--could be the whole "newspaperman" ideal--there are probably lots of variables.

    When it comes to media commentary, and discussions like this one, as I said, I don't think there are alot of women who really enjoy this kind of quasi-philosophical wrangling with concepts. It's a "guy thing"....think about how many women go in for philosophy ph.d.s and you can see what I mean.

    However, I'd like to address a point that Seth brings up--that even if you no longer list your affiliation on your About page, you're still Google-able. Oh, and the social network of blogging is helping you, too....look at the comments! People read and follow them, too.

    I do, though like this point that you make: nn

    Frankly, I’m surprised that there’s been no response to my conclusion, which is that if blogging is to be a serious alternative to Old Media, then it needs to hold itself to higher standards — if blogging is a just a hobby, then sure we can just be spontaneous. But if we’re “media” then we have a certain degree of responsibility. I believe in the notion of citizen journalism, but “conversation” feels a little bit too casual as a paradigm for something so important. (Sorry to get so serious, but I think it’s a serious issue.)


    The thing is, not all bloggers are on the same page as to what blogging is or is not. There are loads of bloggers who have no clue about Technorati. There are loads of bloggers who have no clue about conversations like this one. There are minions of the clueless, so trying to establish a standard is tough. Those of us who know one another, respect one another, can perpetuate the standard among ourselves and hope it reaches others. But, for the moment, we have to kind of look at comments as conversation because that's what "folks" understand.

    (dang! I'm long winded today!)

  • Scott, I understood what you meant about the main listing. I had such a listing myself recently (frankly surprising, given that I'd simply tossed up the post to get some use out of some other writing):


    34 unique visitors from tech.memeorandum. I'll take them, but hardly impressive.
    In my experience, it's not a huge traffic driver, so yes, I've wondered if there's an error somewhere. People make mistakes in reading reports, or statistics programs get fooled by blog-spammers or buggy aggregators, etc.

    Regarding being a media person, for one simple example, you have "Romenesko" on your blogroll, that's almost a secret handshake in itself :-). From the description line "The Business of Publishing in the Digital Age", the topics, the tags, the sites on the blogroll, it's immediately apparent you're a professional media person on the business end of that industry - before reading anything much in the posts themselves, or even your name.
    This isn't a magic trick. It should be regarded as obvious.

    How can the bogosphere be seriously said to self-correct when the top blogs are often the most incorrect? (or at least the most partisan - it doesn't matter which side of a partisan divide you're on, as a rule, they can't both be correct!)

    I've thought a lot about how one might make a system work, and sadly, the result has pretty much been that I don't know. That is, it's very clear why the system doesn't work - at the core, it's popularity over accuracy. To me, it's like asking "How do you get rich?" I don't know. However, I do know that e.g. playing the lottery essentially won't work. But when I say that, the promoters often reply "But the barriers to entry for buying a lottery ticket are very low. And every ticket can win. And look at that guy, he won, it's *possible*. All you need is a dollar and a dream, err, a blog and an RSS feed". Any analysis that can't handle simple mathematics - that the lottery has around a negative 50% expected return, or the exponential distribution and echoing structure of the bogosphere - is meaningless.

  • Seth, are you thinking of the tech.memeorandum listing where your blog is listed as one of the commenters? I'm talking about when your blog post is the main listing: http://tech.memeorandum.com/06.... Are you really dubious that this type of exposure can generate that much traffic? I'm surprised I didn't get more? Paul's site generated some traffic, but only a fraction of what I got from tech.memeorandum. The fact that you're trying to explain this away by suggesting I can't read my stats logs is telling.

    And what do you mean that it's clear from my site that I'm a media person? Is it the appearance? Or that I sound on rare occasion like I might know what I'm talking about? Because I don't see why I have to work for a media company for my site to look like a media site -- I just have to know something about media. I made a conscious decision not to title my site Scott's Random Thoughts on Random Stuff (like so many sites I've seen). I purposely chose a clean, uncluttered layout. So much of this is how you come across -- if you want to be taken seriously you have to look the part. But I think there are many ways to do that.

    You're absolutely right that accuracy is not enough -- who wants to read something that's unappealing. But given the blogosphere's ability to self-correct, I don't agree that appealing but inaccurate is going to be any more successful than accurate but unappealing. And I think you're being way too dismissive of the A-list, suggesting that much of what they do is just the "standard name-dropping conference-attending post." Sure, there's plenty of that, and while I don't think the A-list is MORE likely to be insightful than people on the Z-list, I don't think they are necessarily LESS likely.

    I'm curious -- since you seem to think the system is flawed, how should it work?

  • Scott, are you saying that you got 330 unique visitors specifically with referer fields listing tech.memeorandum as the source? I'm kind of dubious it has that sort of effect. Are you sure you're not misreading something? I'd believe 330 visitors *total*, from *all* sources, but not memeorandum itself. Checking over the sequence of comments, there's a lot of mentions of Kedrosky. I'd have guessed that to be the prime source of traffic to you.

    Regarding "writing interesting posts that hit on key issues has little to do with it." - well, it's actually that interesting posts are a factor that is far from dominant. This is proved by how much attention an A-lister can get by writing the sort of standard name-dropping conference-attending post. I mean, those are interesting posts in an Entertainment Tonight way, but I don't think it's what you had in mind. On the other hand, a Z-lister can write his or her heart out, and if it's not pitched to the right gatekeepers, in essence, NOBODY WILL READ IT. The important point here is that this is mathematically true. Given the exponential nature of the power-law distribution, there are very few high attention slots available for all the material competing for them. In sum, "interesting" is just one factor among many. It's very clear from your site that you're a media person. Why deny that you bring your social network with you?

    Now, to try to connect this all back to the main topic, does "interesting" mean "appealing", or "accurate"? Of course in an ideal world everything would be both. But in a contest between "appealing but inaccurate" versus "accurate but unappealing", which is likely to garner the lion's share of attention? Again, this is a *structural* issue.

  • Wow, great conversation. Allow me to catch up.

    Seth, where to begin? First, I got 330 unique visitors last Saturday when one of my posts hit the top spot on tech.memeorandum, which dwarfed all other sources of traffic combined, so it feels a lot like a cause to me. I wrote about a topic on a lot of people's minds, the problem with RSS, picking up on a previous post by Paul Kedrosky, who then linked to my post after I emailed him (no mention of my affiliation!), and wham, there it was on tech.mememorandum, where it stayed for most of the day.

    Maybe I've had an easier time getting attention because of my professional affiliation, but you seem to be suggesting that writing interesting posts that hit on key issues has little to do with it. The vast majority of the links to my site refer to me as Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 -- has the quality of what I've written done nothing to help build that brand? And these links were mostly from people I suspect couldn't care less where I work or have ever even heard of it (many were outside the US). Also, according to my site stats, most people don't check out my About page (which no longer lists my affiliation). So I don't think you've disproven the converse of your argument, which is that those who are not getting enough attention don't have good enough material (or professional looking sites, or a host of other factors) -- I DON'T believe that's true. As you may have gathered, I'm skeptical of any argument pushed to the extreme. As with so many things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle (although no one seems particularly satisfied when I conclude that).

    Mathew, thank you for engaging in this debate, because you make it interesting :) I completely agree that taking my suggestions to the extreme would take all the spontaneity (and fun) out of blogging. I'm not suggesting "rigorous pressure testing" or overly rigorous anything -- I made it clear that my suggestions were aspirations, not limits to be stringently applied. Frankly, I'm surprised that there's been no response to my conclusion, which is that if blogging is to be a serious alternative to Old Media, then it needs to hold itself to higher standards -- if blogging is a just a hobby, then sure we can just be spontaneous. But if we're "media" then we have a certain degree of responsibility. I believe in the notion of citizen journalism, but "conversation" feels a little bit too casual as a paradigm for something so important. (Sorry to get so serious, but I think it's a serious issue.)

    Tish, it's fascinating and enlightening to understand what's going on beyond my own experience, so thank you. One thing you said really jumped out at me, that you and Amy "are but a handful of women who are interested in this sort of commentary and debate (who aren’t already in media and who are bloggers)" Why is this so?

    All, thank you for this fascinating and multi-faceted discussion. I'm enjoying this tremendously.

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