Another Blogospheric Advantage

by on March 3, 2007 · 24 comments

One more point on the comparison of newspapers and blogs. I definitely think this is backwards:

The other side of the problem can happen with the bloggers doing fact gathering that Lee mentions: their main incentive to be fair and balanced is reputation, but how do you track the reputations of millions of amateur reporters in the field around the world?

I think this is a common problem when thinking about peer-produced institutions like the blogosphere. From the outside, they look totally chaotic, and therefore totally anarchic and unreliable. But the reality is quite different. Yes, there are 10 million bloggers and no one could have even a cursory knowledge of all of them. But any given reader doesn’t read “the blogosphere.” They read 10-100 specific blogs. And they tend to read the same blogs, day in and day out, for months or even years. So every blog with a non-trivial readership does have a significant number of people tracking its reputation.


Moreover, bloggers read each other, creating a web of trust that’s an important part of vetting information on the blogosphere. Blogs don’t link to one another totally at random. Bloggers typically read and link to stories they find on sites on their blogrolls. So when an obscure blog finds an interesting story, what will happen is that it will get linked to by a succession of more-prominent blogs, with each blog in the chain being a blog that reads the preceding blog regularly. Hence, the chain of links serves as a kind of reputational paper trail, offering some evidence that the original source is more likely to be credible.

Compare that with mainstream newspapers, in which you don’t subscribe to individual authors, but to the newspaper as a whole. With the exception of a few columnists, most of the contributors to a newspaper are not widely known by their readers. In those cases, all of the vetting is put on the shoulders of the paper’s editorial staff. You have to take it on faith that the editor of the paper has good judgment in choosing reporters. And if you conclude that some of the papers’ reporters are not trustworthy, you don’t have a whole lot of options—at least you didn’t before the Internet came along.

Blogs also have a lot of internal mechanisms for feedback and fact-checking that newspapers simply don’t have. Most blogs have comment sections that allow readers to immediately point out errors in posts. Bloggers have the ability to update posts with corrections as new information comes to light. It’s far more common for bloggers to make posts criticizing the work of other bloggers. And it’s also likely that if Blogger A readers Blogger B, then many of Blogger B’s readers also read Blogger A. That means that if a particular blogger is caught playing fast and loose with the facts, it’s far more likely that there will be another blogger with both the knowledge and the audience to bring the mistakes to light.

There just isn’t anything comparable with a newspaper. If the newspaper is run by people with integrity, you’ll see a correction in the next day’s paper or a letter to the editor pointing out the mistake. But neither of these are likely to reach a significant number of the people who read the original mistake, and both of them are at the discretion of the newspaper.

So bloggers have both a stronger incentive to safeguard their reputations and more opportunities to hold their fellow bloggers’ feet to the fire than do the mainstream media. I think this consideration clearly cuts in favor of the blogosphere.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    This post reminds me of the claims we used to make for the blogosphere during the Golden Age of Blogging in 2002. Nobody of any stature holds such naive views any more.

    Blogs are a fine way to fact-check the media, and not such a fine way to fact-check themselves. There’s too much link-love going on for blogs to be genuinely critical of each other, and too many commercial interests in the various blog consortia, formal and otherwise.

    Blogs aren’t the place to go for facts, they’re the place to go for a lot of snark and a little opinion. Think breadth, not depth.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    This post reminds me of the claims we used to make for the blogosphere during the Golden Age of Blogging in 2002. Nobody of any stature holds such naive views any more.

    Blogs are a fine way to fact-check the media, and not such a fine way to fact-check themselves. There’s too much link-love going on for blogs to be genuinely critical of each other, and too many commercial interests in the various blog consortia, formal and otherwise.

    Blogs aren’t the place to go for facts, they’re the place to go for a lot of snark and a little opinion. Think breadth, not depth.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I agree with Richard. The blogosphere rarely criticizes its own, aside from attacks across ideological lines. For example, Michelle Malkin’s stats were demonstrated by Vox Day to be completely wrong in her book on internment. Seriously wrong to the point of negating her thesis. Only Vox and Eric Alterman, IIRC, called her out, and none of the other major bloggers went after her for that. If it had been the MSM, it would have been Rathergate times ten, but she got off the hook. The blogosphere doesn’t police its own. Rather, what it is good at is forming cliques.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I agree with Richard. The blogosphere rarely criticizes its own, aside from attacks across ideological lines. For example, Michelle Malkin’s stats were demonstrated by Vox Day to be completely wrong in her book on internment. Seriously wrong to the point of negating her thesis. Only Vox and Eric Alterman, IIRC, called her out, and none of the other major bloggers went after her for that. If it had been the MSM, it would have been Rathergate times ten, but she got off the hook. The blogosphere doesn’t police its own. Rather, what it is good at is forming cliques.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Mike,

    I didn’t say every blog was of high quality. Michelle Malkin’s readers are mostly people who would have been listening to Rush Limbaugh a decade ago. These aren’t former New York Times readers. One of the downsides to more diversity is that you get more crap, and so readers are less protected from their lousy tastes. The point is that if you’re looking for good content, there’s plenty to be found, not that every blog does a great job.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Mike,

    I didn’t say every blog was of high quality. Michelle Malkin’s readers are mostly people who would have been listening to Rush Limbaugh a decade ago. These aren’t former New York Times readers. One of the downsides to more diversity is that you get more crap, and so readers are less protected from their lousy tastes. The point is that if you’re looking for good content, there’s plenty to be found, not that every blog does a great job.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I know you didn’t, but I am saying that we have yet to see people like that get taken down a notch or completely discredited. Where is the evidence that the blogosphere is self-correcting except on an individual basis with honest bloggers.

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    I know you didn’t, but I am saying that we have yet to see people like that get taken down a notch or completely discredited. Where is the evidence that the blogosphere is self-correcting except on an individual basis with honest bloggers.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Mike, what exactly do you expect to happen to Michelle Malkin? That the blog police should arrest her? Her punishment is that her readers are morons.

    I don’t think the fact that Michelle Malkin still has a popular blog proves anything in particular about the blogosphere in general. Paris Hilton still has a career as a celebrity. Dan Brown still has a career as a writer. The blogosphere—like the free market—caters to bad tastes as well as good ones. If Malkin got run over by a bus, her readers wouldn’t suddenly start reading high-quality blogs, they’d just find another talentless demagogue to read.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Mike, what exactly do you expect to happen to Michelle Malkin? That the blog police should arrest her? Her punishment is that her readers are morons.

    I don’t think the fact that Michelle Malkin still has a popular blog proves anything in particular about the blogosphere in general. Paris Hilton still has a career as a celebrity. Dan Brown still has a career as a writer. The blogosphere—like the free market—caters to bad tastes as well as good ones. If Malkin got run over by a bus, her readers wouldn’t suddenly start reading high-quality blogs, they’d just find another talentless demagogue to read.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Your post argues that blogs are more rigorously fact-checked than traditional media.

    There is no evidence for this assertion, or for the corollary that fact-checking blogs has any consequences.

    Bloggers want traffic, and they all depend on the mother blogs of their genre for most of it, hence they’re not going to correct or criticize the Big Blogs that give them their link-love.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Your post argues that blogs are more rigorously fact-checked than traditional media.

    There is no evidence for this assertion, or for the corollary that fact-checking blogs has any consequences.

    Bloggers want traffic, and they all depend on the mother blogs of their genre for most of it, hence they’re not going to correct or criticize the Big Blogs that give them their link-love.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    The blogosphere gives readers more control over their reading experience. If readers care about reading bloggers who take accuracy and objectivity seriously, there are plenty of bloggers like that, and plenty of ways for readers to find them and distinguish them from the hacks. For those readers who just want their ideological prejudices confirmed, there’s Michelle Malkin.

    I don’t know what blogs you read, but the blogs I read criticize one another all the time. Obviously, it’s more common across ideological lines, but even within a given ideological category, respectful disagreement and criticism is pretty common. Some blogs are obviously more like echo chambers, but no more so than Fox News and the Washington Times.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    The blogosphere gives readers more control over their reading experience. If readers care about reading bloggers who take accuracy and objectivity seriously, there are plenty of bloggers like that, and plenty of ways for readers to find them and distinguish them from the hacks. For those readers who just want their ideological prejudices confirmed, there’s Michelle Malkin.

    I don’t know what blogs you read, but the blogs I read criticize one another all the time. Obviously, it’s more common across ideological lines, but even within a given ideological category, respectful disagreement and criticism is pretty common. Some blogs are obviously more like echo chambers, but no more so than Fox News and the Washington Times.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    This has me scratching my head: “more control over their reading experience”.

    My “reading experience” is casting my eyes across lines of words and making pictures on the back of my cornea which excites neurons and causes chemical reactions in my over-taxed brain. Words on a blog and words on an MSM web site exist in the same relationship to my cerebral cortex, or so I’ve been led to believe.

    Is there a magic brainwashing element in the MSM web sites that nobody told me about? I’ll have to e-mail some of my journalist friends and get the antidote.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    This has me scratching my head: “more control over their reading experience”.

    My “reading experience” is casting my eyes across lines of words and making pictures on the back of my cornea which excites neurons and causes chemical reactions in my over-taxed brain. Words on a blog and words on an MSM web site exist in the same relationship to my cerebral cortex, or so I’ve been led to believe.

    Is there a magic brainwashing element in the MSM web sites that nobody told me about? I’ll have to e-mail some of my journalist friends and get the antidote.

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Richard, you’re not that dense, are you? The point is that you have a lot more options, and much finer-grained control over whose content you get (i.e. you can subscribe to individual bloggers rather than having to purchase a whole newspaper). Therefore, if you have poor judgment, you’re likely to end up reading worse-quality material in the blogosphere (because editors don’t weed it out for you), but if you’ve got good taste, you’re likely to find higher-quality material (because there are more options to choose from).

  • http://www.techliberation.com/ Tim Lee

    Richard, you’re not that dense, are you? The point is that you have a lot more options, and much finer-grained control over whose content you get (i.e. you can subscribe to individual bloggers rather than having to purchase a whole newspaper). Therefore, if you have poor judgment, you’re likely to end up reading worse-quality material in the blogosphere (because editors don’t weed it out for you), but if you’ve got good taste, you’re likely to find higher-quality material (because there are more options to choose from).

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Right, you’re comparing blogs to print, and I’m comparing blogs to on-line MSM web sites. “Control”, or rather, “choice” (in the new formulation) is equal.

    So which is more credible, better fact-checked, and more accountable? Clearly, it’s not the blogs. The more people read an MSM article, the more people fact-check it. And most of blogging is still commenting on articles from the MSM. Reporters have their e-mail addresses on-line, and letters columns take e-mail. We’re all connected.

    Blogosphere triumphalism was common in the old days, because nobody knew better, but by now it should be abundantly clear that blogs are a partisan medium whose main purposes are expressing opinion, polarizing the electorate, and forming coalitions around dubious causes. They do a great job at that, but at reporting the news, not so great.

  • http://bennett.com/blog Richard Bennett

    Right, you’re comparing blogs to print, and I’m comparing blogs to on-line MSM web sites. “Control”, or rather, “choice” (in the new formulation) is equal.

    So which is more credible, better fact-checked, and more accountable? Clearly, it’s not the blogs. The more people read an MSM article, the more people fact-check it. And most of blogging is still commenting on articles from the MSM. Reporters have their e-mail addresses on-line, and letters columns take e-mail. We’re all connected.

    Blogosphere triumphalism was common in the old days, because nobody knew better, but by now it should be abundantly clear that blogs are a partisan medium whose main purposes are expressing opinion, polarizing the electorate, and forming coalitions around dubious causes. They do a great job at that, but at reporting the news, not so great.

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