Another Blogospheric Advantage

by on March 3, 2007

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.

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