Joho the Blog[2b2k] Long-form and web-form arguments - Joho the Blog

[2b2k] Long-form and web-form arguments

I just re-read Jay Rosen’s piece on objectivity as persuasion more slowly than I did the first time. It’s like watching a master carpenter bang nails. Beautiful.

Jay’s post is #6 in a series. Jay tells me he has at least one more. So far, he’s written 15,000 words … and his commenters have written 96,000. (That second number seems way too high, but it’s based on my copying and pasting the comments (plus Jay’s integrated roundups) into a text editor. My clerical skills are poor, however.)

For Too Big to Know, I’ve written a section (which means I’ll probably be unwriting it tomorrow) taking these six pieces as an example of one type of long-form writing on the Web … or, more exactly, web-form writing. At the end of the discussion, I list advantages and disadvantages of Jay’s webby version of long-form argument versus standard, book-length, printed long-form arguments. In abbreviated form:


1. The argument assumes a natural length.

2. The ground the argument covers is more responsive to the ground itself. Readers will point out neglected areas that the argument requires the author to talk about.

3. The work becomes embedded in a loose-edged discussion that more naturally reflects the messy, intertwingled nature of topics.

4. Readers are given fewer reasons to get off the bus midway. When Darwin writes in Chapter Four of On the Origin of Species that “He who rejects these views on the nature of the geological record, will rightly reject my whole theory,” he’s opening the door and inviting passengers to get off. If Darwin had published in a webby way, he would have discovered unanticipated objections, and he would have been able to meet at least some of them.

5. Ideas get out to their public far faster than the old write-in-private, publish-in-public model.

6. The ideas more successfully escape the grasp of the author so that they can change the world.

7. Readers are more involved in the long argument the author used to be having with himself.

8. The author’s authority gets right-sized. Simply seeing the author engage with readers through comments tells the great percentage of readers who do not leave comments that the author recognizes that her/his words need defense, that her/his authority goes no further than the worth of the ideas.

9. We can see some of the effects of the writer’s words rippling through the culture.


1. Some people don’t like to work this way.

2. Some arguments work better rhetorically if they are presented all at once.

3. Some ideas won’t do well commercially if developed in public for free. Note, though, that it’s not clear that our assumptions here are correct. Cory Doctorow, among others, has succeeded commercially, as well as in the impact of his ideas, by giving away online access to his books even as he sells hardcopies.

4. The published book is a traditional token of expertise and achievement. They look mighty impressive arrayed on one’s bookshelf.

5. It is harder for us to know what to believe, because more voices are present and in contention.

(By the way, these forms of argument are not mutually exclusive. Both and many more as well are present simultaneously on the Net. On the other hand, traditional long-form arguments posted on the Web inevitably become embroiled in web-form arguments, and thus are not unchanged.)

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6 Responses to “[2b2k] Long-form and web-form arguments”

  1. I would suggest that disadvantage #5 might well be considered an advantage. Knowing what to believe SHOULD be hard and require reflection, consideration of context, and explicit appreciation of one’s history, experiences, culture(s) – and those of others, too. That many voices are assembled and brought into contention is, I think, advantageous for the collaborative construction of knowledge. It is that collaboration that seems to me to be characteristic of the ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate world; hence, it is important to challenge the notion that knowledge/belief (tomAYto-toMAHto) should be handed to us in a leather binding.

  2. I second Mark’s thoughtful comment on this thoughtful post.

  3. Mark, yes, certainly it is an advantage theoretically. But there is an empirical question about whether it’s working out better or worse for us. (I say it’s “empirical” but I don’t have an idea how one could test it.) Would we rather have a culture in which at least some set of true beliefs is shared because they’ve been inculcated in our children and blare at us over the broadcast media, or one in which a large majority freely believes a hodgepodge of false things?

    Yes, I know that’s a false opposition. OTOH, in the US, only 40% of people believe that humans evolved from another species. On the other other hand, that’s what we got from the FIRST alternative, so apparently that one doesn’t work so well either.

    My own unsupported view is that the Net lets us be smarter about the things we want to be smarter about, and way dumber about the things we want to be dumb about.

    Nicely put, by the way, Mark.

  4. Benoit Mandelbrot spoke about “roughness” in Long Beach earlier this year.
    Among the things I find interesting in that talk is the concept of the infinitely long coastline. Unlike the whole Zeno trip, this idea is actually supported by the math and by reason.

    The chaotic nature of our loose-edged discussions, the messy intertwingularity (your advantage number 3), is nicely reflected in the metaphor of fractals. I wonder if the the decomposition of messy arguments into smaller and smaller self-similar pieces is actually an advantage, an aid to understanding, learning, teaching, convincing–knowing–or a disadvantage due to the self bounding nature, the infinite regression of echoes repetitive and audible only to those within the boundary of the discussion?

    I liked Mark’s comment.

    I like printed paper.

    I like electronic access.

  5. Objectivity was not seen as a positive thing before the last great information revolution – the electric (as opposed to

    electronic) revolution following the introduction of the telegraph and telephone.

    Newspapers and therefore journalists were unabashedly partisan. Then newspaper owners realized that they made the

    most money by selling their circulation numbers to advertisers and therefore opted for “objectivity” as a way to

    increase circulation and thereby increase advertising revenue.

    That practice has led to a certain amount of timidity. As per the Harvard study on the NY times changing their word usage in reference to water boarding as torture once it became “too controversial” see Jay Rosen, Washington Monthlyand Three Quarks Daily

    However, in this information revolution advertising dollars may well go to some very opinionated bloggers and, as we

    see with fox news, mainstream media is becoming less “objective”. So a major shift in journalistic practice is already under way.

    From my book in progress Information Revolutions: Hunter/Gatherers to Internet 2.0

  6. […] JOURNALISMUS David Weinbergers Gedanken zu Jay Rosens Text über Objektivität: […]

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