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October 4, 2015

This blog has gone spamtacular

In August, the comment section of this blog was hit with 13,000 spam messages, which was at the low end of its normal 25k-35k range. At least this is what Akismet tells me. The number of actual comments is usually in 30-50/month range, I think.

In September, my comment sectionss got 186,998 spams. This has driven up my hosting costs rather spectacularly.

My host, — very reasonably priced, a little geeky to use, which is not a bad thing — pointed this out to me. I started checking my WordPress plugins and only then found out that my Akismet API key was no longer valid. I have no idea why it stopped being valid, or when that happened, but I’m hoping it was at the beginning of September. I have reenlisted in Akismet.

Being a dolt, I don’t know if using a comment spam filter like Akismet will reduce the hits on my site, or whether it will simply lower the number of bogus comments I have to manually wade through. I will check tomorrow.

I am also willing to accept ideas today.

(I have temporarily closed comments on posts older than 14 days. Sorry. But it’s not like I get a lot of those.)

UPDATE, that afternoon: The support person at MediaTemple suggested replacing Akismet with WP-Spamshield, and adding WordPress Spam Cleaner to get rid of existing spam. He also suggested this helpful article: Hardening WordPress. Thanks, Media Temple support person!

UPDATE, two days later: My comments traffic has dropped down to its usual trickle. Whew! I’m now going to turn back on the ability to comment on posts older than two weeks, and will see what happens.


September 24, 2015

Feedburning like it's 2004

Oddly, I’m trying out the Feedburner service that lets you subscribe to this blog and have new posts emailed to you once a day.

The real point of this post is to see whether I’ve set it up correctly.

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September 18, 2015

A blogger goes to the Democratic National Convention…9 years ago

I was cleaning up my office now that the transit of Venus has moved it into the House of Mercury, which only happens ever 17 years, and I came across this button:

Convention blogger button

(That’s me now, not nine years ago. Not that there’s any difference at all. None!, I tell you, just a tad too insistently.)

Yes, that’s an official button issued to the about thirty-five bloggers who were given press credentials for the Democratic National Convention of 2004, the one at which the Democrats insured their victory over the vastly unpopular, war-starting George W by nominating John Kerry instead of Howard Dean.

Well, anyway.

This was the first time bloggers had been given press credentials for a national political convention, and it was quite a thrill. Here’s a list of the bloggers from the Wall Street Journal.

And here’s a post of mine with some photos. They’re heavy on correspondents from The Daily Show because they were doing a piece about those durn bloggers. I declined to be interviewed because I am a coward.

Here’s my post about Kerry’s acceptance speech.

Here are some reflections about the experience.

But most of the posts are gone. I was blogging the DNC for the Boston Globe and the posts are gone from its site. Even doesn’t have nuthin’ from the Globe site during that week.

So, yes, History, cry “Alackaday!” and stain your blank pages with salt.

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August 1, 2015

Restoring the Network of Bloggers

It’s good to have Hoder — Hossein Derakhshan— back. After spending six years in an Iranian jail, his voice is stronger than ever. The changes he sees in the Web he loves are distressingly real.

Hoder was in the cohort of early bloggers who believed that blogs were how people were going to find their voices and themselves on the Web. (I tried to capture some of that feeling in a post a year and a half ago.) Instead, in his great piece in Medium he describes what the Web looks like to someone extremely off-line for six years: endless streams of commercial content.

Some of the decline of blogging was inevitable. This was made apparent by Clay Shirky’s seminal post that showed that the scaling of blogs was causing them to follow a power law distribution: a small head followed by a very long tail.

Blogs could never do what I, and others, hoped they would. When the Web started to become a thing, it was generally assumed that everyone would have a home page that would be their virtual presence on the Internet. But home pages were hard to create back then: you had to know HTML, you had to find a host, you had to be so comfortable with FTP that you’d use it as a verb. Blogs, on the other hand, were incredibly easy. You went to one of the blogging platforms, got yourself a free blog site, and typed into a box. In fact, blogging was so easy that you were expected to do it every day.

And there’s the rub. The early blogging enthusiasts were people who had the time, skill, and desire to write every day. For most people, that hurdle is higher than learning how to FTP. So, blogging did not become everyone’s virtual presence on the Web. Facebook did. Facebook isn’t for writers. Facebook is for people who have friends. That was a better idea.

But bloggers still exist. Some of the early cohort have stopped, or blog infrequently, or have moved to other platforms. Many blogs now exist as part of broader sites. The term itself is frequently applied to professionals writing what we used to call “columns,” which is a shame since part of the importance of blogging was that it was a way for amateurs to have a voice.

That last value is worth preserving. It’d be good to boost the presence of local, individual, independent bloggers.

So, support your local independent blogger! Read what she writes! Link to it! Blog in response to it!

But, I wonder if a little social tech might also help. . What follows is a half-baked idea. I think of it as BOAB: Blogger of a Blogger.

Yeah, it’s a dumb name, and I’m not seriously proposing it. It’s an homage to Libby Miller [twitter:LibbyMiller] and Dan Brickley‘s [twitter:danbri ] FOAF — Friend of a Friend — idea, which was both brilliant and well-named. While social networking sites like Facebook maintain a centralized, closed network of people, FOAF enables open, decentralized social networks to emerge. Anyone who wants to participate creates a FOAF file and hosts it on her site. Your FOAF file lists who you consider to be in your social network — your friends, family, colleagues, acquaintances, etc. It can also contain other information, such as your interests. Because FOAF files are typically open, they can be read by any application that wants to provide social networking services. For example, an app could see that Libby ‘s FOAF file lists Dan as a friend, and that Dan’s lists Libby, Carla and Pete. And now we’re off and running in building a social network in which each person owns her own information in a literal and straightforward sense. (I know I haven’t done justice to FOAF, but I hope I haven’t been inaccurate in describing it.)

BOAB would do the same, except it would declare which bloggers I read and recommend, just as the old “blogrolls” did. This would make it easier for blogging aggregators to gather and present networks of bloggers. Add in some tags and now we can browse networks based on topics.

In the modern age, we’d probably want to embed BOAB information in the HTML of a blog rather than in a separate file hidden from human view, although I don’t know what the best practice would be. Maybe both. Anyway, I presume that the information embedded in HTML would be similar to what does: information about what a page talks about is inserted into the HTML tags using a specified vocabulary. The great advantage of is that the major search engines recognize and understand its markup, which means the search engines would be in a position to constructdiscover the initial blog networks.

In fact, has a blog specification already. I don’t see anything like markup for a blogroll, but I’m not very good a reading specifications. In any case, how hard could it be to extend that specification? Mark a link as being to a blogroll pal, and optionally supply some topics? (Dan Brickley works on

So, imagine a BOAB widget that any blogger can easily populate with links to her favorite blog sites. The widget can then be easily inserted into her blog. Hidden from the users in this widget is the appropriate markup. Not only could the search engines then see the blogger network, so could anyone who wanted to write an app or a service.

I have 0.02 confidence that I’m getting the tech right here. But enhancing blogrolls so that they are programmatically accessible seems to me to be a good idea. So good that I have 0.98 confidence that it’s already been done, probably 10+ years ago, and probably by Dave Winer :)

Ironically, I cannot find Hoder’s personal site; is down, at least at the moment.

More shamefully than ironically, I haven’t updated this blog’s blogroll in many years.

My recent piece in The Atlantic about whether the Web has been irremediably paved touches on some of the same issues as Hoder’s piece.


November 7, 2014

The Blogosphere lives!

There was a reason we used that ridiculous word to refer to the loose collection of bloggers: Back in the early 2000s, we were reading one another’s blogs, responding to them, and linking to them. Blogging was a conversational form made solid by links.

It’s time to get back to that. At least for me.

Tweeting’s great. I love Twitter. And I love the weird conversational form it enables. But it’s better at building social relationships than relationships among ideas: I can easily follow you at Twitter, but not ideas: hashtags (lord love ’em) let us do a little tracing of tweetful interactions, but they’re really more for searching than for creating dense clouds of ideas in relation.

Facebook’s great. I mean, not so much for me, but I understand it’s popular with the kids today. But there again the nodes are social more than ideas. Yes, you can certainly get a thread going, but a thread turns the post into the container.’s great. I actually like it a lot, and publish there occasionally. But why? I don’t use if for its fluent writing experience; these days I prefer more rough-hewn tools such as Markdown. Medium is a comfortable way of publishing: posting something in an attractive form in the hope that strangers will read it.

I’m in favor of all of these modalities: the shout-out of tweets, the social threading of Facebook, the old-school-made-new publishing of But…

Blogs are — or at least were — different. They are an individual’s place for speaking out loud, but the relationships that form around them were based on links among posts, not social networks that link among people. I’m all for social networks, but we also need networks of ideas.

Bloggy networks of ideas turn into social links, and that’s a good thing. An entire generation of my friendships formed because we were blogging back and forth, developing and critiquing one another’s ideas, applying them to our own circumstances and frameworks, and doing so respectfully and in good humor. But the nodes and the links in the blogosphere form around topics and ideas, not social relationships.

Blogging was a blogosphere because our writing and our links were open to everyone and had as much persistence as the fluid world of domains enables. You could start at one person’s blog post, click to another, on to another, following an idea around the world…and being predisposed to come back to any of the blogs that helped you understand something in a new way. Every link in every blog tangibly made our shared world richer and more stimulating.

Appropriately, I’m not the only person who misses the ol’ sphere. I came across a post by my blogging friend Thomas Vander Wal. That led me to a post on “Short-form Blogging” by Marco Arment. He links to the always-interesting and often awesome Gina Trapani who also suggests the benefits of thinking about blogging when you have an idea that’s about the size of a paragraph. Jason Snell, too. Jason points to a post by Andy Baio that’s exults about what could be a resurgence of blogging. In the comments section, Seth Godin raises his hand: “I never left.”

Isn’t it obvious how awesome that is? A clickable web of ideas! What a concept!

So, I’m happy to see all the talk about shorter posts as a way of lowering the hurdle to blogging. But my main interest is not in getting more paragraph-length ideas out in the world, although that’s good. But it’s especially good if those paragraphs are in response to other paragraphs, because I’m mainly interested in seeing webs of posts emerge around ideas …. ideas like the value blogs can bring to an ecosystem that has Twitter, Facebook, and Medium in it already.

Blogs aren’t for everyone, but they are for some of us. Blogs aren’t for everything, but they sure as hell are for something.

(And now I have to decide whether I should cross-post this at And tweet out a link.)


May 7, 2014

Putin cracks down on our fellow bloggers

Putin’s crackdown on Russian bloggers is what totalitarian dicks do. And it’s a reminder of how much we should cherish and protect our freedom.

I have nothing to say, but I did not want to leave it unremarked.

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February 7, 2014

When the Web was young and neither was I

Christian Sandvig has a fun post that looks back at his home page from 20 years. (Your “home page” was a place where you could express yourself to others on the World Wide Web.)

Unfortunately, the earliest versions of my home page ( and of my newsletter site ( archived by’s WayBack Machine date back only to 1998. Here they are: Evident Hyperorg (and here are screen captures: Evident Hyperorg).

Evident was the home page for my business, Evident Marketing, Inc. I registered that domain in 1994, I think, so I know I had a home page up for a few years before the archived one. Likewise, was the site for my JOHO newsletter (Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization), and it had been running for a couple of years before 1998.

I was surprised that Hyperorg page didn’t have instructions for surviving a nuclear war, but Google helped me to remember that that was on its own page. Here are the two key illustrations, both taken from How to Survive an Atomic Bomb, by Richard Gerstell, Ph.D., Consultant to the Civil Defense Board (Bantam Books, NYC, 1952).

Lie face down in a ditch to survive a nuke

Wear a hat to survive a nuke

My old font graphic was there, though:

know your fonts, period

And then there’s this lovely animated gif I made to explain the basic principle of the Hyperlinked Organization:

know your fonts, period

I think that’s self-explanatory, don’t you?


January 23, 2014

The Flu

I am just emerging from what I will call “the flu,” even though I have no idea what it was, but to call it “a cold” would be to disrespect it. Flu, suh!

I am, of course, a delicate flower (i.e., a man) so I lay on my back and moaned for several days. Today I am upright and moaning, so that’s progress. (BTW, yes, I did get a flu shot this fall. Thanks for nothing, Evolution via Natural Selection!)

Just to catch you up, not that you need to know, but I started coming down with The Flu on our plane ride home from London through which my wife and I walked for several days. Saturday night we had a Bloggers’ Dinner, which was tremendous fun, although physical space being what it was, the socializing was unevenly distributed. But it was great to see people I know through blogging and hadn’t seen for years, and to meet some new people I hadn’t seen in all my years.

The purpose for our trip was to participate in a meeting at the Cambridge University CRASSH (Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities) about a new program they’re developing in digital humanities. I got to spend a day with an awesome set of people. More later.

From there we went to London for the weekend. London was great fun and I would tell you about it, but I feel an approach of the vapors and now must sleep for 3.5 hours.

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January 8, 2014

What blogging was

At a recent Fellows Hour at the Berkman Center the topic was something like “Whatever happened to blogging?,” with the aim of thinking about how Berkman can take better advantage of blogging as a platform for public discussion. (Fellow Hours are private. No, this is not ironic.) They asked me to begin with some reflections on what blogging once was, because I am old. Rather than repeating what I said, here are some thoughts heavily influenced by the discussion.

And an important preface: What follows is much more of a memoir than a history. I understand that I’m reporting on how blogging looked to someone in a highly privileged position. For example, the blogosphere (remember when that was word?) as I knew it didn’t count LiveJournal as a blogging service, I think because it wasn’t “writerly” enough, and because of demographic differences that themselves reflect several other biases.


I apparently began blogging in 1999, which makes me early to the form. But, I didn’t take to it, and it was only on Nov. 15, 2001 that I began in earnest (blogging every day for twelve years counts as earnest, right?), which puts me on the late edge of the first wave, I believe. Blogging at that point was generating some interest among the technorati, but was still far from mainstream notice. Or, to give another measure, for the first year or so, I was a top 100 blogger. (The key to success: If you can’t compete on quality, redefine your market down.)

Blogging mattered to us more deeply than you might today imagine. I’d point to three overall reasons, although I find it not just hard but even painful to try to analyze that period.

1. Presence. I remember strolling through the vendor exhibits at an Internet conference in the mid 1990s. It seemed to be a solid wall of companies large and small each with the same pitch: “Step into our booth and we’ll show you how to make a home page in just 3 minutes.” Everyone was going to have a home page. I wish that had worked out. But even those of us who did have one generally found them a pain in the neck to update; FTPing was even less fun then than it is now.

When blogs came along, they became the way we could have a Web presence that enabled us to react, respond, and provoke. A home page was a painting, a statue. My blog was me. My blog was the Web equivalent of my body. Being-on-the-Web was turning out to be even more important and more fun than we’d thought it would be.

2. Community. Some of us had been arguing from the beginning of the Web that the Web was more a social space than a publishing, informational or commercial space — “more” in the sense of what was driving adoption and what was making the Web the dominant shaping force of our culture. At the turn of the millennium there was no MySpace (2003) and no Facebook (2004). But there was a blogging. If blogging enabled us to create a Web presence for ourselves, blogging was also self-consciously about connecting those presences into a community. (Note that such generalizations betray that I am speaking blindly from personal experience.)

That’s why blogrolls were important. Your blogroll was a list of links to the bloggers you read and engaged with. It was a way of sending people away from your site into the care of someone else who would offer up her own blogroll. Blogrolls were an early social network.

At least among my set of bloggers, we tried to engage with one another and to do so in ways that would build community. We’d “retweet” and comment on other people’s posts, trying to add value to the discussion. Of course not everyone played by those rules, but some of us had hope.

And it worked. I made friendships through blogging that maintain to this day, sometimes without ever having been in the same physical space.

(It says something about the strength of our community that it was only in 2005 that I wrote a post titled No, I’m not keeping up with your blog. Until that point, keeping up was sort of possible.)

3. Disruption. We were aware that the practice of blogging upset many assumptions about who gets to speak, how we speak, and who is an authority. Although blogging is now taken for granted at best and can seem quaint at worst, we thought we were participating in a revolution. And we were somewhat right. The invisibility of the effects of blogging — what we take for granted — is a sign of the revolution’s success. The changes are real but not as widespread or deep as we’d hoped.

Of course, blogging was just one of mechanisms for delivering the promise of the Net that had us so excited in the first place. The revolution is incomplete. It is yet deeper than we usually acknowledge.

To recapture some of the fervor, it might be helpful to consider what blogging was understood in contrast to. Here are some of the distinctions discussed at the time.

Experts vs. Bloggers. Experts earned the right to be heard. Bloggers signed up for a free account somewhere. Bloggers therefore add more noise than signal to the discussion. (Except: Much expertise has migrated to blogs, blogs have uncovered many experts, and the networking of bloggy knowledge makes a real difference.)

Professionals vs. Amateurs. Amateurs could not produce material as good as professionals because professionals have gone through some controlled process to gain that status. See “Experts vs. Bloggers.”

Newsletters vs. Posts. Newsletters and ‘zines (remember when that was a word?) lowered the barrier to individuals posting their ideas in a way that built a form of Web presence. Blogs intersected uncomfortably with many online newsletters (including mine). Because it was assumed that a successful blog needed new posts every day or so, content for blogs tended to be shorter and more tentative than content in newsletters.

Paid vs. Free. Many professionals simply couldn’t understand how or why bloggers would work for free. It was a brand new ecosystem. (I remember during an interview on the local Boston PBS channel having to insist repeatedly that, no, I really really wasn’t making any money blogging.)

Good vs. Fast. If you’re writing a couple of posts a day, you don’t have time to do a lot of revising. On the other hand, this made blogging more conversational and more human (where “human” = fallible, imperfect, in need of a spelpchecker).

One-way vs. Engaged. Writers rarely got to see the reaction of their readers, and even more rarely were able to engage with readers. But blogs were designed to mix it up with readers and other bloggers: permalinks were invented for this very purpose, as were comment sections, RSS feeds, etc.

Owned vs. Shared. I don’t mean this to refer to copyright, although that often was an important distinction between old media and blogs. Rather, in seeing how your words got taken up by other bloggers, you got to see just how little ownership writers have ever had over their ideas. If seeing your work get appropriated by your readers made you uncomfortable, you either didn’t blog or you stopped up your ears and covered your eyes so you could simulate the experience of a mainstream columnist.

Reputation vs. Presence. Old-style writing could make your reputation. Blogging gave you an actual presence. It was you on the Web.

Writing vs. Conversation. Some bloggers posted without engaging, but the prototypical blogger treated a post as one statement in a continuing conversation. That often made the tone more conversational and lowered the demand that one present the final word on some topic.

Journalists vs. Bloggers. This was a big topic of discussion. Journalists worried that they were going to be replaced by incompetent amateurs. I was at an early full-day discussion at the Berkman Center between Big Time Journalists and Big Time Bloggers at which one of the bloggers was convinced that foreign correspondents would be replaced by bloggers crowd-sourcing the news (except this was before Jeff Howe [twitter: crowdsourcing] had coined the term “crowd-sourcing”). It was very unclear what the relationship between journalism and blogging would be. At this meeting, the journalists felt threatened and the bloggers suffered a bad case of Premature Triumphalism.

Objectivity vs.Transparency Journalists were also quite concerned about the fact that bloggers wrote in their own voice and made their personal points of view known. Many journalists — probably most of them — still believe that letting readers know about their own political stances, etc., would damage their credibility. I still disagree.

I was among the 30 bloggers given press credentials at the 20042005 Democratic National Convention — which was seen as a milestone in the course of blogging’s short history — and attended the press conference for bloggers put on by the DNC. Among the people they brought forward (including not-yet-Senator Obama) was Walter Mears, a veteran and Pulitzer-winning journalist, who had just started a political blog for the Associated Press. I asked who he was going to vote for, but he demurred because then how could we trust his writing? I replied something like, “Then how will we trust your blog?” Transparency is the new objectivity, or so I’ve been told.

It is still the case that for the prototypical blog, it’d be weird not to know where the blogger stands on the issues she’s writing about. On the other hand, in this era of paid content, I personally think it’s especially incumbent on bloggers to be highly explicit not only about where they are starting from, but who (if anyone) is paying the bills. (Here’s my disclosure statement.)


For me, it was Clay Shirky’s Power Law post that rang the tocsin. His analysis showed that the blogosphere wasn’t a smooth ball where everyone had an equal voice. Rather, it was dominated by a handful of sites that pulled enormous numbers, followed by a loooooooooong tail of sites with a few followers. The old pernicious topology had reasserted itself. We should have known that it would, and it took a while for the miserable fact to sink in.

Yet there was hope in that long tail. As Chris Anderson pointed out in a book and article, the area under the long tail is bigger than the area under the short head. For vendors, that means there’s lots of money in the long tail. For bloggers that means there are lots of readers and conversationalists under the long tail. More important, the long tail of blogs was never homogenous; the small clusters that formed around particular interests can have tremendous value that the short head can never deliver.

So, were we fools living in a dream world during the early days of blogging? I’d be happy to say yes and be done with it. But it’s not that simple. The expectations around engagement, transparency, and immediacy for mainstream writing have changed in part because of blogs. We have changed where we turn for analysis, if not for news. We expect the Web to be easy to post to. We expect conversation. We are more comfortable with informal, personal writing. We get more pissed off when people write in corporate or safely political voices. We want everyone to be human and to be willing to talk with us in public.

So, from my point of view, it’s not simply that the blogosphere got so big that it burst. First, the overall media landscape does look more like the old landscape than the early blogosphere did, but at the more local level – where local refers to interests – the shape and values of the old blogosphere are often maintained. Second, the characteristics and values of the blogosphere have spread beyond bloggers, shaping our expectations of the online world and even some of the offline world.

Blogs live.


[The next day:] Suw Charman-Anderson’s comment (below) expresses beautifully much of what this post struggles to say. And it’s wonderful to hear from my bloggy friends.


February 4, 2013

[2b2k] Are all good conversations echo chambers?

Bora Zivkovic, the blog editor at Scientific American, has a great post about bad comment threads. This is a topic that has come up every day this week, which may just be a coincidence, or perhaps is a sign that the Zeitgeist is recognizing that when it talks to itself, it sounds like an idiot.

Bora cites a not-yet-published paper that presents evidence that a nasty, polarized comment thread can cause readers who arrive with no opinion about the paper’s topic to come to highly polarized opinions about it. This is in line with off-line research Cass Sunstein cites that suggests echo chambers increase polarization, except this new research indicates that it increases polarization even on first acquaintance. (Bora considers the echo chamber idea to be busted, citing a prior post that is closely aligned with the sort of arguments I’ve been making, although I am more worried about the effects of homophily — our tendency to hang out with people who agree with us — than he is.)

Much of Bora’s post is a thoughtful yet strongly voiced argument that it is the responsibility of the blog owner to facilitate good discussions by moderating comments. He writes:

So, if I write about a wonderful dinner I had last night, and somewhere in there mention that one of the ingredients was a GMO product, but hey, it was tasty, then a comment blasting GMOs is trolling.

Really? Then why did Bora go out of his way to mention that it was a GMO product? He seems to me to be trolling for a response. Now, I think Bora just picked a bad example in this case, but it does show that the concept of “off-topic” contains a boatload of norms and assumptions. And Bora should be fine with this, since his piece begins by encouraging bloggers to claim their conversation space as their own, rather than treating it as a public space governed by the First Amendment. It’s up to the blogger to do what’s necessary to enable the type of conversations that the blogger wants. All of which I agree with.

Nevertheless, Bora’s particular concept of being on-topic highlights a perpetual problem of conversation and knowledge. He makes a very strong case — nicely argued — for why he nukes climate-change denials from his comment thread. Read his post, but the boiled down version is: (a) These comments are without worth because they do not cite real evidence and most of them are astroturf anyway. (b) They create a polarized environment that has the bad effect of raising unjustified doubts in the minds of readers of the post (as per the research he mentions at the beginning of his post). (c) They prevent conversation from advancing thought because they stall the conversation at first principles. Sounds right to me. And I agree with his subsequent denial of the echo chamber effect as well:

The commenting threads are not a place to showcase the whole spectrum of opinions, no matter how outrageous some of them are, but to educate your readers, and to, in turn, get educated by your readers who always know something you don’t.

But this is why the echo chamber idea is so slippery. Conversation consists of the iteration of small differences upon a vast ground of agreement. A discussion of a scientific topic among readers of Scientific American has value insofar as they can assume that, say, evolution is an established theory, that assertions need to be backed by facts of a certain evidentiary sort (e.g., “God told me” doesn’t count), that some assertions are outside of the scope of discussion (“Evolution is good/evil”), etc. These are criteria of a successful conversation, but they are also the marks of an echo chamber. The good Scientific American conversation that Bora curates looks like an echo chamber to the climate change deniers and the creationists. If one looks only at the structure of the conversation, disregarding all the content and norms, the two conversations are indistinguishable.

But now I have to be really clear about what I’m not saying. I am not saying that there’s no difference between creationists and evolutionary biologists, or that they are equally true. I am not saying that both conversations follow the same rules of evidence. I am certainly not saying that their rules of evidence are equally likely to lead to scientific truths. I am not even saying that Bora needs to throw open the doors of his comments. I’m saying something much more modest than that: To each side, the other’s conversation looks like a bunch of people who are reinforcing one another in their wrong beliefs by repeating those beliefs as if they were obviously right. Even the conversation I deeply believe is furthering our understanding — the evolutionary biologists, if you haven’t guessed where I stand on this issue — has the structure of an echo chamber.

This seems to me to have two implications.

First, it should keep us alert to the issue that Bora’s post tries to resolve. He encourages us to exclude views challenging settled science because including ignorant trolls leads casual visitors to think that the issues discussed are still in play. But climate change denial and creationist sites also want to promote good conversations (by their lights), and thus Bora is apparently recommending that those sites also should exclude those who are challenging the settled beliefs that form the enabling ground of conversation — even though in this case it would mean removing comments from all those science-y folks who keep “trolling” them. It seems to me that this leads to a polarized culture in which the echo chamber problem gets worse. Now, I continue to believe that Bora is basically right in his recommendation. I just am not as happy about it as he seems to be. Perhaps Bora is in practice agreeing with Too Big to Know’s recommendation that we recognize that knowledge is fragmented and is not going to bring us all together.

Second, the fact that we cannot structurally distinguish a good conversation from a bad echo chamber I think indicates that we don’t have a good theory of conversation. The echo chamber fear grows in the space that a theory of conversation should inhabit.

I don’t have a theory of conversation in my hip pocket to give you. But I presume that such a theory would include the notion, evident in Bora’s post, that conversations have aims, and that when a conversation is open to the entire world (a radically new phenomenon…thank you WWW!) those aims should be explicitly stated. Likewise for the norms of the conversation. I’m also pretty sure that conversations are never only about they say they’re about because they are always embedded in complex social environments. And because conversations iterate on differences on a vast ground of similarity, conversations rarely are about changing people’s minds about those grounds. Also, I personally would be suspicious of any theory of conversation that began by viewing conversations as composed fundamentally of messages that are encoded by the sender and decoded by the recipient; that is, I’m not at all convinced that we can get a theory of conversation out of an information-based theory of communication.

But I dunno. I’m confused by this entire topic. Nothing that a good conversation wouldn’t cure.


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