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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 (hperorg.com/evident.com) and of my newsletter site (hyperorg.com) archived by Archive.org’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, Hyperorg.com 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?

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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.

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September 10, 2013

Future of journalism

I’m at a Riptide forum at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the “digital disruption of the news.” The place is packed. Digital Riptide consists of 60 interviews. The panel discussion is with Tim Armstrong, AOL; Caroline Little, Newspaper Association of America; Arthur Sulzberger Jr., The New York Times. It’s moderated by Martin Nisenholtz.

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

[I came in a few minutes late...]

Caroline Little: Audiences aren’t the problem. They’re growing. Revenue is the challenge.

Arthur Sulzberg: “We’re losing our first teeth and growing our new teeth. It’s painful. But what’s coming will be bigger” in reach and impact.

Q [Martin Nisenholtz]: Tim, you paid $315M for The Huffington Post. Jeff Bezos paid $250M for The Washington Post. Did Bezos get a better deal than you?

Tim Armstrong: No, Huffpo is worth more than people thought. It’s gone from 0 to 100M video views, for example. It’s got 100% digital DNA. I once owned a Boston newspaper, but saw Mosaic at MIT and knew I had to get out of that business. “I think I got a great deal with Huffpo and I think Jeff got a good deal on the WaPo, depending on what he does with it.”

Q: Caroline, you ran the WaPo digital division. Was it inevitable that they’d sell to Bezos or could they have done someting to change that future?

CL: It wasn’t inevitable. Now newspapers really have to understand their audiences. Taking it private will remove some pressure. The Grahams were trying to put the WaPo in the best possible place for the future, and that took courage.

Q: What is the nature of authority in a world where there are tens of thousands of verticalized publications on every conceivable topic?

AS: Authority is still about accuracy, breadth, calling out your own mistakes, and having experienced people on the ground, not parachuting them in. Few news organizations have bureaus around the world or even the country. The joy of the digital era is the speed and the reach, and the ability to take in points of view very quickly and bring them into a story line. It’s a remarkable opportunity. The downside is clear. Suddenly everyone is looking at the photo of the Boston bomber. Everyone knows it’s him. But it’s not. That kind of accuracy is critical. [I think AS thinks his characterization of authority bolsters the newspaper's case, but I don't think it does. I trust the specialized bloggers/sites on particular topics more than I trust the newspaper. E.g., I get far more in depth and more authoritative coverage of telecom policy from blogs and mailing lists than I do from the NYT. As for Reddit's misidentification of the Boston bomber: Yes, it was a dreadful mistake. But it was done transparently in public and was immediately corrected. <cough>Judith Miller</cough>.]

Q: Tim, you were interviewed and spoke enthusiastically about Patch. Since then you’ve downsized it. What’s so hard about local journalism?

Tim: We rolled it out to 900 of the best GDP [I think] communities in the US. It was about the authoritative nature of local journalism. Patch’s expansion was rapid. This summer we realized there are 500 Patches that work, and 400 with traffic but we’re not part of that business model. Patch will continue to go one post-partnerships because there’s such an acute need for local info. We’ll probably do partnerships. AOL will own some, and traditional media companies will own some.

Caroline: 85% of all media coverage of stories starts with newspapers.

Q: There’s never been a large, truly international paper. What’s the model for going global with a US news brand?

AS: The International Herald Tribune is owned by the NYT. We’re re-branding it in October as the International NYT. This is just a step. We’re fixing things; e.g., we didn’t used to let you subscribe using Euro currency. But: I met with aa Chinese general. She began by talking in an angry way. We had just begun to charge for Web access, and every morning she’d go to the NYT site but it wouldn’t accept her credit card. We fixed it, but the point is that a Chinese general was going to the NYT site the first thing in the morning. What an opportunity!

Q: Young people don’t seem to be willing to pay for media on the Web. As they mature, will they be willing to pay to for a digital subscription to the NYT?

AS: More and more young people, and all people, are willing to pay for an experience they value on the Web. Thank you, Steve Jobs! But it’s not as if 14 yr olds were ever buying newspapers.

Q: Tim, you create some content, and you do deals to provide access to your audience. How do you decide what you’ll cover and what others will?

TA: Our theory is that people care about a limited amount of things. As they get older, they spend more time with things that matter. We want to be the most human-based company in terms of what people care about. E.g., we’re running TechCrunch Disrupt now. 3,000 people. Just about all the major figures in the tech space. This is an influencer space that we have a major major major amount of mindshare in. The second generation of our strategy is to build out massive content partnerships. And a giant B2B strategy; we service about 40K other publishers with video, ads and content-sharing. Our content theory: let’s invest in the most important areas of journalism and content, build B2B, and have relationships with people in the most important areas of their lives. HuffPo is an influencer. It’s a global info source. It’s a trusted brand. E.g., see our coverage of the selection of the new Pope.

Q&A

Q: Will reporters inevitably have less time to research a story?

AS: The pace has certainly picked up. But we’re still engaged in long form journalism. E.g., Snowfall.

TA: 30-40% of the traffic is on mobiles. Mobile adds consumption, typically about 30%. This changes how news works: If you don’t have a brand like the NYT, you’ll mix low appeal with high appeal

CL: Newsrooms are smaller, but they’d send 15 people to cover the Olympics. Do you really need that? Many newspapers now are investing in longer-form reporting.

Q: What makes global journalism work? The size of the city?

CL: Trust and authenticity. People still trust newspapers.

Q: What do you look for in journalists’ skills?

AS: We didn’t focus fast enough on hiring engineers to build systems and tools.

Q: TV broadcasters are using time efficiently. E.g., Netflix released an entire series at once. How are you experimenting with how to bundle and release investigative reporting?

AS: We’re always experimenting. E.g., We printed Snowfall as a full section, but the experience on the Web was so immensely powerful because of the video, the sound, etc.

TA: We look at how you disrupt readers’ behavior. I always say you can’t beat ESPN Sports Center by being 5% better. You have to be 75% better. Also you need distribution partnerships; that disrupts when your content is released.

Q: [couldn't hear]

TA: If you look at how people use phones and tablets, the fact is that the average TV is 22 mins of content and 8 mins of commercial. When you watch how people use content, you’ll see trusted brands and faster content. [I had trouble hearing this.] People want to be told what they want to see. The future will be very curated and disruptively time-based.

Q: How do you view social media? Does the capacity to share overcome the limitations of 140 characters?

CL: I think Twitter is like a caption to a photograph. If it’s engaging, you’ll go find more about it.

AS: Twitter is a powerful tool, both in and out.

TA: Twitter is best known for short content, but they’re going to be changing that.

CL: Twitter is great for sources.

AS: This isn’t new. People said you can’t trust what people would say over a telephone wire. Telegrams were thought by some to be the death of newspapers. Twitter is a tool that we’re all getting better and better at using.

Q: From Twitter: How do you choose your political angle?

TA: We have a news chooser that lets you customize the news. HuffPo started more with a political angle. Now there are lots of forums set up for people with different political views. But we [AOL? HuffPo?] have our own voice.

AS: The Net is bringing us back to the written word. Radio, TV, telephone all took us away from that. We’re learning that using any single method will fail.

Q: Tim, you said “not just everyone can be a journalist.” How about bloggers who steal content?

TA: Anyone can be a journalist if they want to be. But consumers are smart. They know who’s stealing information and who isn’t. What you see happening in the blogging community are people taking advantage of situations to be disruptive to gain audience. I would not undercut the ability of people building blogs on specific topics disrupting newspapers.

Q: 5B people may be coming on line in the next decades. How does that change the target audience for online journalism?

The possibilities of our growth and the value of the quality of the info we can provide are immense.

TA: As the developing world comes online, they’ll come online with higher bandwidth.

1 Comment »

July 20, 2013

The Rolling Stone cover: Outrage and sympathy

CNN.com has posted my op-ed about the Rolling Stone cover that features Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. It’s not the favorite thing I’ve ever written, but I had about an hour to do a draft.

There are two things I know I’d change without even going through the scary process of re-reading it:

First, CNN edited out any direct assertion that the Tsarnaev’s are guilty. So, there are some “alleged”s awkwardly inserted, and some language that works around direct attribution of guilt. I’m in favor of the presumption of innocence, of course. But inserting the word “alleged” is a formalism without real effect, except when the allegedly alleged murderer’s lawyers call. But, I get it. (CNN also removed some of the links I’d put, including to the cover itself and to the Wikipedia NPOV policy.)

Second, I wanted to say something more directly about the distinction between the sympathy that feels bad for someone’s troubles and the sympathy that lets us understand where the person is coming from. My post too quickly rules out sympathy of any kind because I knew that if I asked for sympathetic understanding, many readers would accuse me of feeling sympathetic toward the perpetrator rather than toward his victims, as if one rules out the other. So, I opted to strike any positive use of the term. (Of course that didn’t stop many of the commenters from claiming that I’m excusing the Tsarnaevs. Ridiculous.)

So, I’ll say it here: sympathetic understanding is a crucial human project, and, in truth, it often does lead toward sympathetic feelings. For example, in The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer leads us through the story of the mass killer Gary Gilmore, providing explanations that implicitly run the gamut from psychological to economic to social to Nietzschean to Freudian [1]. Inevitably we do feel some emotional sympathy for Gilmore, although without thinking him one whit less culpable. It sucked to be Gary Gilmore, and that doesn’t mean it didn’t suck far worse to be one of his victims.

In the same way, the common narrative about the Tsarnaev brothers (which I, too, accept) is that the older brother was a rotten apple who drew the younger brother into evil. I think the story of how the younger brother became “radicalized” — in quotes because it is an exteriorized word — is more interesting to most of us than how the older brother got there. If and when they make the movie, the part of the younger brother will be the plum role. That’s the narrative that has been served to us, and there are reasons to think that it’s basically right: the younger brother didn’t show signs of radicalization — his friends were genuinely shocked — while the older brother did. (The Rolling Stone article elaborates this narrative by explaining not only how the younger came to his beliefs, but also by showing that he kept the change hidden.) This narrative also fits well into our cultural narrative about youth being innocent until corrupted. But my point is not that the narrative is true or false or both or neither. It is that we generally hold to that narrative in this case, and it is a narrative that naturally engenders some element of emotional sympathy for the corrupted youth. And what’s wrong with that? Sympathy doesn’t have to take sides. Our judgment does that. Understanding how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went from innocent to a murderer of children (allegedly!) and what it was like to be him doesn’t mean that I hold him less culpable, that I want his sentence reduced, or — most importantly — that I now have less sympathy for his victims. Indeed, the whole power of The Narrative depends upon our continuing horror at what he did.

To say otherwise is to deny the power of narrative and art. It means we should ban not just The Executioner’s Song but also In Cold Blood, Crime and Punishment and even Madame Bovary, each of which bring us to both cognitive and emotional sympathy for people who did bad things [2]. It is also to deny that evil is the act of humans and thus is a possibility for each of us, at least in a “there but for the grace of God” sense.[3] And, to my way of thinking, our outrage at any attempt to understand those who commit incontrovertibly evil acts is intended exactly to silence that scariest of thoughts.


[1] It’s been decades since I read The Executioner’s Song, so I’m probably misrepresenting which exact explanatory theories Mailer employs.

[2] I know Madame Bovary is different because her acts of adultery even within the frame of the book are so thoroughly understandable.

[3] At the last minute when finishing this post, I removed a sentence referencing Hannah Arendt’s complex phrase “the banality of evil.” It raised too many issues for a final paragraph. (And I have a sense I will regret including Madame Bovary in the list. See footnote 2.)

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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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August 16, 2012

Authors don’t scale. Topics do.

I suspect there’s a lot of truth in Richard MacManus’ post at ReadWriteWeb about where Web publishing is going. In particular, I think the growth of topic streams is pretty much close to inevitable, whether this occurs via Branch + Medium (and coming from Ev Williams, I suspect that at the very least they’ll give Web culture a very heavy nudge) and/or through other implementations.

Richard cites two sites for this insight: Anil Dash and Joshua Benton at the Nieman Journalism Lab. Excellent posts. But I want to throw in a structural reason why topics are on the rise rise: authors don’t scale.

It is certainly the case that the Web has removed the hold the old regime had over who got to publish. To a lesser but still hugely significant extent, the Web has loosened the hold the old regime had on who among the published gets attention; traditional publishers can still drive views via traditional marketing channels, but tons more authors/creators are coming to light outside of those channels. Further, the busting up of mass culture into self-forming networks of interest means that a far wider range of authors can be known to groups that care about them and their topics. Nevertheless, there is a limit within any one social network — and within any one human brain — to how many authors can be emotionally committed to.

There will always be authors who are read because readers have bonded with them through the authors’ work. And the Web has enlarged that pool of authors by enabling social groups to find their own set, even if many authors’ fame is localized within particular groups. But there are only so many authors you can love, and only so many blogs you can visit in a day.

Topics, on the other hand, are a natural way to handle the newly scaled web of creators. Topics are defined as the ideas we’re interested in, so, yes, we’re interested in them! They also provide a very useful way of faceting through the aggregated web of creators — slicing through the universe of authors to pull in what’s interesting and relevant to the topic. There may be only so many topics you can be interested in (at least when topics get formalized, because there’s no limit to the things our curiosity pulls us toward), but within a topic, you can pull in many more authors, many of whom will be previously unknown and most of whom’s names will go by unnoticed.

I would guess that we will forever see a, dialectic between topics and authors in which a topic brings an author to our attention to whom we then commit, and an author introduces a topic to which we then subscribe. But we’ve spent the past 15 years scaling authorship. We’re not done yet, but it’s certainly past time for progress in scaling topics.

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February 18, 2012

Back to the Future Past

I’ve spent most of today working on something I haven’t done since August 18, 2009: Publish an issue of my old newsletter, Joho.

I started it in around 1995 as an internal up-to-dater for Open Text where I was marketing vp. The idea was to share links, explain some stuff when I could, and crack wise. In other words, it was a lot like a blog that I folded up and sent through email once every few weeks. (In case you were wondering, Joho gets its name from this period: Journal of the Hyperlinked Organization.)

When I left Open Text, I opened up Joho as a free online newsletter. I’d post the hmtl and send out the text. Because we still didn’t have blogs, much of the content consisted of amusing emails from readers, with my occasional semi-amusing riposte.

As the new millennium dawned, I was blogging up a storm and thus felt less of a need — and had less time — to write up articles for a newsletter. And formatting it was a pain in the tuchus. Yes, I know it’s got all the usual hideous elements of my “design aesthetic” (as Jeff Goldenson, who works with me at the Library Innovation Lab, once called it with a straight face). But putting it into that format, and then taking it out so that I could do an ASCII-based version of it for pre-html email took more of a part of a day than I’d like to admit, even after automating as much of it as I could.

But now I’m getting ready to send out another issue. What prompted me was an article I’ve been working on about echo chambers, culture, and Reddit. It’s long for a blog post, but a good length for Joho. And, I have to admit that the publication of a new book undoubtedly is also at least a bit behind my decision to reach out to Joho’s subscribers. Shameful, I know.

I’ll post the linked table of contents here in a few days when I actually send out the newsletter. Until then, I’ll be revising drafts of the three articles in it, and feeling like a young man of 50 again.

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April 28, 2010

How the Left and Right use blogs

A new paper from the Berkman Center:

A Tale of Two Blogospheres: Discursive Practices on the Left and the Right, by Yochai Benkler, Aaron Shaw, and Victoria Stodden

This paper compares the practices of discursive production and participation among top U.S. political blogs on the left, right, and center during the summer of 2008 and, based on qualitative coding of the top 155, finds evidence of an association between ideological affiliation and the technologies, institutions, and practices of participation across political blogs. Sites on the left adopt more participatory technical platforms; are comprised of significantly fewer sole-authored sites; include user blogs; maintain more fluid boundaries between secondary and primary content; include longer narrative and discussion posts; and (among the top half of the blogs in the papers’ sample) more often use blogs as platforms for mobilization as well as discursive production.

The variations observed between the left and right wings of the U.S. political blogosphere provide insights into how varied patterns of technological adoption and use within a single society may produce distinct effects on democracy and the public sphere. The study also suggests that the prevailing techniques of domain-based link analysis used to study the political blogosphere to date may have fundamental limitations.

To read the full abstract and download the paper, visit http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/publications/2010/Tale_Two_Blogospheres_Discursive_Practices_Left_Right

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December 31, 2009

A new year’s resolution: Be a bigger a-hole

I got an email yesterday from someone who was irritated that she couldn’t get a quick read on who I am, what this blog is about, how non-credible I am, etc. She did eventually find the “Disclosure” button that does a bunch of that work, but she would have preferred that I follow the Web convention of displaying an “About me” link. I replied that I’m a little shy, and that I don’t want to use credentials to influence credibility (although I of course do that all the time — I don’t scratch “Harvard” off my business card, for example).

Well, she’s right. I’m putting an About Me link, which will lead to the Disclosure page. It’s a convenience for the reader and it’s a convention for Web pages. And profile pages do tell us something about the person, even if it’s not always what the person thinks.

I’m also going to try to be less shy about posting links to things I’ve written elsewhere on the Web. For example, here’s a list of the columns I’ve written for KMWorld, and when the new one comes out, I’m going to blog it. That’s not too pushy, is it? After all, having a blog is already an assertion that you think someone somewhere might want to read what you wrote.

I may also blog links to interviews with me as they show up. I rarely do that because it seems like bragging. But, if I were a reader of this blog — and I probably wouldn’t be — I might also want quick pointers to places where the writer of this blog is not fully in control of what he says. So, I’m going to try to force myself to blog those links.

Now, if you don’t mind my taking a step out of my awkward little me-centric universe: May you all have happy, healthy, and productive new years!

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