More Noise

In comments on my post yesterday (Art of Noise), Michael Hall of PuddingBowl takes exception with my characterization of his comments on “blog noise”. Indeed, he links to two of his posts that I hadn’t seen, one of which explains his position somewhat more thoroughly, in a way that jibes finely with what I had said:

Armed with a more informed understanding of how blogs/bloggers tick and why they produce the media they do, and how they have a healthy chunk of Google’s attention, we’ll become able to contextualize them (and Google’s usefulness) in our overall information diet. This isn’t, to my mind, about de-privileging blogs… it’s about understanding them and the effect they have on their media surroundings, then incorporating them into the much broader mission of seeking the truth, which is something grander and harder to nail down than all the words and facts to which Google can direct us.

As I explained to him privately, I did not intend for my comments to be read as a slight towards any of the people I mentioned. I have a great deal of respect for bloggers in general, as I think that, regardless of our political beliefs and our personal quirks, we are all contributing to the construction of a space for public debate, something that is becoming all too rare with the commodification of public spaces in the physical world. What I was trying to get at in my discussion of “blog noise”–ineffectively, so it seems–is that the terms in which this discussion has been couched, particularly the characterization of what we do as “noise”, subtly undermines the “emergent democracy”-type values that a lot of us profess. Obviously Searls is at the forefront when it comes to celebrating bloggers’ contributions to society–and the fact that the rest of us are blogging in the first place suggests that the rest of us are as well–but the uncritical acceptance that what we do is aptly characterized as “noise” seems to fly in the face of that celebration.

Nobody at the moment seems to be able to define just what it is bloggers do or, indeed, what characteristics mark a particular website out as a “blog”, as opposed to some other species of online communicating. And that’s, in my opinion, a good thing. Blogging is a new phenomenon, regardless of its precedents, and ambiguity of form and function is welcome in new forms of social interaction. Maybe in any form of social interaction. But ambiguity makes some (maybe most) people uncomfortable. They try to resolve it by comparing what it is they do with more “fixed” categories, in this case journalism.

Thus the ridiculous charges directed at Joi Ito, condemning him for blogging openly about his relationship with a product (in this case, the Movable Type blogging system) and its creators, and then investing in it. Or the hand-wringing over The Agonist‘s use of third-party material without proper citations. Or the Blog Herald’s criticism of Andy Baio’s fundraising drive to buy an Apple iPod for the subject of the Star Wars video that’s been circulating the ‘net, in some part due to Baio’s hosting of the file on his site–the Blog Herald takes them to task for their failure to post a statement saying “how long you would go, how you would be transparent, what steps you would take to assure full disclosure.” I agree that it would be a shame for a blogger to exploit someone to raise some cash for themselves, but the Blog Herald’s consternation seems to stem more from Baio’s failure to be professional than anything else–I mean come on, we’re all amateurs here, in every sense of the word. Should Baio, or any of us, refrain from doing nice things for each other because we lack the legal know-how to arrange a statement of disclosure? Should Baio have registered as a fundraiser to limit his and the boy’s tax liabilities, written a mission statement, organized a Board of Trustees, retained a lawyer and outside auditor, or set up an escrow fund in order to do what he felt was right? I’m glad that he is making an effort to show where the money came from and how it’s being used, but let’s face it, people didn’t give money because they admired his legal acumen, they donated because they trusted Baio, and that trust comes out of his relation with his community, not the legal edifice he failed to surround his efforts with.

(By the way, they raised over $4,000! I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable about putting one of those “PayPal me” links on my site–despite severe “cash flow problems”–but that’s a lot of cabbage, that is! Maybe I should rethink my objections? I’m overweight and do goofy stuff–maybe I could score some bling-bling?)

Whatever these accusations may say about the trustworthiness of Ito, Sean-Paul Kelley of the Agonist, or Baio, the apparently widely-shared sentiments that their actions somehow calls into question the nature of the blogosphere itself only makes sense if we view their efforts–and those of other bloggers–as failed journalism. All are being attacked for their failures to live up to a standard of journalistic integrity that none of them professed to uphold in the first place.

It is this conception of blogging as failed journalism–a conception that infects the writing of people who would otherwise not give a moment’s credence to such a suggestion, through the uncritical use of phrases like “blog noise” and the uncritical comparison of bloggers’ comments to standards that have little to do with what bloggers do–that I was trying to expose in my earlier post. Blogging may be like journalism, in some ways, but blogging is not journalism.

In another post, Searls describes some of the positive features that set blogging apart from run-of-the-mill journalism (although in doing so he calls blogging “the most accountable form of journalism ever invented”, a characterization I disagree with for reasons that are surely obvious by now):

We not only respond personally in many (perhaps most) cases, but take correction far more willingly, and publicly, than you’ll ever see from a newspaper or a magazine. We even rewrite already published stuff.

Ever notice how pathetic most letters to editors are? I can’t think of a weaker thing to publish. Yet with newspaper and magazines, those who disagree, or need to offer corrections, have little recourse.

Ever notice useless corrected errata in print publications are? And don’t even bother with TV or radio news. There’s nothing remotely like that here.

Where it counts, blogging lives up to a standard that most journalists–and their publishers–would find all too constrictive. We rewrite, correct, retract, and rethink what we’ve written, and we do so publicly. We open ourselves and our thoughts up to comments and critique from outsiders–and we respond. And we do so not because of legal or financial obligations but because of social obligations, to ourselves, to our readers, and to our communities.

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