Results of Independent Study on Blogs, Journalism, and Media

From September-December (first semester) I embarked on an academic study on blogging and the intersection of journalism, media, and the ‘net through my school’s Independent Study program. I thus received academic credit for this work (I know, I was elated too!). My faculty sponsor was Jesse Berrett – he’s the chair of our History department but well versed in a broad range of topics including popular culture and internet stuff. As a book critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, and others on the side, and armed with a handy dandy PhD from Cal, he brought a healthy dose of skeptical perspective I needed. (His own blog is, for now, brief reviews of books he reads – all genres and types – and pictures of his baby. In 2004 he read 254 books, and he reflects on that year of reading here.)

Excerpts from the results of our research and work follows. If you’d like the whole document, email me.

Questions discussed:

  • Do all conversations lead somewhere? How effective are conversations with many talking compared with one person lecturing?
  • Is the “wisdom of crowds” always better than the opinion of one, and if so, how does that wisdom get “mined” on the web?
  • What process do people go through to change an opinion? Are opinioned-blogs and the ensuing spirited conversations changing anyone’s opinion? How often do blogs (or any conversation for that matter) go beyond “I think this” and “I think this.”
  • What role do blogs have besides the obvious one of being a watchdog/critic of mainstream media?
  • What is the future of “hyperlocal journalism” where neighbors and community members write local stories in an online format?
  • Is objectivity in media “a view from nowhere”? In covering any controversial story, the media tends to simply let whoever has been defined as “the sides” dictate their beliefs and just do an “X said, but then Y said” story.
  • What are the limits/constraints of the blogging form versus the future possibilities?
  • Does a lack of referees on the web tends to support an everyone-has-his-own-truth world where “truth” is up for grabs? Is it realistic to hope for a higher-up authority to separate truth from fiction either on the web or offline? How does the increasing lack of trust in institutions in America affect this?

Blogs At Their Best
After a semester of critically examining hundreds of blogs, blog posts, comments, and essays analyzing the phenomenon, the one conclusion everyone agrees on is that blogs are having a major impact – for better or worse – on journalism and media. In my opinion, the benefit of this impact is the turning of the tables. That is, instead of “professional” (or beautiful, in the case of TV news) journalists producing the news and the populace consuming the news, everyone has an opportunity to produce news and commentary through the simple use of a web browser. This enables more voices to be expressed and considered. As others link to, fact check, correct, comment and respond to these voices, credibility is established and a conversation is started. Such participatory journalism takes on a personal voice. As Jay Rosen, journalism professor at NYU says, “The cool, neutral, professional style in journalism says: get both sides and decide for yourself. The hotter, more partisan press says: Decide for yourself–which side?–then go get information. The weblog doesn’t want to be either of these, but it checks and it balances both.”

Jeff Jarvis, Entertainment Weekly founder and former columnist for various papers, uses the term “citizen’s media” to describe blogging at its best. The term was coined to promote the concept of the average citizen internet user becoming a creator of content and media, not just a consumer. In Jarvis’ vision, we all have a chance of becoming the Tom Paine of tomorrow.

There seems to be a “truth” coalescing about blogs in mainstream media, which is that they are usually good watchdogs, but tend to be prey to all sorts of crazy rumors, speculations, and conspiracies. Thus, “the jury is out.” This may not be true, but this is the account that most major papers run whenever there’s a story covering aspects of blogging—a couple good things, a couple bad things. In essence the “they say X, these others say Y” story.

One venture capitalist blogger I read a few days ago said that his bet for the “the next big thing” is around an emerging “architecture of participation” or as he put it, “the revolution of the ants.” Everyone getting into the action. The participatory nature of blogs versus the one-way lecture of mainstream media is crystallized for me every time I read a column in the New York Times or Chronicle that I want to talk to someone about. I may agree or disagree or want to learn more. How can I scratch that itch? I can write a blog post linking to the column with my thoughts and solicit feedback or read others who have blogged about that column. A perfect example was a September 21st column by Chronicle columnist Debra Saunders. She wrote an outrageous piece about Rathergate that I wanted to question. Despite knowing I probably would not receive a response, I wrote a polite email to Ms. Saunders saying why I thought her column was ridiculously shallow and unsubstantiated. I concluded my email saying “Chances are I will never hear back from you on this email and that you get hundreds of emails weekly from readers in a one-way fashion.” I never did hear back.

In my own experience, my blog at its best evolves my thinking. I can post ideas, thoughts, and links, and get feedback. I can read other people’s ideas and commentary and comment on them to better understand or contradict their theses. I am learning how to think and what to think. One topic I have posted on a lot in my six months of blogging is religion. Through three or four posts on the topic in which I link to relevant articles, post my own at-the-moment thinking, or report on a book I read about religion, my eyes have been opened to new ways to think about religion – from the pithy to lengthier comments. As I post about things that interest me I also then meet people who are working in that area. After one post on emerging technologies I was invited to attend a local conference free of charge.

Finally, most blogs epitomize a new age of transparency. VC Fred Wilson said,

People ask me why I blog. I tell them that it helps me in my business. It allows me to reach more people and connect to more people (many of whom I know only through my blog) than I could ever do over the phone and email. It helps me get out ideas that I am interested in and foster discussion of them so that I can figure out where to invest. It gets me out ahead of the curve. But on top of that, it allows me to disclose myself; who I am, what I like, who I love, what I listen to, who I am going to vote for, and many more aspects of myself, to the world. If you are not going to like me, you’ll know it from my blog. If you are going to come see me, you’ll know me before you even meet me.

Some people I’ve met with recently ask me if I think it’s weird or funny that they “know” me from my blog a lot better than I know them. It doesn’t bother me. Blogging makes me transparent. And I like that.

Jeff Jarvis comments,

We’ve heard the jokes about candidates for President in years to come whose old opinions will be dragged up from their blogs. And I’ll just bet that will keep would-be pols from blogging. But that’s a bad thing, for transparency is just what is needed in politics. I spoke with a journ alist recently who said he couldn’t blog because he’d probably reveal some opinion that might keep him from, say, covering the White House someday. Organizationally, he’s right; that’s what his bosses would say. But that, too, is a bad thing, for transparency and honesty and candor are just journalism needs. Fred’s right: About the only business he can imagine where transparency is a bad thing is national security.

As for the rest of us: It could be the beginning of an era of honesty (or at least candor): the age of transparency. That (you’ll be sorry to know) is why I think Howard Stern is so appealing to so many; it’s his blunt honesty. That is also why reality TV is so big; we love seeing people stripped of their pretense.

Sadly, most of society is not transparent at all. You don’t know what goes on it the boardrooms of the companies whose stock you own. You don’t know what happens in most of government. You want to know more about how the news sausage is made.

If citizens’ media leads to any big social change — emphasis on “if” — it could be a drive toward transparency by example. If Fred Wilson and Mark Cuban and Margaret Cho and you and I are willing to stand out here naked, why isn’t the next guy? What does he have to hide? And if he isn’t willing to show us his after we show him ours, then do we want to trust him with our vote or our money or our news?

Blogs At Their Worst

“One of the biggest criticisms of blogs is that so many are self-absorbed tripe. No doubt, most are only interesting only to the writer, plus some family and friends,” writes Dan Gillmor in We the Media. He goes on to say that’s no reason to dismiss the genre, but it does raise an important question: does society need a lot more people voicing opinions or thoughts and does that create more produce intellectual, cultural, moral, etc. progress? I mentioned in the “best” section that my blog gives me a voice. It would be arrogant to argue that my voice needs to be heard, but not that nut-job propaganda-spreading conspiracy-theorist. The leading bloggers and pioneers in this field seem to agree that there should be virtually no restrictions or exclusivity in the blogosphere with a bet being placed on the notion that the best blogs will bubble to the top through links.

Second, just as the ease with which anyone can press “publish” for a written work or picture is good, it is also bad. The bar to publish something is greatly reduced and may lead to increased laziness on good, formal writing. The time/energy/resources it takes to publish a book is far greater than that to publish a blog. This should result in books being higher quality due to their filtered nature. The other altering – troubling? – aspect of the lowered bar to publish is the breakdown of the prestige system in academia. As information is disseminated online to the masses and as academics begin to blog, the economics of scarcity that fuels the prestige system in academia breaks down. You soon may no longer need to subscribe to the $1000/yr journal to obtain the latest from that field. You may no longer need to be in Richard Posner’s classroom to have a conversation with him. This dynamic will fundamentally change the DNA of academia, and may actually get at the “best” rather than “worst.”

Do blogs promote an opinion-first, evidence-later trend in our society? Jay Rosen sees a new trend unrelated to blogs pertaining to information-gathering: first get opinions, then analysis, then hard news. One could extend this trend to people first expressing opinions, then maybe finding some articulate analysis to back up their opinions, and possibly some real data supporting their points. It is easy to blog an opinion or rant. A good footnoter is also a good linker, hence the emphasis by respected bloggers to link to sources or other sites to back up posts. But without some sort of “authority” deciding what has some foundation versus simple crazy rants, the blogesphere can house bundles of unsubstantiated opinions.

Finally, bloggers tout the engagement or “conversation” that exists. A conversation is fine, but when it involves parties that disagree, an obvious question is, “Is anyone’s opinion being changed?” A meta-question is “how does anyone’s opinion changed, and is today’s priority simply to have an opinion (preferably a strong one) rather than keeping an open mind?” At a conference at Stanford, I asked Dan Gillmor, author of We the Media, if the conversations on blogs were changing people’s entrenched opinions, and he responded “probably not.” The “comments” on blogs vary in quality, with some of the more intellectually rigorous ones yielding a string of thoughtful replies and disagreements. The constraints of the medium probably prevent groundbreaking changes in one’s worldview.

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