Thursday, April 12, 2007

Are We Blogging Each Other To Death?
– A Part-Response to Nick Carr and Dan Farber

Thanks to GrokDotCom's Jeffrey Eisenberg, attention has re-focused on this blog, originally posted 08:00 November 24, 2005. Eisenberg asks his own readers "Do you think [Geelan] has a point? Do you agree with him, think he's nuts, or what?" so it will be interesting to see who says what, 18 months on...

"For a journalist, technologist, politician or anyone with a pulse and who doesn't know everything," wrote Dan Farber on Monday, "blogs matter." Then, in almost a textbook demonstration of why in fact they don't, Farber adds:

"Every morning I can wake up to lots of IQ ruminating, fulminating, arguing, evangelizing and even disapassionately reporting on the latest happenings in the areas that interest me, people from every corner of the globe."

That "even" says it all. Dispassionate reporting would certainly be the exception rather than the rule. So in what possible way, then, is this testimony to why and how blogs "matter"? Farber is mistaking energy for insight, prevalance for significance, and quantity for quality. He might almost have written that every morning he wakes up with a column to fill...and an abundance of free material with which to fill it, served right up onto his desktop by the RSS reader of his choice. Every lazy journalist's nirvana, in other words.

It is no wonder then that Nick Carr, he of the first Web- then world-famous "Does IT Matter?" essay, jumped on Farber's hymn to the wonder of it all and mused:

"Experiencing the blogosphere feels a lot like intellectual hydroplaning - skimming along the surface of many ideas, rarely going deep."

At the risk of being uncharitable to Carr (sorry, sir!), this is a prime example of what my old Cambridge University friends would call self-iteration. In other words, Carr himself skims along the surface in his blog, without going deep, in order to demonstrate that one of the perils of the blogopshere is intellectual hydroplaning.

Let us then instead don a snorkel and mask, or even a full-fledged scuba, and head down beneath the surface. For there is definitely more (and less) to blogging than meets the eye.

Farber's notion of the blogosphere as comprising "self assembling communities of bloggers" who "hold a kind of virtual Socratic court, sorting out the issues of the day in a public forum, open to anyone, including spammers" is wildly fanciful. Shades of Jerry Garcia, in fact – for don't all self-respecting Dead-heads subscribe to Garcia's fantasy that "Once in a while you can get shown the light/ In the strangest places if you look at it right"?

The blogosphere is not nearly as noble a place: mainly because, of course, it isn't a place (unlike Socrates' ancient Forum) and therefore isn't subject to some of the basic advantages of, for example, ID verification. Nor can anyone look anyone else in the eye, across the blogosphere.

Anonymity can muddy the waters of almost any debate – yet the blogosphere is full of it, from Groklaw's "PJ" to PC Magazine's "Robert X. Cringeley." And as if that weren't enough to contend with, anonymity is compounded in six cases out of ten by the kind of vehemence more often associated with the bar-room than the Forum. Bloggers, it very often seems, are all legends in their own minds; they commit arson every day in their imagination, burning down the previous day's lies and distortions. Worse still, so many bloggers suffer from what Albert Camus called "the sign of a vulgar mind," namely the need to be right.

Why would anyone think that RSS, a wonderful enabling technology beyond a doubt, could somehow kiss the frog of human intolerance and ignorance and transform it into a prince of insight and wisdom? Beats me. "Groupthink," history shows us, can often in and of itself be worrisome. Just post to Groklaw that the emperor incorporated in Somers, NY, has no clothes and watch the brow-level of the replies/ripostes/flames sink...slowly at first, then faster. Or post to a Java user group that C# rocks...and watch the selfsame thing happen.

I would go so far as to say that, on a bad day anyway, there would seem to be an inverse ratio between an opinion's worth and the ease with which that same opinion can be expressed and disseminated. But it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness, so I am going to end this brief entry with an upbeat thought about, not blogging itself, but the superset of which I believe it forms a (tiny) part...that of insight capture.

Insight capture merits the full weight of all our attention and expertise in the publishing industry, because it is only through trapping "the best of the rest" that we shall ever achieve the promise of the bumper sticker: 'None of us is smarter than all of us.' Unfortunately insight doesn't reside in blogs any more than wisdom resides in Fortune cookies. Insight is more chaordic: it occurs wherever opportunity meets preparation, at conferences, in airplanes, on trains, in private e-mail exchanges. Above all, it takes place in context. If there were a way of capturing such epiphanies, if one could but scale them up so that humanity could benefit from epiphany-en-masse, then that would be quite another pair of shoes. But waiting for the Epiphany Machine to come around makes waiting for Godot look reasonable by comparison; and anyone who thinks blogging is the light at the end of the tunnel of collective consciousness has failed to spot that it's much more likely to be the headlight of an oncoming train called The Techno-fad Express.

It's a medium, neither more nor less. An interesting one. A disintermediated one. But it is not any kind of hopeful message in and of itself. Blogging is to human insight as reading glasses are to human hyperopia. An enabler, a tool. It is a neat way of capturing disparate viewpoints, but not of synthesizing or critiquing them. For that we need other, still-emerging tools such as those that TBL is developing along with the supporters of the Semantic Web.

That – let us call it Web 3.0 – is still a long, long way away. Let us just hope, before such tools are ready to become mainstream, that we shall not already have blogged each other to death.

[Originally Posted 08:00 November 24, 2005]

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