Micah Sifry has a great insight over at Iraq War Reader: Bloggers are editors, not journalists. We bloggers are not reporting what we see, we’re editing what others tell us.
In my humble opinion, bloggers who write about current events and culture (as opposed to people who are mainly focused on their inner world or their personal spheres) aren’t getting attention and adding value to the democratic discourse so much because they’re behaving like journalists, it’s because they’re behaving like editors. Not that many bloggers are generating fresh reporting on events, as journalists or reporters covering a news story would do. (Not that I’m against bloggers being reporters, or bloggers correcting bad reporting by unearthing contradictory information.) But what many good bloggers are doing is filtering the news for us, the way a good editor does.
I was talking this over with my editor at John Wiley & Sons, Eric Nelson, and I think he hit the nail on the head. He writes, “Most blogs sort through the vast array of media, telling readers what’s important to know today. Like a editorial page or opinion magazine editor, they provide short ‘house’ opinions on major topics, but they mostly point the reader in the direction of several other experts, noting that these articles, wire reports, or opinion pieces are the current must-reads–and more importantly, trustworthy.”
In a word, what editors bring to the table is their sensibility. Of course, not all of the articles or news stories they select for our attention are picked because they are trustworthy. Sometimes, quite the opposite. But a good editor then tells us why that’s the case.
Micah drives to the hole and dunks it! This is precisely the insight that’s been missing from the media vs. bloggers dialogue. Micah goes on to imply that our new collective cultural editing is the global equivalent of the blind committee examining the elephant.
…the alchemy of the blogosphere–where we each read or hear about a few things and blog them, and some of us read several other bloggers and reinforce their choices with our own echoes or dissents–produces a pretty good zeitgeist watch. (Insert shameless plug for Technorati here.)
Blogging, then, is the equivalent of a police sketch artist. Even if each of us is handicapped and specialized, the sketch artist makes our collective effort holistic and insightful. (Extending the metaphor to demonstrate the Sifry brothers’ plot to dominate blogspace, Technorati is the artist’s indispensable index.)
…We’re all sniffing at the zeitgeist and trying to figure out which way things are headed. And partially because it’s become so easy to do, and because the people we had entrusted to do this for us haven’t been doing much of a job of this on their own, we’re doing it ourselves.
The Metaphor, Please
Open source mavens and groupies will quickly see the tight parallel between bloggers’ collective discernment with the open source development process, where “many eyes make all bugs shallow”:
The other space that bloggers are filling is in the department of truth-telling, or at least truth-claiming. Back to my wise man Eric. He says:
“Newspapers have abdicated their duties in getting to the “truth” of a story. [I’d add TV even more so.] Instead, in the name of objectivity, they simply report the he-said, she-said on how much some new initiative will cost, as if there were no way to empirically determine the answer. Bloggers rarely link to this kind of story. The most widely-read ones seek out some piece of writing on the web where a person has actually determined the real answer, or gotten an on the record quote, or put forth a question no one else has asked, and then they link to it, saying, in effect, ‘If you believe me, then you can believe this.’ “
We bloggers are more than zeitgeist gazers. I believe we’re engaged in a collective design process by which human values are beginning to supersede corporate valuelessness, correcting an unintended outcome whereby ink-by-the-barrel was affordable only to the big pubs. The values–and outrage–that inform our posts are those of ethical individuals, reacting to the tapestry of inert sensibilities woven by Big Media.
Carbon-based persons hold strong beliefs, which they feel are self-evident. This is not true of charter-based persons–corporations–which, in their ceaselessly failing Turing Test, cannot bring themselves to speak in a human voice expressing human values.
What are we designing? I think it’s a society with a memory. Big media’s not much interested in the historical arc describing how we got here. Part of it may be the low level of cultural awareness of most reporters and certainly of the talking heads. Amateur writers though, working literally for the love of editing out the errors so obvious to them, instantiate thoughts and point to evidence that, once documented, is harder to ignore than yesterday’s newsprint recycled as today’s fish wrap.
Consideration of prior art was once a requirement for serious commentary, where each work presuming to be consequential felt considered the thread that preceded it. Arbitrary, ungrounded declarations were dismissed as a form of daydreaming, not as serious work. This requirement lives on in science and, happily, in computer programming and the welcome tyranny of standards-based engineering. Prior art has been abandoned by marketers huckstering old wine in new bottles and describing the trivial as startling. When news became marketing, those tricks were adopted. When marketing took over politics, appearances trumped statecraft.
Can We Go Home Again?
If we’re lucky, attribution-based blogging will lead our cultural dialogue back to the reflective candor that was natural when everyone in the clan or village witnessed the same truths and were constrained by their shared history.