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14 Mar

Blog hysteria – I’ve got a lot of things bouncing around in my head right now, like Mexican jumping beans in a sombrero. I was thinking of tossing all the beans into another “miscellaneous ramblings” entry, as most of them probably would not offer enough for a full entry (ah, who am I kidding? I could write 1500+ words on dishwashing detergent), but then I started focusing on one of the beans and realized I could easily squeeze an entry out of it. In addition, it would be somewhat hypocritical to deal with the subject in passing (you’ll understand once you read the rest of the entry). So I’ve decided to group together some interrelated thoughts under the sensationalist title “blog hysteria.”

“...the blogosphere is just one big, hysterical echo chamber. It’s like an insane asylum for the Borg.”

I was drifting through the blogosphere today when I came across an alarmist post decrying the end of the world. Or at least the end of life as we know it. OK, so it was just the end of freedom and liberty in the Western world. All right, I’ll come clean: the post made quite a big deal about the “new” AOL TOS for AIM (woohoo! Three TLAs in one sentence!). The title of the post was typical alarmist drivel: “AOL Eavesdrops, Grants Itself Permission to Steal Your AIM Conversations” (I will explain in a little bit why I am not linking to said post, if it isn’t obvious already). To spare you the gory details, the bottom line, according to the author, is that AOL now owns the content of any messages you send via its instant messaging service.

Quick, to the barricades! Pass out the rifles and make sure everyone has enough ammunition! We must fight for our freedom and right to privacy lest we be trampled by The Man!

I consider myself to be more or less on the liberal side of the fence when it comes to “electronic rights” and such, but this sort of knee-jerk reaction makes me sick. As if this single reaction itself was not enough, the incestuous nature of the blogosphere guaranteed that pretty much everyone was going to link to the post. When I saw the post there were fifty trackbacks (a link that is automatically created when someone else links to a post, thus perpetuating the incestuous cycle), and I suspect that is only because there is an upper limit on the number of trackbacks built into the software this author is using.

Out of curiosity (and, in the interest of full disclosure, to provide some evidence for my current rant), I clicked on the first ten trackbacks to see what these authors had to add to the debate. The average commentary was 4.5 sentences and consisted of the same knee-jerk hysteria as the original post, just less of it. The interesting thing is that no one bothered to check the facts, read the entire TOS, or do anything else but go off on unfounded rants. Granted, it is possible that someone way down on that list of trackbacks did do some research to refute the hysteria, but do you think anyone will ever read it? I clicked on those first ten links purely for research purposes—do you think anyone in their right mind is going to go through the whole list? No, dear reader, they will not, because they know that the blogosphere is just one big, hysterical echo chamber. It’s like an insane asylum for the Borg.

There were some dissenting voices in the comments, with the most important comment coming near the end. This comment was left by Andrew Weinstein, a spokesman for America Online, who begins by saying: “The rumors flying around the blogosphere about the AIM Terms of Service are totally false.” The long and short of his comment is that the text quoted refers to content posted in public forums, not private messages, that “AOL does not monitor, read or review user-to-user communication through the AIM network,” and that such language is common in TOS agreements (he even quotes part of an MSN TOS to prove this point). He also notes that the revised TOS is from February 2004—over a year old. In the blogosphere, that’s like a decade.

If the original poster had taken the time to do a little research or even a little thinking (or even to simply read the date on the TOS), rather than flying off the handle, this misinformation might not have spread around the net like a cancer on steroids, and a poor spokesman for AOL might not have had to post a rebuttal and explanation at the end of a page that is now longer than the ticket line for a Star Wars film on opening day. The instantaneous nature of personal publishing on the web, though, makes it so easy to set a rumor like this in motion. I don’t think most people realize just how much longer it takes to squelch these rumors, though. If they did, they would probably keep their mouths shut until all the facts came in. This is, incidentally, why I did not link to the original post—I have no intention of being a part of this circle jerk. If you want to read the post, Google, as they say, is your friend.

So why am I making a big deal about this now? After all, it’s not like this is anything new. Call it a confluence of events, call it an alignment of the planets—call it a bad hair day, even. Mainly, I guess, I’ve been thinking about another meme that’s been floating around the blogosphere—that of bloggers as journalists (or not as journalists, depending on which side of the establishment you are on). I’m not going to link to this one either, but for a different reason: if you have any interest in the subject whatsoever you’ll already know what I’m talking about, and if you don’t have any interest in the subject you’re not going to click on a link anyway.

The question being asked is whether or not bloggers qualify as journalists. I’m not going to try to answer that question here, as that would require a lengthy discussion and a lot of research that, I admit, I just don’t feel like doing right now (short, unsupported answer: I believe that bloggers can be journalists, but a mind-bogglingly overwhelming majority are not). I will, however, address that oxymoron known as “journalistic integrity” (which is in the same camp as “military intelligence”).

In a perfect world, the perfect journalist would always check his or her sources and issue a prompt mea culpa when mistaken. Even in our imperfect world, though, there are usually (although not always, I will admit) repercussions for such mistakes, and respectable media outlets will generally take responsibility for their screw ups. Yeah, there are a lot of cases where justice is not served, but if traditional media operated like the blogosphere, we could move to North Korea and be better informed by the state-owned media there. In the blogosphere, there is rarely any attempt at damage control, and actual apologies are a rare sight indeed.

Case in point: Jason Kottke. If you don’t know who Jason Kottke is, you’ve probably stopped reading this entry by now (except for you, Mom, who would read 5,000 words on the wonders of radishes as long as those words were written by me), because you obviously care little about the blogosphere. Kottke is an “A-list blogger,” one of the elite, a “blogerati,” if you will. If nothing else, I owe the inspiration for today’s entry to him, as he was the one who provided me both with the link to the above post on AOL and the link to the latest “bloggers as journalists” debate (so if you haven’t Googled them by now, you can head over to his site and find the links there). Kottke recently posted a link to patient zero of the AOL ruckus with a single line of commentary. I do not remember exactly what that commentary was, but it was knee-jerk and devoid of any real meaning. That comment has been since replaced by another line: “Update: IM conversations are still private, the TOS change was for public web forums.”

No “mea culpa,” no “sorry for flying off the handle like that for no reason whatsoever,” just an “update.” He doesn’t even acknowledge that this “change” to the TOS was made over a year ago and isn’t really news at all. Lest it seem that I am a Kottke-hater, though, I should point out that even this “update” is far more than patient zero bothered with. Almost three days later, he has not even acknowledged Mr. Weinstein’s comment, let alone offered any clarification or explanation. I haven’t run through all fifty trackback links, but I would wager that a vast majority of those commenters did the same exact thing—nothing. After all, it’s “old news” now, right? Why bother commenting on it? Damage control shmamage control.

I am well aware that AOL is in that category of companies that everyone loves to hate, but does that mean they deserve to be the subject of such groundless hysteria? Most bloggers do not claim to be journalists, but with this complete and utter lack of journalistic integrity in the blogosphere, it is unlikely that those bloggers who do aspire to such heights will ever be recognized. Unfortunately, though, this is the nature of the web, and it’s not going to be changing any time soon. One of my professors always cautions against pointing out a problem without providing a solution, but the fact is that there is no solution here. What is needed is a paradigm shift—a radical change in the way people perceive the web and its function. Right now the web is still new, and it’s going to take another generation or so before it becomes an inextricable part of life. Yes, it may be that way for the younger generation, but the older generation (that is, the generation that still controls traditional media outlets) is still wary.

What will the world look like when a generation that grew up on the web takes control? I don’t know, but things will be very different from the way they are now. Things that are vaguely defined right now, if it all, will be much clearer. For example, I think there will be a clearer divide between the hoi polloi of the blogosphere and journalists who happen to choose the web as their medium. You may be thinking, “Well, we already have that distinction, don’t we?” Maybe, but the people in control are still conflating the two. We’re moving away from that, but we’re not there yet. Honestly, though, that’s a conservative prediction based on the current situation. What is more likely is that the concepts we take for granted now (blogger, journalist, etc.) will be completely redefined.

I’m not a futurologist, though, and as fun as it may be to speculate at times, it’s more of a tangent to the main thrust of this entry. What I’d really like to see is an end to this incestuous link swapping accompanied by brief and vapid commentary. Doesn’t anybody get sick of seeing the same links with the same trite comments (if there are any comments at all)? This was what I rebelled against when I had my first temper tantrum about blogs: the idea of posting the same link that a thousand other people posted and doing little to nothing in the way of adding value to that link. Then I got over my own self-importance (well, partly at any rate) and posted the occasional popular link—but I always made sure that I accompanied that with content that added value. I guess you could call today another temper tantrum; rather than posting links and adding nothing to them, I’m discussing issues without even linking to them! Take that, blogosphere!

I have no idea who said it first, but it is said that “links are the currency of the web.” Well, what happens when your currency becomes so devalued as to be utterly worthless? I’ll tell you what happens: people start using your currency as toilet paper and smuggling goods to the black market in exchange for “hard currency.” Maybe I got a little carried away with that analogy there (I tried to make it work—any regular reader of Liminality will know just how much I love analogies—but failed and deleted the offending paragraph), but the currency part has merit.

Let’s start with the basics: what is a link? The original term, of course, is “hyperlink,” but no one actually calls them that anymore. As defined by Wikipedia, a hyperlink is “a reference in a hypertext document to another document or other resource.” In academia we would call this an “attribution”—by linking to someone, you are recognizing them as a source.

The job of a good scholar or journalist is to trace the attribution trail to its source. Often a piece of information will be referenced by someone, and on occasion this will then be referenced by someone else. It is bad form to quote such a secondary or tertiary source—you want to go straight to the primary source. In the blogosphere, though, the web of links grows so tangled so quickly that it can be very hard to trace a piece of information to its source, and the truth of the matter is that most people don’t care about primary sources. So how valuable is a link that links to another link that links to the source? Going back to the currency analogy, how valuable are all those links that just run around in a big circle, ultimately talking about the same thing without ever saying anything new?

Speaking of which, I think I’ve ranted for long enough about this. I could go on, of course, but the law of diminishing returns has already started to take effect. Before I wrap up, I’d like to return to our friend Kottke for a moment. Despite the fact that he is one of the most famous bloggers in the world, I did not start visiting his site until very recently. I was first prompted to visit when I heard that he quit his job to blog full-time (there’s my first link of the day, and the cycle continues... sigh). The post I just linked to explains why he decided to do this and the business model involved. In short, he is encouraging people to become “micropatrons,” supporting the site through modest yearly donations. The suggested donation is $30, which, as he points out, comes out to $2.50 a month for one year.

The first question that popped into my head was: “Who would want to pay for something that’s already free?” Then I decided to check out his site and see if what he had to offer was really worth paying for. Mind you, there are a lot of sites out there that are completely free, so in essence he would have to be significantly better than all of them to warrant payment. After about two weeks (he’s been doing this for three weeks, but I was late to the party), I can honestly tell you that I do not believe what he has to offer is worth paying for. It’s not even close to the most interesting stuff I’ve seen on the net. That David guy, for example, writes every day (and I’m not talking about the link-plus-one-liners that Kottke tries to pass off as content), and I find his content infinitely more interesting than anything I’ve found at Kottke’s.

I don’t hate Kottke, really. In fact, I now visit his site regularly and find it interesting. Just not interesting enough to pay for. Today, however, I took a look at his list of micropatrons and was surprised to find that it is rather lengthy. When I checked it earlier this day, it stood at 573 micropatrons. I just checked it again and it’s up to 762 micropatrons (No, I did not count them all—I copied and pasted the list into a code editor that numbers lines). Today was obviously a very good day for Kottke. Now, I don’t know if everyone donated the suggested $30 (I’m guessing not), but if we were to use that as a standard then Kottke will have made $22,860 in the three weeks that he’s been a full-time blogger. Apparently a lot of people out there think that what Kottke has to offer is worth paying for.

Or do they? While I’m sure there are some out there who do believe his content is worth paying for, I’m sure there are more who simply worship at the Church of Kottke. I also noticed something else about this list—it’s not just a list of names, it’s a list of links. In other words, if you donate to Kottke, he links to you. Even though he claims to be spurning the advertising-driven model of earning revenue, that’s exactly what he’s doing: selling advertising space on his very popular site.

Maybe I’m just being cynical. Part of me thinks the guy is nuts, while another part of me admires him for having the guts to go against the grain and follow his dreams (or whichever cliche you prefer). And yet another part of me wonders if this will last or if it will mimic the dot com boom—and if he does succeed, what that will mean for blogs and the net.

Well, that’s all for today. See, I knew I could crank 1500 words (my baseline standard for an entry, although I have done fewer on occasion) on this subject. In fact, I managed twice that number. Yeah, maybe I wandered off a little at the end there, but it all ties together. Hope you enjoyed (or at least tolerated) my little rant, and although I can’t deny that it would be neat to get paid for this, I’ll settle for your thoughts instead.

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