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January 27, 2006

The Role of Blogs in the New Media Age-2

Blogs are highly idiosyncratic and so hard to talk about except in terms of our own personal response to them. Clearly there are different types of blogs: those that dwell on the personal lives of the authors, those that highlight particular issues (e.g., evolution and intelligent design), those that seek to provide perspective and commentary on current events, those that provide longer, more analytical pieces, those that just provide an avenue for venting, those that provide an outlet for creative talents, such as fiction, poetry, and art, and other reasons to numerous to mention.

Why do people blog? What is the benefit? Again it is hard to generalize but here are my reasons. (I should note that I did not start a blog with these benefits in mind. I started it simply out of curiosity and the challenge of trying something new. I discovered these benefits only after the fact.)

The main benefit for me personally is that writing regularly forces me to sort out my ideas and clarifies my thinking The truth of E. M. Forster's remark “How can I know what I am thinking until I see what I say?” becomes more and more apparent to me the more I write.

The blog also provides me with practice for improving my writing. I have been focusing in the past on clarity and logical thinking, but more recently I have been trying to see if I can write with better style, with more wit and humor, with better choice of words and structure. If readers have not detected any improvement in these areas, it just shows how far I have to go!

The blog also acts for me as a repository for ideas and sources that may be otherwise forgotten or misplaced. When I want to recall some fact that I have written about, the blog is the first place for me to look and it provides me with a place to direct people to look. In my TV appearance (see below), I spoke about the accuracy comparison between Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Brittanica. When asked for the source of the study, I could not recall it immediately but it took only a few seconds to find that post on my blog with the relevant link, and send that information to the other panelists.

The blog also provides me with the first draft of writing for many topics. When the Dover trial verdict was announced, I was able to cobble together an op-ed piece from my blog entries in just a little over an hour because I had been writing about it already. The information was there, all I had to do was work on editing it for appropriateness. Because of the speed of the writing, it enabled me to get it published in a timely manner. I am planning on writing a few other pieces for publication, using the blog entries as initial drafts.

But perhaps the biggest benefit for me as a blog author is that I have been able to connect (and reconnect) with people whom I would have never met otherwise.

One obvious advantage of blogs in general is that it provides a much larger potential readership for people with ideas. I now read a much wider range of writers and cartoonists than I ever did before.

In my role as a reader of other people's blogs, the advantages are huge. It saves time in reading newspapers and watching TV. I almost never watch TV news or the talk shows, but thanks to sites like Crooks and Liars and onegoodmove I get pointed to just the bits (both serious and funny) that interest me.

The blog provides me with access to knowledgeable people who write well on important topics. The mainstream columnists like David Brooks or Maureen Dowd or most of the other people who are published in the op-ed pages of the Plain Dealer hardly ever have anything interesting or new to say. I can read the first paragraph and guess the rest. But blogs like Informed Comment, Unclaimed Territory, Talking Points Memo, and Justin Raimondo mix sharp and perceptive commentary with useful information. And they write well too.

Finally the blogs provides knowledgeable and specialized information on topics that I am interested in and alerts me to news I might have missed, often gleaned from the foreign press or less well known sources.

In my appearance on Feagler and friends, we had a cordial discussion about blogs but I sensed some skepticism about the value of blogs from the editor of the Plain Dealer and the host Dick Feagler, who is a traditional newspaper columnist. I don't if I managed to persuade them otherwise, but we did have some follow up email communication after the show and I think Dick Feagler started to become more open to the potential benefits of blogs.

POST SCRIPT: Talking about blogging on TV

I will be talking about the future of newspapers (and the role of blogging in that future) on WVIZ channel 25's Feagler and friends show at 8:30pm on Friday, January 27, with a repeat at noon on Sunday, January 29. Editor of the Plain Dealer Doug Clifton and Denise Polverine (editor in chief of Cleveland.com) will also be on the program.

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Comments

This is off topic, but I thought you might find this article interesting.

It talks about a study of how people's political (and, very likely other) views lead them to ignore contradicting facts. Analysis showed they did not appear to be using any of their reasoning skills in interpretting contradicting political views, but were mostly attempting to resolve the conflict between what they were reading and what they already believed.

This was, of course, bipartisan in results. We of course deride the right for ignoring the facts often, but this suggests it's actually human nature to do this in politics.

But this also reminds me of the concerns that the abundance of information available to us through the internet is leading to greater divides among people of differing beliefs because of how easy it is to unconsciously restrict your information flow to exclude differing views, but it takes a very real conscious effort to expose yourself to differing views and apply reason to them. Sure, we get to discussing the likes of ID proponents, Pat Robertson, Ann Coulter, & Bill Oreilly all the time, but that's no more productive or educational than the likes of them deriding Michael Moore.

This study seems to explain some of these tendencies we observe online, and leaves me concerned that we may be heading towards a society who's political beliefs are less accurately portrayed as a bell curve, and more accurately portrayed as the inverse. We've certainly seen the divide growing in recent years, I hope this isn't a sign of things to come.

Divided, we will fall.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on January 28, 2006 01:33 PM

Tom,

That article is interesting. The fears of this fragmentation and that peole will only talk to those who reinforce their views have been around for some time. I am not sure how seriously to take it and sometimes wonder whether it has always been thus.

In my study of the history of science, and in my teaching, it seems to me that people alwasy try to hold on to theie existing beliefs as muchas possible and seek to reinforce them. But at the same time, there does occur subtle shifts and doubts that enter, resulting in change over a long time.

Even if this were a serious issue, I don't know what one could do about it. It does not seem possible or even desirable to try and try and force people to hear things they don't want to.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 28, 2006 06:09 PM

Mano: Caught you on Feagler this a.m. I can understand the reluctance of Feagler and Clifton toward bloggers. They fear the the lack of checks. However, I can point to many similar examples of misinformation in local media with less opportunity for self-correction.

However, the democratization of comment in the long run, I hope, will be good for all of us.

As someone who published a newsletter, as you know, it certainly is far less work to put something on a blog or web site than going through the tiring manual process of producing something in print. I. F. Stone would definitly be a blogger today. In fact, there may be some Stones out there right now. Let's hope so.

Posted by Roldo Bartimole on January 29, 2006 01:17 PM

Mano,
I watched the Feagler episode as well. What struck me was how defensive the one fellow from the P.D. seemed to be. It was as if he worried that people would read blogs instead of the paper unless he could cast doubt on the blogosphere's credibility.
I don't see this being an either/or proposition, but it still seemed as though the discussion of being careful of which blogs to trust was meant to diminish the blogosphere.

I was taught—from childhood on—to question all media. The phrase "I read it in the paper, so it must be true" was only ever uttered in sarcasm in our house. This didn't mean we shouldn't read the paper, but only that we should read with care, and check alternative sources for stories that may have relied upon a certain degree of interpretation of fact. We do this with websites and blogs today as well.

While papers are staffed by trained journalists and equipped with fact checkers, their articles will still be colored by the opinions of the writers. There is plenty of room between the facts to add nuance to a piece, whether intentionally or subconsciously. I think this is why we see some papers as more right-wing, and some as more left-wing. This is true of virtually all writing.

Yet, as everyone agreed, papers have the people and tools to gather a wide variety of news and information that individual bloggers cannot. The blogosphere isn't meant to compete with the papers, but it can help to keep the papers honest, to question them, to delve deeper, and offer a system of checks and balances that became weak as more and more newpapers closed and left the others facing little competition. (Thank you Roldo for playing this role over the years.)

It would have been interesting if they'd taken up the question of how blogs affect traditional media in this way, but instead they seemed to want to "poo-poo" all but the most elite of the blogosphere.

Posted by cool on January 30, 2006 10:29 AM

Roldo and Cool,

It is quite surprising how sensitive the mainstream journalists are to the criticisms of bloggers. I think part of the reason is that I am told that journalists used to get very few responses from the public to their pieces. (Roldo, is this true?)

The emergence of bloggers who read closely and comment and the rapid response of the many people who read blogs to give feedback to the journalists has apparently come as a big surprise to them and they have not learned how to handle the criticism. They are simply not used to their work being so closely scrutinized.

I think things will settle down and the traditional journalists will get used to it. But I think that it is very welcome that they will have to write in the future knowing that their facts and perspectives are going to be closely watched.

Posted by Mano Singham on January 30, 2006 10:48 AM