The Book Club

How Bloggers Could Add to Big Media

Tim and Jack,

(Welcome, Jack! Glad to have you here, even if now I’m being double-teamed!)

You’re right, of course, that even on the Internet we need protection from physical force and fraud and that providing such protection is what governments are supposed to be for. (I say “supposed to,” because most governments in the world aren’t very good at it—try doing a deal in Russia, Nigeria, or, well, dozens of other nations.) But the case for national government presented by the need for protection is a narrow one and doesn’t extend to most of the things to which national governments (particularly in the West) actually devote their time and attention. It’s also true that most of us generally behave in socially constructive ways for reasons that don’t have much to do with the law. We bathe, use deodorant, dress appropriately, and keep our lawns mowed for reasons of social custom. Those constraints are, in some ways, stronger than law—many people violate speed limits but never fail to shave before appearing in public. Even on the Internet, as any longtime blogger can attest, social pressures can be pretty strong within a particular community.

None of this is to downplay the importance of your point, only to suggest that 1) it’s not the whole story; and 2) as a case for expansive national governments—and expansive governance of the Internet—it doesn’t get you very far.

Also, I think it’s hard to defend the trends you describe as pro-choice. You write:

“People living in different places might want different laws for the Net, plain and simple. You like vanilla, I like chocolate—you want to live in a place where Nazis have the right to march through Jewish neighborhoods, I want Holocaust deniers arrested.”

That’s the sort of thing that I meant when I referred to the “experimental federalism” argument. Of course, it presupposes some things—such as the existence of a choice. Chinese and Iranian bloggers don’t “choose” censorship, nor would Burmese or North Korean bloggers (if there were any Burmese or North Korean bloggers). To broaden the analogy, in the United States, state governments have some leeway in the types of things they can regulate, but they have to respect basic rights that apply to all citizens. And on the Internet, that leeway is rather narrow precisely because of the Web’s nonlocal character.

The problem is that governments, with their resources for coercion and constraint, are good at making people live under regimes they don’t want to live under. That’s necessary in the real world, sometimes, but it seems less applicable to things like Holocaust denial that do no direct harm to individuals. Internationally, there may be room for different laws regulating usage of the Web. But again it’s hard to believe that the rules in China and Iran, much less Burma or North Korea, satisfy any reasonable test relating to force or fraud. Rather, they seem like self-serving protections for those in power. (They would certainly fail the standard of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights if anyone were to apply it.) Which means that the notion of “choice” gets pretty messy. If people actually want to live under different Internet regimes, that’s a different matter. You don’t need governments to create those areas; that’s what AOL is for. (I think that the supposed preferences you describe amount to more than chocolate vs. vanilla; would we want a government to force us to eat vanilla?)

You asked whether the independent media can be trusted as much as existing Big Media. This is a case of conflict between the real and the ideal. When it comes to journalism, the ideal is a strong, dedicated, and fair media establishment that just wants to get to the truth and is willing to spend a lot of money and effort to do so. Compared to this ideal, bloggers, with their minimal resources and strong opinions, don’t look so good.

The real, however, is nothing like the ideal. The media today is an often flaccid, lazy, and unfair establishment more interested in selling advertising than in anything else. Compared to this reality, bloggers don’t look so bad. I’ve long said that the relationship between Big Media and blogs should be more symbiotic than adversarial. On the other hand, blogs are actually better at some things than Big Media—note the Iraqi document translation effort, for example. And as Reason’s Julian Sanchez noted regarding the Ben Domenech plagiarism affair at the Washington Post (in which a new Post hire was quickly found by bloggers to have been a serial plagiarizer, something that had eluded the folks who hired him), “The truth at the core of much often-tiresome blog triumphalism is precisely that the Post probably couldn’t have vetted anyone as effectively as a blogospheric swarm.” As Sanchez continues:

The same task would have taken a committed body of researchers days, but because the task was what Net theorist Yochai Benkler would call highly modular and granular—capable of being broken up into highly fine-grained microtasks—a distributed swarm of bloggers was able to accomplish it incredibly quickly, turning up many more instances in a matter of hours. The blogosphere’s virtues on this front are not necessarily the Post’s defects, any more than it’s a problem with the blogosphere per se that it’s less well suited to producing intensive, sustained investigative reporting on stories that aren’t similarly modular and granular. They’re different kinds of information systems with different comparative advantages.

That notion of differential competences seems to me exactly right. The question—discussed at some length in my book, of course—is whether the folks running many Big Media outlets will be smart enough to take advantage of this symbiosis and of their natural strengths in newsgathering. So far, the matter is still in serious doubt.

One good sign: The Washington Post is including links, via Technorati, to blogs that discuss its stories, allowing readers to quickly get multiple perspectives. The next step would be for the Post to assign some staffers to read those blog posts and look for errors in the story, correcting them and offering credit to bloggers when they’re discovered. That would transform an army of kvetchers into a powerful squad of unpaid fact-checkers. (And the word “unpaid” must surely ring sweet in the ears of today’s newspaper management.)

The next step would be to turn trusted bloggers into stringers, reporting on events in their areas (whether by geography or by expertise). As we’ve seen with news events like Katrina, the Indian Ocean tsunami, and the Columbia disaster, there are lots of people with digital cameras and Internet connections who can provide useful reporting on short notice when something happens in their vicinity. There are also lots of people with deep expertise in particular topics who would be happy to share it when something happens. Maintaining a roster of these people in advance would be a smart move.

It would also address your concern (that bloggers are too weak to resist pressure from governments) as well as mine (that Big Media is out of touch). Instead of sniping at one another (OK, a more accurate formulation might be in addition to sniping at one another), bloggers and Big Media could become mutually supportive—helping to resist the pressures for censorship that your book describes. I think that would be a good thing.

At any rate, it’s certainly been fun discussing these issues with you. I hope that lots of people will join the discussion—after, of course, purchasing both of our books!