Thursday, December 30, 2004

"Fortress Unvanquishable Save for Sacnoth"

The first of two emergent characteristics of the blogosphere, its 'instant punditry', attained widespread recognition in Memogate. Memogate involved the debunking by anonymous Internet analysts of faked memos presented by 60 Minutes alleging that President Bush had evaded his National Guard obligations. But it is the second characteristic, which is just emerging, that is potentially revolutionary. Der Spiegel describes how the individuals, faced with the necessity to move vast quantities of factual information, used blog publishing to search for missing persons, transmit news and coordinate relief efforts.

Blogs are at the forefront of the tsunami recovery effort. While traditional media drags awaiting publication, and government hotlines jam or go unanswered, bloggers have hopped into the fray, providing needed information to relatives desperate to find loved ones and those hoping to join the rescue efforts. One of the best sites out there is the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog set up by students from New Delhi, a Sri Lankan TV producer and Internet junkies in the region. It offers everything from fascinating tsunami facts to emergency contact numbers to humanitarian relief organizations. Plus it tells you how to donate money from wherever you are.

Because the blogs are poorly understood, they have are often regarded with a mixture of fear and contempt by the members of the regular press. An extreme form of reaction was exhibited by Mr. Nick Coleman of the Star Tribune (registration required).

The end of the year is a time to bury the hatchet, so congratulations to Powerline, the Twin Cities blog that last week was named Time magazine's "Blog of the Year!" Now let me get a new hatchet. ... I  will leave it to the appropriate professionals to determine what they are compensating for, but they have received enormous attention from the despised Mainstream Media and deserve more. ... I wish I didn't have to do it, because I already get ripped a lot on the site, which thankfully also has had some nice photos of bikini-clad candidates for Miss Universe to keep me company. But I accept Powerline's contempt; I am only a Mainstream Media man, while Big Trunk and Hind Rocket are way cool. They blog. I work for a dopey old newspaper committed to covering the news fairly while Powerline doesn't make boring commitments. They are not Mainstream Media. They are Extreme Media. Call them reliable partisan hacks.

Mr. Coleman leaves the reader unsure of whether he is looking up or peering down at the members of the new "Extreme Media". On the one hand, Coleman portrays regular journalists as being at the 'service of the downtrodden', living on hard-earned legitimacy while the bloggers are 'Ivy League' lawyers who are partisan right wing hacks. But in the next breath he regrets that while he is only 'a dopy old' newspaperman the bloggers are 'way cool'. What gives?

What gives is Mr. Coleman is confused. Bloggers are the most heterogenous and diverse group possible. The Daily Kos and Juan Cole would hardly fit Mr. Coleman's description of the conservative hack. It is hard to see the bloggers in Iran, Iraq and China as business-suited Ivy League lawyers with an axe to grind in US local politics. But Mr. Coleman can be forgiven for seizing upon instances of the blogosphere as its archetypes while failing to characterize the phenomenon as a whole. The blogosphere is a specific manifestation -- and by no means the only one -- of the networks made possible by the Internet which can be imperfectly compared to the emerging nervous system of a growing organism. Once the software and infrastructure to self-publish was in place, it was natural that analytical cells, or groups of cells would take inputs from other parts of the system and process them. The result was 'instant punditry', which was nothing more than the public exchange of analysis on any subject -- politics, culture and war just happened to be the three most popular. It enabled lawyers to offer opinions on law; military men on things military; scientists on things scientific. And suddenly the journalistic opinion editors found themselves at an increasing disadvantage. While individual bloggers might not have the journalistic experience of the newspaper professionals, they had the inestimable edge of being experts, sometimes the absolute authorities in their respective fields. This is exactly what happened in Memogate. People who had designed Adobe fonts and written desktop publishing programs knew the memos were computer generated and were not going to be overawed by Dan Rather's experts asserting the contrary. They were the real experts and to make an impact they did not have to be correct across a large range of issues. They only had to be right in the one thing they knew best and from that vantage could hammer a mainstream pundit into the dust. Rather's defeat at the hands of Buckhead was not accidental. It was inevitable.

But the mainstream media could console itself in one thing. It still controlled the primary newsgathering apparatus. Yet even here the rulebook was changing. The advent of cheap consumer digital cameras capable of recording sound coupled to the proliferation of internet connections meant that in addition to the analysis cells which manifested itself in 'instant punditry', the Internet was developing a sensory apparatus to match. To the 'instant pundit' was added the 'instant reporter' -- the man already on the spot, often possessed of local knowledge and language skills. These came suddenly of age with the December 2004 tsunami story. Survivors with a videocamera or even just an email or web browser connection 'filed stories' which were vacuumed up by the the instant pundits hovering over their RSS subscriptions and launched into the global information pool. In retrospect, the Orange Revolution in the Ukraine forshadowed the events of the tsunami coverage. Individuals with mobile computing and communications devices provided a substantial shadow coverage of the unfolding events there. Like the tsunami instant reporters, the insta-journalists in the Ukraine had the additional advantage of being largely unknown to each other. This meant that unlike the wire services, which are often single-sourced, the insta-reports could be cross-checked. The exaggerations or misinterpretations of the one would live or die depending on the reinforcement or negation it received from other sources which could not be forced into a collusive arrangement. It was built-in collateral confirmation. The last bastion of the media has now witnessed the birth of a kind of informational artillery, which while still too weak to overthrow its existing walls, must surely in time grow to such a strength as to render their fortress untenable.

The real challenge facing traditional media is how to graft themselves onto this burgeoning evolutionary system by providing services to it. Google is possibly the best known example of a company which understood this trend perfectly, providing services to this growing organism and profiting from its expansion. But there are others. Less famous companies are profiting by facilitating online payments, advertising services, auctions, trading and other services. Glenn Reynolds links to a story which notes that the classified ads market has already departed traditional newspapers, probably forever.

Lastly, this emerging neural network of analysis cells and sensory apparatus is largely self-aware. It has developed meta-ideas about itself and can actually guide its own development, mimicking a primitive lifeform.

In summary, bloggers are nothing special. They are neither better human beings nor inherently cooler than anyone. It is simply that they have embraced one aspect of a superior paradigm and have benefited thereby. Blogger 'cool' comes from neural network 'cool'. This should be good news for Mr. Coleman. He's just as good as any blogger. The bad news is that, like them, he has to get a day job.