Friday, September 17, 2004

Blog Pancakes

There has been a lot of chatter about Dan Gillmor’s book We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People. An interesting article on Forbes, mentioned the ‘echo chamber effect’ of the so-called ‘blogsphere’.

I haven’t read the book yet, but will soon. I’ve seen a few reviews but I haven’t seen anyone talking about the technological limitations of ‘grassroots journalism’ yet.

I believe blog distribution/discovery technologies support only shallow micro-commentary and miscellaneous fact checking. Of course, that is a very small piece of mainstream media’s current offerings--consider weekly columns in newspapers, bi-monthly magazines, quarterly magazines, etc. These types of periodicals usually provide more depth than anything you’ll find in today’s blogs.

Because of the time between publishings, longer period commentary tends to focus on larger issues, filtering out the day-to-day noise that actually gets amplified in the so-called ‘echo chamber’ of the blog pancake.

Yes, I said blog pancake. When viewed through a search engine, the supposed blog 'sphere' is politically polarized with ultra-liberals on one side and ultra-conservatives on the flip side. America traditionally occupies more of an idealogical middle ground, so why has the political blogsphere collapsed into this acrimonious flap jack? I think it’s not that people aren’t out there trying to write thoughtful, original, balanced commentary—it’s just hard to find them because of some basic technology issues.

Most bloggers try to keep up reader’s interest by writing frequent, short posts. Often bloggers cut and paste text from a mainstream news story, pulling out some key words in summary comments. Effectively, this doubles the ‘amplitiude’ of the excerpted text (once for the original, once for the copy). Because blogs are heavily linked to each other in an attempt to get enough Google juice to be noticed, the same story tends to ripple through them, doubling the ‘story’ amplitude at each link. This is the reinforcing ‘echo chamber’ effect.

By updating posts several times a day, the blog news cycle is very short relative to the pace of mainstream news sources. Things that may have filtered out over a longer time, say a ‘fact’ that is debunked a few days later, now get amplified very rapidly instead of never showing up.

RSS (Really Simple Syndication) is the method used to broadcast blog updates to interested subscribers. RSS entries usually summarize blog posts. People look through their RSS aggregator and read these summaries, clicking on the ‘interesting’ ones for more details. The idea is to get people to click through to your site. Self-marketing provides even more incentive to post controversial or currently in-vogue story lines. The marketing machinery of blogdom is tightly coupled to these content spikes—hardly a formula for balanced journalism.

The main method of ‘distributing’ information on the Internet--search engines like Google and RSS feeds--don’t allow a way to express the periodicity of information contained in a blog. Therefore, thoughtful comments worth contemplating may just get lost in the high-frequency noise glitches of the moment.

My half-baked solution is simple:
- Create a way to express a blog’s intended periodicity: daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc. in the RSS format. This interval could also be derived by RSS advertising services (like Syndic8) automatically by looking at a blog’s average update interval. Probably a combination of both would be best.

- RSS aggregators and search engines should allow searching blogs based on their periodicity. For example, I should be able to search ‘weekly’ or ‘monthly’ commentary blogs versus ‘daily’ or micro-blogs. I should be able to filter bi-monthly posts in the display area of my RSS aggregator.

This will allow people more time to think about what they are writing, maybe do a little research, and still have a chance to be found using a search engine. It will also open up a whole new realm of ‘grassroots journalism’ that is currently unavailable. These views are probably counter to most people’s assumption that ‘faster’ is ‘better’ but as Robert Newton Peck said:

“Never miss a chance to keep your mouth shut.”