Fat Steve's Blatherings

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Getting one thing right

      Yesterday, Jan. 3rd, there was a story in the New York Times about the tsunami and the blogosphere.  The story has apparently been widely commented on in the blogosphere, and mostly unfavorably.

      However, blogger Xeni Jardin at BoingBoing.net disagreed (Jardin was quoted in the story, by the way). She defends the article, calling it
Another insightful piece from John Schwartz at the New York Times,
and denies that the article shows any hostility to bloggers. 

      Who's correct?  Let's take a look.

      The headline reads "Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate."  What debate?  Well, Schwartz mentions Democratic Underground, which isn't a blog.  One of the resident DU morons thought the earthquake that caused the tsunami was in turn caused by (brace yourself) pollution and the war in Iraq.  He/she also thinks the earth is "organic".

      The Times story then notes that one of the three contributors to Wizbang made fun of the DU fools.  This appears to be the 'debate' referred to.

      After a paragraph about some of the good things bloggers have done in tsunami relief, Schwartz writes:
"It's so much of what they feed on, so much of what they are," said James Surowiecki, the author of "The Wisdom of Crowds."
[my link to the book]

      Note that no context is given that would allow you to know where or when Surowiecki said the words that are alleged to be his, or to tell you what is being referred to.  Given the way the MSM has behaved lately, this makes the quote almost meaningless.

      Schwartz then drops Surowiecki, without asking what is the evidence for S.'s comment about whatever it is he is referring to, and goes on to give some statistics about blogs, taken from a Pew Research Survey he also doesn't link to.  [WARNING!  WARNING!  DANGER, WILL ROBINSON, DANGER!  LINK UPCOMING TO EVIL PDF FORMAT SITE!  DANGER OF COMPUTER LOCKING UP WHILE BLOATED ACROBAT READER(tm) LOADS! DANGER!  The survey is here.]

      Getting back to posts on the tsunami, Schwartz notes that
Odd blog postings are not just for commoners. Norodom Sihanouk, the former king of Cambodia, posted a message in French to his Web site, www.norodomsihanouk.info, saying that an astrologer had warned him that an "ultra-catastrophic cataclysm" would strike the region, but Cambodia would be undamaged if the proper rituals were observed. King Sihanouk said that the thousands of dollars he spent on the ceremonies protected his nation from the disaster, and that he would donate $15,000 to disaster relief.

      Should you click through to Sihanouk's website, you'll find it isn't a blog either.  You won't find directions to the quote, so unless you want to spend a long time rummaging through the site, you can't check Schwartz's accuracy.

      Schwartz goes back to Surowiecki, sort of:
Mr. Surowiecki pointed out that there is nothing new about ill-informed rumor-mongering or other forms of oddness. "There were always cranks," he said. "Rumors have always been fundamental about the way people talk, or think, about politics or complicated issues." Instead of a corner bar or a Barcalounger, however, the location for today's speech is an online medium with a potential audience of millions.

But there is another, more important difference, Mr. Surowiecki and others say. Internet discourse can be self-correcting, with near-instant feedback from readers.

      Schwartz now shows his disapproval of the crude political bloggers:
What was lost in the sniping over the Democratic Underground posting was the fact that the follow-up comments were a sober discussion of what actually causes earthquakes. The first response to the posting asked, "Earthquakes have been happening since the beginning of time ... How would you explain them?"

Further comments explained the movement of tectonic plates and provided links to sites explaining earthquakes and tsunamis from the United States Geological Survey and other authoritative sources.

"Not to make fun, as I'm sure it's not a unique misconception ... but the reality is simple plate tectonics," one participant wrote. "The entire Pacific Ocean is slowly but surely closing in on itself. What happened is that the floor of the Indian Ocean slid over part of the Pacific Ocean, releasing massive tension in the Earth's crust.

"That's it. No mystic injury to the Gaia spirit or anything."

      Hmm, maybe the posts at DU are the debate?  Wizbang calling the DU idiots "idiots" was "sniping," which is presumably a bad thing.  Except that Schwartz is himself 'sniping' at people who post things he disagrees with.  I find all this hard to understand, except as an attitude by Schwartz that he's a superior sort of person who is therefore entitled to 'snipe' at those he takes to be bloggers.  But perhaps I'm mistaken.

      Back to the article.  A respectable authority figure is now introduced:
Online discussion can evolve toward truth, said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University and a blogger. One result is a process that can be more reliable than many new media, where corrections are often late and small, if they appear at all.

Dr. Shirky said the key to reasonable discussion was to get beyond flames and the "echo chamber" effect of like-minded people simply reinforcing the opinions of one another and to let the self-correcting mechanisms do their job in a civil way. "You hope the echo chamber effect and the fact-checking effect will balance out into a better and more nuanced set of narratives, and a more rigorously checked set of facts," he said. But in such a sharply contentious world, "The risk is it will largely divide itself into competing narratives where what even constitutes a fact is different in different camps."

      I gather from the way this is presented that Schwartz disapproves of 'echo chambers.'  Oddly, that's precisely one of the complaints we political bloggers have with the MSM: too many people who think alike reinforcing each others prejudices.  Or is an 'echo chamber' a good thing when it's the Times?

      Miss Jardin now makes her appearance:
To Xeni Jardin, an editor of BoingBoing.net, the "self-healing" quality of debate is one of the most important results of the electronic medium. "When information that is provably untrue surfaces on the Net or surfaces in discussion groups, people want to be right - they want to know the truth," she said.

In her own blog, she said, "Sometimes people spend really a long time researching background information on an item that we post" and correct the record through comments.

      You noted I hope that the quotations suddenly stop, but the sentence continued.  That's how a professional journalist lets you know that the bit about "correcting the record through comments" was something Schwartz added, not something Jardin said.  The reason Jardin didn't say it is that BoingBoing has no comments section.

      But political bloggers are, alas, incurably stupid:
In the tsunami discussion on Democratic Underground, some participants continued to post farfetched theories about what caused the earthquake based on pseudoscience and conspiracy, and on Wizbang, the vituperation continued unabated, spreading even to many victims of the disaster.

      On balance, I think Jardin was half right.  There's no reason to believe Schwartz showed hostility to the blogosphere.  As Napoleon once said,
Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by incompetence.

      Schwartz is an incompetent reporter, who doesn't know enough about blogs to write about them, and his editor is an incompetent who didn't make sure Schwartz was qualified for his assignment.

      That's not malice, but it's almost as bad.



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