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Posts Tagged ‘blogging’

Blogger’s fatigue?

29  last month. Just 14 posts in 24 March days. Really?

And for much of last year I used to average 50 posts a month…

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Daniel Drezner, in a superb article, counters the view — fashionable of late — that the internet and the blogging phenomenon has led to a decline in the quality of public intellectualism.

The pessimism about public intellectuals is reflected in attitudes about how the rise of the Internet in general, and blogs in particular, affects intellectual output. Alan Wolfe claims that “the way we argue now has been shaped by cable news and Weblogs; it’s all ‘gotcha’ commentary and attributions of bad faith. No emotion can be too angry and no exaggeration too incredible.” David Frum complains that “the blogosphere takes on the scale and reality of an alternative world whose controversies and feuds are … absorbing.” David Brooks laments, “People in the 1950s used to earnestly debate the role of the intellectual in modern politics. But the Lionel Trilling authority figure has been displaced by the mass class of blog-writing culture producers.”

These comments, Drezner says, miss the point.

For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

Drezner is right. The free market of ideas created by the internet does contain a great deal of low-quality noise; however, the very best blogs, quite often, provide both more variety and better analysis than the mainstream media and its salaried pundits. Furthermore, as Drezner points out, blogs play an important role in demystifying their subject. They provide thoughtful, quick critiques of mainstream works and are a powerful agent of quality control. In a sense, blogging and more conventional methods of intellectual discourse (such as books or papers) are complementary; each performs better in the presence of the other.

Above all, the low barrier of entry means that intellectualism in the internet age is no longer the sole province of those with a degree, but can be successfuly partaken by anyone with the knowledge, capability and intelligence. That’s a good thing.

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Apologies to the reader for the small number of posts here this week. I was at the University of Oklahoma for a math visit from Tuesday to Friday.

It was a fruitful visit. I gave a couple of talks and discussed a lot of number theory. In many ways the whole thing, especially the math discussion, was reminiscent of my Olympiad days when we would think about math problems all the time, sometimes in groups, sometimes individually and explain our bright ideas to each other with a particular kind of passion that few people ever experience. The trouble with research is that everything is so specialized that it is hard to find people to talk to who really understand your stuff. So the last few days were almost from another planet — waking up at 8 AM, going over to Starbucks to meet the other two, and mathiness for the rest of the day. And did I mention that I was put up in a luxury suite and everything I ate or drank (including every cup of coffee) during my stay was paid for by them?

I am back now, so blogging should resume. Cannot promise a flood of posts though. Math has a way of reminding you of its superior status from time to time.

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The Associated Press wants bloggers to stop quoting passages from its news reports. At the risk of incurring their wrath, I’ll quote the spokesman:

Cutting and pasting a lot of content into a blog is not what we want to see. It is more consistent with the spirit of the Internet to link to content so people can read the whole thing in context.

In fact the AP sent letters to the Drudge Retort, asking it to take down several posts which contained quotations from A.P. articles ranging from 39 to 79 words.

But here’s the irony:  Around the same time it was harassing bloggers, the AP published an article which lifted 154 words from a certain blog post.

Perhaps it is the AP’s position that only those who are not news professionals should have to pay for content. Of course I am shamelessly paraphrasing Glenn Reynolds here. Also have a look at the image below which I lifted directly from Bright and Early (who may have either lifted it from AP’s own website or simply made it up.)

Since the AP owns all the words in the English alphabet now, I guess I should start blogging in Eskimoish. 

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I apologize

..for the lack of substantive posts of late. My parents are visiting me and will be here for another six weeks. We will be travelling a fair bit and I think that will not leave me a great deal of time to blog. There will of course be the odd short post, and regulars like quote for the week. However, on the whole, blogging will be light till the end of July.

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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Let’s talk about the echo chambers that you specialize in. These are the chambers that exist, both small and large, in cyberspace.

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. The internet has many great advantages from the standpoint of democracy, ’cause people can expand their horizons, but one thing that’s happened is that many people use the internet to narrow themselves, so that they end up speaking mostly to people who already agree with them. So one just fact about the operation of the internet is you get these Dean supporters, for example, speaking most of the time to fellow Dean supporters, and the same can happen for Bush supporters who hear only what other Bush supporters say about the Democrats or about France. And the internet really facilitates a situation in which people are in a way living in echo chambers that they themselves have created.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: And this phenomenon you’ve applied a new term to called “cyber cascade.” Does that relate to incestuous amplification only it’s on the web?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. Cyber cascades are specifically a web phenomenon in which one fact or something that’s supposed to be a fact is stated to another person who then tells maybe another dozen people who then tell maybe another 10,000 others, and pretty soon people all over the world are hearing and potentially believing something that just isn’t so.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: At the risk of being obvious, state for the record what you think the long term impact of the proliferation of these echo chambers would be.

CASS SUNSTEIN: The greatest danger of the echo chambers is unjustified extremism. So it’s a well-known fact that if you get a group of people who tend to think something, after they talk to each other, they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before, and the danger of that is you can make a situation where mutual understanding is, is difficult, and people don’t appreciate but instead demonize those who disagree with them. And that’s an ongoing threat to our democracy.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: So beware the echo chamber?

CASS SUNSTEIN: Yeah. If it turns out that we’re talking mostly to people we agree with, something’s gone wrong, and there’s a kind of obligation for citizens to leave their echo chambers at least some of the time and seek out dissenting opinions.

Assuming Prof. Sunstein isn’t actually advocating regulation of the internet to discourage these echo chambers, I find a lot to agree with in what he says. It is a human trait to seek out supporting opinions, or only listen to those whose views we already agree with. I myself am guilty of reading mostly blogs that I agree with ideologically. But the internet is a vast, vast place and there is some excellent stuff out there written by people whose philosophy differs substantially from ours. It would be a shame to shut them out completely, don’t you think?

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Cass Sunstein and Eugene Volokh discuss blogs, echo-chambers, free-speech regulations and much more.

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