06 May 2007

Phoney handwringing about the web

I gather Andrew Keen was on the radio this morning, claiming that the free cultural output generated by bloggers and other web authors is ruining the economy, because it undermines those who do the same thing for a living. As an economic argument that rings false.

(Although it does make me wonder how some people can blog as much as they do, when they don't seem to be getting paid for it. Their jobs must leave them with plenty of time on their hands, or else there is some kind of complementarity going on which enhances the productivity of their employment.)

Whatever the reasons, if it were true that one kind of activity is being displaced (rather than supplemented) by an apparently unremunerated version of the same thing, that would simply be the economy transforming itself, not the economy being damaged. Economies change, don't you know, and in the process some activities/jobs are lost while others are created. To use a phoney phrase, get used to it.

I personally regard it as a good sign when people get irritated by web power, because it demonstrates that it can have a genuine impact. You expect some people's noses to be put out of joint when something meaningful is going on. Whereas silly endorsements like Time's "you are all Person of the Year" award make me think the opposite, i.e. they suggest that the blogosphere is perceived as sweetly amateurish and unthreatening.

The point of the web and blogosphere, as far as I'm concerned, isn't to focus digital democracy, or wisdom of crowds, both of which are overrated concepts in my opinion. Rather, they provide an opportunity to loosen the stranglehold of the il-liberal, pseudified cultural establishment. That's why I think Wikipedia is predominantly a "good thing", quite apart from being incredibly useful. It may be a bit weak in one or two areas e.g. recent political history, but by and large it is marked by a distinct absence of the phoneyness and obscurantism that characterise vast tracts of contemporary philosophy, economics, physics, psychology, history, etc.

So when I see people like Keen, or Jaron Lanier, or Oliver Kamm, spout nonsense about how the web is pernicious, I think "these people have basically aligned themselves, for whatever reason, with the establishment, and their comments are mainly an expression of that particular alignment, rather than of anything usefully analytical."


Wolfie said...

A feature common in personal blogs is to critique articles by MSM columnists, either of their analysis or their facts. I think its good to see these demagogues put on the spot, they have become grotesquely enamoured with their own influence.

Fabian Tassano said...

By "demagogues" I assume you mean the big-name bloggers.

I think their real influence is still pretty feeble. The fact that a blog attracts a lot of visitors eager to read the latest bit of vitriol doesn't mean it makes much of a difference to the way people see the world. The blogosphere is predominantly anti-socialist, and has grown enormously since 2000, but I don't see that the consensus has shifted in any way in its favour. Quite the opposite, judging from the progress of the Tory party.

Criticisms of the kind Kamm et al make strike me as phoney because they evade the more important point: that the web has become the principal outlet for points of view that differ from the standard il-liberal consensus which dominates the cultural establishment.

The quality of political debate may have declined (e.g. freer use of ridicule and personal attacks) but that is a consequence of mediocracy and would be happening without the web. See e.g. ridicule of establishment figures in the tabloids, TV mockumentaries on Blunkett/Blair/etc. To blame technology for dumbing down is just silly. In other ways, the web has raised the quality of debate.

Jeremy Jacobs said...

Great post F. Keen and his ilk are diabolical.

Paulie said...

A few things;

By demagogues, I suspect that he means the MSM columnists, who - until weblogs came along - were given a little too much respect. I sympathise with Polly Toynbee when she complains about the poisonous level of personal abuse that she has had directed at her by a smallish group of obsessives, but it would also be fair to say that press have increasingly neglected reporting in favour of commentary over the past thirty years. Many people can comment with broadly as much competence as the paid commentators (indeed, having to knock out 800 words three or four times a week often leads people to comment on stuff that they're not qualified to - and get a large audience into the bargain.

Envious bloggers are, I think, a good thing in this respect, and bleating from the paid commentariat (as opposed to reporters) can often be taken with a pinch of salt.

On the wider stuff about blogging and public policy, I think that people are mixing two things up here. We can all write whatever we want (within the bounds of legality , of course) and it would be nice if we were all a bit more civil than we are. But we're entitled to propagate almost any views that we like (see 'freedom of expression' debate, passism).

What I think Kamm is raising is the question of our expectation to be taken notice of, or to be taken seriously. Until the 'blogosphere' starts to find ways of filtering itself for relevance, qualified comment and quality, it shouldn't expect to be taken seriously.

I only know one person who doesn't think that democracy would be better if the quality of public deliberation were higher. Weblogs have the ability to raise the quality of public deliberation. But they aren't really doing so at the moment.

And this is one of those timeless moral challenges - like the parable of the talents* - we have the ability to do something good and we're not doing it. It makes us, collectively, something of a failure.

*This does not imply a general endorsement of religious parables by this commenter

Fabian Tassano said...

Interesting points.

I still think it's both silly and pointless to tut-tut at the blogosphere on the basis that the most popular parts of it tend to be crude and tone-lowering, since exactly the same criticism applies to the contemporary newspaper and television industries.

"Until the 'blogosphere' starts to find ways of filtering itself for relevance, qualified comment and quality, it shouldn't expect to be taken seriously."
I think that's like saying, "until the tabloids stop pumping out crude rubbish, Times columnists shouldn't expect to be taken seriously."

"We have the ability to do something good and we're not doing it. It makes us, collectively, something of a failure."
You're committing the same fallacy that Kamm et al make, in lumping a very heterogenous bunch of people together because they happen to use the same technology. (Particularly odd coming from people on the inside like Kamm.)

The blogosphere does not have any ability to achieve things collectively. The web is simply one more medium, it just happens to be a particularly cheap one which makes it accessible (at present) to more or less anyone. That has both good aspects and bad aspects.

The web deserves to be taken notice of where it produces good stuff, and ignored where it does not. It's even easier not to look at a web page (given there are millions) than to turn off a TV channel.

Mister Anonymous said...

"It was a catastrophic performance, mainly because the blogger required continual correction on points of fact. He thereby illustrated blogging's central characteristic danger. It is a democratic medium, allowing anyone to participate in political debate without an intermediary, at little or no cost. But it is a direct and not deliberative form of democracy. You need no competence to join in."

These days people don't care about reality they just want convenience, social approval and admiration. It doesn't matter if you're right or wrong; all that matters is being believed. Like a good commie deconstructionist. Just being believed and getting approval is like a kind of food. No wonder bloggers don't need jobs; they feed on positive energy maaan.

Example: On a heavy metal forum, people are discussing the a Metalfestival, a gigantic ripoff of entertainment for kids who like to go spend a lot of their parents' money. It works by having them sign up to see 50 bands, of which they can possibly see 25, and of those, perhaps 10 are worth seeing. Most people show up and buy expensive refreshments, CDs and tshirts and miss the good shows, making profit for those who set up the show and no one else. This idea was not copy-and-pasted but was re-written on three forums on which people discuss these topics, by three different user accounts who regularly posted on those forums; the result was a whisper rumor introduced strategically instead of via wide coverage (neo-spamming).

The number one reason not to go: the fest has had declining attendance in years past and its label supporters negotiated for slimmer contracts this year (cheaper). Thus it's not certain the thing won't slide into bankruptcy before this year's fest.

And you can watch them all take this rubbish seriously. WTF? IS IT BECOMING UNCOOL?? OH NOES! IT MUST NOW BE RUBBISH!

This kind of thinking isn't limited to kids music shows. Just read Wittgenstein. Reality is notionally what people agree on. And in the linguistic mind-space of the internet who needs reality?

james higham said...

...I personally regard it as a good sign when people get irritated by web power, because it demonstrates that it can have a genuine impact...

Surest sign of it working.

Anorak said...


I edit the Anorak site - www.anorak.co.uk. I would like to feature some of your posts on site, with full links to you, of course. Is this ok?



Fabian Tassano said...

Paul - please feel free.

TDK said...

Until the 'blogosphere' starts to find ways of filtering itself for relevance, qualified comment and quality, it shouldn't expect to be taken seriously.

But it does have such a mechanism. Relevance and quality can be measured by visits and links. Qualified comment can be determined by the debate that goes on in the comments or linked posts. It is clear that ill-informed bloggers will get their falsehoods exposed pretty quickly.

I don't see this as markedly different from the mechanism by which we judge MSM commentators. Polly is an important commentator because she has influence and readership. In contrast, Gary Younge say, is less influential because he is so easily debunked.

Jeremy Jacobs said...


You are spot on. Just take this weeks "big" story about Blair. Cab you believe the "spin" and rubbish spouted from him. The Blogosphere, despite it's faults, is a good place to air one's alternative views.

Christopher said...

Hummm . . . I don't know. I'd have to say I disagree.

While I've rarely contributed to one of these "social media" sites, what little experience I've had has convinced me that it's not worth my time to contribute or use them.

Andy Rutledge has a post about how social media can be boring and devolve into mediocrity, and says it better than I can:


"Mediocrity is the only possible result of a wide sampling of opinion or input. The only idea that can survive such a mechanism is one consistent with the lowest common denominator. The mob works to ensure that all other results are weeded out. Now, we might think that it is the highest common denominator that is promoted in this environment, but it's just not so. The "highest" anything is largely held by the masses as being discriminatory and elitist. So only the lowest common denominator wins out. The point is that in this sort of environment excellence does not survive.

Excellence is not the sum of opinions. Excellence is not born of consensus. Excellence is by its very nature something far outside the average. In fact, not even good is found in the average. Average is comfortable. Average requires no great effort. Average requires nothing exceptional. Average anything is..., well, just mediocre."

If you're interested, you can read about my own experience with social media, the common ownership of content, and what convinced me that it leads to the lowest common denominator by going here:


Fabian Tassano said...

"I'd have to say I disagree."

Disagree with what? I think Andy Rutledge makes some good points but, as he says himself, "it’s not just the Web". Cultural communitarianism is fashionable well beyond the confines of the web, and is one of the themes I tried to highlight in Mediocracy. "Creativity" is not supposed to be about exceptional individuals any more, but something everyone can do, and do collectively.

The web happens to lend itself better to aggregation of viewpoints than other media, and it has been used for that, among other things. Most blogs allow online comments, as do most newspaper articles by now. Some blogs don't. So a blog isn't necessarily a "social medium". This one isn't, as far as I am concerned.

I certainly don't think a "social medium" is capable of producing anything very original. In most cases it isn't even capable of generating anything coherent. (Having said that, I have seen some online forums produce interesting discussions, some more insightful than that generated by most academics.)

Wikipedia is interesting because it has disproved the idea that a social medium can never produce anything useful. Mind you, the "social" aspect of Wiki has been exaggerated; we are talking about a few writers (plus a shower of tweakers) per article, not a crowd.

It's curious that a reference article which in theory is open to all (how much longer, I wonder) can sustain information to a fairly high level of quality that depends on a few key individuals. I would be interested in an explanation of that phenomenon but I haven't seen anyone try to give one.