By Casey Lynn
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
Query: What separates man from ape? Perhaps the same thing that separates journalist from blogger. In his 2007 book The Cult of the Amateur, Andrew Keen analogized T.H. Huxley’s “infinite monkey theorem” to the rise of Web 2.0. If you provide infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, one of them will eventually write Shakespeare. But the problem with the Internet, as he put it is, is that the typewriters are personal networked computers and the monkeys are bloggers, and “instead of creating masterpieces, these millions and millions of exuberant monkeys–many with no more talent in the creative arts than our primate cousins–are creating an endless digital forest of mediocrity.”
Like most writers of books like these, Keen is strikingly polemic–but that’s why he, and at the opposite end of the spectrum, Lawrence Lessig (whose new book Remix not only encourages the monkeys but takes away their blank paper and just gives them the Shakespeare as a starting point), end up on The Colbert Report. And I may disagree with 80% of what he says (and object to being called a monkey, besides), but he does make a point that I whole-heartedly agree with: we need objective, professional journalists to responsibly collect the news. Where I diverge from Keen, however, is that I think this statement has little or nothing to do with bloggers.
This discussion is years-old, of course, but I was reminded of it this morning upon reading Dan Tynan’s musings on blogging, the death of journalism, and his job as a professional writer. He pointed to a [GAS] post that linked to one of his stories as an example. Like Keen, he raises some good points about the plight of the professional journalist, and unlike Keen, I’m fairly sure that he would never call me a monkey, but I had a similar reaction upon reading it, which was: why can’t we all just get along?
I am not a journalist. I am a writer in most senses of the word, in that I have been paid for fiction, technical, scholarly, and freelance writing, but I am not a reporter, and nor do I purport to be. I am also, however, a blogger. For my writings on this blog I do not interview anyone, I do not do extensive research, and nor do my posts go through serious editorial revisions. There are several reasons for this. One is that this is not my job; I can’t be a full time writer, because I have other things to do full time. Another is that this isn’t a newspaper or a magazine; it’s a blog.
At the risk of extending the man/monkey metaphor, my point is that “traditional” media and blogs are two completely separate beasts. We need people like Dan Tynan. And by “we” I mean not just society at large, but the blogosphere specifically. We need good journalists, people who don’t just repeat the news, but report it, who find it in bits and pieces rather than wholesale. For example, there is a story in Business Week about Facebook’s holocaust controversy; in it, there are quotes from the associate dean of an international rights organization, a spokesperson from Facebook, and the director of the Citizen Law Project at Harvard. If I called any of these people and said, “I’m a writer for a website called Geeks Are Sexy…” would they give me the time of day? Probably not, and I don’t blame them; these are very busy people, and if 1000 bloggers called them today for quotes, they would have a lot of trouble getting stuff done.
Part of Tynan’s point is that aggregation and syndication can devalue content by pulling traffic away from the original source – i.e., if journalist at Big Newspaper With Online Presence spends a week writing a story and is paid for it, then Random Blog or Big News Aggregate re-posts the story and readers view it there instead of at the source, then yes, that journalist gets exposure, but Big Newspaper doesn’t get the ad revenue. So the problem we get is that Big Newspaper doesn’t have the money to pay all those real journalists. Another problem is that, for example, the [GAS] post that linked to his story did not link to the original source (PC World), but rather to a third-party site with which PC World has a syndication agreement–in this case, MSN. Though this has nothing to do with the blogs, and rather with the syndication agreements within the original media company.
Maybe it’s not fair that a popular blog (more popular than this one, say, Boing Boing) might get more traffic and thus more ad revenue from the existence of a story that it summarizes and links to than the original source, but in my opinion, that’s life. Or rather, it’s life now. It is the responsibility of a blogger, when repeating news rather than creating original content, to (1) not re-post material wholesale unless given permission (i.e., by a Creative Commons license or similar), and (2) correctly attribute to a source. Beyond that, what happens is dictated by the market.
Part of the role of a blog like this one is to filter the news for our readers, to be a really smart news aggregator, so that unlike hitting the “Tech” link on the top of CNN.com, you go to [GAS] where you’ll find not technology generally, but some special mix of content based on what we think that you as a [GAS] reader will want to know. It’s hit-or-miss, sure, but less hit-or-miss than everything at CNN.com. So instead of reading that and twenty other “real” news sites, you read [GAS] and a few other blogs that tend to hit your interests. When it comes to “real” news, you might use them as a filter to find what you want to read more about.
So here is my proposition: many of you, our readers, who read a summary of a “real” news item here, will (1) go to the source to get more information if it interests you, and/or (2) wouldn’t have read the story in the first place because you wouldn’t have seen it or because you weren’t interested in or don’t have time for reading 3000 words of something. Is this true for most of you? How many of you read [GAS] and other blogs instead of any traditional media? If so, why? Is it because of the allure of blogs or some failure of other media?
Andrew Keen thinks that the Internet is killing culture because we can’t tell the good from the bad; we’ll believe anything we read on a blog, get dumbed down by too many LOLcats and not enough high art. I think he’s not giving us enough credit. The truth is that media is about branding as much as anything else. There is a fundamental difference between reading about something on nytimes.com and reading about it on a blog. Even if we don’t realize we’re making judgments about accuracy, we are. Granted, there are certainly people who will repeat anything they hear, but blogs are basically similar to word-of-mouth: if your co-worker tells you something over coffee, you probably won’t disbelieve it, but you may want to know where he got the information, or if he can’t tell you, you’ll take that into account when mentally assigning value to it.
What this (admittedly long-winded, but then, that’s what you get for reading someone trained in scholarly writing and not journalism) discussion was meant to tease out is that traditional media and blogs serve a different purpose. And in my opinion, blogs serve traditional media in the same way that social networking does. It’s another product of the times; people want their content to come to them, and they want someone else to tell them what has risen to the top. Even the potential death of print journalism doesn’t mean the death of professional journalism. Branding already gives the old guard a head start in the long tail. There’s a lot to be said about how we can save the all-important objective, professional journalists, but I think that that conversation has to do with business models.
In the meantime, I think that journalists and bloggers can co-exist peacefully. The Internet hasn’t led to less culture by destroying what’s already there, but to more culture by simply adding to the pot. Here at [GAS] we may not be able to produce as much 100% original content as magazines and newspapers that can afford full-time journalists, but we do our share (Jimmy Rogers’ new Science is Sexy series is a good example). And it’s true that amateurs might take a piece of the market pie, but that’s simply a product of the times. I for one have faith in the ability of Shakespeare to keep his place among the monkeys. Welcome to the jungle, Will.