May 31, 2005 · Lessig
Ever since I interviewed Dave about blogs for my book, Free Culture, I’ve been thinking a lot about his idea of “amateur journalists.” It is a powerful concept, which rewards careful thought. To see its value, we must remember the original meaning of “amateur,” meaning one who does something for the love of it alone. And when we think of journalism that is regulated by those ideals, it is easy to see why such journalism nicely complements commerical journalism. As he said to me,
“An amateur journalist simply doesn’t have a conflict of interest, or the conflict of interest is so easily disclosed that you know you can sort of get it out of the way.”
It is because I found Dave’s view so compelling that I’ve been worried for sometime about the emergence of advertising in blog space. I’m not against it. I just worry about how it might put pressure on the “doesn’t have a conflict of interest” norm. If the virtue of the amateur is to seek the truth, that virtue could be in tension with the desire to earn more ad revenue. The simplest way to get linkbacks is to say the most absurd things imaginable.
But the more I’ve talked about this with observers and friends, the more I think the real fear is not bloggers tempted by ad revenues. It is instead the emergence of the equivalent of tabloids in blog-space: commercial entities whose sole purpose is to generate ad revenue, who do that by being as ridiculous and extreme as possible.
The danger here is that the conflict has returned. Just as the British tabloids care little about the truth in their path to selling papers, commercial blog-loids care little about the truth in trying to attract eyeballs. And it is here that the cycle turn vicious: for the amateur space feeds the professional troll by careful and repeated efforts to show that claims made are false or outrageous. If you’re paid by the click, who cares why people click.
This creates a dilemma for open and honest disagreement about the facts. For here there is a conflict in interest: the interest of the amateur journalist is not the interest of the professional troll. Yet the only way the amateur can do his job — by quoting and criticizing — is to feed the troll.
We either need a way to cite that doesn’t reward bad behavior. (Copyright law restricts that (Google, for example, would be really angry if you started linking to caches rather than original locations).) Or we need a way to know when to ignore.
In either case, imho, it would be useful to think more about this conflict in interest, if the nature of the amateur space is not to be displaced by something different.