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.

  • Eric

    What about using the nofollow HREF tag, and extensive quoting so most users don’t have to click through?

  • http://www.tekstadventure.nl Branko Collin

    No conflict of interest? Between which interest?

    When I read Wired, I often read articles written by fanboys about their favourite topic. I would hardly say that there is no conflict of interest there.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I think I know why you wrote this posting, and let me start by saying my remarks below aren’t addressed to the specific incident which motivates you to write it. Rather, I’m making general comments on a general issue which I’ve thought about over the years.

    “I’ve been thinking a lot about his idea of “amateur journalists.” It is a powerful concept, which rewards careful thought.”

    I’ve been arguing for years, blogs and “citizen-[etc]” are *not* the solution as they’ve been hyped. For the simple reasons that the exact same pressures which work against truth elsewhere, work against truth in these contexts. It’s a powerful concept because it has great power to delude! The bubble-blowers tell a seductive story, which is quite appealing to people like you (professors, intellectuals) – speech for the masses, free as in liberty *because* it’s free as in beer, overthrowing the stifling old regime. And all that has to be done is to evangelize the magic technology.

    It works for the evangelists, since they got in at the ground floor, and their job is evangelizing their cult. Arguably it’s somewhat beneficial for a certain small “knowledge-worker” strata, i.e. professional talkers who now have a new channel to talk. But for everyone else, well, we’re just (to quote a good definition) “the part of the power-law away from the power”.

    The difference in appeal between what’s true and what’s popular doesn’t go away. The ENORMOUS power imbalances in the world don’t go away. There’s no overall routing around, just new routers who often act just like the old routers.

    There are certainly a few business which can be built on data-mining and collecting the slush-piles, and providing services. But, so what? These don’t help a person who has been smeared by someone who has orders of magnitude more audience. That there’s now a lot more potential unpaid free-lancers, is not thrilling.

    There’s a joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. My condolences on your experience with not being able to effectively reply. I’ve been there :-(.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    I think I know why you wrote this posting, and let me start by saying my remarks below aren’t addressed to the specific incident which motivates you to write it. Rather, I’m making general comments on a general issue which I’ve thought about over the years.

    “I’ve been thinking a lot about his idea of “amateur journalists.” It is a powerful concept, which rewards careful thought.”

    I’ve been arguing for years, blogs and “citizen-[etc]” are *not* the solution as they’ve been hyped. For the simple reasons that the exact same pressures which work against truth elsewhere, work against truth in these contexts. It’s a powerful concept because it has great power to delude! The bubble-blowers tell a seductive story, which is quite appealing to people like you (professors, intellectuals) – speech for the masses, free as in liberty *because* it’s free as in beer, overthrowing the stifling old regime. And all that has to be done is to evangelize the magic technology.

    It works for the evangelists, since they got in at the ground floor, and their job is evangelizing their cult. Arguably it’s somewhat beneficial for a certain small “knowledge-worker” strata, i.e. professional talkers who now have a new channel to talk. But for everyone else, well, we’re just (to quote a good definition) “the part of the power-law away from the power”.

    The difference in appeal between what’s true and what’s popular doesn’t go away. The ENORMOUS power imbalances in the world don’t go away. There’s no overall routing around, just new routers who often act just like the old routers.

    There are certainly a few business which can be built on data-mining and collecting the slush-piles, and providing services. But, so what? These don’t help a person who has been smeared by someone who has orders of magnitude more audience. That there’s now a lot more potential unpaid free-lancers, is not thrilling.

    There’s a joke that a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged. My condolences on your experience with not being able to effectively reply. I’ve been there :-(.

  • http://zgp.org/~dmarti/ Don Marti

    Do Not Feed the Troll.

    Online fora put social pressure on people who argue with trolls, not the trolls themselves. For example, I have no influence over professional anti-Linux FUD-mongers, but I can mock Jonathan Corbet at LWN.net for linking to them.

    The distributed online forum called “blogs” is slowly reinventing all the features that the distributed online forum called “Usenet” invented 20 years ago. Who will reinvent “kill thread” for the RSS aggregator?

  • http://www.DavidJRitchie.com/ David

    Advertiser Push as a funding mechanism has the same result whether it drives television or blogging — the content is driven to become as outrageous as possible or to appeal to the most widespread of human interests.

    The cost to produce content acceptable to the typical audience is the main economic driver. Amateurs only have so much free cash to throw at what they love to produce “pro bono”. If technology can keep the cost low for blogging and lower the cost for the production of television content we may yet see the “vast wasteland” bloom.

  • http://lonewacko.com The Lonewacko Blog

    Uh, for those who do mainly political blogging this post might be like reading a coded transmission. Does this have something to do with what I called the Arkancides in Linux Land? (SCO, Linux, Jones, O’Gara, etc.) If not, could someone give a clue to what specific incident this post refers?

    A big threat I see is not advertising, or tabloids, but organized advocacy, aka blog swarms. Compare the “news” reports from the lefties who went to the DNC and the righties who went to the RNC to, oh I dunno, some form of journalism. Even tech reporters must occasionally ask some slightly tough questions, but none of the bloggers who went to those conventions managed to ask anything that hadn’t been covered in press release.

    Sides which represent in some way or another the Dems or the Repubs are able to fill the space with endless chatter (e.g., Rathergate), forcing more important topics (e.g., massive illegal immigration) out of the list of things to discuss.

  • http://k.lenz.name/LB Karl-Friedrich Lenz

    I don’t get the “Google would be really angry” part.

    If they put out a cache of the whole Web (violating just about everybody’s copyright in the process), do they get a right to object to people linking to that cache? If so, is there any basis in current copyright for this kind of right?

  • john caddidy

    Winer is so full of baloney. His so-called amateur journalists are just that: rank amateurs. 99% of their stuff is poorly written and badly researched. How many big stories have they really broken? Oh, please don’t trot out the Dan Rather papers. That was OK but it was only comparing type faces. How about Dexter Filkins risking his life in Ramadi. Winer and his well-fed yuppy friends are just parasites in this info chain. By itself, that’s OK but I am soooo tired of his whining (wining?) and his holier-than-thou pretensions. Sorry Dave, but for all its faults I’ll take the reportage over the NY Times and the Washington Post to those of the blogosphere.

  • totoro

    lawrence, what do you think of this issue vis a vis the apple/rumor site fight going on right now? the one issue i have with how its being painted is that the rumor sites are somehow simply fans and bloggers being picked on by Apple…which may be true…but they also have a LOT of advertising on their sites, so they have a vested interest in generating hits..and don’t really play the same role as other apple enthusiast sites/bloggers imho…

  • Ed Roman

    “Do Not Feed the Troll.”

    The problem is, Don, most of the world would not be comfortable with a partisan as yourself defining a troll. I suspect there are some people with a really valid point of view that you would prefer to discuss as a troll because you’re ill-equipped to deal with their argument.

    That’s really the problem here: You assume you have the totally correct view of the world and everyone who disagrees is a troll. But let’s be realistic.

  • jb

    not sure why “google would be really angry” if we started linking to chaches.
    content owners might be angry, for lost “eysballs”. but why google? cause those angry site owners would push google for something, or exclude google bots and commit suicide??

  • Steve Anderson

    You won’t link to some journalist, that ‘hurt your feelings’ but you took a pedophile out boating? What was that about not rewarding ‘bad behavior’ again?