July 21, 2005  ·  Cass Sunstein

Here’s a passage from the first entry on Judge Richard Posner’s blog (which he runs with Gary Becker): “Blogging is . . . a fresh and striking exemplification of Friedrich Hayek’s thesis that knowledge is widely distributed among people and that the challenge to society is to create mechanisms for pooling that knowledge. The powerful mechanism that was the focus of Hayek’s work, as of economists generally, is the price system (the market). The newest mechanism is the ‘blogosphere.’ There are 4 million blogs. The internet enables the instantaneous pooling (and hence correction, refinement, and amplification) of the ideas and opinions, facts and images, reportage and scholarship, generated by bloggers.”

I think that Posner is wrong to see the blogosphere as a Hayekian mechanism akin to the price system. The blogosphere does not produce prices. It doesn’t even produce a giant wiki, aggregating dispersed information. Instead it offers an amazingly diverse range of claims, perspectives, rants, insights, lies, facts, non-facts, sense, and nonsense. In his recent book, Blog, Hugh Hewitt celebrates the power of blogs to hold powerful actors, including the mass media, to account. He’s right to celebrate that power. And of course it’s true that the blogosphere makes it more likely that dispersed knowledge will get out. But the analogy to the price system is badly strained.

My little book, Republic.com, was written before blogs had anything like the prominence they now have. But it would be easy to apply the argument there to the blogosphere — to suggest that too much of the time, like-minded people are speaking (or at least listening) mostly to one another, ensuring that they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk. I believe that this view would be much too pessimistic (see the diverse comments on this blog, for example, or at The Volokh Conspiracy), but the question is really an empirical one on which we don’t yet have a lot of data.

The blogosphere is exposing people to lots of new topics, perspectives, and information. But Posner’s invocation of Hayek is a big stretch.

  • http://jackdied.com/ Jack Diederich

    Hayek was as big on cultural and social arrangements as much as economics. Montarized transactions were special only because the use of money makes it easier to see what is going on and therefore to study and write about.

    The sci-fi author Cory Doctorow (who blogs at BoingBoing) wrote a book about a post-material scarcity world. There were no prices for goods but the new scarcity was reputation. The unit of currency for reputation was “wuffies.” Think of lending your name to a cause as spending credibility. Actors do it all the time and with mixed results *wink*.

    This is what blogs do, by linking to someone or writting an affirmation/rebuttal to their ideas you are spending the reputation you have built up with your readers.

  • http://sethf.com/ Seth Finkelstein

    “Blog, Hugh Hewitt celebrates the power of blogs to hold powerful actors, including the mass media, to account. He’s right to celebrate that power.”

    Only if by “blogs” one means “Right-Wing Noise Machine”.

    Hell, why even bother writing the rest … it’s not like it’s going to be heard, or correct anything in a meaningful sense (which, recursively, shows exactly what’s wrong with blog triumphalism :-()

  • http://badpolitiks.blogspot.com Drew

    Link to the Posner-Becket blog?

  • three blind mice

    The blogosphere is exposing people to lots of new topics, perspectives, and information.

    well, speaking from personal experience this is partly true. certainly we – representing the minority, rodent point of view on this blog – gain more than we give on the lessig blog. we are exposed to new ideas and perspectives and information. we are challenged, changed, and hopefully made smarter by our participation.

    but to extend from what seth finkelstein observed, the lessig blog is a rare exception, not the rule. most blogs are echo chambers. rather than introducing people to new ideas and information, the vast majority of on-line communities do nothing of the sort. human nature, it seems, is to seek validation; to group with others who share the same opinions; to herd together with others who have exactly the same pattern of stripes. because of the vast diversity of blogs available, almost everyone can find a community that exactly matches their own stripes. taken as a whole, the blogosphere is a diverse collection of insular communities not very well informed beyond their own views. for any given agent the “ann coulter effect” of the blogosphere produces a peverse segregation of information – not an aggregation.

    spend five minutes on http://www.freerepublic.com – if you can – and you will see what we mean.

    and it’s not just blogs. if you look at any one agent’s URL history, you will probaby see the same herd mentality.

    But Posner’s invocation of Hayek is a big stretch.

    not a stretch: a non sequitur.

  • Corey

    “too much of the time, like-minded people are speaking (or at least listening) mostly to one another, ensuring that they end up thinking a more extreme version of what they thought before they started to talk.”

    OK, sure, anyone can see the tendency towards group polarization at work on many blogs that enable comments, however, the becker/Posner blog is perhaps a bad example.

    There are several people, (of which I am perhaps the most frequent poster) who regularily contribute comments that are in opposition (or radically opposed) to what one might call the Posner Blog party line. Posner and Becker have been supportive of contentious debate on their site. Their fame attracts fans and frustrated dissenters alike.

    Group Polarization can be effectively countered if a few people are brave/vain/aggressive enough to air their contrary views. Of course no one can help those determined not to listen, but at least their own contributions will not be reinforced without challenge. Perhaps blogs, since they lower the costs of accessing hostile forums, might encourage participation by dissenting voices. I know that I certainly could not expect the same reception were I to travel to the UChicago campus and install myself on a soapbox outside the student union.

  • Corey

    I guess what I am saying is that there is almost certainly a set of norms for comment-enabled blogs that will counter the tendency towards group polarization. I think that blogs that advertize these values will naturally attract more notice and participation, because free thought is a powerful ideology. Those who want an evangelical reinforcement experience will sort themselves over onto Horowitz’s site or similar locations, effectively self-marginalizing.

  • K

    Prof. Sunstein,

    I think what Judge Posner and Prof. Becker had in mind was the way in which blogs interact. One blogger writes something noteworthy that gets picked up by the aggregator blogs, and which then disseminates to the blogosphere at large, with reactions from all sides, including sometimes the mainstream media. Consider the impact of Instapundit, or legal blogs, Bashman’s How Appealing.

  • http://www.knowledgeproblem.com Lynne Kiesling

    I would contend that Professor Posner’s invocation of Hayek is less a “Use of Knowedge” metaphor and more a “Competition as a Discovery Procedure” metaphor. Dispersed, private knowledge is at the foundation of both arguments, but in “Discovery Procedure” Hayek’s emphasis is more on how the interaction in an institutional context (such as markets) of diverse individuals with dispersed, private knowledge enables a discovery process, by which each individual learns/figures out his/her preferences, and the opportunity set at that time. We also each learn something about the preferences and values of others. In markets that learning occurs through prices; in other social institutions (of which markets are one example), that learning occurs through other tools, like links, etc.

  • David

    I think you misunderstand Posner’s point. A “price” is just a piece of information that allows for easier comparison between other pieces of information. A price system, operating efficiently, is a good means to share information about relative value, desire, scarcity, etc. Likwise, the blogosphere is a massive information exchange, a brilliant way to share information that – when working efficiently – finds the correct “price” of information. Thus I think the analogy Posner was drawing is that both the market price system and the blogosphere are (to grossly oversimplify) self-generating, self-regulating, efficient information exchanges of the sort that Hayek wrote about.

    In regards to Cory’s “wuffie” idea from Down & Out, it kind of spotlights the move from fungible currency to raw “information” as a price mechanism because, by definition, the guy who invented wuffie will probably have the most wuffie (because anybody who wants to know what wuffie is needs to ping Doctorow, the inventor, thus giving him at least one wuffie point). So when you create a new piece of information that is of value you will, ideally, be remunerated – that is if we can figure out a way to conpemsate people for the value of coming up with interesting, amusing, fun, useful, or just plain pleasant information.

    That, it seems to me, is the most important socio-economic challenge of the 21st century: figuring out a mechanism that accurately reflects and compensates value creation in a world of information/abstraction.