Blogging as 'intellectual hydroplaning'?

Blogging as 'intellectual hydroplaning'?

Summary: Nick Carr responded to my post about "Why blogging matters," characterizing blogging as mostly superficial and impressionistic, and suggesting that the blogoshere is a "fantasy community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect." Here's a piece from Nick's post:The blogosphere's a seductive place - it's easy to get caught up in it - and there's lots of interesting thoughts and opinions bouncing around amid the general clatter.

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TOPICS: Browser
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Nick Carr responded to my post about "Why blogging matters," characterizing blogging as mostly superficial and impressionistic, and suggesting that the blogoshere is a "fantasy community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect." Here's a piece from Nick's post:

The blogosphere's a seductive place - it's easy to get caught up in it - and there's lots of interesting thoughts and opinions bouncing around amid the general clatter. But does it really provide a good way of becoming informed? Experiencing the blogosphere feels a lot like intellectual hydroplaning - skimming along the surface of many ideas, rarely going deep. It's impressionistic, not contemplative. Fun? Sure. Invigorating? Absolutely. Socratic? I'm not convinced. Preferable to the old world? It's nice to think so.

For all the self-important talk about social networks, couldn't a case be made that the blogosphere, and the internet in general, is basically an anti-social place, a fantasy of community crowded with isolated egos pretending to connect? Sometimes, it seems like we're all climbing up into our own little treehouses and eating jellybeans for breakfast.

For those of you who read Nick, he is adept at deflating what he calls millenialist rhetoric about the Internet or IT with this prose. His now famous, or infamous depending on your viewpoint, 2003 essay in the Harvard Business Review, "IT Doesn't Matter" and subsequent book, "Does IT Matter?," forced every CEO and CIO to come up with a response to his proposition. His actual thesis (check out my video interview with Nick) was more measured--for most companies IT is a commodity input, especially with standards across hardware and software, and presents little opportunity to achieve a defensible or enduring competitive advantage through IT.

Nick's critique of blogging is really ironic. He started blogging in April and has now become part of what he calls the fantasy community of isolated egos. Clearly, the blogosphere is not as collegial or knowable as the Harvard campus. He's right in that isolated egos (bloggers) often aren't connecting, more piling on and then moving on to the next target.

The fact is, Nick has become an eloquent and incisive voice riffing on various topics--or at least commenting from his home office--with members of the blogosphere, challenging assumptions and spawing or mutating ideas about the Internet, search, Google, IT, Microsoft, social media and other current topics. Instead of writing longer articles and waiting months for them to appear in print, or just emailing with his colleagues, he can offer and receive near instantaneous feedback, which, by the way, is all fodder for going 'deeper' and creating end (some revenue-generating) products, such as books, articles and speeches.

His post "The Amorality of Web 2.0," posted in early October, received a lot of play in the blogosphere. Nick took issue with what he termed the "cult of the amateur" on the Web:

I'm all for blogs and blogging. (I'm writing this, ain't I?) But I'm not blind to the limitations and the flaws of the blogosphere - its superficiality, its emphasis on opinion over reporting, its echolalia, its tendency to reinforce rather than challenge ideological extremism and segregation. Now, all the same criticisms can (and should) be hurled at segments of the mainstream media. And yet, at its best, the mainstream media is able to do things that are different from - and, yes, more important than - what bloggers can do. Those despised "people in a back room" can fund in-depth reporting and research. They can underwrite projects that can take months or years to reach fruition - or that may fail altogether. They can hire and pay talented people who would not be able to survive as sole proprietors on the Internet. They can employ editors and proofreaders and other unsung protectors of quality work. They can place, with equal weight, opposing ideologies on the same page. Forced to choose between reading blogs and subscribing to, say, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Atlantic, and the Economist, I will choose the latter. I will take the professionals over the amateurs.

Quality counts, but it's not a choice between the superficiality and amateurism of blogs and so-called professional journalism. Clearly it's easier for misguided amateurs and extremists to set up shop on the Web, but many new "quality" voices are surfacing and impacting micro and macro decisions, for better or worse. Nick is right about the feeling of hydroplaning. In part, blogs can be fragmented pieces of content, drive-by notes and thoughts hewn together with links and comments. It's vibrant and often chaotic, and as I wrote in my post, the lack of tools for navigating and absorbing the content and managing your attention is the problem--the profusion of content from millions of creators is just an artifact. 

Topic: Browser

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  • Thank God for intellectual hydroplaning

    Before blogs existed, I had to formulate my ideas on scraps of paper and wait until I'd come to some sustainable conclusions before I could publish something marketable. Now I can just throw ideas out there and see what sticks -- the authorial equivalent of what Adam Bosworth calls 'intelligent reaction' in software development:
    http://blogs.zdnet.com/BTL/?p=1849
    It makes the end result when I finally do publish something polished is of much better quality. I suppose that means Carr has a point; most blog writings are off-the-cuff, work-in-progress rather than the authoritative word on this or that. But what's wrong with that?
    phil wainewright
    • Blogging = tracer rounds || evolution

      I understand completely what Mr. Wainewright means by the statement "Before blogs existed, I had to formulate my ideas on scraps of paper and wait until I'd come to some sustainable conclusions before I could publish something marketable. Now I can just throw ideas out there and see what sticks -- the authorial equivalent of what Adam Bosworth calls 'intelligent reaction' in software development...". Basically, he treats blogging as the intellectual equivalent of firing tracer rounds at a target. Get an intial bead on a target, and start firing, adjusting the aim as you see where previous shots land. Or possibly a version of evolution.

      I don't mean to single out Mr. Wainewright as an example, but I'm about to. It's nothing personal, but an example of why blogging should read with a skeptical, at the least, eye.

      I have always enjoyed, and respected Mr. Wainewright's articles and blogs for ZDNet. However, I find this approach haphazardous at best and frightening at best. If Mr. Wainewright was one of my "cranks in the basement" (http://www.zdnet.com/5208-10532-0.html?forumID=1&threadID=15357&messageID=306000&start=-1) this would be acceptable. Mr. Wainewright, as a writer for a highly respected publication. It cheapens his value in the "free market of ideas" (and consequently the value of his publication) to know that he publishes without fully considering his ideas.

      Mr. Wainewright asks: "I suppose that means Carr has a point; most blog writings are off-the-cuff, work-in-progress rather than the authoritative word on this or that. But what's wrong with that?"

      The Socratic Court analogy of Mr. Farber's is excellent. As one reads the Socratic Dialogues, it is obvious that Socrates' opponents have not fully thought out their ideas, they are throwing them at Socrates to "see what sticks". Socrates tears them down as quick as they pop up. Socrates walks into the conversation with a fully formed idea. Even a fully thought out line of manure or pseudo-logic will destroy a half-formed idea any day of the week, as a result, it cheapens that idea, as potentially useful as it may be, in the free market of ideas. Rene Descartes is a great example of this. While his works did a great job of tearing down Aristotle's thousand year reign as the founder of European though, his works were quickly discredited because they were not fully thought out. Descartes is now used in philosphy classes as a beginner's exercise in demolishing an argument. As a result, his ideas carry little value in the world of philosophy, whatever their intrinsic value may be, because they are associated with him.

      Weaponry development is an amazing field to study, as far as statistics are concerned. As weapons develop, their accuracy and range has improved dramatically. A modern .22 rifle is deadly to two miles, and is accurate to about a thousand yards in the hands of a skilled marksman. Compare this to a rifle from 150 years ago, in the Civil War, and compare that rifle to a Revolutionary War musket. The rate of fire has gone up dramatically as well. But do these innovations add up to a higher causualty rate? Not at all. It takes an exponentially higher number of rounds to cause a casualty in a modern war than in a battle 150 years ago. I do not remember the multiplier, but it is staggering, a factor in the hundreds or even the thousands.

      Similarly, a thousand monkeys typing could be considered a rudimentary form of intellectual evolution. An kidergartener sitting down to write a story with the aid of his teacher would be the "intelligent design" version. I bet the child writes "Hamlet" well before the monkeys do.

      This kind of haphazard work is simply unacceptable in "real life". How would you feel if you knew the bridge you were driving on was designed in this manner ("well, when this one collapses, we'll figure out where the weak spots were and make them stronger in the next version.")? What if your employers decided corporate strtegy like this ("we haven't tried laying anyone off yet to increase profits, so let's see if a 20% across the board cut increases profits more than raising prices did.")? Or the nation's foreign policy ("let's attack Russia, and once we capture the Kremlin we'll see if they had secret plans to invade us.")? The world would be a scary place indeed if it was run on people treating half-baked ideas as worthy.

      Sure, this may work well for me. I am not a professional writer of any type. In the blogs that I do write, I try to make it extremely clear that what I write is merely my opinion. I also try to not hit that "Submit" button without re-reading what I've written at least once. But you, and many other bloggers are not amatuers. You are professionals, and your opinions carry great weight.

      This is yet another reason why I am fightened by blogs. When I go to LiveJournal, I know to expect a bunch of half-baked ideas (after filtering out the "my life is so angsty!" stuff). When I go to ZDNet, I expect professionally produced material, even if it is mere opinion. This is why I am dissappointed with many websites (CNN.com, Time Magazine's site, basically all of the TimeWarner/AOL sites, to start a very long list), their content is so full of simple typos, poor formatting, and minor grammatical errors that it feels like a human editor did not touch the story, let alone have it run through a simple spell check. Compare that to a publication such as The Economist or The New Yorker. Those magazines are as professional as they get. They employ highly trained people to review every bit of information that gets printed on those pages for logical consistancy as well as grammatical and spelling perfection. It is nigh impossible, for example, to argue against an article in The Economist due to this.

      Mr. Wainewright also says, "It makes the end result when I finally do publish something polished is of much better quality." Excuse me? What is it, if not "publishing" when you post a blog? How is the reader supposed to differentiate between the fully polished "publications" and the "work-in-progress"? Is there a little bar graph under the article's title, install program style, to let the reader know just how thought-out the ideas expressed in it are? Maybe the "articles" are under different categories than the "blogs", but thanks to the direct-linking nature of the web, most people won't know that; they just know that they're reading something by Phil Wainewright, a respected ZDNet writer.

      What is the harm? Only the loss of your personal credibility, the value of the ZDNet brand, and the discrediting of what could be good ideas. What if someone made a purchasing decision and took your half-formed idea into consideration when making that purchase? His job, and perhaps the success of his company could be on the line. Because he thought he was getting professional advice, which turned out to be about as trustworthy as what he could have heard at the bar after work that night. Scientists do not publish theories without experimentatal evidence to back their theory. Professional opinion writers should not publish without putting their ideas to some sort of testing either.

      J.Ja
      Justin James
      • A case in point

        Had I paused before posting my original comment to think how it might come across to some readers then on reflection I might have phrased it differently. They might not realize that my definition of 'off-the-cuff writing' is a) draft first b) re-edit while posting c) re-read before pressing the submit button d) re-read again once published to check for any final glitches. (As opposed to comments which I write and edit on-screen so they only get a single check).
        Of course ZDNet would not have hired me if I was not professional in my approach and able to speak with expertise and authority on the topic I write about, even when making off-the-cuff postings. And while some of the ideas may not be fully formed, the facts are always properly checked.
        My definition of formally published writing (eg a book or a report with a price tag) is something that has all the above plus a lot of extra pre-planning and a great deal of re-reading and editing by others in addition to myself. That's why that sort of writing comes with a price tag.
        My analogy to Adam Bosworth's comments is probably best expressed as, "Think of blogs as 'beta' writing". It's still usable, but at your own risk. However a writer or publication of repute isn't going to put something out there unless they believe it might prove useful to someone.
        One final thing. J.Ja writes "blogging should read with a skeptical, at the least, eye." That should apply to all writing, not just blogging. There are only degrees of trust and authority. There is no one, true, authorative source of the unadulterated, unbiased truth in this world.
        phil wainewright
        • Whew!

          Mr. Wainewright, I appreciate the clarification. I am pretty sure that most (if not all) of the writers at ZDNet also have a similar process, but the idea that they might not got a bug in my bonnet.

          Your point about content that people pay for is quite good. Gartner is a good example of this, people pay for their reports, but in the free market of ideas, their brand isn't as good as it should be. I have actually done research for a project and had a manager come back to me and say, "these numbers are completely bogus, where did you get them, Gartner?" No one seems to take them seriously anymore because they have made too many bad predictions and have conducted too many studies which don't meet the reality test, from my opinion. It seems like the only people I see quoting Gartner now are marketing types and occassionally someone will write an article summarizing their position on something.

          Now, all I need is a way to be able to post-edit previous comments with the dang system here, I see a typo or two in mine that I'd like to correct, but I can't re-edit something!

          J.Ja
          Justin James
        • Agenda Bender

          Phil,

          I'm glad you took J.Ja's remarks seriously [if only more ZDNet bloggers would respond to serious commentary - even if it is obviously badly thought out] - though I think you should have taken him/her to task much more on his/her own World view as J.Ja appears to be representative of a group. A group that compares 'old' publishing to blogging without realizing the differences and which has a remarkably positive view of 'old' publishing (TV, Radio, Newspapers etc.) - particularly notable for their apparent ignorance of the huge harm done by 'old', partisan-by-design, publishing. J.Ja mixes it on this point, citing niche publishers such as pamphleteers as a problem, but clearly sides with Big (old) Media.

          J.Ja mentions for example The Economist - and states that their arguments are unassailable (as if). As a long-time subscriber I find the Economist is certainly better than most at presenting a properly argued case - and it is always clear on why it holds certain opinions. Nevertheless you Phil, to your credit, replied that; "There is no one, true, authoritative source of the unadulterated, unbiased truth in this world." IMHO you should have challenged J.Ja's World view further to clarify how blogging adds additional value.

          'Old' publishing has a very limited feedback loop which is subject to editing. Editing is often used to alienate the readers, confuse them, or even undermine the feedback altogether and support the publisher's original argument. Blogging adds real value precisely because of the feedback loops it includes - feedback that gets no editing. Indeed, on this evidence, 'old' publishing might even be said to be the antithesis of blogging and talkbacks - with many publishers (and producers) only commissioning writers and storylines that follow a certain agenda.

          In addition Phil, you did not defend your own blog technique (which, judging by the few blogs I read is a common technique) with nearly enough vim and vigour. To quote J.Ja: "Mr. Wainewright, as a writer for a highly respected publication ... cheapens his value in the "free market of ideas" (and consequently the value of his publication) to know that he publishes without fully considering his ideas." This is a direct challenge to the democratizing force of bloggers - but your limp response was: " "Think of blogs as 'beta' writing. It's still usable, but at your own risk."

          My response is: NO, I REFUSE TO PUT BLOGGING IN A GHETTO!

          Blogging may be a surfer's paradise for some - skimming across the waves. But, and this is a big BUT, there are also plenty of people who want to take part in the discussion - to improve their understanding and to drive forward the agenda. When I dive in I often find a lot of garbage - but you learn how to filter it out. This learning is important, because blogging - even the Net as a whole - is a new way to discuss, as well as to present. While 'old' media did a passable job of presentation the Net does it far better. When it comes to discussion even TV cannot come close to the Net - the Net is a truly new publishing paradigm that needs to be set free from the restrictive thinking we are used to applying to media per se.

          The nub of J.Ja's argument is in this comment (following his link in his original Talkback): "In this [blogging] situation, a Holocaust denier can develop as much credibility as a Dan Farber or Jonathan Schwartz ... [etc.]" What J.Ja ignores is that he/she is describing 'old' media too. Feedback, free access to all sides of the argument, and search facilities to find both commentary and other views is built into the Net - a big step forward over the supposed 'quality' of 'old', edited, manipulated, media.

          Yes there are foolish, dim, suggestible, lazy, gullible, naive (etc. etc.) people out there - and no end to the conniving, manipulative, (etc. etc.) people out there prepared to take them for a ride. But such people as exist today come from the 'old' World.

          If we follow J,Ja's advice we must now wait for the World to get wise. My response to that is; Wake up and smell the coffee J.Ja. There have always been stupid people, stupid people exist, there will always be stupid people. While I can see a reason to protect them - to the extent that they are victims waiting for victimization - I do not see any reason to wait for anyone.

          Our job surely, as early colonizers, is to teach the people that we are all publishers now, and that we must modify our response to New Media accordingly. Society is changing, but that change is no more profound and no more complex than changes I have had to live with in living memory.

          Part of the problem is that we view text as being an objective medium - and the Net is, if anything, a great lesson in just how malleable text can be - particularly in the political sense. Blogging, however, gives people the opportunity to see others debunk the myths, legends, and fantasies for what they are. Buyer beware! If it looks too good to be true it probably is. And so on.

          Another part of the problem is that public broadcasting has, until now, driven the standards of 'old' media to a point where all 'old' media are so presentable that they are the equivalent of the confidence trickster. Put them in a suit and suddenly they are 20 times more likely to pull off their scam.

          Yet another part of the problem is J.Ja and his ilk - and their trust in 'old' media's (at best) highly questionable 'quality'. Such people compound the problems that exist in making the switch to the Net because they will insist on believing that those who want to live in a small World are indicative of the population as a whole. Yes, it is possible for a few peope to be so indoctrinated by a closed group of links. But are we ready to believe that the Manson 'family' could only exist in a Net-enabled World?

          Part off the problem is that 'respectable', 'old', media commentators like Nick Carr get badly thought out bunkum (see lead blog) promoted on the Net. Nick's "fantasy community of isolated egos" completely misses the point of the Net - never mind blogging. However, Nick also has a history of being controversial for the sake of it, so perhaps we can guess his agenda (yawn)... Someone really ought to teach him the story of The Boy Who Cried Wolf...

          You, Phil, were attacked for saying: "Before blogs existed, I had to formulate my ideas on scraps of paper and wait until I'd come to some sustainable conclusions before I could publish something marketable." Your answer appeared to me to allow J.Ja to take the initiative and deny you the right to try out a new idea on the reading, commenting, public. But this is to deny blogging its very real socio-economic and political value. If we live in a democracy, then why shouldn't a new idea be aired, tested, tried, discussed (!), and - shock horror - changed!

          I can understand how a busy man such as yourself might see such feedback and respond to such a personal attack by focusing on defending your own credibility, but, as Dan Farber wrote in the leading blog: "Quality counts, but it's not a choice between the superficiality and amateurism of blogs and so-called professional journalism." This is so accurate - yet you allowed J.Ja to turn this into an argument on exactly this point.

          Tut tut.
          Stephen Wheeler
  • Surf's Up! :)

    ~~
    D T Schmitz
    • Less slogging/blogging on Mud and Snow only please

      It would be nice if they'd get the new boy OU a new set of tires, but not MS (mud and snow), you don't need them in the sun - throw him a pair of high performance tires for a change, less of the slogging/blogging on Mud+Snow only.
      zdnet reader
  • Message has been deleted.

    paakre