March 20, 2005

The value of the blogosphere

Jonathan Dresner is wrong when implying that a key value of the blogosphere is in its quick turnover of factual criticism that leads to clarification and new evidence. In this case, he was using the fuzzy (some said apocryphal) story David Horowitz was touting about a University of Northern Colorado student forced to write that Bush was a war criminal. Within a few days, there were accusations that Horowitz was touting an urban legend, then some details came out about some incident, and then the professor in question responded, and ... (for details, see Dresner's post and the relevant links). A bloggish postmortem by Corie Schweitzer brought a short debate between him and Dresner in the comments, and I want to focus on Dresner's broader claim in those comments that the hours-long "blog cycle" results in factual clarification—

It means that we draw the most plausible conclusions from the available data and revise those conclusions when more data is made available. Mr. Barnett (whose name you also misspelled) did not find the case I was interested in on his own: David Horowitz and SAF posted new materials documenting their claims, which is precisely what I wanted them to do, if those materials existed. It means that we can now have a discussion of the facts of the case, instead of wondering whether the case is a case at all.

—as opposed to the discussion of philosophy and logic, which Ralph Luker points to regarding the Volokh bloodlust blog entry and the way that Mark Kleman's response pushed Volokh to change his mind (also see Volokh's later post on the topic).

In the Horowitz story-telling case, Media Matters made a row not because of its incredible accuracy but because it was rude and widely read. Here I mean rude in the sense of being raw and forceful, and I'll stand by that term as a description both of David Brock's blog project and also of the blogosphere's relationship with reality. Academic and other intellectual bloggers are at their best when exploring perspective and logic, as evidenced in the Volokh torture-execution controversy. Blogging allows writers to get ideas in circulation in a far faster time-frame than even electronic journals allow (and I say that as the editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives, the elder sibling of education-research electronic journals). And part of what makes great researchers and teachers is the ability to provide expert perspective. In many ways, I think of myself as having been hired and given tenure for my professional judgment.

But that perspective is only part of the story. Great researchers and teachers are also careful about facts and the genealogy of ideas and factual claims. That care is only rarely exercised in the rough-and-tumble world that the blogosphere currently is. Don't mistake my meaning—in many ways, I love the bare-knuckles arguments when they focus on ideas and issues. But as historians like Dresner and myself should know from all our experiences in archives and other research environments, getting a sense of the facts—or, given the paucity of information all too often, a sense of a bare outline—requires time.

The desire for a quick retort is often the enemy of both accuracy and perspective. Yet the blogosphere careers on. In this case, we still don't know the whole story about the incident at UNC. In the case of Ward Churchill, we still don't know the whole story. Bloggers can be wonderful at poking holes in stories and tracing a conversation, but documenting a factual record is something entirely different. Dresner is right in needing to focus on facts but wrong that bloggers are currently doing much more than poking holes and patching together information from other dubious online sources.

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Posted in Writing and editing on March 20, 2005 8:45 AM |