Truth Hurts

There are a lot of people upset at a Forbes Magazine cover story on weblogs (free and easy registration required). Of course, it seeks to generate heat by the lead-in, which is inflammatory to say the least:

Web logs are the prized platform of an online lynch mob spouting liberty but spewing lies, libel and invective. Their potent allies in this pursuit include Google and Yahoo.

Oddly enough, this statement could be something found in weblogs, where broad strokes of the brush are used to define any number of subjects. However, as we all know, weblogs are many things, and sometimes they’re full of lies pretending to be truth; other times they’re truth pretending to be lies.

According to the article:

But if blogging is journalism, then some of its practitioners seem to have learned the trade from Jayson Blair. Many repeat things without bothering to check on whether they are true, a penchant political operatives have been quick to exploit. “Campaigns understand that there are some stories that regular reporters won’t print. So they’ll give those stories to the blogs,” says Christian Grantham, a Democratic consultant in Washington who also blogs. He cites the phony John Kerry/secret girlfriend story spread by bloggers in the 2004 primaries. The story was bogus, but no blogger got fired for printing the lie. “It’s not like journalism, where your reputation is ruined if you get something wrong. In the blogosphere people just move on. It’s scurrilous,” Grantham says.

And though they have First Amendment protection and posture as patriotic muckrakers in the solemn pursuit of truth, the blog mob isn’t democratic at all. They are inclined to crush dissent with the “delete” key. When consultant Nick Wreden criticized credit card banking giant MBNA on his blog, a reader responded in support of MBNA. Wreden zapped the comment. “I just thought: ‘This has to be a plant,’” he says.

Where is the lie in this? I have seen, time and again, webloggers repeat even the most unbelievable stories as truth; and they do so without batting an eye. As for our ‘openness’ — I don’t think we have to go back over five plus years of discussing how disagreement is ignored, and links are used as rewards for the faithful to provide proof of this allegation. The very fact that I can agree with certain points in the Forbes article will almost guarantee that none of the outraged pundits will acknowledge that this post, and my contrarian viewpoint, exist.

Regardless, many webloggers do have unwritten agendas when they write on particular issues, people, and organizations. Many webloggers do stretch the truth and accuse without facts. Many webloggers do have an interest in causing harm, and don’t accept accountability for their actions.

Let’s be honest: webloggers can be evil–just like everyone else. Am I concerned about being lumped in with the “Do no Good” webloggers? Not a bit–my writing is here to read, and will either stand, or fall, on it’s own. If I don’t go around telling people I’m a weblogger, it’s not because of the article; I didn’t go around telling people I was a weblogger before it was published.

(I’m personally thinking of printing up “Member of the Burningbird Weblogging Mob” t-shirts. Anyone want to be a Burningbird Weblogging Mob Member? We’ll have a secret handshake, magic decoder ring, and rituals where we howl at the moon, while sticking pins into iVoodoos, the new Apple product– complete with easily scratchable surface, by design.)

As for the overall condemning nature of the article–it got attention, didn’t it?

What I don’t understand is why the pundits think this article is harmful. Forbes has issued a wakeup call that will make companies pay attention to weblogs in a way that all of the “markets are conversation” cheerleading hasn’t been able to accomplish. We wanted them to pay attention to us; now they are.

All in all, I found the article to be an entertaining read.


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15 Responses to Truth Hurts

  1. Mike Sanders says:

    As Dave Rogers has pointed out time and again, power without accountability is a dangerous mix. The author of the Forbes was just highlighting that fact in the realm of the blogosphere.

    How are we to understand the A-Listers outrage? Do they believe that power without accountability is a desirable thing?

  2. Ethan says:

    Not having read the whole article* yet, I have to agree with the assertion that bloggers have a tendency to go off half-cocked with whatever unverified tidbit of “news” they can get their hands on.

    Political blogs are often burned by this, where some rumor gets printed as fact, it is debunked, and egg ends up on that blogger’s face (potentially) for being so hasty to go to print.

    One method for guarding against this (besides fact-checking) is to add a caveat like “CNN is reporting that orange is the new purple.” If the story bombs, you’re just passing on what you heard at CNN.

    On the flip side, the “mainstream” media is equally guilty of this, where the Pearl Harbor Attack font gets applied to the slightest news update thanks to the 24-hour news cycle. This happens enough that I think it is a bit of a stretch to think that the rolls of the recently unemployed are skewed towards former news media staffers. Yes, there is greater accountability (in theory) with something tangible like the NY Times or CNN, as opposed to an anonymous BlogSpot denizen. But let’s not kid ourselves that sensationalism isn’t rewarded in more traditional media outlets.

    * At the rate everyone is excerpting it, I will be able to read it registration-free, and without ever touching the Forbes website.

  3. Ethan – make sure to read the whole piece. The rile-’em-up excerpts don’t really give the full flavor of the author’s approach.

    Here’s a comment I posted elsewhere:

    Interesting In A Twisted Way

    On second thought, that article’s actually somewhat interesting, in a
    twisted way. Putting aside all the knee-jerkery that happens whenever
    somebody writes that blogs aren’t the emergent personal citizen
    democracy revolution, underneath all the invective he’s talking about
    the shifts in the media landscape, and what it means for people who
    manipulate media.

    Owen – the answer to your questions is that the professionals are
    embedded in a system where all player have basically come to an
    understanding. The prime understanding being “Don’t Offend The
    Advertisers!”. There are always disputes between players in this
    system. But there’s some well-understood levers and ways to go about
    resolving a beef.

    That is, if you’re a businessman, and are offended by what a
    professional journalist writes about your business, you basically know
    what to do – complain to the editor, threaten to pull advertisements,
    go to the rivals of the publisher, and so on. But what do you do if
    you’re a businessman offended by an A-list “blogger”? Who do you talk
    to in order to get a (PR) hit done on them? That’s his perspective.

    I think it’s way overwrought, since he hasn’t gotten that the
    influential bloggers are NOT Wild-West mavericks, but basically part
    of the same system. But it’s an extremely revealing worldview.

  4. Mean Dean says:

    Excellent use of a psuedo-Venn Diagram to show point out that blogs don’t kill companys, but rather evil people with blogs kill good corporations.

  5. Ethan says:

    OK, I read the whole article (including the sidebars) and here is my one-sentence take: The author props up blogs as “the” method for “destroying” a company’s reputation, as opposed to “a” method. But I’m not sure who has the patience to sort out the semantics.

  6. Michael Pate says:

    I guess all the speculation about the Karl Rove indictment that didn’t happen by mainstream media report this week doesn’t count as an example of when they “repeat even the most unbelievable stories as truth?” And did you read the counter-methods sidebar? I really don’t look forward to seeing bloggers dragged into court in DMCA suits they can’t afford because corporations and Forbes reporters don’t understand the principles of Fair Use.

  7. Shelley says:

    Michael, it is the nature of the sidebars that caused the most entertainment. I chuckled all the way through it as I mumbled to my cat, “Zoë, I am the anti-christ, the destroyer. Hear my voice and tremble with fear and despair”. She took this to mean, “Good kittie. Would kittie like a treat?”

    The laws haven’t changed because, suddenly, a person writes a weblog. Libel laws still exist, as do copyright. Before a person writes ‘facts’, or indulges in inuendo, they should know the consequences–and be prepared to accept them.

    We’ve demanded to be taken seriously, but we’re not willing to do our homework, check our facts, or even maintain an even level of screaming.

    As for the reporter’s really, really poor understanding of the law as regards to copyright — hurts Forbes more than it hurts webloggers.

    It’s an emotional piece that seems to me to using weblogging techniques against webloggers (which creates a wonderfully lovely irony). And which also happens to have, as Mike and Seth and others have pointed out, a kernel of truth.

  8. Ethan says:

    We’ve demanded to be taken seriously, but we’re not willing to do our homework, check our facts, or even maintain an even level of screaming.

    This assumes that all bloggers consider themselves to be “serious”, “journalists”, or “serious journalists”. Besides the whole told-you-so dynamic of this article and its immediate aftermath, this is largely a semantic issue (fair use vs DMCA, serious vs casual, etc).

    Kudos to you Shelley, for zeroing in on the kernels of truth as opposed to splitting semantic hairs.

    (Disclosure: I will be speaking at Semantic Hairs 2005 in Hoboken.)

  9. Shelley says:

    Hey, I’ll go to a conference named Semantic Hairs. And one in Hoboken, come to that.

  10. Another thing Owen wrote in the bayosphere post that Seth had responded to: “Attacking blogging this broadly attacks the right of free speech. ”

    Actually, what he meant to say was this:
    “But you can’t hold a whole fraternity responsible for the behavior of a few, sick twisted individuals. For if you do, then shouldn’t we blame the whole fraternity system? And if the whole fraternity system is guilty, then isn’t this an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg – isn’t this an indictment of our entire American society? Well, you can do whatever you want to us, but we’re not going to sit here and listen to you badmouth the United States of America. Gentlemen!”

    I’ll use the Forbes article as a footnote. I’ve covered this enough times on Civilities, and conversed enough with Mike and Seth on this…

    For my part, I plan to go to the Anti-Social Software conference in a couple of weeks sponsored by Co-ranter, and try and bring up this line of questioning– suppose there were problems with the readmeosphere, just suppose, how would the people who want to be taken credibly address them? (other than, say, flaming the messenger?)

  11. Doug Alder says:

    ooooh I want one of them t-shirts! secret handshakes, magic decoder rings, moonlight rituals. Sign Me Up! :-)

  12. jeneane says:

    pundits are funny, wherever medium they write in.

    i like to poke them with sticks.

    half-cocked. that’s me. ;-)

  13. I want my tshirt to say that I’m a Burningbird Weblogging Mobster. Even though joining a mob where you have to “make your bones” sounds so much better than one where you have to “puncture your inflated egos.”

  14. Michael Pate says:

    Later in the day, I spent some time googling the author of the article, Daniel Lyons. What I found showed the just as bloggers are susceptible to looking objectivity because of their involvement in the story, Lyons has obviously done the same. He is clearly guilty of everything he has accused others of doing (and has the backing of a major media outlet in order to accomplish it).

  15. So, LibraryPlanet is your blog [I found that after I wrote this post] and you cite cite two blog-like posts:
    one which only cites the fact that he didn’t succumb to an interview which includes questions of the when- did-you-stop-beating-your-wife sort. It asks “Is Daniel Lyons a loser” but doesn’t explain that this question was a take-off on a Lyons story “Is Linux for Losers?” and it didn’t rebut, or point to another resource, which would rebut anything from Lyons’s article.

    The other is an UNSIGNED post (some detective work suggests that it is Taran Rampersad), 171 words long, whose sole concrete complaint is the rhetorical crime of using the phrase “noisy fanatic,” as it is obviously redundant.

    Of the many decisions I need to make over the course of my day, I need to decide whether Daniel Lyons is an award-winning reporter, a complete hack, or someone in between, like a business journalist. The evidence presented here is laughable. Perhaps there is something deeper that people in the Linux world know, but surely they would have linked to it.

    If Lyons was biased, I would have suspected that the senior editor of Linux Journal, “the original (and still the leading) Linux publication,” would have something to say about that, or would be able find somebody who did. Alas, he doesn’t;
    he just focuses on the content itself. And doing some Google searches, I keep finding ad hominem attacks, with few pointing to a substantive article.

    When press critics found terrible biases and sloppy reporting by the Times’s Judy Miller, they didn’t pull any punches. Michael Massing put together a 7,000-word article for the New York Review of Books. Jack Shafer of Slate, who Massing had cited as a source, summarized Massing’s article in Slate in just under 3,000 words. Granted, national security is arguably more important than squabbles about the Linux world. But software is an everyday concern for more people (since we tend to outsource national security to the government), so I’d expect if there were a solid case against Lyons to be made there would be.

    But there doesn’t need to be. His points about blogs are hereby demonstrated. The big writers have the luxury of writing for major publications who’ve earned a lot of public trust over the years; and independents have only one means to fight back: the blog swarm.

    Ok, so Lyons has his doubts about Linux, and about blogs, which should be natural to anyone born since the Cartesian revolution. I could dig more and learn about GrokLaw/SCO/OSRM/Pamela Jones. I would have to take the Forbes article on its own merits. And given that I’ve researched the same things as Lyons, and come to the same conclusions, I have little. The only thing he didn’t, which I’ve done, is quote Jarvis/Gillmor/Rosen/etc. defending the concept of “blogswarms.”