Cult of the Pundit

When are we going to acknowledge that millions of people writing poorly (while slowly improving) is better than millions of people doing the alternative…not writing at all?

You hear the argument all the time: bloggers are poor writers who produce mountains of useless prose and very little quality work. The most recent case is Neil Henry’s The Decline of News, in which he makes the following insult to bloggers:

“Meantime, I can’t help but fear a future, increasingly barren of skilled journalists, in which Google “news” searches turn up not news, but the latest snarky rants from basement bloggers…”

When are we going to acknowledge that millions of people writing poorly (while slowly improving) is better than millions of people doing the alternative…not writing at all?

You hear the argument all the time: bloggers are poor writers who produce mountains of useless prose and very little quality work. The most recent case is Neil Henry’s The Decline of News, in which he makes the following insult to bloggers:

“Meantime, I can’t help but fear a future, increasingly barren of skilled journalists, in which Google “news” searches turn up not news, but the latest snarky rants from basement bloggers…”

Clay Shirky reiterates a similar sentiment, in a post defending Andrew Keen’s controversial book Cult of the Amateur, that there is too much poor content out there:

“talent is unevenly distributed, and everyone knows it. Indeed, one of the many great things about the net is that talent can now express itself outside traditional frameworks; this extends to blogging, of course, but also to music, as Clive Thompson described in his great NY Times piece, or to software, as with Linus’ talent as an OS developer, and so on. The price of this, however, is that the amount of poorly written or produced material has expanded a million-fold. Increased failure is an inevitable byproduct of increased experimentation, and finding new filtering methods for dealing with an astonishingly adverse signal-to-noise ratio is the great engineering challenge of our age”

But what about the increase in good writing as well? What about those blogs that are about that one topic that you find fascinating…the blog that couldn’t have existed 8 years ago, and now you can’t live without? Why aren’t we celebrating those more? Why so much focus on the negative aspects and not the positive ones?

I find the “cult of the amateur” argument tiresome. Sure, we have a huge increase in content, and, following the power law, most of it won’t be relevant to you or me. But that doesn’t mean its not relevant to somebody.

People read blogs for one of two reasons

You see, most people read blogs for one of two reasons: they know the person writing it or they’re interested in the topic the person is writing about, or both. That’s why, when you ask any person about the average value of content on the web, they say “it’s useless”, because most content isn’t by people we know and isn’t about the relatively few topics we’re interested in.

To that end, those millions of personal blogs where someone is writing about their daily routine that in no way could ever interest you probably have a family member or friend who is interested, and who doesn’t care if they spell everything right or could use a grammar refresher. In addition, a whole lot of writing is done for the sake of it, to get ideas down on paper, even if nobody ever reads it.

Cult of the Pundit

Most bloggers certainly don’t care what pundits think…they don’t even know that people are complaining…maybe we should call this the Cult of the Pundit. The cult of complaining about things that we fail to see the value in and so dismiss entirely.

This is the same problem with social networking sites…people ridiculed social sites to no end because they couldn’t see the value in all that socializing. Now, however, people’s tunes are changing because those sites are being valued in the billions. Most blogs don’t have that luxury, however, because most of their audiences will always be small.

I agree with Clay that a great engineering challenge is filtering. But I also think that we have other challenges that are as important…like learning to write and express ourselves in the world.

So if the alternative to all this blogging is not blogging, not writing on a daily basis, then I’m not sure but we’re creating an even bigger problem. I would rather have people writing poorly than not at all.

Yochai Benkler: What is quality?

Not everyone is willing to give up on humanity so fast as Keen and other critics. Yochai Benkler, when asked if he still thought that “the practice of producing culture makes us all more sophisticated readers, viewers, and listeners, as well as more engaged makers”, an argument he makes in his book, The Wealth of Networks, had this to say:

“I think there’s a lot of anxiety about where quality comes from in distributed environments. At the same time—and this is understandable, we value great art, we value quality everything, we don’t want it to disappear. The question is: what is quality? and how much are we getting from the mass media culture that pervaded the 20th century? High production doesn’t mean quality. The best music didn’t necessarily make it commercial. Mass media doesn’t necessarily give us quality; it does give us passivity, and I think that’s unattractive. The thing we see today are cultural practices of review and annotation and recursion that we see everywhere (f. ex. on YouTube) do require a different mode of participation. A lot of it will be crap, and a lot of what comes out of mainstream media will be crap, as will a lot of what comes out of supposedly authorized art. Really great stuff is rare. It’s rare in organized systems, it’s rare in decntralized systems. Unless you think the system you’re coming from is really perfect at identifying, eliciting, and distributing high quality, then you really have to examine the relative merit of these two systems. It’s not at all clear to me that the new system is suppressive of quality. The declaration of quality comes from a set of exchanges as opposed to authorization by somebody who is supposedly an expert who says, “this is art and that is not art.”

What was it like during the Renaissance?

Sometimes, in my most optimistic moments, I wonder what it was like at the beginning of the Renaissance. Were there thousands of people in Florence writing, painting and sculpting and doing it poorly? Were they constantly flying by the seat of their pants, creating new media without having an established foundation upon which to build? Were there people who constantly excoriated them for doing something new…badly?

While Clay is right to consider Keen’s argument with fresh eyes, he has to agree that Keen is little more than a shock jock. Even if Keen’s got good points hidden in his book (I haven’t read it), it is still plain what he’s trying to do. He’s painting the world in black and white when there are millions of folks experimenting with color.

What isn’t clear is how much better off we’ll be with so many people learning how to write. Maybe we will have citizen journalists that deliver news faster and more comprehensive than before. Maybe we’ll have better technology analysts who are specialists in their field and not just good generalists from the big newspapers.

Or maybe, just maybe, we’ll have one or two Michelangelos surface who make everyone forget how much kerfuffle was made about the Cult of the Amateur.

Published: May 30th, 2007

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