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February 04, 2006

Blogs Are Evil, Vol. XXIII

Dan Gardner had a terrific piece in last Friday's Ottawa Citizen called "The Trouble with Blogs." It's not a promising title, I admit. It irks me no end that people persist in treating the word "blog" as an indicator of content. "Blog" is like "newspaper", "magazine", and "novel": within each lies full spectrum of good, bad and totally nonsensical. There is no reason that a post, say, at the Shotgun about the vast homo/liberal Hollywood conspiracy, populated by dozens of anonymous loudmouths who refuse even to see the films they're ranting about, should have any impact whatsoever on people's opinion of what I write here. (Well, except that I decided to start posting there, I guess. Cough.) Colbycosh.com is still a blog when Colby Cosh posts his week-old newspaper columns on it, and the National Post whence those columns came is still a newspaper. This shouldn't be complicated.

But Gardner does absolutely nail the problem with certain blogs, the Shotgun among them, which is the echo chamber effect — and he makes a fairly compelling case that this really is a problem and not just a phenomenon that's annoying to non-participants:

More voices, more ideas, more perspectives should produce a richer public dialogue. And certainly there are corners of the Internet, including a few blogs, that are delivering on that promise.

But the explosion of voices on the Internet also made it possible for people to obtain all their news, analysis and opinions exclusively from like-minded sources. Buchananite conservatives can spend all day every day with people equally convinced the West is sliding into the abyss. Anti-globalists can stay up all night getting the latest on the perfidious doings of trans-national corporations.

You need never hear a different perspective. Never read a contrary view. Never be challenged by facts that don't fit your conclusions.

This is exacerbated, of course, by the fanatical mistrust most inhabitants of these echo chambers have of the traditional media. I don't think there are that many people out there who only get their news from blogs, but there are certainly a good few for whom blogs have entrenched their belief that society is fundamentally a Left vs. Right team sport. In any real marketplace of ideas, that belief is devalued.


The Bush-bashing liberal who enters the parallel universe of Bush-bashing bloggers not only discovers a trove of new reasons to loathe George Bush, he discovers that he is not the biggest Bush-basher on the block. So his loathing of Bush becomes more extreme. Angry conservatives enter the blogosphere and get angrier. Anti-globalizers despise corporations more.

The only thing they all agree on is that those who disagree are dupes, fools or traitors whose opinions and arguments are valueless and can therefore be dismissed with nothing more than a sneer.

Is this a big deal? It depends on just how many people we're talking about. But based on the comments you read on Canada's hardwired left and right blogs, I find it difficult to take issue with anything Gardner says. If the uglier sides of the blogosphere — the misrepresentation, the exaggeration, the shameless bias — are influencing the way people vote, and thereby influencing the progress of Canadian society, then yeah. It is a big deal.

Posted by Chris Selley at February 4, 2006 08:51 PM

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Wow, he really did nail that one. I'm pretty bullish about weblogging as a medium, but I do worry about this kind of thing in my darker moments. With the hyperproliferation of information on the internet, it's entirely possible for a person to imbed themself in an ecological niche that never challenges their preconceptions at all. And when occaisional meetings with foreigners do occur, it's like they're from a different planet. But I can't see much of a way to avoid this, the technology being what it is. It looks like our choice is: "Freedom, pluralism, community. Pick two."

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at February 4, 2006 10:07 PM

"...it's entirely possible for a person to imbed themself in an ecological niche that never challenges their preconceptions at all."

Sure - and this is different than reading only the Daily Mirror or the Toronto Star exactly how? One nice thing about (many) blogs is that non-believers show up from time to time to challenge the orthodoxy (qv: Robert McClellan, posting anywhere on Earth) - which doesn't happen (effectively) in the MSM: the editor spikes the 'offending' letter before the author has a chance to make his point.

Given the number of people involved in the blogosphere (what? 0.01% of the population, either here or in the US), I am not sure if we are seeing the creation of a fanatically partisan sub-population, or just a place for that existing population to congregate.

Posted by: dcardno at February 5, 2006 01:08 AM

Dean, I take the point you make in the second paragraph, and about the Daily Mirror in the first. The Star, for all its very significant shortcomings, is not in that league. The Star, for example, wouldn't accuse the CBC of producing child pornography. It might fill you up with leftist orthodoxy, but it won't fill you up with deliberate, outright lies.

McClelland, meanwhile, illustrates perfectly the problem with these orthodoxy-challenging commenters, which is that they're invariably shouted down as (Gardner's words) dupes, fools, traitors, or (Internet's word) trolls. In McC's case, totally justified.

Posted by: Chris Selley at February 5, 2006 12:00 PM

Chris - you are much more the expert about the Star than I, so I will take your word for it, although I think you might be overstating the distinction between leftist orthodoxy and deliberate outright lies.
[Foghorn Leghorn]
That's a joke, son, a joke
[/Foghorn Leghorn]

I agree that (some) dissenting commentators are too quickly shouted down, and usually without much thought. Often, that is becasue they have obviousy not put any thought into their challenge (Robbie, come on down...). There are places where a true dialogue occurs, but they are unfortunately rare.

I don't think this is a problem in that we are creating a more polarized body politic, but the blogophere is falling short of its potential to foster discussion and appreciation of different approaches to problems - or even more fundamentally, differnt definitions of what constitutes a problem. In this, I think it serves as an amplifier for political discourse that includes questioning the patriotism of a political candidate, deliberate implication that a political party is planing to impose martial law, and innuendo about shadowy foreign sources of funding.

Posted by: dcardno at February 5, 2006 01:10 PM

Dean, I don't really disagree. But it seems to me that the fairly limited number of media outlets that used to exist, when combined with the fact that newspapers had to please a larger number of people to make their business profitable than online media does, would work to moderate all sides and keep everyone closer to being on the same page. With the explosion of cheap online publishing, ceteris paribus the increase in sheer quantity combined with the removal of a need to make a lot of money would tend to create an sort of intellectual balkanization.

Of course the ceteris ain't quite paribus, and blogs and such do have some countervailing qualities that help mitigate that -- the openness and interactivity of them being the biggest. I'm a huge fan of online media, but I don't think we should pretend there aren't tradeoffs or that it doesn't sometimes bring out the worst in people.

Posted by: Matt McIntosh at February 5, 2006 07:04 PM