On Authority, Worth and Linkbaiting
Yes, it’s the dreaded Britannica Blog essay. Yes, I’m late to the game. No, this is not primarily about Michael Gorman, although his blogging (his blogging!) plays a crucial role in the discussion. There will be no fisking here, tempting though it might be—either of Gorman’s posts or of some over-the-top responses.
This is a scattered essay. We begin with blog posts from an anti-blogger that really don’t address the asserted topic and go from there. I bring biases to the discussion, to be sure:
Ø If authority and worth require advanced degrees and credentials, then what to make of my 15 books and several hundred articles, given my complete lack of advanced degrees and credentials?
Ø Once upon a time, I cowrote a book with Michael Gorman. Years before that, I suffered (indirectly, in the workplace) as the result of an intemperate article he wrote. Times change, and change again.
There’s going to be a lot of summarizing and referencing here, with very few quotes and relatively few URLs. There’s too much source material to deal with—and I don’t believe this particular “controversy” deserves lots of space. My one-word dismissal of the whole affair (“silly”) almost seems adequate, except that some interesting issues are raised. I also discuss “authority” in Perspective: On the Literature.
That’s the motto for Britannica blog (blogs.britannica.com/blog/). It’s a trifle arrogant, given the tens of thousands of blogs where ideas clearly matter (including the majority of liblogs, as far as I can tell). The company signed up quite a range of bloggers and says this:
Bloggers are here at Encyclopædia Britannica’s invitation, and we choose them for their ideas and their ability to think, write, enlighten, and entertain. They’re free to express their opinions within reason. We don’t ask them to be objective, only rational. We try to achieve a kind of objectivity in the aggregate—balance might be a better word—by publishing, in the fullness of time, advocates for all reasonable positions on major controversies.
You’d have to go through the author bios to see whether you consider the set of authors “balanced” or whether they’re likely to cover “all reasonable positions on major controversies”—of course, “reasonable” covers a lot of ground. While the blog does support commenting, it’s moderated (perhaps of necessity).
Here are the rules as stated for the blog:
No advocating violence or flagrantly immoral conduct
No pornography or links thereto
No personal attacks. Intellectual argument is fine, but please, nothing ad hominem.
Nothing that would offend most reasonable people
No purely or primarily commercial messages
No spam. As a definition of spam, we like that of blogher.org: “nonsense unrelated to the discussion,” though we reserve the right, on occasion, to delete even relevant nonsense or irrelevant sense.
Does Britannica follow its own rules? That depends on your definition of “bigotry”—but more, perhaps, on whether ad hominem applies to attacks on groups of people or only to attacks on named individuals. I’m not prepared to judge, at least not yet.
I’m focusing on the blog because of something Seth Finkelstein (and, I believe, others) have suggested: That the controversy over Michael Gorman’s posts is, at least to some extent, linkbaiting—behavior designed to increase the number of inbound links to Britannica blog, increasing its visibility on search engines. If that’s true, it seems to be working: Google shows a PageRank of 7 in early July 2007, a level that usually takes a while to reach. (For example, librarian.net and The shifted librarian both have 7 PageRank, but LibrarianInBlack and TametheWeb are at 6, as are Walt at Random and Cites & Insights—although the old C&I site eventually made it to 7.)
Was this genuine controversy or incited controversy? A number of high-profile bloggers apparently got email from Britannica noting the Gorman posts and inviting comments. Other Britannica bloggers were poised to respond to Gorman. I will give Gorman himself the benefit of the doubt and not presume that he was setting out to incite controversy for the sake of controversy. I’m not inclined to be so generous regarding Britannica—and, frankly, I wonder why the firm is so anxious to have a hot blog.
The Encyclopædia Britannica (henceforth EB) is a reputable print encyclopedia also available in digital form. Authoritative? It’s hard to say whether any general-purpose encyclopedia can be considered authoritative on all matters. Wikipedia is clearly a much better source in many areas. While some editions of EB have been remarkable combinations of scholarly essays, it’s never been the best encyclopedia for all uses or all users. No encyclopedia can be—and general encyclopedias are rarely the best sources for in-depth knowledge. I gather EB wants to be seen as hip and high tech. Will this blog help that effort, or will it make EB seem laughable? Your guess is as good as mine.
Maybe this section is all that needs to be said about linkbaiting. EB commissioned (or at least invited) Michael Gorman (and others) to write controversial posts. Gorman certainly complied. EB set out to make sure others commented on those posts by making sure they knew about them. If other bloggers write heated or inflammatory responses? So much the better, at least for linkbaiting purposes.
The posts themselves aren’t about linkbaiting, at least on the surface. They’re listed as part of the “Web 2.0 forum” but also carry “Libraries” as one of several descriptors. They are very much about authority, at least in part.
That’s the title for Gorman’s two-part post (oddly, given that neither post is very long—and even more oddly given that others speak of it as a three-part post) of June 11, 2007. It gets off to a truly awful start as he seems to blame Web 2.0 for public credulity, making a connection between Web 2.0 and “believers in Biblical inerrancy” and rejection of scientific truth that strikes me as improbable and wholly unproven. He also says “Bloggers are called ‘citizen journalists,’” which as a flat statement is simply false: Bloggers are called bloggers. A few of them act as (and are sometimes called) citizen journalists.
Later in Part I, Gorman says “Human beings learn, essentially, in only two ways”—from experience and “from people who know more than they do” and proceeds to establish conditions necessary for the indirect form of the second way (that is, learning from a text). I blush to admit that, given Gorman’s conditions, none of my books are of any worth for learning, any more than is any book written by a writer who isn’t a topical expert. I find that conclusion dismaying, to be sure—but also irrelevant to Web 2.0, as is the discussion of intelligent design.
If Part I seems entirely offtopic, Part II is strange and loaded with hyperbole. Gorman discusses digital collectivists who flee from expertise and shun gatekeepers. He quotes Andrew Keen with admiration in his contempt for “creative amateurs” (a singularly ahistoric contempt—for example, there would be no films if there hadn’t been self-taught filmmakers—but I’ll hold off until I read Keen’s book). Gorman seems to assert that “the impulse behind Web 2.0” is that everyone should use digital media to express themselves, a curious reading of technologies that lower the bar for those who choose to express themselves. Gorman refers sadly to “a world in which everyone is an expert in a world devoid of expertise,” which appears wrong on both counts. (In fact, everyone is an expert on something—and every sane person recognizes they’re not an expert on everything and need to look for other expertise.) Then there are two sentences that must be quoted, given the level of confusion and zero-draft writing reflected in these posts:
Good clear writing is more than a vehicle for conveying knowledge and information—it is an authentic expression of human personality. Bad writing is, all too often, the outward manifestation of inward confusion and lack of clarity, as is bad organization or the lack of organization.
If I had to sum up the two-part post, I would say that it has little if anything to do with Web 2.0, that Gorman has managed to blame a recent set of innovations for intellectual failings of the last century and more, and that there’s really very little here. I called it “silly” at the time and annotated the printout as “Not W2, but mostly harmless blather.” On its own, it wouldn’t deserve the 400+ words just spent on it—and maybe it doesn’t. It’s odd that Gorman calls a post a blog, but it’s a new medium for him. (If you read this, Michael, that’s synecdoche, equivalent to calling a scholarly article a “journal”: an individual essay within a blog is either a post or an entry.)
But of course it garnered many times as much text—in direct comments, in posts on other blogs, and in follow-up posts at the Britannica blog. As of July 7, 2007, Bloglines shows 537 posts referring to that essay—and that’s limiting the search to blogs with at least two Bloglines subscribers. Google shows about 15,300 results for [“sleep of reason” gorman]—and I’ve read only a couple dozen with no plans to read more. Sampling a few drops from that sea of commentary, I see that Meredith Farkas (Information wants to be free, meredith.wolfwater.com) credits him with bringing up interesting points (“if only Gorman could write in a more balanced manner”) but nails him for hyperbole near the beginning of a well-stated, thoughtful discussion that turns Gorman’s either-or into the “and” I’d prefer. Jessamyn West (librarian.net) wishes Gorman didn’t sound so “snooty” and discusses the differences between scholarship and real-life research—also noting that the new affordances (tags, blogging, etc.) “are offered as supplements to the existing canon of options, not as supplanters of them”). Jason Griffey (Pattern recognition, www.jasongriffey.net/ wp/) hits Gorman pretty hard for his writing style and (lack of) clear organization and notes the proud history of “citizen journalism” in the U.S., going back at least to Thomas Paine. One comment on that post bothers me, as it seems to dismiss peer review as being inferior to blog feedback—a jump I’m not ready to make. That’s just June 12, 2007, and a tiny sampling of what was out there.
Another tiny sample from June 13, 2007. One libblogger starts out with an ad hominem attack and manages to misspell words (and choose the wrong words) often enough to support negative comments about blogs as writing. Seth Finkelstein discusses the post as a “link-baiting party” and Britannica’s cleverness in “pushing the buttons of the blogger mindset so as to get its ideas spread much further than otherwise.” Dorothea Salo finds it all terribly funny—although there’s of irritation behind that laughter. (In the course of Salo’s commentary at Caveat lector, cavlec.yarinareth.net, she says Gorman’s “repellent condescension crisscrosses every bit of his written output” [emphasis added]. I’m compelled to object to that as coauthor of Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality—even if, at least at the moment, I regard Salo more highly than Gorman.) John Miedema (johnmiedema.wordpress.com) sees eye-to-eye with Gorman on the importance of print—but believes (as do I) that the whole “digital Maoism” schtick is primarily a strawman, not useful in reasoned debate. Miedema also adds an interesting point: “Note that blogs represent an evolution of something that was happening in the world of the print monopoly—academics talked in informal fashion in their offices and at conferences, inviting students and others to join those conversations.” Barbara Fister, writing at ACRlog (acrlblog.org), questions the assumption that people learn in only two ways and thinks this oversimplification is typical of “the trouble with diatribes.” Matthew Battles, writing at Britannica blog (as an invited blogger, not a commenter), notes the strangeness of conflating blogging and intelligent design and points up examples of Web 2.0 tools fostering and empowering responsible individual expression, including legitimate “citizen journalists.” He notes (correctly) that experience, expertise and authority do retain their power—but there are also new tools “to discover and amplify individual expertise.” It’s a good essay. So, in parts, is Clay Shirky’s response “Old revolutions good, new revolutions bad,” which appeared June 13 at Many2Many and later at the Britannica blog. Clay Shirky is, in my mind, the little girl with the little curl on her forehead: When he’s good, he’s very, very good—but he can also be fairly horrid, sometimes in the same essay. Shirky notes the fallacy of equating Biblical literalism and the like with Web 2.0, that bloggers aren’t generally called citizen journalists, and that Wikipedia is very much on the side of scientific method. Things get worse near the end of the essay, particularly when Shirky makes this astonishing and offensive statement:
Academic libraries, which in earlier days provided a service, have outsourced themsleves as bouncers to publishers like Reed-Elsevier; their principal job, in the digital realm, is to prevent interested readers from gaining access to scholarly material.
Note that Shirky is one of those who do not see folksonomy as complementing taxonomy; he regards taxonomy as obsolete and has said so.
We come to June 19, 2007 and another double Gorman post, “The siren song of the internet.” The first part seems mostly to reiterate things we said a dozen years ago about “information” and the usage of ebooks—but with a sentence that confounds me entirely: “The reason is that information, properly defined, is especially amenable to being stored and transmitted digitally whereas recorded knowledge in the form of scholarly monographs, literary texts, and complex texts of the kind found in major encyclopedias is not.” I’m sorry, Michael, but that’s nonsense. We may prefer to read long text in print form—I know I do, and as you say, so do most other people (including young people)—but anything that appears in print can also be “stored and transmitted digitally” without difficulty, certainly including scholarly monographs and literary texts.
Part II tears into Google and its ilk—and then somehow asserts a “concerted and multifront assault on copyright” related to a lack of respect for the text. And, later, the clear suggestion that increased plagiarism stems from lack of “respect for the creations of individual minds.” Gorman then puts blogs in their place: after a claim to have “done research,” “what invariably follows [emphasis added] is a torrent of half-baked ideas, urban myths, and political vituperation.” Invariably. This is so astonishingly overbroad and false—well, but of course, it must also apply to the post itself! Thus, since Gorman has labeled his own work as a “torrent of half-baked ideas…,” we are spared any need for serious discussion of that work. (He does mention claims of people to have “done research” before this vast generalization on the results—but in his very first post, Gorman comments on his research work. So there it is.)
I could note Aaron Dobb’s thoughtful comments on lengthened copyright terms; I could note Clay Shirky’s commentary—including his absolutely false (for public libraries) assertion that “use of the physical holdings of libraries are falling” (ungrammatical as well as untrue); I could discuss Jimmy Wales silliness and a craptastic post from Andrew Keen.
I could go on to Gorman’s “Jabberwiki” post—in two parts, which seems a constant mannerism of Gorman’s descent into the cesspool of blogging. He takes on Wikipedia at length, drawing an extended set of contentious comments on all sides of the issue. I’ve covered that ground in the past, and am likely to in the future; I don’t find that Gorman brings anything particularly new or revealing to the discussion.
But I won’t. There’s simply too much to discuss, much of it not worth the discussion.
Ø “Question authority” may have been a slogan of the 60s, but it’s an imperative for thoughtful people that goes back at least to Martin Luther and (realistically) probably as far back as there have been authority figures.
Ø Worth and meaning don’t arise from degrees or certification and aren’t limited to those considered authorities.
Ø There is no correlation between Web 2.0 (whatever that means) and ignorance or rejection of authority. There is good reason to believe that increased access to means of distribution will reduce ignorance in the long run.
Ø We learn in many ways. Much of that learning has always been from interaction among peers, not merely from sitting at the feet of great teachers. It’s not uncommon to learn from someone with less formal knowledge than you have in an area.
Ø Whatever its faults, Wikipedia does not suffer from rejection of authoritative sources. Indeed, one of those faults may be the insistence that only printed sources matter.
Ø If (as I believe) the Britannica Blog intended to increase its visibility through created (and possibly artificial) controversies, it worked—and libloggers fell right into the plan.
Ø Personal attacks undermine reasoned arguments, even if the attacks are against people given to attacks on their own side. Two wrongs continue not to make a right.
But who cares about my conclusions? After all, I’m an uncredentialed non-expert and this discussion wholly lacks bibliography and comparative literature review.
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