Weblogging Ethics and Impact
There’s no stopping metablogging (blogging about blogging), which guarantees lots of weblog entries about the ethics of weblogs. I ran into enough of these, along with related essays that aren’t weblogs and weblog entries only indirectly related to ethics, to form the basis for an interesting discussion.
My own position has changed since the first Ethical Perspectives: Republishing and Blogging (C&I 5:3). I have a weblog—not my LISNews “weblog lite,” but a full-fledged (if lighthearted) weblog, Walt at random (walt.lishost.org). I try to follow most ethical and other guidelines I’ve seen for weblogs, giving credit for ideas whenever I can, using appropriate links—but studiously ignoring market-oriented advice on how short my sentences and posts should be.
J.D. Lasica posted the nine-page essay “The cost of ethics: Influence peddling in the blogosphere” at Online journalism review on February 17, 2005. Lasica notes the inevitability that “the captains of commerce would latch onto” weblogs as they become more popular and worries about the ethical standards bloggers should follow “when offered payments or freebies…for buzz.”
For example, if there are ads on your weblog, how can readers be sure the ads don’t influence content? Did Marqui’s experiment (paying bloggers to mention the company) cross an ethical threshold? Does a formal code of ethics for blogging make any sense—and how could it be enforced? What about wholly sponsored weblogs?
Lasica says bloggers don’t play by the same rules as journalists (where there’s supposed to be a wall between editorial and advertising) and don’t seem to think they should. I’d hope that’s not true. Five points appear to be widely (not universally) held as appropriate principles for bloggers: Transparency, following your passions, being honest, trusting your readers to form their own conclusions, and maintaining independence and integrity. I’ve surely seen a few bloggers who won’t be happy until all readers form the same conclusions the bloggers do, but the other four tenets seem common to most blogs I read.
Lasica’s discussion of Marqui’s pay-for-blogging experiment is weakened significantly for knowledgeable readers by calling Elizabeth Lane Lawley, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology, “Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute lecturer Liz Lawley.” Yes, Liz is what she usually goes by—but it’s hard to believe any journalist could be too lazy to distinguish RIT from RPI and a lecturer from a (tenured) professor. (Full disclosure: I’ve known Liz since before she had a Ph.D. I disagree with her on lots of things and we haven’t seen each other in a couple of years. I like and respect her quite a bit.) How hard can it be to double-click on a vita when you’re talking about someone who’s active on the web? Particularly for a hotshot web journalist like Lasica who seems concerned with ethics and journalism?
The next example strikes me as naïve: Om Malik criticizing a bunch of Silicon Valley “influentials” for being offered free products or services “to tout or not tout as they please.” Malik believes that after you write about a product “you ship it back.” I must say that, when I was reviewing CD-ROMs, it never occurred to me to send them back to the publishers—any more than it would occur to a book reviewer to ship the book back to the publisher. If that makes me unethical, so be it. I appreciate the fact that Consumer Reports buys everything it tests and that Condé Nast Traveler doesn’t accept free travel—but I recognize that those are exceptions.
There’s no question about one guideline:
If bloggers are paid by a corporation to write about the company, they’re no longer acting as amateur journalists. Journalists cannot and do not accept payments from sources.
Lasica notes that bloggers are free to do so—but at that point they’re not journalists.
Liz Lawley blogged about the article one day later, noting that her trust in the piece “is somewhat marred by JD’s poor fact-checking” but that Lasica “does a decent job of outlining the issues in the debate.” Lawley defends her Marqui posting (it was impossible to ignore the sponsored nature of her posts)—but she didn’t renew the contract.
Dan Gillmor posted “Blogging sponsorship, silicon valley style” on February 23, 2005. He notes a local blog announcing its first sponsor: “[T]he announcement comes in the form of an advertorial full of praise for the sponsor.” Gillmor compares this to a newspaper running a Page One story to praise a new advertiser that’s agreed to buy a full page ad each day. “Now, I’m not telling you that some newspapers don’t bend over in sleazy ways for big advertisers. But I can’t imagine a newspaper doing what I hypothetically suggested above. It would be over the top.”
Is the comparison apt? Possibly—if the blog in question claims to be equivalent to a newspaper. But possibly not: Given the way blogs work, if the blogger is clear about the sponsorship, I don’t know that there’s anything wrong with saying nice things about the sponsor in the same post. Blogs are not newspapers; you can’t push the analogy too far.
A March 12, 2005 posting (programmingpeers.com/librarianway) discusses Cyberjournalist’s A Bloggers’ Code of Ethics (see C&I 5.3), and brings in Rebecca Blood’s The Weblog Handbook and that book’s section on ethics. I disagree with the relativist view of ethics suggested here: “Ethics really depends on your viewpoint, your culture, your local community of peers, and the time in which you live.” I partially agree with this comment:
You have to decide how much credibility you want—and what your readership thinks is [credible]. If you have an intentionally biased Web site and your readers know your bias, then like intentionally biased newspapers and television programs, you are [credible]. [Emphasis added]
Not necessarily: Better to say that a transparent bias does not automatically discredit a medium—but it doesn’t automatically give it credibility either. Some clearly liberal or clearly conservative publications and websites are credible. Some, on both sides, are full of disinformation and propaganda.
Jon Garfunkel writes Civilities: constructing informative viewpoints (civilities.net), with extensive entries on media, politics and the internet. He’s given to lengthy essays, many interesting and provocative. I saved a handful posted between March 10 and April 8, which sparked this Perspective as a whole. It’s about ethics but also about impact, classification, archetypes and mapping the blogosphere.
Start with “Media legitimacy: The core responsibility of the media,” posted March 10. “The ideal of journalism is to be responsible to the truth.” That’s a strong and appropriate start. “There is a common belief that blogging can meet this challenge.” Can it? Has the nature of the “contract” changed—does blogging really “put journalists in closer contact with their readers”? Garfunkel points out that “at larger scales, it’s impossible” for the reader to become part of a “conversation.” Some of the most popular blogs don’t allow comments, undermining most of the “conversational” aspect.
Circling back to the “Webcred” conference, he notes that some of the “little guys” took issue with the claim of people like Gillmor to be blogging champions of the little guys. As Seth Finkelstein has pointed out on many occasions, and as Garfunkel quotes here, it’s not that blogging eliminates gatekeepers—it just “has a different set of gatekeepers.” This whole set of questions, and related issues of legitimacy, inspired Garfunkel to prepare a set of questions on legitimacy.
That set of questions appears the same day with the title “How legitimate are you to your readers?” or “Legitimacy: How responsible are you to your readers?”—depending on when you hit the post, as far as I can tell. (Changing the name of a post doesn’t raise ethical questions, but it’s a trifle irritating.) The list consists of 28 questions in seven categories: Consistency, Who are your readers, What sources do you use, What sources do you read, What tips do you get, Response, and Corrections. Garfunkel’s looking for responses—but he also talks about “a perfect score,” which makes no sense given the nature of these questions. Go to Civilities for the full set: Not only doesn’t the blog have a Creative Commons license, it explicitly says “All rights reserved.”
I should note that he refers to my “Dangling Conversation” Perspective as “a thorough job of considering which online technologies facilitate conversations,” which is not what he’s after. His site requires registration prior to commenting—which I consider an obstacle to conversation but he calls “a value that protects the names of the innocent from misuse.” I dunno: Seems to me that requiring a real email address should do that nicely (as Walt at random does because it’s the WordPress default): If the blog proprietor is suspicious of any name, he can use the email address for verification or hold the comment until there is verification.
Some of the questions are (in my opinion) just plain strange for a weblog. “Do you admit when you don’t know things, and how often is that?” I, for one, usually don’t blog about something if I’m aware that I don’t know anything about it. That would seem a fairly standard limitation. Some of us, who don’t own our blog hosting environment, can’t answer some questions (“How many regular readers do you have?”) and might be bemused by a question like, “Of your regular readers, how many do you know?” Well, I’ve met four or five people who I know have read Walt at random at least once—but even an obscure weblog such as that will have many more readers I’ve never heard of. To quote a Phil Ochs title (ah, the blog and the journal do mesh), I do try to go “Outside of a small circle of friends.”
Some additional questions seem hardly worth answering. “Do you give any signal as to how confident you are, in a give[n] piece, that you’ve given the best sources that you can find to your readers?” Nah, I hide the good stuff, and only give my readers some junk that’s handy. “Do you wrap up a conversation with a ‘final word’ to ensure everybody that you’ve listened to all their points?” Many good comments don’t require responses—and “final words” suggest an end to the “conversation.” On the other hand, there are good questions here—I’m nitpicking.
This March 14 essay is a brief attempt to divide bloggers into four archetypes, a shorter version of a much longer essay (which I admittedly haven’t read). Here’s his breakdown, paraphrased:
Ø If you don’t write for a public interest of some sort, you’re a “singer”—like the majority of weblog writers, just singing your own story.
Ø If you’re already well known beyond your online personality, you’re a “ringer,” “slumming it online, and we don’t care any more about you now.”
Ø If you focus on a narrow set of subjects, you’re a “stringer”—“You tell me something new that you care about, and you make me want to care about, too.”
Ø Otherwise, if you’re more interested in providing the larger context for a story you’re a “finger,” and if you’d rather advocate a political viewpoint you’re a “winger.” He notes, “Some days it’s tough to tell the difference.”
Garfunkel admits these are just archetypes. He regards himself as a stringer, focusing on “constructing informative viewpoints, the study of how ideas are structured, promoted, and agreed upon.” Within the library field, I suppose I’m a “ringer”—but Walt at random is more the blog of a singer, and I’m happy enough with that.
Garfunkel has ambitions to classify lots of blogs and bloggers. He’s looking for answers to his questions, preferably building a “census” of some form. That’s ambitious, but I’m not sure to what end. This March 15 post asks whether you use your real name—or, if you use a pseudonym, can your real name be discovered? Most library bloggers can answer “yes” to one of the two; so can I, to the first. He wants to know the “standard demographics categories”—age, sex, race, religion, location, language, education, occupation. I wonder why most of these matter at all. He goes on to propose “three additional questions” for each category: Is this known or easily guessed by your readers, do you write about your association with this identity, do you seek out people of the same backgrounds to engage, do you seek out people of “opposite” backgrounds to engage? (Yes, it’s true again: Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.)
He offers his own three (4) answers to the demographic slices, but not the slices themselves. I would note that “opposite” is only meaningful for the second slice (what’s the “opposite” of white, lapsed Methodist, California, or English, for example?). I’ll be happy to answer most of the questions: 59, male, “white,” Mountain View, CA, English, BA in rhetoric, library systems analyst. My religion is my business. As for the 3 (four) subquestions, I’d say most of them are irrelevant to my blog and to most of the blogs I read.Very few library webloggers spend much time on ethnic, religious, “locational,” or sexual issues. I write some items related to where I live and what I do and maybe my age. I certainly don’t specifically seek out middle-aged white males from Silicon Valley to engage, and I do seek out much younger library people of all stripes to keep my mind active. Mostly, though, the census is just irrelevant to me and most library bloggers.
I can guess the religion in which Library stuff’s proprietor may have been raised: So what? I know where some library webloggers live and what they look like; in other cases, I haven’t a clue. In no case does it matter at all—these just aren’t considerations for weblogs unless the weblogs are focused on such personal considerations. Here’s an example: Caveat lector is (at times) a deeply personal weblog. I have no idea how old Dorothea is (or I didn’t until a few weeks ago), I don’t know where she lives, I have no idea what her ethnic background and religion are—and none of that matters.
This one, posted, March 20, 2005 shows considerable ingenuity and I heartily recommend it. Loaded down with links, which in my usual old-media fashion I haven’t followed, it’s enjoyable on its own. Getting past a brief commentary on the renowned A-list (“You know who you are…”), Garfunkel goes on to define 26 more categories (two for “X”). Just a couple highlights, once you get beyond the semi-serious “B list” (actually the “Be-list. Or more precisely, the Wanna-Be List”) and the “C-list” consisting of grassroots journalists who “see everything”:
Ø “The E-list is for the people who have no idea what blogs are. Or they do and don’t care. They are still using mailing lists…some still call them e-lists.”
Ø “The LJ-list is of people who use LiveJournal. They have a completely different culture than the blogosphere. They write in their journals for their friends, not for you, you nosey websurfer.”
Ø “The R-list: For Red-Staters…”
Ø “The Why-list. Why is the blogosphere so self-focused?...”
Go to all the links, and you’d get a curious cross-section of the “blogosphere,” I suspect. You’d also lose an hour two that you could never get back, but isn’t that what the internet is for?
Here’s one that has nothing to do with ethics. Garfunkel offers up a “scorecard” for 32 blogs, identified as “people [and groups] who identify as bloggers…and who seem to write about social media a good portion of the time.” This isn’t the classic “A list” although there’s some overlap. What interests me most about this essay isn’t the table itself—so far, I’m not a big “social media” person—but the concept behind it and his discussion of the measures involved.
Here’s what he uses, paraphrasing and excerpting enough to stay within the bounds of fair use (hey, Jon, get a CC license!):
Ø Occupation, “grossly an abstraction” but enhanced by his anagram “CLUB” for related factors: Conference-goers/presenters, Linked to by others within the list, University-affiliated, and Book-published. Only two on the list get the full CLUB. Four have no letters at all (in addition to the six group blogs in the list). My assumption is that “Conference” is restricted to those conferences about blogging and social media, and related conferences that Garfunkel tracks—and I suspect “Book-published” may be a bit narrower than I might think. (Or not.). Also general location (e.g., “US-BayArea”)
Ø When the person started writing online and when the blog started.
Ø Frequency, the number of posts published in the first 12 weeks of 2005, sometimes estimated. (Garfunkel notes that the frequency of posts “generally is inversely related to the size of the posts.”)
Ø Subscriptions at Bloglines, the only readily available public measure of readership.
Ø Inbound links and sources as asserted by Technorati; the table is arranged in descending order by inbound links.
Ø Three tentative computed measures that he lumps together as A, the amplification factor—a measure of effectiveness, if you will. A1 is the number of links divided by the number of posts. A2 subtracts the sources from the links (since many single links are really blogrolls) and does the same division. I can’t figure out what A3 actually is or means, but it has something to do with the longevity of the weblog.
He admits “these are cheap calculations of imperfect data” but still sees patterns. If you’re interested in social media and some of the “top” bloggers in that field, read it for yourself. As it happens, I have five of these weblogs in my Bloglines list, and should probably add a sixth and seventh—and as it also happens, only one of those five ranks high on any of the measures.
“Impact” (or “amplification”) is one of those curious measures in net media, particularly with weblogs, since it involves assumptions about motives. If you’re a “singer” (going back a couple of entries), you might be happy to have ten subscribers and an “impact” that can’t be measured—you might even prefer it that way. For that matter, the nature of the audience may be more significant than its size. According to this essay, mamamusings (Liz Lawley’s own weblog) has fewer Bloglines subscribers than Walt at random—but it has far more impact, albeit mostly in a different community. (Liz is also part of Many2many, a group blog that scores high on almost any measure of reach.)
I’m blown away by some of the frequency figures. Dave Winer posted 1,094 items in 12 weeks: How is that even possible? Robert Scoble did 800, Jeff Jarvis 763. Can these folks really have that much to say that anyone wants to listen to? Well, Winer and Scoble have inbound links by the thousands—even more than Joi Ito, Jeff Jarvis and Dan Gillmor.
Some of you may have guessed where I’m going with this particular extended discussion: What would such a study show within library-people weblogs? (I don’t mean weblogs produced by libraries, and I don’t say “librarian” because I’m including myself in this group.) Such a study wouldn’t be too hard to conduct. I’d probably throw in one or two other measures such as “conversation intensity”—average number of comments per post over a given period—and maybe a measure of overall amount of writing. Hmm.
A series of essays with this title considers the likelihood that weblogging is no more a level playing field than traditional journalism and that the A-list are “gatekeepers” of a sort. The series may be ongoing. I have mixed feelings about this topic, as I do regarding Seth Finkelstein’s occasional discussions of the blog power law and the difficulty of people outside the A-list being heard.
For big political and social topics on a grand scale, I believe it’s all true. What I say about a general political and social topic at Walt at random or what Seth says at Infothought will have infinitesimal impact compared to comments from Jeff Jarvis, Markos Moulitsas Zuniga (DailyKos), Dan Gillmor et al.
Fortunately, life is as full of smaller interests and topics as the media is of niche magazines, small-run books, and tiny-circulation newsletters. Jeff Jarvis says there are actually “a hundred A-lists,” one for each subject; I’d say it’s more like several thousand. Jon Garfunkel responds that “certain subjects are of more interest than others: politics and the press, which touch on everything else.”
To which I respond: “It depends.” If “touching on everything else” is the key to interest, then we should all be discussing water, air, and food—and most of us spend as little time thinking about the press as we do thinking about air and water. I’d guess that most sensible people spend relatively little time each day thinking about politics. Most of us have other interests and concerns, most of those interests and concerns narrower than politics and the press. I’ve never read DailyKos, Jeff Jarvis (except back when he was a third-rate writer for TV Guide) or most other Big Names, and I don’t believe my life is the poorer for it.
I’ve suggested that there’s an “A-list” among library-related weblogs, but I’ve done so in a lighthearted manner and I’m beginning to think I’m just plain wrong. Yes, a few weblogs have four-digit Bloglines subscriber counts (and, doubtless, substantial Technorati ratings) and a slightly larger group have high three-digit counts (400 and up): If there’s an A-list, that’s the group. I don’t consider those people gatekeepers in any real sense. Their friendliness or hostility to a new weblog won’t make it or break it. They don’t (usually) gang up on other bloggers. It’s not even clear that they’re taken more seriously than bloggers with smaller readerships. Some of the most influential library-related blogs fall into my casual “B list” categorization, with 100 to 399 Bloglines subscriptions—and a few fall into the “C list” (20 to 99).
Maybe I’m fooling myself. It’s certainly true that a few of the A-list people seem to be speaking at a lot of conferences, and maybe there’s a direct connection.
Getting back to Garfunkel’s posts, “Part 2: Who they are” (April 5) discusses some of the “new gatekeepers” and their tendency to disclaim any special importance. Garfunkel wants to be heard by a wider audience; in that quest, he’s become convinced “that there truly was an A-list” and that there are questions about their legitimacy and the power they wield. It’s an interesting essay, best approached with some caution. There’s one wild generalization: Going beyond the note that A-list bloggers “primarily link to each other,” Garfunkel says “just about everybody links to them—whether in their blogrolls, or in everyday citations.” That’s a highly specialized use of “just about everybody,” apparently restricted to those who blog about politics and the press (and maybe social media).
Technorati claims to track eight million weblogs and more than one billion links. The highest-ranked individual weblog has 15,358 links from 10,318. Only three weblogs have links from more than 10,000 sources; only 15 have links from more than 5,000.
“Just about everybody” turns out to be roughly 0.125% for the most “powerful” individual weblogger. 99.8% of weblogs have no links to the top individually run weblog. At least 97% of all weblogs have no links to any of the top 15 “gatekeepers.” By real-world standards, that translates to “Nobody links to the gatekeepers.”
How many people read these enormously powerful gatekeepers? If Jeff Jarvis’ actual readership is ten times his Bloglines count, that comes out to 13,000 people: Not bad for a small-town newspaper but wretched for a Dominant Voice. On Garfunkel’s list of 32 prominent social-media weblogs, only one has as many Bloglines subscribers as the top two library-related weblogs. It does make you wonder.
That’s the charm of net media. We get claims of “A list,” dominance and enormous power—with numbers that wouldn’t register in traditional media.
Finally, here’s “The new gatekeepers, part 3: Their values,” posted April 8. He cites eight values “associated with, and celebrated in, the blogosphere”—then considers “what values they replace: Freedom over responsibility, Anonymity over traceability, Immediacy over thoroughness, Talking over listening, Breadth over depth, Ego over deference, Involvement over detachment, Serendipity over coherence.”
Garfunkel groups four values as pointing toward “quantity over quality.” He also notes that the values cited are those that press critics dislike, and that (some) blogs are exacerbating the flaws of 24-hour “news” channels. “This wasn’t supposed to be how journalism was saved.” That’s true, and I’m inclined to believe that blogs won’t “save” journalism or that it necessarily needs saving. Still, despite my nitpicking (and despite Garfunkel’s tendency to leave out words—he’s no better a proofreader than I am), this essay is well worth reading and thinking about. That’s particularly true if you do believe weblogs have some relation to journalism.
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