Editor’ Note: This essay is the second installment of a series on the challenges posed by the digital revolution to the world of culture. We are delighted to acknowledge that the Hertog/Simon Fund for Policy Analysis provided critical support for this series.
Sometime in 2006, freshly graduated from college and newly employed as a junior editor at The Wall Street Journal, I decided it would be a good idea to publish my musings about the Internet. The op-ed quoted Joseph Conrad to the effect that newspapers are “written by fools to be read by imbeciles” and suggested that blogs are the new newspapers. It turns out that people do not like to be called imbeciles, bloggers in general and imbecile bloggers in particular.
The piece, which carried the headline “The Blog Mob,” was a sensation, a controversy, and, finally, a mistake. It is worth recalling not because it has much lasting value—it does not—but partially because the situation surrounding the piece was hilarious and partially because writers who opine on public affairs ought at some point to be held accountable for their positions. They rarely are, not least by themselves. Maybe the rumpus also serves as an education in the new economics of the modern digital era and the ramifying political, cultural, and journalistic transformations wrought by the terabyte and the computer network.
“Blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared creators would like to think,” I wrote of the advent of the Web log, which still then retained some novelty. Bloggers saw themselves as an independent counterweight to the legacy mainstream media, or the MSM—“the lamestream media,” to borrow Sarah Palin’s subsequent neologism. They believed that the establishment had been corrupted by bias and groupthink. In my view, they weren’t doing a particularly good job at replacing the institutions that were supposedly discredited, and they mostly tended to comment on MSM reportage—riding along “like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps,” to recall my characteristic diplomacy.
“The larger problem with blogs,” it seemed to me, “is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.” Then I revved up the RPMs:
Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .
The ellipses were in the original text.
The tone of “The Blog Mob” virtually guaranteed that bloggers would respond in a way that confirmed my mob thesis, and did they ever, exhibiting a “liberty, equality, fraternity” crowd psychology not out of place on the streets of Paris circa 1794. The op-ed generated thousands of comments and dozens, if not hundreds, of blog posts in response, critiques coming from both the left and right; it soon climbed to the top story on a website called Memeorandum, which tracks online debate. A few readers even sent old-fashioned letters to the Journal.
The first wave of reaction was largely ad hominem. Much was made of my youth and inexperience. Had I, in fact, visited every single site on the Word Wide Web, and if not, why did I think I was qualified to issue such pronouncements? At the same time I was conscripted as a high priest of journalism, an elitist lording it over the insurgent amateurs. Suggestions were tendered as to the autoerotic activities I ought to perform.
Online, an impromptu meeting of the mutual admiration society was convened. The bloggers celebrated their craft and disparaged old-media fossils like the kid just out of college, out of sync with a new generation who just doesn’t get it. A right-leaning blogger who calls himself Ace of Spades wrote that the chief flaw of “The Blog Mob” was that its author “doesn’t recognize that he himself is a moron, writing moronic pap,” and that was the subtle part. “This guy—a paid assistant editor at the WSJ—is knocking blogs for the one thing MSM staffers have over bloggers: A straight salary and plenty of company-paid time (and support staff!) to put out one or two pieces a week,” Mr. Spades wrote. “In other words, the only real superiority his MSM halfwits have over most bloggers is the fact that they are the MSM, with the benefits and privileges of such.” A liberal blogger awarded me her “Moonbat of the Week” award, whatever that means. And the general consensus was that I was “clinging longingly” to my “buggy whip and rotary phone,” as someone else put it——which is not too wide of the mark, given that by my nature, however unrealistically, I dislike change as a concept and in practice.
Technological change, as I saw it then, was the underwriter of the problem. True, the Internet had bulldozed any meaningful barriers to journalistic entry, helping to undermine quality control. But blogs per se were merely a manifestation of the deeper and more basic character of the Internet itself and its culture of instantaneity. The online world exists in an eternal present tense and valorizes the latest, the hottest, the most cutting-edge things; “insta-” as a prefix is an honorific. Like the car that loses half its value the moment it comes off the lot, digital items are old almost as soon as they are posted. “Instant response, without even a day or delay, impairs rigor,” I wrote. Traditional print organizations like newspapers, and to a lesser extent magazines, already surged ahead at a pretty good clip but their daily or weekly publication schedules provided the time for at least some deliberative baseline. This built-in lag even pertains to radio and the anti-magic of cable news, in that the hosts and guests are most often prepared and improvising off a script. Instantaneity “is also a coagulant for orthodoxies,” I continued. “We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought—instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition,” which promotes “mobs and mob behavior.”
The other advantage I believed print enjoyed over online media was its “major institutional culture” of editors and critics to screen for “originality, expertise, and seriousness,” against which the laissez-faire norms and practices of the Internet were inferior. This assertion seemed to stick most in the rightward craw, due to the MSM’s well-documented unfairness to conservative causes, beliefs, and themes behind a veneer of accuracy and disinterest. I introduced a note of caution: “In their frustration with the ancien régime, conservatives quite eagerly traded for an enlarged discourse. In the process they created a counterestablishment, one that has adopted the same reductive habits they used to complain about. The quarrel over one discrete set of the standards did a lot to pull down the very idea of standards.”
The conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt was especially displeased and invited me on his radio program to discuss. I did not acquit myself well, to describe the exchange with some understatement. The hour or so of cross-examination was an intellectual vivisection and revealed that I had reflected less about how terrible blogs are than he had about how awesome they are.
Mr. Hewitt argued that there was no “quality difference between the best of the blogs and the best of the mainstream media,” and actually “the best of the blogs do a better job than the best of the mainstream media, because the mainstream media is generally not educated enough to tackle complex issues such as, for example, Supreme Court nominations, court decisions, porkbusting details, or technology advances or whatever the expertise might be.” Once you include “mainstream media agenda journalism and bias,” blogs are “obviously” superior to newspapers, he said.
The complaint that I did not credit the substantive work that does appear online—with the exception of porkbusting details—happened to be true, even if Mr. Hewitt’s indictment of the old media was equally unnuanced, one point among several I wish I’d articulated at the time. I regret “The Blog Mob” for its lack of gradation. Quality reporting and commentary is specific, tangible, and usually subtle, trafficking in particulars and the accretion of details considered in their richness, complexity, and contingency. A phenomenon as large and as varied as “online journalism” deserved a more mature treatment and its vastness and variousness resist large, definitive claims. My prose, to boot, was overwritten and pompous.
In that respect “The Blog Mob” participated in the trends it decried. I wish an editor at my elbow had screened for originality and killed the piece, or better yet told me that a more productive use of my time would be to pick up the telephone. Anybody drawing a salary as an opinion journalist ought to add more value, to use the cant phrase, than his mere opinions; after all, everyone has opinions and there’s a reason “opinionated” is usually an insult. (“Look everybody, the little lady can think!”) When opinion journalism is done well, political convictions don’t substitute for reporting and analysis but inform them; belief lets you catch the stories the other guys miss and the freedom to contest prevailing press corps conventions and political power.
Done badly, punditry is all speculation and intuition, the pundit as Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Transparent Eyeball—the political currents of the universe circulate through him alone and he’ll be happy to tell you what he felt. A “think piece” minus the thinking, the overall impression of “The Blog Mob” in retrospect is like one of those op-eds that appear in university newspapers, the freshman who knows how to resolve the settlements in 750 words or fewer. “The Blog Mob” belonged on the Internet itself—specifically to the practice that has since come to be known as “trolling,” or the distribution of inflammatory material to provoke an emotional or aggrieved response.
Inside of a decade, “The Blog Mob” is hideously outdated since there is really isn’t any longer any such thing as a “blog” in the first place. There’s just a bunch of vendors on the infinite carnival midway that is the Internet. Digital publication is now foremost and dominant, though a fraction of the output will eventually be reproduced in ink. In newspapering, the old broadsheets have contracted along with subscriptions to so-called “compact” editions or tabloids, and over time only a few newspapers and magazines will continue to maintain paper circulations in America. Stopping the presses removes a major line from the expenses side of a balance sheet but at the same time cannibalizes advertising revenue. There are two long-run “future of news” possibilities: Either print will collapse and liquidate newspapers along with it, or print will collapse and newspapers will hopefully figure out how to update a centuries-old business model. I am embarrassed to admit that I no longer read newspapers in newsprint, except on the weekends and the road, finding it far more efficient to consume information online.
The optimistic news is that journalism is quite obviously not technologically determined, as I naïvely feared it would be, and the medium isn’t the message, contrary to what Marshall McLuhan believed in 1964. As print and online continue to converge, bloggers are adopting more professional habits and the old media are accommodating themselves to the imperatives of the Internet. (In real life, unlike the movies, the scrappy band of lovable campers usually loses to the rich kids across the lake.) Even digital-only news operations have replicated the bureaus and organizational architecture of checks and balances that evolved in the pre-computer era. Part of it is that credibility and reputation still matter, and those checks and balances help preserve the one and enhance the other. The geniuses who always ask the right questions and write perfectly turned copy are rare, too, and the pre-computer status quo of editors and critics remains useful. There is probably more richness and intelligence online than there would be otherwise, even if it is marginally harder to find amid the listicles and cat videos. On that point, I got it wrong, and wrong utterly.
The most consequential development since 2006 is that the pace of change is still accelerating. Amory Blaine’s augury in This Side of Paradise—
“Modern life . . . no longer changes century by century, but year by year, ten times faster than it ever has before—populations doubling, civilizations unified more closely with other civilizations, economic independence, racial questions, and—we’re dawdling along. My idea is that we’ve got to go very much faster.”
—has become a reality, but very much faster.
Ponder Twitter, the Internet service founded in 2006 on the view that blogs—with their words strung together to form sentences and then paragraphs, maybe even three or four of them in semi-logical succession—were too prolix. Just about every reporter, Washington staffer, operative, wonk, consultant, think tank gnome, and news junkie in America uses Twitter, which has become the Internet’s front page, as it were, and means that the entire political conversation takes place hour by hour, nanosecond by nanosecond, in 140-character increments. The result is a grinding, hallucinatory, face- and brain-melting meta-Mobius strip of facts, factoids, links, jokes, comments, comments on comments, comments on comments on comments, opinions about opinions, all in real time. I find Twitter indispensible professionally, sometimes.
I think I was more right than wrong, or less wrong, about instantaneity. The promise of cyberspace is that all the world’s knowledge will be immediately searchable and retrievable, yet in reality its instantaneity seems to induce a kind of amnesia, with each day, hour, second begetting breaking news of astonishing events that have been happening over and over again for years and decades.
The Internet’s eternal “now” constitutes a media demand shock unlike anything in history. Because any given composition only lasts for a few hours, a day or two at most, the appetite for new content is tremendous, especially when nothing newsworthy is going on. Think of storied periodicals like the Atlantic Monthly (Emerson, Longfellow, Twain) and National Review (Buckley, Chambers, Burnham) that now publish more on their web sites every day than any single human could reasonably, or even want to, read. One result is that journalism is far more evanescent, written to be disposable—and I work for a daily, once the rock bottom of intransience. Think: fishwrap, but without the secondary utility. The Internet’s incentives more often than not favor the sensational, the obvious, the melodramatic, and the shallow, as long as it drives clicks, advertising volume, and “search engine optimization.” “The Blog Mob” wasn’t meant to be—but was—ideal for web economics.
To play Transparent Eyeball for a moment, my sense is that the level of bullshit in American politics is increasing, though of course there is no way of measuring the tendency or detecting if technology is to blame and by how much. Bullshit, as defined by the Princeton moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt, is distinct from lying in that it is produced without any concern for the truth. It doesn’t even need to be false, exaggerated, or misleading. The bullshitter is simply indifferent to truth and falsity. Partly I suspect that is because the velocity of the Internet often compels the politicos to have opinions on subjects they know nothing about, and say things and express outrage that they obviously don’t believe. It also serves as a platform to a bunch of pseuds, cranks, and reverse King Midases (everything they touch turns to garbage).
On the Internet, everyone is increasingly entitled to their own facts and at the current moment political epistemology is especially unsettled. My mob thesis owed to an overdose of Cass Sunstein, the legal scholar who has theorized about self-contained “information cocoons.” No doubt, technological change has created more feedback loops and opportunities to confirm what political consumers already believe. But perhaps it is simply revealing what was always true, like the receding tide.
If the era of concentrated journalistic power, when a few big dailies and TV stations set the political agenda, is definitively concluded, the mainstream media has responded with “fact checking.” These watchdog news outfits claim to debunk misinformation and separate truth from falsehood, under the auspices of Pinocchios, “lies,” and the Truth-O-Meter. But mostly what they do is disagree with opinions and genuine differences of principle and values, dressed up with raw appeals to authority. The juvenility—“pants on fire,” really?—is an obvious byproduct of the Internet, but fact checking is really an MSM confession that the public does not trust journalists to report “facts” in the first place.
The conservative tabernacle choir’s media triumphalism continues apace but also seems more complacent than ever. To take one recent example, consider the election just ended, in which the right-leaning blogosphere concluded on a political hunch that every public poll was wrong and that Mitt Romney would win in a romp. If the Internet has demolished one hegemonic depiction of reality, it has also enabled people to create many alternatives to it as well.
Change is inexorable in a dynamic marketplace, and the people who admire creative destruction and disruptive innovation can’t complain when those forces change reading habits and convulse their own industry. Mourning the old days is like weeping over cigarettes in the newsroom, teletype machines, and the stenography pool, none of which I ever saw, though there’s no harm either in contemplating what we may be losing.
The most trenchant criticism of “The Blog Mob” was that the Internet is producing more democracy, more choice, more decentralization, principles that I favor for the economy. “The Wall Street Journal editorial page wants to regulate the marketplace of ideas,” as one liberal took more than a little satisfaction in writing.
Well. I know, you know, everyone knows that the marketplace of ideas is the core of a liberal democracy, that free expression is a precondition of a free society. The theory says that truth emerges through competition, that the best method for identifying truth and discrediting falsehood is through more speech. It is in many ways a distinctively American concept: Freedom of speech is the First Amendment, and there isn’t any alternative besides the inquisitor, the censor, and the secret police.
The difference is that the marketplace of ideas is not the same as the marketplace for goods and services—the metaphor is inexact. It belongs to Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., in his famous dissent in the 1919 free speech case Abrams v. United States. “But when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths,” Holmes wrote,
they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas—that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground on which their safety can be carried out. That at any rate is the theory of our Constitution. It is an experiment, as all life is an experiment.
Yet in the marketplace of ideas, there’s no scarcity or property rights. If I sell you something, I no longer have it. But if you choose to believe my ideas, if you choose to consume my idea, an infinite number of people can also do so as well. The marginal cost of an idea is zero. But the major problem with the market valuation of ideas is that there’s no price mechanism. For goods and services, the price is never “right.” It merely communicates how to allocate resources so they find their highest return. Prices are tools that allow people in heterodox, pluralistic societies to cooperate, and markets give people what they need or desire. But they are not organized to make moral, intellectual, or aesthetic judgments. If people do not want truth, markets will satisfy that demand.
But let’s stop calling it a market. It’s a commons, and truth is a public good. The individual cost of consuming an idea is generally nothing. In elections, the chances of one vote deciding an election are literally infinitesimal—the same outcome will happen whatever any single person does—and the costs of acquiring knowledge in terms of time and opportunity are large. So people are rationally ignorant and usually hold beliefs because they have consumption value. That’s not an insult: Normal people are rationally ignorant about a lot of things, like heart surgery. But rational ignorance does pose problems for the commons of ideas, especially as technology changes it.
Ideas only matter, really matter, when they are expressed through collective action. The individual cost on consuming an idea may be infinitesimal, but destructive ideas can gain critical mass, cf. the twentieth century. People can safely consume ideas without regard to the effects on others, until too many people as a society choose to do so.
The classic “tragedy of the commons” describes a public pasture where anyone could graze his cattle, leading to environmental devastation because it is owned collectively. But in real markets there is no tragedy of the commons, hardly ever. Think about going around New England. Where are the ruined village greens? That’s because people usually form institutions to manage common resources.
The same is true for the marketplace of ideas, and like any good Wall Street Journalist, I think we need to look to the supply side. That’s where we regulate ideas too. Think of the legal system, for example, with its rules of evidence and punishments for perjury. Then, less formally, there are institutions like periodicals, newspapers, colleges and universities, academic journals, research libraries, and even, maybe, cable news that used to help manage the marketplace of ideas.
The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that the Internet is eroding the intermediaries that once shaped moral, intellectual, and aesthetic judgments. I am still not sure that we should cheer this breakdown. The genesis of “The Blog Mob” was the sentiment that the institutions themselves are important, and that we are now conducting another Holmesian experiment, not that there’s anything we could do about it even if we wanted to.
The best takedown of “The Blog Mob,” I thought, was written by a young leftist activist named Chris Bowers, who said it was unreasonable to hold bloggers “to a series of journalistic ‘standards’ that most journalists actually fail to live up to themselves” and journalists should be “attacking their own profession for failing to meet its own standards.” That’s irrefutably true. Originality and seriousness in journalism are worth defending, wherever they appear and whoever upholds them, and the irony is that the riot of the Internet has raised the premium on standards, quality, and the critical temper. The more there is, the less anything might matter, but instead the first rate, the honest, the compelling stuff has become more valuable as a result of its rarity.
A useful exercise for today’s digital pessimists is to reread The Education of Henry Adams, whose author expresses a profound sense of cultural despair because of . . . the engine. Standing in the great gallery at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, Adams saw the dynamo as “a symbol of infinity” and “a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross.” Amid the quickening pace that technology required, the past was irretrievable, the present defined by change and multiplicity, the future uncertain. All that is still true today, only more so—but our problems are still solvable. We adapted to the dynamo and will to the Internet as well. We can’t just yet know how.