Monday, April 07, 2003

Trouble in Blogistan

It looks like noted blogger Sean-Paul Kelly over at the Agonist has run into a patch of trouble with plagiarism. According to this Wired article by Daniel Forbes, "Much of his material was plagiarized -- lifted word-for-word from a paid news service put out by Austin, Texas, commercial intelligence company Stratfor." You can read the whole story there, so I won't bother repeating it.

This begs the question: What is blogging really good for? If we look at how news is gathered in the world, a great deal of it comes from the creation of a centralized, hierarchical, funded structure of news-gathers -- like ABC, the New York Times, etc. The "promise" of blogging is three-fold:

1) Since ordinary people are often in the middle of "news" and six degrees of connection link most of us, first-hand reports of "news" can be sourced through a network of blogs
2) Blogging is an outstanding way to add commentary on top of sourced news from other [often traditional] places. Which is what I'm doing at the moment, presumably.
3) The inter- and cross-linking of blogging provides, in a meta-analytical way, a method for determining what news is the most important. This is all based on some fairly sophisticated information theory about "authorities" and "hubs" and how in-bound and out-bound links connect them. Suffice to say, once all of us have blathered and pontificated, Google and Inktomi and others can come in and derive meaning not only from what was said, but by whom, and how it was all linked together.

1) is the most questionable supposition of all. The Agonist has simply demonstrated yet again that commercial, centralized, hierarchical news organizations are often a superior form of information-gathering. If they weren't, he wouldn't have been scamming their stuff. In the pre-blog days, sites like Aint It Cool News promised to bring this sort of real-person-driven, six-degrees insider news to the movie industry -- which after all, in addition to the froth of stars, is made up of a bunch of ordinary craft-people doing ordinary jobs, who have a very good idea what Keanu Reeves' new Matrix costume will look like, or whatever. Well, it will take you about five minutes at AICN to see that didn't work out very well after four or five years. In addition to Harry Knowles' complete lack of discipline, the insider sources have dried up; what's the benefit to an insider of telling Harry anything? One of his most regular items on the site, Elston Gunn's Weekly Recap, is a report of what's in that week's Variety magazine. So much for competing with the news-gathering power of the traditional media.

2) requires that the blogger have some commentary to add. Duncan [a man with some commentary to add to nearly anything] has some interesting thoughts related to this; the U-shaped curve of information value as related to time. Frothy now-ness provides a lot of the immediate information value; this degrades, and is replaced by archival value of "true quality" stuff -- be it a Jane Austen novel, or Citizen Kane, or the writings of Winston Churchill or Dean Acheson. I think that this misses the commentary angle; my preferred form is the short essay or column, and I think that one can bring a lot of sense to the backwash, nearly in real-time, through this sort of forum. I would hope that has value somewhat independent of whether I posted it first, or four-hundred-and-thirty-third. I would also hope that it has some lasting value - though when the Agonist has out-lived his fifteen minutes and the link is dead, who will care what I thought about his travails?

3) is the most interesting to me. We may start a company to exploit 3) Which means I'm not going to talk about it right now, out here on the public Web.

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