Wednesday, July 20, 2005 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

On blogging...a thumbsucker

The Washington Post today has another cautionary tale of a person's blogging leading to dismissal because, well, he let his id run a little too freely. On a less salacious note, The Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required) had an article a couple of weeks ago on how academic job candidates' blogging harmed their chances because of what they said, or how bizarrely they said it, on their blog.

Blogging is a new medium and the norms of discourse in the blogosphere have yet to take root. Indeed, different norms will probably emerge for different slivers of a blog world that numbers in the millions. Furthermore, as the id-blogging reporter in the Post story shows, there is a false sense that no one is reading and therefore one can just go "unplugged." This is also true of email, which few of us treat as the near-permanent documentary records that they are.

Reckless blogging seems to be a particular hazard of academic-types. I often wonder over the rhetorical tone of PFF's IPCentral and this blog. I neither want us to descend into the ad hominem ranting that characterizing many tech blogs; nor begin thinking that the partial, immediate reactions on blogs are a substitute for more discursive, scholarly work. As a para-academic institution (Our motto: All the thoughtfulness, none of the concerted irrelevance!), this blog presents a public face that is very important. What I want people to see are serious, but playful, thinkers who are serious about confronting the difficult law, economics and policy issues of the day, without resorting to cant or sneering accusations of bad faith.

That doesn't always happen, but it is something we try to be conscious of.

One of my least favorite things about blogs -- specifically tech blogs and politically-inclined blogs -- is the vituperation. Very smart and accomplished people seem not only to indulge but to revel in being nasty and vituperative. Many of these people are tenured professors of some moment, but I cannot but think that the tone of their blogs does collateral damage to their more scholarly work.

Tech blogs -- where I spend a good deal of my blogging time -- can get nasty pretty quickly. The other side of an issue isn't just wrong, or misguided, but rather to be declaimed as morally reprehensible, stupid, on-the-take, or a combination of the three. Some of this bravado is the false anonymity and distance of the Internet. It is much easier to say nasty things at a distance than when the person is face-to-face and known to you.

Another part of the blogging rhetorical bravado is playing to the crowd. Blogging is made up of communities, and within communities people use shorthand that may have different meaning in the broader world. For instance, if I am talking to other conservatives, I can say shorthand that a given position is for "commies," which I do not mean literally but to invoke some levity and draw sharp lines.

Our sometimes PFF antagonist Lawrence Lessig falls prey to these tendencies on his blog. Whereas in person, he is a gentleman and scrupulous about what he says; on the blog, he will take cheap shots playing to his amen corner too often. Whenever I read a blogger saying that PFF is "for sale," I can write them off as a lazy thinker who'd rather stay in his cocoon of righteousness and certainty than confront counter-arguments. I am not saying we are always right, but at least we try to present a consistent set of principles based on classical liberal notions of liberty, property rights and rule of law. (And we do pride ourself on our blogroll to linking beyond a conservative/libertarian amen corner of tech blogs. We may not ever agree with some of the blogs on our roll, but respect the place of argument and have confidence enough in our own views to test them against our would-be opponents.)

The third reason blogging is dangerous is the lack of an editor. If I routinely posted nasty things about those with whom I disagree, questioning their motives, intelligence and good faith, but passed them by an editor first, a competent editor would quickly say, "you sound like a hate-filled, raving lunatic who is descending into ad hominem attacks and rhetorical overkill." That would hopefully jar me into the realization that my editor is correct. Of course, if you are an established blogger and your audience likes that sort of stuff, then you are somewhat trapped into that blogging persona. The political blogs often have this problem, particularly on the left (like DailyKos and the like) but the right wing blogs are not without their equals. Raving lunatic blogging is a hazard because it will attract attention and get you noticed. Ann Coulter has made a very lucrative career out of this metier.

So, blogging is great, but it can get you into trouble. As advertised in the headline, this was a thumbsucker, so no great conclusions. Blogging in the academic and policy world is probably now a necessity to get noticed, for good or ill. As social norms continue to evolve, ostracism and other real-world norms can partially police the discourse. But the rewards for making a blogging spectacle of yourself are probably great enough that blogging excess will be a permanent feature of the blogging landscape.

posted by Ray Gifford @ 12:12 PM | Internet