The Breakdown

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Blog Wars, Part II: A watchdog for bloggers

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35101 full

Blogging is definitely entering a surly, complex middle age. What started out as a frisky means of self-expression, a way to comment on the news of the day, and a highlight reel of the World Wide Web has become a business. And some folks think that the business of blogging is in the business of getting away with whatever it can.

Or they're just...dealing with the fact that blogging-as-business has developed a hyperactive metabolism that provokes infractions.

Take for example Henry Blodget's mea culpa after pasting the Wikipedia entry on the My Lai massacre into a recent blog post at Business Insider. It's no longer pasted in. Because, as Blodget puts it, Gawker freaked out. Maybe Gawker was right to freak out. But then again Blodget does write plenty of posts that are fairly dense with real business analysis, so it's hardly his pattern. 

That said, it seems like a lot of media professionals — many from old media — are worried that the blogging thing is getting out of hand. So at South by Southwest, the New York Times' David Carr catches up with a guy who's decided to do something about it. Because he was once wronged by the blogosphere. His name is Simon Dumenco and he writes a very good column at Ad Age. The wronging was done by the Huffington Post.

Here's Carr:

After getting an in-box full of examples from other writers who felt similarly aggrieved, Mr. Dumenco decided to pull out the big guns: He has formed a committee aiming to establish standards for aggregation. Buckle up, here comes the Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation.

O.K., you can almost hear the digerati seizing with laughter at the idea that a pew full of journalism church ladies is somehow going to do battle with the entire Internet....

An august list of names has signed on to the effort: David Granger, the editor in chief of Esquire; James Bennet, editor in chief of The Atlantic; and Adam Moss of New York magazine. Of course, all three oversee robust Web sites that do a fair amount of aggregating themselves.

The committee includes digital media natives like Elizabeth Spiers, editor in chief of The New York Observer; Mark Armstrong, a founder of Longreads.com; and Jacob Weisberg, chairman and editor in chief of Slate. All of them believe there is value in looking at what might be called best practices when it comes to linking, summarizing and aggregating.

Calling something the "Council on Ethical Blogging and Aggregation" sounds like an attention-getting put-on, and coming from Dumenco, it probably (Certainly?) is. But let's take it at face value. What's really going on here is that blogging has morphed into something that a lot of bloggers really don't recognize anymore. The core problem is that there are a number of blog-like aggregation efforts out there, at both upstart and established Internet addresses, that have nothing to say. (Not here at KPCC, however, where our bloggers have everything to say.)

It reminds me of a once-famous essay (excerpts here) by George W. S. Trow called "Within the Context of No Context." Trow's complaint was that television, an earlier distruptive medium, had destroyed the cohesion of American life. That sounds reactionary, but the way the argument was laid out was actually pretty disruptive itself. Trow broke new ground, intellectually and stylistically. 

At any rate, most of the time T.V. has nothing to say, although in the beginning it arguably did: it had a deep educational potential that has been tapped in a very limited way. When the Internet took hold, in the 1990s, it had the advantage over T.V. that it was a deep medium, a counterpoint to much of T.V.'s reflexive shallowness. Many early Web publications and proto-blogs always tried to have something to say, even if the writers were referring to something else (which they often were — and often that something else was...T.V.).

Aggregation, as a practice, frequently lacks context, even the somewhat snarky context that characterized the early days of blogging. Much of the time, it isn't "smart" aggregation. It just is: You want to capture some traffic on a subject, so you summarize somebody else's material, link to it (maybe not very obviously), and rely on your most excellent aggregation framework to serve up the page views. This has understandably made some bloggers who've been around for a while uncomfortable.

In a weird way, I think Dumenco's campaign has merit because it highlights this problem and provides a way of addressing what is truly becoming the problem of aggregation. At the very least, it will get a debate going. And the way Dumenco has set it up, new media and old media are going to join in the conversation. Let's hope that the debate is itself about something, rather than a hierarchical restatement of what old media has always disliked about new media, but has now been forced by the evolution of online life to deal with.

Follow Matthew DeBord and the DeBord Report on Twitter.

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