Sunday, April 22, 2007

The best news is like Ecto Cooler

(I originally published this on Tumblr. Enjoy!)

Jason Goldman:

"Eventually, I believe, everyone will be using the web as a medium of self-expression. Just as ~everyone has an email address, so too will ~everyone have a place on the web that they can point to as being theirs (even if it's not fully public or shared with everyone). ... But both from a philosophical and professional standpoint, I want to see as many as people as possible use the web to express themselves. Moreover, I want to build the tools that enable them to do so."

(on Goldtoe Lemon.nut)

Jason's post is a fantastic overview of the could-be about the blogosphere and web-in-general. He touched on one bit that I think is critical in evolving the blog landscape from "bloggers" to "~everyone:" the argument against the everyman publisher — namely, that not everyone thinks or realizes they have something interesting to say, and the similar-yet-different argument that "maybe not everyone should be blogging."

But there is another side to this story that I haven't heard or read exercised: how will people (and I mean a critical mass of people, across the tipping point) learn to digest this much information and interpret it for themselves?

I'll break down these two arguments as "production vs. consumption."

  • Production:
    • people are not interested in blogging
    • people are boring
    • people think they are boring
    • people think others are boring
    • people are bad writers/designers/people (see: MySpace, "people are boring" bullet point)
  • Consumption:
    • people don't know how to think for themselves
    • people really, really like Kool-Aid
    • people are easier trained to write than to think

So the production argument is pretty well understood. I agree that everyone does have something important/creative/interesting/inflammatory/marginally coherent to say, and I acknowledge that there are challenges ahead in having everyone publish.

But the consumption side — and this is the argument I haven't heard — what happens when every average Joe has access to (or an unstoppable deluge of) diverse, biased, subjective, disparate, and sometimes flat-out wrong opinions? What if everybody only read the Opinions section? What if everyone gets a bottomless cup of Kool-Aid?

Fanboys are a great example — look at digg and see how the "Apple Cult" articles are moderated versus the "Fuck-Microsoft Bandwagon" articles. Who needs "six words uttered by an innocent man" to convict him when you have six thousand or six million blogs that say he is guilty?

There is an insidious side to this, too: hard, technical barriers prevent people from writing. Nothing prevents people from nonthink or groupthink. Once ~everyone has a blog, and they will, no hard barrier will stop them from becoming an inexhaustible fount of stupid.

So change is coming. At least I hope so. But so is the need for people to become smarter and subjective. Anyone care to head this up?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Dave Winer gets it.

Dave Winer, the self-proclaimed creator of RSS, podcasting, etc., has an interesting piece in his blog which is tangentially related to the ongoing struggle of mainstream media, newspapers, et. al. to compete with online media outlets. In Trouble at the Chronicle, Dave makes the case that the ivory tower of journalism is crumbling, and perhaps the best thing for journalism is to make everyone into a qualified journalist:
[R]eform journalism school. It's too late to be training new journalists in the classic mode. Instead, journalism should become a required course, one or two semesters for every graduate. Why? Because journalism like everything else that used to be centralized is in the process of being distributed. In the future, every educated person will be a journalist, as today we are all travel agents and stock brokers.
Yes. Fantastic idea, but we need a name for it. Hmm, people are composing ideas, and, of course, we want them to take this class as soon as possible to immediately contribute to society... freshman year should be right. I know! We could call it Freshman Composition!

Don't take my sarcasm as a criticism of Mr. Winer. He is absolutely correct. He has a fantastic vision for the populous press. Hell, he kind of invented it. If blogging, podcasting, The Writable Web, WikiEverything, and all of the other Web-2.0-ish things are going to succeed in enriching people's lives instead of reducing us to a crumbling mass of idiots, then we had better make sure that folks produce a good product.

The problem is that even college-level composition is not taken seriously. My degree is in Engineering. I, and many of my peers, complained about having to take Liberal Arts classes, also called the "General Education" requirement for our degree. This can be taken one of two ways: either we didn't think those subjects were important, or we didn't think the classes were worth the time. One of those points indicates a problem with the students, one indicates a problem with the school, and there are definitely people in both camps.

I am not a particularly gifted writer (you have probably figured that out if you made it this far), but I still did not feel like I enriched my writing ability in college. Granted, when teaching a large and diverse crowd, it is better to go slowly and make material accessible to most people than to go quickly and leave some students behind. But seriously, there were issues. If students complained, the teachers are too afraid of a bad teaching review to stand up to the students in a real way. Writing assignments were large and infrequent, meaning they were a temporary burden to be alleviated as quickly as possible. "Calorie-free" is the term I use to describe such things devoid of substance (see also: 300, xXx, and just about anything on Cable TV right now). It leaves a flavor behind, but doesn't ultimately affect you.

(I should note that the last paragraph is not entirely true. I took a senior-level Technical Writing composition class, and while we did have the infrequent, monolithic, completely-possible-to-do-the-night-before-so-why-even-try-type assignments, but we also had to compose one blog entry per class. Our teacher, Cat, was well-focused on making us into better writers and probably did so with a majority of the class. But even she was unable to overcome the aforementioned shortcomings which are very carefully tended to and grown by modern academia.)

At any rate, school, even college, has been relegated to a minor inconvenience on students. The same for high school. If we want to build a smart population of bloggers, of if we want people in general to contribute on the Web, we need to teach better writing and, more importantly, better critical thinking. I've blogged before about the need for critical thinking in reading blogs, but it is equally needed in writing.