Blogs and the tsunami

I thought John Schwartz’s article in the NYT: “Myths Run Wild in Blog Tsunami Debate” was going to be the inevitable snow job following on from some fairly positive coverage of the role of bogs in the disaster. And it certainly starts that way.

But the blogosphere’s tendency toward crackpot theorizing and political smack down could not be suppressed for long.

“It’s so much of what they feed on, so much of what they are,” said James Surowiecki, the author of “The Wisdom of Crowds.”

However Schwartz then moves into a really interesting discussion about the “self correcting” nature of blogs through the direct comments and feedback to posts.

Online discussion can evolve toward truth, said Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in the interactive telecommunications program at New York University and a blogger. One result is a process that can be more reliable than many new media, where corrections are often late and small, if they appear at all.

Dr. Shirky said the key to reasonable discussion was to get beyond flames and the “echo chamber” effect of like-minded people simply reinforcing the opinions of one another and to let the self-correcting mechanisms do their job in a civil way. “You hope the echo chamber effect and the fact-checking effect will balance out into a better and more nuanced set of narratives, and a more rigorously checked set of facts,” he said. But in such a sharply contentious world, “The risk is it will largely divide itself into competing narratives where what even constitutes a fact is different in different camps.”

On a completely different level and left unanalysed are the “myths” of Schwartz’s title. He quotes from posts on

“Since we know that the atmosphere has become contaminated by all the atomic testing, space stuff, electronic stuff, earth pollutants, etc., is it logical to wonder if: Perhaps the ‘bones’ of our earth where this earthquake spawned have also been affected?”

The cause of the earthquake and resulting killer wave, the writer said, could be the war in Iraq. “You know, we’ve exploded many millions of tons of ordnance upon this poor planet,” the writer said. “All that ‘shock and awe’ stuff we’ve just dumped onto the Asian part of this earth – could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting to something that man has done to injure it. The earth is organic, you know. It can be hurt.”

While Schwartz and his commentators are interested in the truth or otherwise of these comments it would be more interesting to ask what the comments actually reveal. I think the posts are indicative of several prevalent myths – and here I use the term not as Schwartz does as a synonym for misconception but as meaning ritual story or narrative belief.

Just as many of the news stories about the disaster have emphasised the connectedness of the world in a time of tragedy these posts arise out of a similar metaphysics of connectedness. However they simultaneously appeal to a range of apocalyptic beliefs about the environment, the destructiveness of “man” and the covert or irresponsible actions of “government”. They are indicative of what Timothy Melley has called “agency panic” in the face of seemingly expanding conspiratorial actors (I have posted about this on my other blog).

It is interesting to note also that the post is a series of questions and tentative propositions (“could we have fractured something? Perhaps the earth was just reacting”). Although it seems that the current disaster is unrelated to any of the events mentioned in the democratic underground post, the tentatively expressed underlying belief system, that human actions have environmental consequences and that we are all connected through this consequential chain, is by no means a misconception even in scientific terms.

Year of the blog

A basic, but interesting, article on the evolution of blog influence over the last year on BBC Online.

Andrew Nachison, Director of the Media Center, a US-based “nonprofit think tank committed to building a better-informed society in a connected world,” points to the US presidential election as a turning point for the blogsphere:

“You could look at that as a moment when audiences exercised a new form of power, to choose among many more sources of information than they have never had before,” he says.

“And blogs were a key part of that transformation.”

Among them were blogs carrying picture messages, saying “we are sorry” for George W Bush’s victory and the responses from his supporters.

Mr Nachison argues blogs have become independent sources for images and ideas that circumvent traditional sources of news and information such as newspapers, TV and radio.

“We have to acknowledge that in all of these cases, mainstream media actually plays a role in the discussion and the distribution of these ideas,” he told the BBC News website.

“But they followed the story, they didn’t lead it.”

The example of the “we are sorry” picture blog is a very interesting example because it represents an entirely new form of symbolic politics. It may seem to lack any real political clout, certainly it will not change the way the new Bush administration implements its agenda, but at another level it is an important healing gesture that gives witness to another public sphere.

The term blogsphere is bandied about very freely but I don’t think we have even begun to come to terms with what it actually is and what it actually means. I am not only interested in the way blogging produces independent or alternative space, although this is vital, I am even more interested in what will eventually happen as the blogsphere begins to interact and transform other spheres of public discourse. This has certainly begun but it is an interaction that is still evolving in surprising and unpredictable ways. And I think it is the emergence of a preliminary understanding about this process that is the big news of blogging in 2004.

Talking about the conflicted relationship between blogging and journalism Nachison talks of transition rather than threat.

“I don’t think the mission and role of journalism is threatened. It is in transition, as society itself is in transition,” says Mr Nachison.

However, he agrees with other experts like the linguist and political analyst Noam Chomsky, that mainstream media has lost the traditional role of news gatekeeper.

“The one-to-many road of traditional journalism, yes, it is threatened. And professional journalists need to acclimate themselves to an environment in which there are many more contributors to the discourse,” says Mr Nachison.

“The notion of a gatekeeper who filters and decides what’s acceptable for public consumption and what isn’t, that’s gone forever.”

“With people now walking around with information devices in their pockets, like camera or video phones, we are going to see more instances of ordinary citizens breaking stories.”