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September 13, 2004

JAMES LILEKS joins the happy gang of pajama-bloggers with this highly amusing illustration.

But all fun aside, I think there are some important lessons for Big Media -- and for everyone else -- in the rise of the blogosphere. They stem from the fact that bloggers operate on the Internet, where arguments from authority are difficult since nobody knows whether you're a dog.

In short, it's the difference between high-trust and low-trust environments.

The world of Big Media used to be a high-trust environment. You read something in the paper, or heard something from Dan Rather, and you figured it was probably true. You didn't ask to hear all the background, because it wouldn't fit in a newspaper story, much less in the highly truncated TV-news format anyway, and because you assumed that they had done the necessary legwork. (Had they? I'm not sure. It's not clear whether standards have fallen since, or whether the curtain has simply been pulled open on the Mighty Oz. But they had names, and familiar faces, so you usually believed them even when you had your doubts.)

The Internet, on the other hand, is a low-trust environment. Ironically, that probably makes it more trustworthy.

That's because, while arguments from authority are hard on the Internet, substantiating arguments is easy, thanks to the miracle of hyperlinks. And, where things aren't linkable, you can post actual images. You can spell out your thinking, and you can back it up with lots of facts, which people then (thanks to Google, et al.) find it easy to check. And the links mean that you can do that without cluttering up your narrative too much, usually, something that's impossible on TV and nearly so in a newspaper.

(This is actually a lot like the world lawyers live in -- nobody trusts us enough to take our word for, well, much of anything, so we back things up with lots of footnotes, citations, and exhibits. Legal citation systems are even like a primitive form of hypertext, really, one that's been around for six or eight hundred years. But I digress -- except that this perhaps explains why so many lawyers take naturally to blogging).

You can also refine your arguments, updating -- and even abandoning them -- in realtime as new facts or arguments appear. It's part of the deal.

This also means admitting when you're wrong. And that's another difference. When you're a blogger, you present ideas and arguments, and see how they do. You have a reputation, and it matters, but the reputation is for playing it straight with the facts you present, not necessarily the conclusions you reach. And a big part of the reputation's component involves being willing to admit you're wrong when you present wrong facts, and to make a quick and prominent correction.

When you're a news anchor, you're not just putting your arguments on the line -- you're putting yourself on the line. Dan Rather has a problem with that. For journalists of his generation, admitting an error means admitting that you've violated people's trust. For bloggers, admitting an error means you've missed something, and now you're going to set it right.

What people in the legacy media need to ask themselves is, which approach is more likely to retain credibility over time? I think I know the answer. I think Dan Rather does, too.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt makes an interesting point, which is that the smaller blogs -- because they're mostly read by friends and acquaintances of the bloggers -- may actually operate in a high-trust environment: "Sure, a few hundred blogs seem to own a large share of the traffic, as N.Z.Bear's rankings by traffic shows. But there are tens of thousands of blogs each racking up unique visitors. If those blogs in the tail pick up a meme --say, "Dan Rather is a doddering fool and CBS is covering up for him"-- its spread across the universe of people using the web for information gathering is huge and almost instantaneous. And irreversible because a friend or colleague of Rick is much more likely to believe his analysis because he knows and trusts Rick than . . . some knucklehead from CBS who is attempting to dismiss Rick as a pajama-wearing loon."

Good point. I hadn't thought that through. See -- it's Mickey Kaus's "asymptotic approach to truth" in action!

ANOTHER UPDATE: These thoughts on Old Media and secrecy are worth reading, too.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: A reader writes to say that I'm no pajama-blogger, and she's got proof! Okay, my secret is out. (Hey, Shannon Love is right about the Internet and secrecy!) Like Charles Johnson, I find that proper attire makes my blogging far more credible. Happy, Mr. Klein?

Of course, you could have seen me in drawstring cotton pants and an "Amelia Island" t-shirt if you'd been spying on me this morning. I guess that counts as pajama-blogging.

Not that there's anything wrong with that!