Welcome to the Echo Chamber


Before I go into my latest rant, I just wanted to offer a few prayers to the folks on the Gulf Coast, who in less than twenty-four hours may be hit by a category 4 hurricane. Ivan might brush New Orleans rather than hit it directly, but it’s no surprise to me to hear that people are getting out, quick.

Looking at the tragectory, I’m also concerned that this storm looks set to stall over northern Alabama/Tennessee over the weekend. Of course, the winds will have died down well before it gets there, but if a hurricane plants itself in an area and dumps all its rain until it dies out, that’s still a lot of rain.

Any word why this thing is going to stall?

Feature Presentation

We’re at it again: we Bloggers have developed an inflated sense of our self-importance: the future of journalism; the bringers down of Trent Lott; the ground soldiers digging up dirt against the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and the possibly forged documents on George W. Bush’s service (or lack thereof) with the National Guard. I guess I shouldn’t shake my head, as it too has swelled up so often, the flab might whip out and hurt someone.

Early this week, the CBS news program 60 Minutes claimed that they had obtained documents calling into question elements of George W. Bush’s National Guard service, and whether or not the Bush family pressured officials to give him special favours. To Democrats, still stinging over the vicious and exaggerated campaign of the Swift Boat Veterans, it was payback time, but the Republicans dodged a bullet by claiming that the documents were “obvious forgeries”, possibly fed to CBS by somebody within the Kerry campaign.

At which point you start to wonder why America is seen as a beacon for democracy in this world. But that’s another matter.

As it stands, there is a lot of contradictory evidence being flung about, and the visceral debate has split the American blogosphere into its left and right-wing components. In terms of facts, it’s still very much in question whether or not the documents are forgeries. They seem to be more real than the Republicans have given them credit for; CBS is standing by their story, and their credibility has not completely gone down the toilet (Update: CBS and Dan Rather have since admitted their mistake and apologized; their credibility still has not gone down the toilet, however, because this story hasn’t engaged the general public). As for a debate on the veracity of the content of the documents, that hasn’t happened yet (which is especially discouraging, because it’s not like the “forged” documents were the major part of the “scoop”). Either Bush avoided service and his family got officials to lie about it, or somebody in Kerry’s campaign forged the documents and screwed up, or somebody in Bush’s campaign forged the documents and made it look like the Democrats screwed up. Or…

And again, American democracy, shining beacon to the world, oxymoron.

Problem is, most of the controversy has not been noticed by the general public. The debate over the history of typesetting and proportional fonts has been fought almost exclusively in the blogosphere. Here in Canada, neither the CBC nor the National Post have given much prominence to the documents CBS uncovered, much less the allegations that the documents are forgeries, and I myself have no clear idea what the documents actually say. Americans’ first source of news remains television, from CNN to Fox to maybe (if they’re especially engaged) PBS, and right now CNN and Fox are on a storm-porn high thanks to Hurricane Ivan. Poll some Americans and I’d bet you twenty dollars that the majority of them will not have heard about the documents raised against Bush, much less the charges that these documents are forgeries.

That’s why we’re the future of journalism, some bloggers might say. We cover the things the mainstream media ignores. We kept the story of Tom Delay’s racist comments alive and forced him to resign as leader of the House Republicans. We built Howard Dean into the Democratic candidate for the presidency — well, almost. We’re doing the grunt work on hunting down the forgery story and, once we find it, the Kerry campaign is done like dinner!!!

The on-the-sleeve bias that bloggers show when they write is often held up as a virtue, as in “you know where this guy is coming from when he speaks”. The bias cuts all ways imaginable, and while this does make many blogs fascinating insight into the minds of the individuals who publish them, it doesn’t make for good journalism. Consider how much the right-wing bloggers have pounced on every unsubstantiated rumour that the Bush documents were forgeries. They show an exuberance of those who care more about a Republican victory this November than for truth. Every other rumour or source which might contradict their preconceived notions are ignored. In the eyes of some right-wing bloggers, Kerry is a liar and a traitor. In the eyes of some left-wing bloggers, Bush is as much and more, and their self-appointed job is to gather all of the rumours and evidence so that they can to prove their case.

This attitude might work if blogs were a court of law, with one side as the prosecution and the other side as the defence. But for most readers of blogs, the defence isn’t even in the courtroom, the jury and the audience are disproportionately comprised of people who have already decided upon conviction, and the judge doesn’t know the first thing about the rule of law. For right-wing blogs, many of the left-leaning blog readers who might be swayed by the information presented fled for friendlier climes long ago; the same is true for right-wing readers of left-wing blogs. The only people who read The People’s Republic of Seabrook or the Daily Kos are liberal fans, interested centrists, and conservatives looking for a fight. Similarly, The Eleven Day Empire and Instapundit have a largely conservative readership, with stray comments from liberals and centrists interested in debate or, quite frequently, trolls out to make merry.

This is called an echo chamber, where you are isolated in a small community but, because all you are hearing is the chatter of people who think like you, you are tempted to feel as though your way of thinking is the world’s way of thinking. It should be no surprise that many blogs behave this way, since the Internet has behaved this way since it started letting average people on board. You would never see a Star Trek fan attending the newsgroup rec.arts.drwho, unless that fan was interested in both shows, or if he was trolling for attention. And while I don’t participate in the fan forums at Outpost Gallifrey anymore, I remember them fondly enough to know that were I still there, I’d be treating the news of the upcoming revival of the series, and the debates over the redesign of the Daleks with the same level of importance as the upcoming American presidential election.

Remember, there is nothing magical about blogging; all that it is is the Internet made faster. The political communities of the blogosphere are virtually indistinguishable from the science-fiction forums, the railroaders, or the battling car and transit activists at misc.transport.urban-transit. Most blogs are run by average individuals bound by their opinions and, except in rare cases, their content is not fed through an editor. Fact-checking is left to interested onlookers — and most of those have neither the time nor the inclination to check facts.

I have no problem with blogs being used as journalistic tools. As a vehicle for pushing eye-witness accounts, there are few better things. There are also plenty of examples of influential blogs. You do have professionals speaking on subjects they are wholly familiar with. Blogs can honestly claim that they built Howard Dean into a credible presidential candidate, but the surprise that shook the blogosphere when Dean fell to defeat in Iowa should serve of a reminder that blogs are not part of the general culture of North America, yet, and their ability to influence what the wider general public thinks is limited. If Kerry or Bush’s campaign does suffer a complete collapse, the death blow will not be landed by a blog. The Right-wing bloggers who have crowed that the forgery allegations or the Swift Boat Veterans campaign was the “fat lady singing” of Kerry’s campaign are, at best, engaging in an act of high arrogance, one that invites another “Dewey Beats Truman” shock this November. Only the people will decide who wins this November, and the vast majority of the people aren’t reading blogs.

And it’s another question entirely if they even care.

After writing a post about the nature of campaigning during the Canadian election, I was put in my place by a friend of mine:

No one gives a damn what you thought about the election campaign — er, that came out a bit heavy, let me re-phrase it…

What I meant to say is I think few people paid much attention to the campaign at all. Virtually everyone I spoke to during the campaign (or after) didn’t want an election, didn’t want to hear anything about it, and barely bothered to vote. This was not just my peer group; this includes the views of members of the older generations as well, middle-aged and retired. I think any fine points about negative campaigning (etc.) were totally missed. The bulk of voters had their minds made up well before the election and the changes in support we saw on June 25th were probably the “un-decided” voters finally deciding.

All bloggers need to be wary of this arrogance that crops up now and again that lets them believe that their Movable Type and Blogger-powered websites are the future of journalism. There is no doubt that the Internet will have a big place in our future, but blogs are nothing more than personal websites on a sugar high. The future of journalism in blogging promises to be a massive burst of noise, with the only signals coming through those who write exceptionally well, know how to market themselves, and have an advertising budget (possibly from a media corporation). The bloggers that succeed are those which build for themselves a reputation of being a good source (whether or not they are a good source or not is another question). Many of the people will be reading only what they want to read, and not what they need to hear.

We should never forget that most blogs exist because the bloggers are enjoying themselves. I do not write my blog out of any higher moral journalistic calling; I’m here because I like to write, and I greatly appreciate the few dozen individuals who have decided to become my audience. I go to such places as the People’s Republic of Seabrook and the Eleven Day Empire because the writers there write from the heart and write exceptionally well. For news, I go to the Globe and Mail, the CBC, or, when I can, I go directly to the source.

But I should probably expect more hyperbole and more political machoism over the next two months. I participated in the Canadian election, and I can’t help but notice that I wrote far more political blog posts then than I do now. American bloggers with an ounce of political interest in them are being pumped full of political testosterone, by the corporate media and by other blogs. Bear up, everybody. It may be two months before we see objectivity levels return to normal on the net.

Not that they were ever that high to begin with.

The Canadian Blogosphere

Like the American blogosphere, I suspect that the Canadian blogosphere is in its own little echo chamber, but that chamber is Canada-wide rather than right-wing or left-wing. The BlogsCanada EGroup has a diverse mix of left-wingers, right-wingers and centrists, and the debate is lively, but respectful. That is a most refreshing and beautiful thing, probably motivated by the fact that our nation is so much smaller than the United States, and our blogs together comprise a comfortably sized community.

And I don’t mean to overgeneralize about the echo chamber. There are people who explicitly bring themselves to blogs run by bloggers who philosophically disagree with them. These people are exceptional, and fortunately there seems to be a lot of them.

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