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Blogging, the Cathedral and the Bazaar

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Gods, sometimes I am horrifically slow on the uptake.

Felix Salmon continues a discussion with Dean Rotbart that effectively started at the econobloggers’ panel at the Milken Institute. Dean was the moderator, and did a very good job in generating a lively session (something I must say that was absent on most of the presentations I saw) by having a go at us. For the most part, he took the traditional journalism view (he is a 23 year veteran of the Wall Street Journal) and implied that bloggers collectively weren’t reliable sources of information, since we weren’t fact checked (for instance), subject to any review, particularly regarding sources (he went after Paul Kedrosky for posting a rumor, clearly presented as such, on the Microsoft pursuit of Yahoo).

At the time, I didn’t pay much note to Dean’s persistence (I figured he might like to take a provocative stance as a moderator), but per his continuing conversation with Felix via Felix’s blog, he appears to be fundamentally uncomfortable with the nature of blogging, and his reservations are no doubt widely shared in his profession. Felix, of course, will have none of it:

Dean Rotbart is full of bright ideas….:

Let’s establish a non-profit, volunteer board of people to recommend standards for financial bloggers…
Second, let’s establish a annual awards recognition for econobloggers who bring honor to their craft…

Not me.

I’m going to bash this horse just a little bit further…Blogging is not a craft…It’s a medium, a conversation, a babble. Its very variety is its strength.

I emailed Dean yesterday:

Your main argument seems to be that journalists are better at being journalists than bloggers are. And you’re right about that. But that’s not what blogs are for, and it’s not what we claim to do. It’s a bit like complaining about your hairdresser who gave you a little scalp massage after washing your hair, on the grounds that you can get a much better scalp massage from a qualified masseur.

The lightbulb went off only today. This debate has very strong parallels to the arguments between traditional software developers and the open source crowd. Admittedly, there are also big differences, because developers are out to address very specific needs with code, while (one hates to say it) the purposes of journalism and blogging are less clear cut. Journalists like to think that their job is to inform, but what does that mean, exactly? Like it or not, a fair bit of entertainment has also crept into the profession. And perhaps most important, the decision of what is and isn’t newsworthy is very much swayed by a media outlet’s posture, prevailing social/community values, and (the dirty secret) the need to play by the rules of access journalism.

Similarly, developers are a more homegeneous group than bloggers and their readerships, and they come to a development project with a results orientation. Nevertheless, the discomfort, the suspicion, the disbelief with which some mainstream journalists regard bloggers is very much like the continuing (but abating) reservations about open source code.

Looking back at Eric Raymond’s classic on the open source movement, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar” (I’m going from his original essay rather than his longer book), the parallels are almost eerie:

I believed that the most important software (operating systems and really large tools like the Emacs programming editor) needed to be built like cathedrals, carefully crafted by individual wizards or small bands of mages working in splendid isolation, with no beta to be released before its time.

Linus Torvalds’s style of development—release early and often, delegate everything you can, be open to the point of promiscuity—came as a surprise. No quiet, reverent cathedral-building here—rather, the Linux community seemed to resemble a great babbling bazaar of differing agendas and approaches (aptly symbolized by the Linux archive sites, who’d take submissions from anyone) out of which a coherent and stable system could seemingly emerge only by a succession of miracles.

The fact that this bazaar style seemed to work, and work well, came as a distinct shock. As I learned my way around, I worked hard not just at individual projects, but also at trying to understand why the Linux world not only didn’t fly apart in confusion but seemed to go from strength to strength at a speed barely imaginable to cathedral-builders.

Now there is one huge and complicating difference here. While open source development is a substitute for traditional development, blogging is not a substitute for journalism (although it can eat into its market). Yes, some bloggers do the equivalent of original reporting (Footnoted. Dealbreaker); the serous economics blogs (e.g., Economist’s View, Econbrowser), focus on new research and data releases, and thus are not as news dependent as financial blogs.

But many of Raymond’s aphorisms apply directly to blogging:

Every good work of software starts by scratching a developer’s personal itch

Good programmers know what to write. Great ones know what to rewrite (and reuse)

If you have the right attitude, interesting problems will find you

Treating your users as co-developers is your least-hassle route to rapid code improvement and effective debugging

Release early. Release often. And listen to your customers

Given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow

The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better

Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong

Provided the development coordinator has a communications medium at least as good as the Internet, and knows how to lead without coercion, many heads are inevitably better than one

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17 comments

  1. Wiseman

    Well stated. Nothing like an open community to explore issues of the day. The forum provides plenty of room for a feedback loop (from the readers) not only to the author, but also to the other readers.

  2. Richard Kline

    To me, the No. 1 value of blogs is as content aggregators, especially in an interdisciplinary manner. The No. 2 value of blogs is near real time post up on new data/issues/actions. The No. 3 value of blogs is for collecting a knowledgible commenting community. The No. 4 value of blogs is for their direct commentary content. Traditional media can be as strong or stronger on No. 4, sometimes approach No. 2, and rarely acquire No. 3. One would think they would be good at No. 1—but they are not: their editorial frame of reference constrains.

    Traditional media are vastly better at fact-checking, and his is very much a non-neglibible value. Traditional media can invest the resources for extended investigations and series which blogs, with their excessive link to the 24-hour post-up cycle, simply cannot at present staffing levels. Accuracy and depth are their great strengths, and blogs will need far more money and staff to come at these. Traditional journalism prides itself on it’s sources, but this is badly misconceived: they are the prisoners of their sources. Consider how much you can learn if you do your own research rather than link yourself inextricably to insiders. Hmmm.

  3. Marcus Aurelius

    The blogs and bloggers might be a lot of things, but the profession of Journalism has been tainted by corruption, pandering, and deliberate misinformation of its audience. Journalism is now just a shade beneath prostitution. I only wish we had another Walter Cronkite.

    Blog on, brother.

  4. Anonymous

    The MSM, including the WSJ, Economist, NYT, etc. etc. are commercial institutions that must answer to their sources of revenue.

    It’s more like the recording industry rather than the software industry. the MSM would prefer to maintain their dominance as the gatekeepers of information. Too bad, they have demonstrated their incompetence by diminishing their credibility, they have in effect diminished their reliability.

    As an advertiser, throughout the MSM commercial portals, I know for a fact that we can influence editorial policy. We do it on a regular basis. It’s called self interest.

    Best regards,

    Econolicious

  5. Anonymous

    Blogs provide a multi-faceted service to the world, not the least of which is a forum for fact checking, and rebutting, the fact checkers. Industry concentration has degraded our traditional news with bias and political spin with an agenda. Blogs are a truly interactive medium that provide alternative views and, equally important, a feedback voice from the great unwashed.

    Mr. Rotbart’s arguments seem valid but in some ways irrelevant. Blogging picks up where the traditional medium leaves off. Not a replacement but an enhancement. Would you like sugar with your coffee or coffee with your sugar ?

  6. Randomness

    The great thing about good blogs is that they tend to find interesting relevant news and give a subjective opinion about this news, and therefore can be better at provoking thought. The style of blogs also tends to lend itself to a faster personal writing style, focusing more on the message than on the form. So reading a good article is great, but reading it as part of a post with comments is even better.

  7. foesskewered

    Seriously considered a career in journalism but the internship at a paper was eye-opening; figured that the editor would probably die of frustration and I would probably be bored to tears.

    Fact checking is professional ethics but in the fast paced world, unless you’re content to accept being the 2nd or 3rd entity reporting that news, fact -checking can sometimes be perfunctory. Editors tend to weigh chances of a lawsuit vs loss of headlines/readership during the deadeline rush and “guidelines” be they the boss’s or corporate interests, are not to be ignored. As such, the model journalists of the past rarely exist in tiday’s world. The Brits will probably come up with one word for the new face of journalism; Murdoch, but I prefer “being realistic”

  8. Anonymous

    So the elite gatekeepers are all in an uproar? Who would have guessed?

    No invention since the printing press has been so important to promoting democracy, and as great a threat to the oligarchy, as is the internet.

    One only has to take a look at how the oligachy reacted to the printing press back then to foretell its reaction to the internet.

    In the 16th century the Church didn’t want–didn’t permit–wide readership of the New Testament. As William Manchester pointed out in “A World Lit Only by Fire”: “Studying it was a privilege they had reserved for the hierarchy, which could then interpret passages to support the sophistry, and often the secular politics, of the Holy See.”

    “William Tyndale conceived a translation of the New Testament while reading ancient languages at Oxford and Cambridge. And being the humanist that he was, was adamant about its publication. A Catholic friend reproached him: ‘It would be better to be without God’s law than the pope’s.’ Tyndale replied: ‘If God spare me, ere many years I will cause the boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture than you do.’

    “Tyndale had been warned that finding a printer for his completed manuscript would be difficult. Luckless in England, he crossed the Channel and found a publisher in Catholic Cologne. The text had been set and was on the stone when a local dean head of it, grasped the implications, and persuaded authorities in Cologne to pi the type. Fleeing with his manuscript, Tyndale found that he was now a plice figure; had post offices existed, his picture would have been posted in them. The Frankfurt dean sent word of his criminal attempt to Cardinal Wolsey and King Henry, who declared Tyndale a felon. Sentries were posted at all English ports, under orders to seize him upon his return home.

    “But the fugitive was less interested in his personal freedom than in seeing his work in print. He therefore journeyed to Protestant Worms, where, in 1525, Peter Schoffer published an octavo edition of his work. Six thousand copies had been shipped to England when Tynsdale was again spotted. He was on teh run for the next four years. Then, believing himself safe, he settled in Antwerp. However, he had underestimated the gravity of his offense and the persistence of his sovereign. British agents had never ceased stalking him. Now they arrested him. At Henry’s (VIII) insistence he was imprisoned for sixteen months in the castle of Vilvorde, near Brussels, tried for heresy, and, after his conviction, publicly garrotted. His corpse was burned at the stake, an admonition for any who might have been tempted by his folly.

    “The royal warning was unheeded. You can’t kill a good book, including the Good Book, and Tyndale’s translation was excellent, later it became the basis for the King James version. Despite a lengthy “Dialogue” by Siur Thomas More, denouncing the translation as flawed, copies of the Wroms edition had been smuggled into the country and were being passed from hand to hand. To the bishop of London this was an intolerable, metastasizing heresy. He bought up all that were for sale and publicly burned them at st Paul’s Cross. But the archbishop of Canterbury was dissatisfied; his spies told him that many remained in private hands. Protestant peers with country houses were loaning them out, like public libraries. Assembling his bishops, the archbishop declared that tracking them down was essential–each was placing soulds in jeopardy–and so, on his instructions, dioceses organized posses, searching the homes of known literates, and offered rewards to informers–sending out the alarm to keep Christ’s revealed word from those who worshiped him.”

  9. burnside

    Nice construct, Yves.

    With a little patience and a soupcon of luck, I can usually find a range of specialists posting online or, better still, riposting.

    But on the WSJ/journalism side, I get fact-checking by staff – no especial expertise. I’ll take Buiter, CR, Tanta, Cassandra and yourself any day, for preference.

  10. Marcf

    Posted on http://www.thedelphicfuture.org
    Since I come from the Open Source background with JBoss, I feel compelled to comment.

    Blogging in general is similar to OSS in the way its output is based on others people input. Blogging is quick and because it is NOT VETTED it presents opinions across the spectrum faster than traditional media. It is the instant commentary mechanism that I find valuable. A news item comes out and the blogosphere churns out an output that is distributed across a bell curve of opinions. In that sense the Bazaar is there.

    I like to sense opinion by looking at the distribution. For example let’s say there is a news item on markets movement, I like to read blog commentary to see how much people agree or disagree on whether it will go up or down next week, there is a distribution and to me it is not only the “average” but the actual distribution that is interesting. If the opinions are tightly grouped and there is no dissent then it is a “fairly safe assumption” in how I manage my investments for example, this is the basis for momentum investing. If on the other hand there are drastic pieces (that still make sense I try to discard propaganda) then the issue is volatile and undecided. Then I trade volatility. News driven trading feeds off blogging as a distributed quorum sensing mechanism.

    While the COLLECTIVE output has some characteristics of OSS, the individual output really isn’t IMHO. The product of blogging is well… blogs. Individual entries about particular topics. A particular blog reflects the opinions of the individual not the collective. The product of OSS, meaning the ACTUAL SOFTWARE, IS a product built by individuals but what gets selected is done by a collective (or semi collective usually with meritocracy).

    But this is where, in my not so humble opinion, Yves Smith’s argument falls apart, the only thing that stands after 10 years in the OSS industry is in fact the peer review. The natural selection that happens in OSS: bad software gets weeded out by a collective brain. PEER REVIEW IS THE ONE AND ONLY MECHANISM IN OSS.

    This peer review is in fact COMPLETELY ABSENT from blogging. And that is the mainstay of the argument made by the panel Yves comments on, that traditional journalism is PEER REVIEWED, while blogging isn’t.

  11. Finance Monk

    Maybe I’m being cynical… but if you offered $50,000 to a blogger to write a favorable post on a company, almost all would probably jump at the chance.

    Blogging is more honest and open because there’s not very much money it it. Given time (and and increasing sources of revenue) and it will likely begin to appear like more traditional media.

  12. S

    Who exactly are these fact checkers? And what exactly is their claim to expertise? Technology has made fact checking rote. To wit, facts are in of themselves subject to misleading contextualization. All beg the question, what percentage of MSM stories are indeed fact based objective articles versus subjective quasi opinion pieces that employ stats? Do they fact check for context? And how much is simply the Fed calling Ip and spoon feeding him a story. If the Fed didn’t have Ip in good PR fashion it would find another eyeball aggregator to get its story out.

    The traditional newspaper business is still robust but it is eroding at an accelerating pace. It is ironic that the MSM rails against blogs and yet each has created its own melange on site under the banner (legitimacy) of their brand. Indeed most MSM blogs even print subtitles like blogs we are reading.

    Bloggers on the other hand operate in the peer review mold of far more specialized users and thus establish legitimacy as stand alone entities in the face of scrutiney. perhaps it is why they are the go to for pre contextualizing their own opinion pieces.

    Agree fully with the loss of editorial control…kills the jouro types

  13. wprestong

    Schmidt? Don’t you mean Raymond? I think you have the two Erics mixed up.

    I am a software developer and I mostly agree with your points. But this is less and less true with fewer and fewer people around to correct things. The most active pages on Wikipedia are like Linux. They get checked a lot. But even in open source software there are some duds – a lot of little projects that get started and no one ever uses, much less checks or debugs the code.

    Among bloggers there are probably some blogs that don’t get read and some others that only get read because they rant so much — that is, as a kind of geek show. No one bothers to check their facts.

  14. Ganeshaman

    I agree. ” Nothing like an open community to explore issues of the day. The forum provides plenty of room for a feedback loop (from the readers) not only to the author, but also to the other readers.” As a new blogger, I welcome feedback to http://morningmash.blogspot.com/

    As with opensource, the idea is to advance the art , often one bit at a time, and to encourage feedback, enhancement, and yeah criticism.

  15. Yves Smith

    wprestong,

    Whoops. Dunno how that crept in (multitasking maybe). I did cite Raymond first, then somehow switched.

    Thanks for the catch, have corrected the post.

  16. Brian

    Yves,

    I think far too much credence is given to the notion of MSM fact checking and the rigor with which articles are researched, and far too little scrutiny is given to the biases that either reporters or a paper as an institution brings to a particular story or topic. Moreover few reporters have shown any willingness to tap the collective wisdom of their readers. In particular, newspapers would deliver a much stronger product if they were to embrace two of Raymond’s tenets that you referenced:

    “The next best thing to having good ideas is recognizing good ideas from your users. Sometimes the latter is better

    Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong “

    Current news organizations are spectacularly bad at these two things, and that is why their product is often put to shame by bloggers with some domain expertise.

    For example, Tanta at CR has demonstrated quite clearly that a star columnist for the NYT regularly makes sweeping statements (with no factual backup) that are clearly wrong, or enthusiastically embraces a story line that seems to fit her world view without stopping to ask some very obvious questions about the facts involved or the motives of the central characters in her tale.

    In another example, the NYT’s lead piece in the Sunday Week in Review http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/20/weekinreview/20mouawad.html?pagewanted=2&sq=the%20big%20thirst&st=nyt&scp=1 was the typical hand wringing affair about the energy “crisis” and went on at length about there being no hope that supply and demand would balance in the future. The growth in third world demand was viewed as unstoppable and the US was portrayed as the shameless oil spendthrift of the world. This was the “news” of the week (April 20) as the NYT saw it.

    What was really news, was that gasoline demand in the US is down for the first four months of the year, no one wants to buy an SUV, and miles travelled so far this year are down for the first time in 25 years. All of this information was publicly available and had been talked about on Wall Street in the preceding few weeks, and not one of those facts was mentioned. Blogger James Hamilton does a great job of summarizing this inflection point in gasoline demand growth: http://www.econbrowser.com/archives/2008/05/gasoline_prices_4.html

    A very modest amount of digging would have exposed these facts. The failure to include them or to consider alternative outcomes to the Malthusian crisis scenario is either the result of very lazy and low quality journalism, or, just as likely, the institutional preference at the Times for administered as opposed to market driven solutions, particularly for things like oil. The notion, which seems to be playing out in real time, that high prices will eventually impact demand, appears to be heretical in the Times world view, and was either never going to see the light of day in the paper of record or wasn’t worth the time to check and see if it might actually be happening. Times’ readers would have been well served by a more nuanced view of marginal energy demand in the US, but the paper wasn’t up to it. Fortunately we have bloggers who can fill in the blanks in what passes for “rigorous” and “high quality” journalism.

    Rotbart and his peers would do well to think hard about casting the first stone. From where I sit, they have plenty of sins to answer for.

  17. burnside

    A further comment.

    WSJ, on the evidence, attributes qualities to print journalism not evenly distributed in the real world. They share their medium with tabloid journalism in varying degrees, and also with a media operation (Bloomberg) and a foreign paper (FT) which are frequently more timely and more substantial than they are.

    WSJ’s view of the ‘messiness’ of blogs overlooks the corresponding and similar mire they share with other papers and, at the same time, they fail to recognize their own second-ratedness among their peers.

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