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…
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