Thursday, August 04, 2005

Note to self: listen to the wife

Mrs. Exile has decided that I've developed an unhealthy fixation on Jeff Jarvis. She may be right. Nevertheless I feel compelled to comment on a thread that was recently being batted around on BuzzMachine, if only because I can't seem to get it out of my head without blogging about it myself.

In one of his posts, Jarvis addressed Tish G (of Snarkaholic, nee Spap-Oop!) on the issue of so-called "A-List" bloggers and the perceived gender imbalance of their ranks:

Allow me to don your hairshirt of the offended and say that I’m sick of people attacking me because I ended up on a meaningless list. I didn’t create a club, join a club, go to any club meetings. I am not now and have not been a member of the worldwide A conspiracy.

But the real point, Tish, is that you’re missing the real point of this new world: There is no club. No one can stop you from speaking anymore. You can be heard if you have something someone wants to hear. Use that freedom. Fly with it. Stop growling on the ground.


Of course no one was stopping Tish and others like her from speaking before, either. In the age of movable type no one could stop you from printing a pamplet or 'zine, or even self-publishing a whole goddamned book if you were so inspired. Millions of people were involved in such activities before the blogosphere was even a gleam in Al Gore's eye, but how many of them ever saw an audience beyond a closed circle of family, friends, and diehard fans? What kept voices like Tish's from being heard was the control of distribution, which used arbitrary means at best for determining what was worthy of mass circulation and what wasn't. Being good had nothing to do with getting published any more than being a straight-A student has to do with getting admitted to Harvard -- in both cases so much talent is knocking at the door that quality somewhat counterintuitively becomes a secondary concern. Such as who you are and who you know.

How has this changed, exactly? Our medium is now electronic, but still we are so many millions of voices -- run the numbers and even by the most conservative estimates there are likely tens of thousands of blogs that merit more than just a random drive-by via the random NextBlog button by virtue of their insight and excellent writing. And yet unless one of these blogs is picked up by one the "A-List" bloggers, chances are you'll never know that such a blog existed, no matter how well-written/humorous/wise it is. So how is this the "A-List"'s fault? It's not. As Jarvis points out, there is no conspiracy or club which placed him at one of the major interchanges of the blogosphere. It just happened, probably by virtue of Jeff's previous media exposure with such publications at TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly combined with his unabashed embrace of the new medium of blogging (although I will never be comfortable with his term "citizen's media" to describe the phenomenon).

But that's where the absolution ends. Like it or not, Mr. Jarvis, you and the rest of the "A-List" have extraordinary power as to who gets heard and who doesn't in the blogosphere. To throw up your hands and mouth platitudes about excellence naturally rising to the top is disingenuous at best and downright mendacious at worst. Like it or not, the power to foster a more diverse blogosphere is disproportionately in your hands. Just reading the feeds isn't going to cut it. You need to get out there -- way out there -- in search of voices that you know will never get linked on the likes of Instapundit or Atrios. Forget the RSS feeds and the Technorati tags. You need to spend an hour out of each and every day wandering the blogosphere's outer reaches and share the serendipitous fruits of your labor with your ever-burgeoning audience of true believers in the power of the blog. Sometimes it's not about aggregation and how many people Digg something. Sometimes it's about finding something that no one has ever seen before and using your "A-List" cachet proactively to broaden our horizons and enrich our virtual conversation.

Like it or not, the power is yours. As is the responsibility. As much as I like to give you shit, you're a decent guy, so I'd like to think you're actually interested in getting not only more voices but more kinds of voices heard out here in the blogosphere. So start by not instinctively circling the wagons when someone tells you that you're part of the problem (newsflash: most of us are), because that doesn't necessarily obviate the possibility that you could also be part of the solution as well.

8 comments:

Jeff Jarvis said...

No, my responsibility is to write what interests me. If I write what you think I should write, then it's not me. Then it's a committee. My blog is not you, it's me. Blogs are people.

That's point #1. #2: Your logic works in a world of one list, top down, power law rules. That world is over. There is a separate power law and a-list for, say, people who are into gadgets (or for you that moment of the day when you are into gadgets) and then I do you no good whatsoever, but Gizmodo and Engadget and others on that list are very valuable. Welcome to the new world of niches. Niches means choice. And choice is good.

Tom said...

Jeff,

First of all, thanks for taking the time to read my blog and post your comment.

Your points are well-taken, but I only agree with them to a point. First off, no one is asking you to blog about things that you're not interested in. By saying that "A-List" bloggers should widen their surfing habits beyond the RSS feeds and the Technorati tags my hope was that they'd find lots of stuff that interested them that they wouldn't have otherwise run into. I'm an information professional so I tend to go for library metaphors -- there's no good substitution for just browsing the stacks every once in a while and see what you find on the shelves.

As for point number two, I agree that the old top-down structures no longer exist, but don't kid yourself: there is still power, be it hierarchical or aggregate. Again here's a library metaphor for you. As a high-profile interchange of links you are akin to a library. Just as libraries must make conscious and responsible choices what to collect out of literally millions of potential items and resources, so too do you have a similar obligation to do the same with the persons and blogs that you link to.

Just as people come to libraries looking for guideposts to navigate their world, like it or not you have become a guidepost to the internet. Yours is the first and last site I visit every day, as I believe you have a unique insight into the blogging phenomenon and boundless enthusiasm and optimism for its liberating potential. I don't know if you've ever read Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, but he talks about what makes an idea break out of obscurity and into the public consciousness -- it's not just about the inherent quality of the idea itself but who that idea comes in contact with. Thus the "A-List" both doesn't matter and matters at the same time.

Anyway, thanks for stopping by!

Jeff Jarvis said...

Tom:
I go through spurts of linking to Iraqi bloggers and Egyptians and Germans. Who's to say which N-list bloggers I'm supposed to link to? What if I told you whom you're not linking to enough? It's quota-think. What if I came to your house and said I didn't like your friends; you say you're of Jersey but you don't have enough Italians, damnit. That's absurd, of course. Well, my blog is my house and I do what I want in it. It's that simple, really.

Tom said...

Jeff,

Of course your blog is your house. But if someone were to suggest that you check out so-and-so's blog because they thought you'd find it interesting, I don't think you'd consider that "quota-think", would you? If someone comes to the desk here at the library I work at and says that she really thinks we should have such-and-such a book on the shelf we don't tell her to take a walk, that this is our house of books and we don't do requests. That would be silly. Mind you we don't guarantee that we'll go out and acquire the book in question, just that we'll take a look at it, see if it fits our collection development statement, and then make a decision.

The same would be true with friends. If I respected your opinion and you told me that "you simply must meet so-and-so," you know what? I'd probably sit down to dinner with that person and see if I liked him/her. Granted, my friend can't force me to associate with anyone, but I see little harm in the power of suggestion if the suggestion is made with honest intentions.

I'll agree that "You don't have enough female bloggers!" is not a useful criticism, and you shouldn't be expected to respond to such accusations. But what if someone said "Hey Jeff, why don't you check out the BlogHer blogroll sometime? It's a real wealth of quality blogs that don't always get the nod from the usual suspects." That's a little different in my book. What would you have to lose by following up on such a tip?

But back to the friend analogy for a second -- the more I think about blogs, the more I associate them with books (because that's all they are, really, just online diaries in the simplest of formats), not people. We browse them, catalog/tag them, and collect them on our own blogs in the form of a blogroll or consistent linkage. Yes, they're different from books insofar as they are living entities subject to constant change, but even e-books are moving increasingly in the direction of fluidity as well.

This is where it gets interesting, because not only is each blog a book, but at the same time it's also a collection of books -- call it a virtual bookshelf, library, or whatever sounds spiffy and cutting edge, but that's essentially what you've created when you link so much as once on your own blog. Some people will come to your site as a book, others will visit to take a peek at your links and use it like a library, many will do both.

A blog is not only the sum of its words and images, but its links as well. You obviously take great care in choosing your words, as well as your links, so I don't see why you shrink so reflexively from the idea that what words and links you choose to put on your blog might have a greater impact than what other bloggers' do and that being aware of such a differential you might want to use it to nurture the less-noticed regions of the blogosphere.

A good library collects not only what is popular, but also makes a concerted effort to collect in as broad and deep a manner as possible in selected areas of interest, so as to achieve not just a superficially useful or interesting but definitive, comprehensive collection. This is not "quota-think", but simply an acknowledgement that worthwhile books aren't necessarily all going to be reviewed in the New York Times or Entertainment Weekly -- in fact very few of them will receive such an honor. A good blogger should be like a good librarian in this regard, seeking out not just what is relevant and what people Digg at that moment, but bringing as many quality voices to the conversation as possible (be they A-List or Z-List).

Tish G. said...

hi Tom...

I believe that my comments to that Jarvis' taunt address exactly what you say...I tend, though, to say it this way: get off your Mountain and get into the Technorati Tail to see what the fleas are up to.

Sadly, unless you meet an A-lister face to face, you might not find yourself linked...and trying to do that by attending a conference or two could be cost-prohibitive.

I like some of what Jarvis has to say, but I do find that he, like many other A-listers, don't necessarily practice what they preach. Which ends up setting up a hierarchy within blogging. I don't like Nick What's-his-Face's cheeky little comments about lists on Blogebrity either. I think he diminishes appropriate discussions on A-listing.

Although I will say that it's hard to reduce the signal-to-noise ratio in the Technorati tail. There's alot of sub-par rants, alot of spamblogs, alot of abandoned blogs. That makes searching for well written blogs kind of time consuming. You have a point about directing others to good blogs. I like your library analogy. It works--and guys like Jarvis are somewhat like head librarians.

Another effective stratagy is to keep posting on blogs where there is good discussion. The problem though, that occurs on some high ranking blogs, is that the comments sections tend to deteriorate into flame-fests because there is no moderating by the blogger. When I figure that aspect out, I split. I don't waste my time.

(btw, I'm originally from NJ...)

like your blog too...

Tish G. said...

another little quirk of linking and where it is not like networking: I often find my main blog (love and hope and sex and dreams) gets linked by people I do not know. Often it is linked because someone has found it and liked what they read. So, that particular link list is of people who have found me and I have reciprocated in linking because it is the *proper and human* thing to do. It's polite. and there's nothing wrong with politeness.

However, with Snarkaholic, I am going to take a different tact and link only to those that are similarly relavent. However, similar relavence is sometimes just as subjective as as the I-link-what-I-like method.

Whether Jarvis likes it or not, both systems are subjective.

Tom said...

Tish,

Thanks for joining the conversation here. I guess Anthony Bourdain was right when he said that there were two kinds of people in America -- those from Jersey who admit to the fact and those who deny it. (!)

The more I think about the library analogy, the more I like it, especially as the phenomena of digitization and the importance of electronic resources have been transforming the traditional institution from a collection of books to what is essentially a collection of "links".

From proprietary databases to ebooks to virtual peer-reviewed journals to digital finding aids and research guides, libraries are increasingly assuming the role of portal to the universe of knowledge available to its patrons. How is this different from a blog exactly?

Just as no two libraries are alike, with each exhibiting a distinct personality based the vision of its librarians and the focus of its collections, so too is every blog a unique set of personal voice and hand-selected resources.

Every blog is a library, and every blogger a librarian -- how cool is that? Maybe we should start calling ourselves "citizens' media centers"!

As for the ethics of the "A-List", I still think Jeff is conflating the issues of what a blogger should do and what he must do. The PC police aren't knocking down anyone's digital door here -- it's a matter of acknowledging that genuine talent doesn't always rise to the level of someone's TopTen tag and taking a minute or two out of the blogging day to do something that. In professional sports they call this scouting. Yes, there are many scouts that won't look twice at prospects that the other teams aren't interested in, but it's the scout who tramps out to a community college in rural Arkansas who's going to find the real diamonds on the rough.

ps. Tish -- great blogs!

Tish G. said...

thanks Tom! (btw,will send you an email on linking shortly)

And all the best people are from New Jersey :-)

In my recent searches into Library Science programs, I noticed the very strong emphasis on systems content management and information management. Certain schools, such as Syracuse, have a very high emphasis on tech in the library--almost to the point of looking like a student would end up with a minor in computer science and a major in library science.

And librarians were a large part of the last Bloggercon and have alot to say about whether or not blogs are a form of journalism...

Jarvis' goofy petulance on how he links really cracks me up! sounds alot like Lesley Gore singing "It's My Party"....gotta love Jeff just for that.