Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Blogosphere

Over the last six months or so I have been getting very frustrated with the blogosphere, and I find myself reading less and less of it. There just isn't much meat out there. Amateur bloggers just seem to spread useless gossip. And what's especially bad, "professional bloggers" seem so intent on posting 20 times a day that all of their individual posts are basically useless, conveying nothing whatsoever.

For example, I think Andrew Sullivan, by becoming a blogger, has completely ruined his standing as a writer of serious political and gay analysis. Now he posts 40 times a a day, and includes so many insipid or inconsequential things and meaningless pieces of campaign gossip, and very, very little (i.e. none) of what he writes changes my life in any way whatsoever. I have stopped reading him.

Or consider Matthew Yglesias. Consider his July 7th blog entry: someone named "RoboticGhost "asks:
"I wondered if you heard anything about water concerns while you were out West. I don't suspect it'd be that big of a deal in lofty Aspen, but many parts of Colorado are caught in the fight for water resources. Its town against town against farmer against industry, with some armed conflicts thrown in for good measure."

I didn't hear anything about that when I was in Colorado, but I did hear a lot about water last year when I was in Southern California and New Mexico. I'm far from an expert in this, but normally when you see shortages you're looking at an effort to allocate a valuable resource by regulatory fiat (and therefore special interest political clout) rather than price. Thus, I was strongly predisposed to favor this proposal for tradeable water rights from Michael Greenstone at Brookings when I read it months ago and reading it again it still seems right.

Stop and consider this in detail: someone afraid to even use their real name asks for an analysis of an extremely complex situation, decades in development, merely because Yglesias spent a few days in the west -- and in airy Aspen, at that.

RoboticGhost doesn't ask any journalist in the southwest who covers the water beat 40 hours a week, or any of a half-dozen writers who have written detailed and thoughtful books about the west and its water, or a thousand administrators whose job it is to ensure as smooth a water flow in the sw as possible. He asks a casual traveler.

And this casual traveler, who has spent his entire life living in apartments on the eastern seaboard, actually thinks he has something valuable to say, because a year ago he spent a few days in a Best Western somewhere in the southwestern US.

With no evident local knowledge whatsoever -- even admitting as much -- Yglesias nevertheless offers a solution to this enormous, complex problem, a solution based purely on some political theory he read in a magazine somewhere last year and which has absolutely no naunced understanding of the complexity of the true situation on the group or its many years worth of layered complexity or what privatizing water supplies would mean for hundreds of thousands of southwestern ranchers or the million living there facing ever rising water bills.

Who is this brilliant detailed analysis supposed to convince? Anyone? Anyone whatsoever? Yglesias's blog post is so extremely brief and vapid, so without context or insight or passion or concern, that it's just a complete waste of everyone's fucking time. Yglesias is only writing it so he can get on to his next post, which will mean just as little as this one, and only written because his employer requires 20 posts/day of semi-intelligent prose that appears to intelligent but which conveys nothing at all.

Why am I wasting my time reading this? Nothing Yglesias wrote there matters to me in the least. Nothing about it teaches me even the slightest thing, offers the slightest insight, solves even the smallest problem. I would be far better off reading anything by John Fleck or Charles Bowden or Colin Fletcher or or even Edward Abbey. It's only designed to get him some hits and maybe an appearance on MSNBC some night, and then tomorrow it's off to stories he'll cover equally vapidly.

And anymore I'm finding the entire blogosphere like this. Even what I write. It takes weeks and months and years to understand situations, to write from anything like a position of expertise. You don't get it by quickly flying out to Aspen and back, or by reading an article from the Brookings Institute or from Harvard's 321 course on Environmental Philosophy. It takes blood, sweat, and tears, it takes going out and looking at rivers, pouring over government reports and spreadsheets, hiking to the tops of mountains for the big picture, calling 25 people a day -- precisely the thing the blogosphere does least of.

So I am wondering why I am reading it any more, or why I am even writing meaningless tidbits in this blog (and that's all they are). Or why anyone is reading. Is this seriously the future of this magnificent medium? It would be a full-time job to really blog about a few serious issues on a particular beat, and who can possibly attract 125,000 readers a day and support yourself doing that?

So more and more I am focusing on real writing, detailed reporting for magazines where you can do some real investigation and reporting and your audience isn't just people reading over their calzone at lunch. I don't want to end up some vapid blogger who tries to say everything and so who says nothing whatsoever. Life is too short. I'm really not sure what the solution is.


29 comments:

John Fleck said...

David -

Great post.

Any more, I find myself only reading two kinds of blogs. First is my friends, which includes people I consider my friends by virtue of reading them for years.

The second is experts. One of the great thing about the blogothing is the way experts in a field are given a platform to engage in an ongoing conversation about their field of expertise.

All the pundit-type blogs have completely dropped out of my RSS feed reader.

Delicious said...

I don't disagree, but I just finished reading "Scoop" and you get the idea that journalism was always like this, it's just that there's more of it now.

It's funny, I did notice that Yglesias post and I had a similar, but not identical, thought, which was: "Why the hell are they asking Yglesias? Why don't they just go to waterblogged or something?" MY is an entertaining writer but it is calzone reading, just like most op-ed in newspapers.

Jeff said...

Why pick one of Matt's least consequential posts as an example of what ails the blogosphere? It's pretty easy to skip past a post like this or an anti-Hillary post. Takes about a half second. Are your half seconds so valuable that you needed to go off on this rant?

A said...

I'll agree that alone, blogs are an insufficient diet for me to learn anything valuable about anything, but they aren't completely useless. Blogs, like Yglesias and Sullivan are important only in that they provide introductions to topics that I otherwise would never have found on my own or in the MSM. In the case of posts like Yglesias on water resources, it seems mostly vapid because I already knew a lot more about the subject than Matt or his reader. But I have used blogs as a gateway to find out more about topics that interest me, like transportation policy. This is an issue that gets written about frequently by the likes of Yglesias and Atrios, but it isn't like their posts give me much context for the current state of amtrak funding and the history of how it came to be that way. For that, I have picked up a short work of the history of American transportation policy by Dilger. In this way blogs have their limited value.

chiggins said...

Great post and great points.

I think you can replace the names of bloggers with broadcast pundits, and replace "blogosphere" with "cable and broadcast journalism", and your points are just as accurate.

Unlike most blog pundits, however, the opinions of broadcast pundits hit the American bloodstream much quicker and more pervasively. And, honestly, I'll take a chance on Matt's gloss of just about any subject to make me .1% more informed than anything that comes out of anyone's mouth on television.

Will said...

You hit on the way I've been feeling about reading Yglesias lately (though I like his blog).

I think the answer is people blogging with a tighter focus. Bloggers like Yglesias and Sullivan suffer from not really having experience with a lot of the topics they're covering. If Yglesias just did liberal internationalism or Sullivan just covered gay issues, their blogs would be a lot more focused (but the audience would be a lot smaller). Still, Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine shows that a relatively-focused blog written by someone with expertise can be influential.

Gerry Canavan said...

Matt's responded here, and I've responded here, more or less to simply note that without a proper sense of humility and appreciation of one's own limits intellectual labor can't get off the ground. I don't want to rag on Matt in particular, but I think he generally has a good sense of this -- but it's definitely a problem across the blogotubes.

philippe said...

Here, here. I have largely come to the same conclusion. Indeed, as a researcher, I have noticed that the blogosphere has given rise to an additional problem few speak of: the increasing uselessness of Google as a search engine. Run a search in hopes of locating something substantive and you're likely to end up with countless blog postings. The better of these may include a link to an actual piece of reportage. The rest are worthless.

Furthermore, there is the increasing self-referentiality of bloggers. They are more likely to engage in a debate about what some other blogger opined, rather than tackle the empirical complexity of the world beyond their e-cocoon. I'll give Sullivan credit in this: at least he refers his ready to lesser-known blogs. Yglesias and the other pros tend to close ranks, arguing amongst themselves exclusively while we, the readers, gawk from the outside.

I for one applaud the imminent death of the blog. But with the crisis of print journalism and the growing unattractiveness of academe , what will we be left with?

Anonymous said...

The problem with Matt's blog is not that he posts about things he knows almost nothing about--which makes him a pundit.

It's that he calls his political opponents "fundamneltally malign" and righteously pontificates about subjects he knows very little about--which makes him a jerk.

Sirkowski said...

You're wrong. Andrew Sullivan always sucked.

Joel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff said...

This is a foolish analysis of blogging.

Blogs have more in common with water-cooler conversation than they do with political reportage, and that's something that bloggers and readers alike recognize.

I mean, what are you arguing exactly? That people who don't have years of expertise with an issue shouldn't discuss it in public?

Yglesias doesn't claim to exhibit professional expertise in his blog posts and the readers don't expect such expertise.

If you overheard a couple of friends chatting about an issue over a water cooler, would you rush in and chastise them for not being experts? Of course not. Chatting about issues is a human need.

ralph said...

What Jeff said. You seem animated about something that simply doesn't suit your needs. But why is it that you're animated? I am quite sure and am more than willing to credit that you always try to learn something to some depth prior to arguing or even commenting about it, yet even the best of intentions cannot be sustained in every facet of life. You cannot know what purpose MY's vapid post served for others, but it's entirely fair to criticize it from your own point of view.
For example, there are REAMS of precise, well argued, deeply knowledgeable blogs out there, but apparently because you've been turned off by Sullivan/MY, the remainder is crap? And more, than you are angry about it? Sheesh. Should the blogs go away, leaving you with NPR/CNN/Fox/XBC news as the country's popular "information" outlets? Really. Have a beer and just go read what you want to.

Anonymous said...

I generally agree that blogs are a drain on my intellectual and professional productivity, in that there is way more blahblah than substance or depth, but I think this post misses the point of blogging entirely. Yglesias' service is not in being a producer of in depth thinking on many of these issues. He's a referral service for people interested in the subject to look more in depth if they choose. He'll usually endorse a particular view based on what experts he trusts or knows (maybe based on total ignorance, maybe not), and it gives you an indication of where to look for smart and in depth treatments of these topics. He may mention Western U.S. water scarcity in a vapid post, but damned if that post didn't get me thinking about driving accross the West and reading Cadillac Desert and thinking about sustainability and how maybe I'd like to read something longer and in depth. Does the Times' book review (or insert name of random periodical) do any more than that?

Dave Zatz said...

Like just about everything, there are good and bad (and mediocre)... sources, sites, doctors, restaurants, etc. It's often a challenge filtering the noise. But that doesn't necessarily need to negate an entire < whatever >. I enjoy blogging and I enjoy reading blogs - I'd like to think mine is decent and I know the ones I read are good.

Mike said...

I don't understand. This isn't a blog? You're better because you only post once or twice a day?

Freddie said...

I think the idea that what Matt Yglesias does is much worse than some hallowed halcyon days of journalism lore is almost entirely bullshit.

Go find your average AP wire story that merely reports that problem A exists and see how deep the analysis goes. Is it intelligent? Is it searching? Is it written by an expert? No, no, and no. At best it offers a capsule description of a problem, a couple quotes from local officials, and one or two possible solutions. Now, Yglesias isn't an investigative journalist sent by the AP to cover a story, but luckily this here thing we call the Internet provides him with relevant information to cull and try to give his two cents-- and, by the way, he was asked to comment.

Is that of value, given that he admits to not much expertise? I don't know; it highlighted for me a problem I rarely think about. Here's the thing: if not for bloggers, do you think that any commentary on this problem would exist? If Tom Friedman decided to devote an editorial to the subject, would he have anything particularly more insightful to say? And, of course, Friedman wouldn't write such an editorial. The alternative to Yglesias writing some shallow commentary isn't some good-ole-days local journalism fantasy; it's no particular national commentary on the issue at all.

But look, you've opened the door to this question: what redeeming social value does this post have? Does it advance anyone's understanding of a contentious issue? Does it have utility. No. It's one blogger complaining about another, more prominent blogger. Now, I happen to be interested in this stuff, and I recognize that the Internet is a big place, with room for all kinds of analysis and various levels of depth, detail and policy analysis. So I don't mind that you wrote this post; it costs me nothing, and it's nice to have it available. It would only be a problem, in fact, if I was such a preening egoist that I felt my time is so important that it couldn't be wasted, even though I chose to read it, with nary a gun to my head.

Joe said...

"preening egoist" nails it!

James said...

"It would be a full-time job to really blog about a few serious issues on a particular beat, and who can possibly attract 125,000 readers a day and support yourself doing that?"

See....that's the prob right there.

You want to be a journalist...go be a journalist.

Anyone can blog, and anyone can blog about anything. You don't have to be a glorified columnist for the Atlantic to be a "blogger."

Anonymous said...

By the way, smart guy, you don't "pour over government reports and spreadsheets" unless you knock over your latte. To read or study with steady attention or application is to pore.

You unintentionally point out the true problem with internet information dissemination vis-a-vis traditional journalism/scholarship: rampant illiteracy, the failure to see that information is not knowledge is not wisdom is not truth, which come as part of the package when you LEARN TO THINK AND WRITE.

slattern23 said...

Amen. The people have been blogging since before blogger of course, and long before the insipid term blogosphere was coined - about 15 years now. If online punditry had the slightest potential to evolve beyond a vast collective quilting bee, it would have done so by now. I don't think online punditry has any real value, even at the level of "water-cooler conversation".

That being said, there's the other blogosphere - the one that includes everything from tech how-tos to recipes and personal reflections. And I think there's tremendous value in that, or at least, as much value as one chooses to get out of it.

AJ Lynch said...

First I will defend the questioner Robo. I suspect he asked about water issues re Aspend because Yglesias had been at the Aspen Ideas Institute? and so he wondered if the water topic came up? That is why Yglesias answered but his answer was sloppy and did not specifically address if the topic came up at the "Ideas" confab.

2nd, I think Yglesias in general is uninformed andnot very smart and has never studied or analyzed an individual issue for any sufficient period of time.But that means he is just like most of the MSM and pundits.

I do applaud this Quark blogger for pointing out the insanity of expecting expert issues analysis from a generalist like Yglesias.

Florida said...

David,

Yes, great observations. I noticed a similar post the other day on a conservative blogger's site: Ace of Spades HQ.

There, ACE posted breathlessly about the "mini-controversy" of Fox news not airing Jesse Jackson's comments about wanting to cut off Obama's nuts.

He even linked to a story about the controversy.

Only one problem ... there isn't a controversy, because Fox did indeed air the comment, and the story linked said that in the first sentence.

It's just so obvious that this was just a made up post, linking to a story that Ace hadn't even read. I mean, it was just pathetic. I still don't understand it.

What's wrong is that these people have sold out. Ace used to be a funny site. Now it's 20-posts a day about how Obama sucks, the media sucks and lefty's suck.

It's so boring and pointless.

Have you counted the number of times Glenn Reynolds links to Amazon or other Pajamas Media bloggers. It's not even like they're trying to hide it.

What a fkin shill.

Tom Fuller said...

Niche blogs do create an opportunity for specialists to hold forth on their chosen topics and are quite worthwhile. Media commentators such as Sullivan and Yglesias have their place in the ecosphere--it's just a different place. With wider readership they can flag agenda items, keep topics alive and become a referral hub to more informed sources. It seems fairly clear to me that the blog commentariat understand both their function and limitations. Don't really see why you're upset. When Yglesias bounces to DeLong, it seems like the system is doing what both Yglesias and DeLong would like. I'm sure there are examples from the other side of the fence as well.

Brendan said...

David:

I found myself disagreeing when I was referred to your post in an online forum, and in trying to explain why, it got a little long. In the interests of not clogging your comments with my gasbaggery, and because I was too lazy to recode all the URLs I mentioned, and because I was speaking of you in the third person and didn't feel like adjusting all those pronouns and verbs either, I'll just give the link to my response.

John Lynch said...

That pretty much nails it. Saying stupid things intelligently is what a lot of bloggers excel at.

MY is particularly bad at it. He seems to take a lot of positions just because it's fun to excercise his intelligence making a stupid idea seem worthwhile. It's not any less stupid, and the excercise may be fun to watch, but it isn't thought provoking as much as a waste of talent.

He should be writing more books and long articles rather than spamming the internet. It's comparative advantage. Almost anyone with a college education can blog like he does.

The longer I read blogs the fewer of them are worth reading. Anymore, I like link blogs like Instapundit, essay blogs like BC, and expert blogs like VC.

Pure opinion blogs are boring and predictable. They have to fill space, so they make every scandal of the week sound important, whether it is or not.

It's sad to say, but simply watching poll numbers fluctuate on your favorite political site will tell you more than all of the daily opinion pieces typed by thousands of bloggers.

No matter how much talent is applied to it, spin is still spin and BS is still BS.

Patrick said...

You place too much store in the knowledge and abilities of journalists. I work for a finanical institution regulator, and have spoken to a number of business writers at daily newspapers in the course of my duties. I can't begin to tell you how many of them don't know the first thing about business and finance--their managing editors just assigned them to cover the banking beat because that's where they happened to have a vacancy.

Anyone with a college education who reads the front page of the WSJ could cover business as well if not better than they do.

So, I would say that bloggers are as good as and in many cases better than journalists on many issues.

steve parks said...

It would be nice if you offered some information on the topic Yglesias lacks expertise in instead of deriding the medium. Maybe offer us the titles of some things we might read on the topic? That's one thing blogs are good for: instant peer review. Be more constructive.

...And posting a blog about how bad blogs are? This reminds me of the reaction of scribes to the printing press: publishing the defense of their profession ON A PRINTING PRESS.

ps. we're not all afraid to use our names.

Simon Drake said...

I write and am guilty of blogging when I certainly should have kept my mouth shut. Bloggers need to learn restraint - that's it - and to do that, Bloggers need to be told that if they suck, they suck. Period.