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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Reflections on Blogging & the Blogosphere

Now that I have been blogging for a full 6 weeks, I find myself harboring some observations about blogging and the blogosphere which I feel compelled to communicate. That means that the following is going to be one of those "inside blogging" posts which I usually dreaded when I was a blog reader, and this post should therefore be skipped by anyone who dislikes meta-posts by bloggers about blogging:

(1) Blogging is work – hard work. It’s obviously enjoyable work for most people who do it, but it is far more time-consuming and energy-demanding that I understood it to be when I was just reading blogs rather than writing one.

I used to think that bloggers woke up with a few disconnected thoughts floating around in their heads and just stumbled over to the computer and casually sprayed them out. But I now realize that each blog post entails multiple steps - reading a ton of articles and posts from other blogs, selecting topics worth commenting on, formulating one’s thoughts, writing the post itself, frequently researching the links and evidentiary support, editing the post, posting it, and then - particularly for new bloggers - working to attract a readership for the post.

That’s four or five jobs rolled into each post - researcher, writer, editor, sometimes web designer, and PR flack. For those who create regular (daily) blog content, a blog can easily require more time and energy than a full-time job.

(2) The blogosphere is more ideologically polarized even than Capitol Hill. Virtually every blog -- with a few exceptions, but very few -- ends up being firmly entrenched in Left or Right Blogistan, or is at least perceived that way by its readers and by other bloggers. Almost every political blog can be classified as being on one side or the other.

And there is very little interaction between the two sides. Each side links almost exclusively to other blogs on "its side," and, for the most part, mentions blogs on the "other side" only to hold them up for substance-less mockery and insult. When there is interaction across the partisan line, it is often characterized by bitterness and breathtakingly intense hatred. There is an observation, not a complaint.

I have seen very little civil disagreement across the Blogistan divide. Bloggers which are on the "same side" disagree with one another all of the time respectfully and constructively. But bloggers on "opposite sides" of the blogosphere mostly ignore each other, and when they do engage in direct disagreement, civility breaks down almost immediately.

The polarization is so severe and pervasive that it even extends to seemingly innocuous events like the Weblog Awards, which is managed by a conservative blog, Wizbangblog – but, by all accounts, and from everything I have seen, is managed very fairly and objectively. Despite that, many liberal blogs scorn it and insist that it’s for the Right blogosphere only.

When I posted the Finalist banner on my blog for the Best New Blog category, I actually received several e-mails from people telling me that I should not promote or participate in those awards because they are the province of the "wingnuts." Conversely, when I have engaged in exchanges with perfectly reasonable liberal bloggers, I get emails warning me not to waste my time with "moonbats."

Political debate always produces intense and passionate feelings, and one should expect – and not object to – even heated, angry rhetoric. But the gulf between the two sides of the blogosphere is so wide and virtually absolute that it is problematic not on politeness grounds, but on the ground that it tends to rob blogging of one of its primary benefits: having your ideas and opinions tested by subjecting them to aggressive, substantive critique by those who disagree with them.

(3) Posts will get linked to almost exclusively by bloggers who agree with those posts. This point relates to point (2) but goes a step further.

Since the inception of my blog, I have written posts which have been linked to by roughly150 different blogs, including by some of the largest (Daily Kos, Instapundit, Atrios, National Review’s Corner, Digby, La Shawn Barber, Real Clear Politics, Fire Dog Lake, etc.).

Those blogs span the ideological spectrum, but each post which they linked to was a post which they were linking to in order to agree with. I don’t think that I have had a single post linked to for the purpose of disagreeing with it or criticizing it.

There are exceptions, to be sure. I had what I thought was a substantive and civil debate over the course of a few posts with Jeff Goldstein on an issue which provokes a lot of passion and quite uncivil emotion – namely, whether it is appropriate to question the patriotism of anti-war critics who attack the veracity of the Bush Administration’s pre-war WMD claims. There, we linked to each other's posts in order to disagree with them. But by and large, that is the exception; posts get linked to in order to be agreed with or to bolster someone’s viewpoint.

(4) The TTLB Ecosystem is vastly overrated for measuring a blog’s impact. This is so because it unduly rewards relatively meaningless inclusion in "blogrolls" and thereby disadvantages even high-impact new bloggers. The ostensible purpose of the TTLB ecosystem is to "provide as accurate as possible a measure of the relative popularity of blogs." But due to this one fundamental flaw, it really doesn’t do that.

Unlike the Technorati system – which counts and permanently maintains links to each blog – the TTLB system counts only those links appearing on the first page of a blog. As a result, a blog can have several very widely-discussed posts, but those posts will move that blog up the Ecosystem only temporarily, until the links discussing those posts fall off the first page. Thus, a blog which generates high-impact, widely-cited posts can ascend quickly and steeply up the Ecosystem only to tumble harshly the following week once those links age a little bit.

What the Ecosystem primarily rewards and measures, then, are not high-impact posts by widely-cited blogs, but instead, simply the quantity of a blog’s inclusion in other blog’s blogrolls. Blog rolls, by definition, remain on the first page forever, and therefore are primarily what accounts for a blog’s high ranking in the Ecosystem.

But inclusion in blogrolls is a very poor measure of a blog’s impact. It’s quite easy to get into someone’s blogroll. Many blogrolls - perhaps even most - are miles long, and are more likely a by-product of blogroll reciprocity rather than a list of the blogger’s regularly read blogs. More likely than not, one can obtain admission to most blog rolls simply by requesting inclusion in an e-mail (especially if one extends the same privilege to that blogger). Inclusion in blog rolls seems to be a vastly less reliable and meaningful metric for a blog’s impact than the number of substantive links a blog receives, and yet -- due to TTLB’s emphasis on front-page links -- the quantity of blogroll inclusions really is the primary factor measured by that system.

That system also creates an unwarranted impediment for new bloggers. There are some blogs which have linked to my blog several times for several different posts,. including long and substantive posts about specific posts I wrote, but my blog is not included in their extremely lengthy blogroll, likely because updating one’s blogroll is a tedious task that most bloggers do only periodically and when it occurs to them. And, once a blog is put in a blog roll, it likely stays there forever. Thus, blogs which haven’t been linked to for months, or longer, sit in that blog’s blogroll collecting the TTLB link, while blogs -- mostly newer blogs -- which are discussed much more extensively are not.

For this reason, in order to assess the impact which a certain blog has, I find myself relying much more on Technorati than on TTLB, because Technorati lists all links without time limitation, while TTLB measures only very recent links and, much more so, the relatively meaningless blogroll presence of a blog.

(5) There is a vast and surprisingly diverse supply of talented writers and debaters who are blogging. I have a very difficult time finding columnists in major newspapers whom I like reading on a regular basis (unless it is to find material to pick apart and attack, in which case they exist in ample supply). But there are more bloggers who are excellent writers and offer up stimulating substance than I can possibly find the time to read every day. When I reviewed the list of the other bloggers nominated in the Best New Blog category, I found several excellent blogs of which I had not been aware which will likely become regularly read blogs for me.

It’s unclear why blogging produces more impassioned and lively writing than, say, newspaper columns. Perhaps it’s because writing without editorial restrictions, space constraints and fear of keeping one’s job allows the blogger to write more freely and passionately opine about issues. And the fact that blogging is done by a much more diverse group than trained "journalists" is surely a factor as well.

Whatever it is, one of the biggest benefits to writing a blog is that I end up searching blogs much more actively and finding new blogs every day that are highly worth reading. I can’t imagine anyone saying that about newspaper columnists or mainstream media pundits.

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