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September 18, 2008

If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn't. So Let's Get a Clue.

"Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform operating as a closed system in a one-to-many world."

In January of 2005 I wrote Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, by which I meant “this debate isn’t going anywhere.” But I’ve since realized that bloggers and journalists are each other’s ideal “other,” and so the flare-ups and controversies will probably continue.

These notes are my attempt to clarify some of the key terms and offer a few ideas to help people caught up in the bloggers vs. journalists conflict, which of course goes on. They were presented to “Whose rules?” a conference at Kent State University, billed as a “no-holds-barred discussion of online ethics.” (In other words, a genuine blogger ethics panel!)

Here’s the video of my presentation, which is called…

If Bloggers Had No Ethics Blogging Would Have Failed, But it Didn’t.
So Let’s Get a Clue.

1. Because we have the Web…

There are now closed and open editorial systems: they are different animals.

They don’t work the same way, or produce the same goods. One does not replace the other. They are not enemies, either. Ideas that work perfectly well in one—and describe the world in that setting—may not work in understanding the other: they misdescribe the world in a shifted setting.

Because we have the Web…

There’s the press, but there is also the press sphere, an open system.

Within the press we find the people we know as “professional” journalists.

Within the press sphere we find pro journalists and the people formerly known as the audience, mixed together.

Because we have the Web…

The means of production—editorially speaking—have been distributed to the population at large.

“Press tools” once owned by media companies and operated by professional journalists are now firmly in the hands of anyone who wants them.

This meets the technical definition of a revolution: the means of production have actually changed hands. (Almost all Internet hype derives from that one fact.)

2. Citizen Journalism

When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, we call that “citizen journalism.”

Citizen journalism is most likely to thrive on an “open” platform.

That’s what blogging is: an early and awkward name for open platform publishing, in which anyone can participate.

Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, said A.J. Liebling. Still true. But blogging means anyone can own one. Therefore freedom of the press belongs equally to the amateur and the pro. As does journalism, including its essential practices. The pros may be in a better position to excel at those practices but they do not “own” them.

Important! If anyone can that does not mean that everyone will. It means, “anyone who has time and reason can freely participate.”

In practice, closed and open editorial systems, the press and the press sphere, are not separate things but richly interactive with one another in the news and information marketplace.

3. Gatekeepers and filters

In closed systems, editorial production is expensive, so we need good gatekeepers. We solved that problem by having professionals do it.

In open systems, production is cheap and new material abundant, so we need good filters. We solved that problem by having bloggers, social media sites and software do it.

For a filter to become more intelligent and effective on the web, it needs to be highly interactive with the filter-ees: the people one is filtering for.

The original service that bloggers provided was exactly that: they were intelligent and agile filters of the Web for the people who came to rely on them. The users.

In closed editorial systems, the barrier for an individual author is vertical: getting published. Then you’re “in.”

In open systems, the barriers are horizontal: getting picked up. If your post is not shared, indexed, bookmarked, discussed, commented upon, and linked to, it’s not going to “stick” and become part of the Web. Getting published is the easy part.

The number one reason why journalists should blog is that it tutors you in how the Web works. You learn about open systems, and getting picked up; you become more interactive and have to master the horizontal part— or your blog fails. Fails to stick.

4. Trust

Dave Winer, one of the founders of blogging, says a blog is not defined by the software or features in the format (like comments) but by a person talking: “one voice, unedited, not determined by group-think.” Blogging, he says, is “writing without a safety net” and taking personal responsibility for the words.

To trust a blogger is to trust in a person, talking to you, who is working without the safety net of an institution.

If we rely on a blog for news in a given sphere—gadgets, politics, food, pets, moms—we are trusting in it as an intelligent filter of the live Web. This is the first thing a good news blog has to be.

Trust can also be lodged in the community of people who regularly show up at a blog to kibbitz about the news.

You can trust in the way a blog distributes you around the web: the world it links you to.

In all these ways, good bloggers—like Dave Winer—have earned the trust of users who come to rely on them.

5. Ethics

If “ethics” are the codification in rules of the practices that lead to trust on the platform where the users actually are—which is how I think of them—then journalists have their ethics and bloggers have theirs.

In all these ways, good bloggers build up trust with a base of users online. And over time, the practices that lead to trust on the platform where the users actually are… these become their ethic, their rules.

Those in journalism who want to bring ethics to blogging ought to start with why people trust (some) bloggers, not with an ethics template made for a prior platform that operated as a closed system in a one-to-many world.

That’s why I say: if bloggers had no ethics, blogging would have failed. Of course it didn’t. Now you have a clue.

Dec. 30: comments re-opened, in case you would like to discuss.

Posted by Jay Rosen at September 18, 2008 10:22 AM